The Cycle of Life: Pedaling the Soft Path
By Jim Doherty
January 31, 2004
I used to live the conventional American life, taking an average of 3,000 pounds of steel, glass, oil, gasoline and frustration around with me almost wherever I went. grinding teeth and gridlock and fenderbenders and traffic and parking tickets, those days are behind me. Today I am a bicyclist.
|Cyclonaut Jim Doherty proudly helped tow a dead SUV through the streets of San Francisco as part of the Bluewater Network's celebration of Gay Pride Day. An estimated 750,000 spectators looked on and cheered.|
On a bike, you can win the War on Oil and the Battle of Obesity at the same time. Forget cars, gridlock and TV and enjoy nature with a safe and health-building bike ride every day. With a bike, you spend your cash in your local community while enjoying a level of health and nature experience that's unknown to eco-tourists trapped in lines at the airports and rental-car counters.
I named my favorite bike "Dave," after David Brower. It's a fuil-suspension bike. I named the front wheel "Enlightenment" and the rear wheel "Nirvana." Since a properly maintained bike can last a lifetime (far better than a car), I expect to spend the rest of my biking life suspended between Enlightenment and Nirvana.
I can't tell you how much freedom and independence I feel from having a modern high-tech bicycle between my legs -- fully equipped with savvy safety devices to insure visibility, to digitally read-out time, distance, and speed -- not to mention playing stereo cassettes or CD's through a handlebar-mounted set of waterproof mini-speakers.
(Folks who step into the street without looking just because they don't hear a car or truck coming are a serious hazard for bikers and joggers.)
From Car-Free to Carefree
Getting around town hauling 2-6,000 pounds of steel, plastic, chrome, glass and a fuel tank with you wherever you go is becoming an endangered pastime. It really is not necessary to take a 4,000-lb station wagon to the Post Office to pick up a four-ounce package stuffed with Styrofoam peanuts.
A single down payment on a car will likely cover a year's public transit fares and rental car costs. So why not support the struggling public transit sector instead of subsidizing Oil Wars and Detroit?
I used to own as many as four cars at one time, paying separate insurance, taxes, maintenance, body repair, engine repair, storage, tolls, gas, cleaning, tickets, towing and assorted other bills on each one. Finally by way of an auction, I was down to just one ultra-safe and quiet 1994 Lincoln Continental, But one day, some dumb van rammed my parked Lincoln hard enough to decommission the transmission and do about $3,000 in damage to the bumper and grille.
The repairs took a month and my insurance didn't cover a loaner car, so I took to bicycling everywhere. And some strange and positive things began to happen. Most notably, my health took a great leap forward (a bit of a miracle when, at the age of 50, you are taught to expect only decline and decay).
By doing everything I used to do by car on a bike, I was suddenly smiling more, building muscle mass, and getting clearer thinking going -- just with a little exercise on a terrific modern, ultra-light, full-suspension bike.
As a lover of life and of the outdoors, I'm anxious to share a message of health, joy and healing available to anyone with the courage to find out just how beautiful, quiet, and fragrant the world can be from the saddle of a modern bicycle. I have 50 year's life experience riding a bike, and believe me, bike technology has changed dramatically in that time.
The money I've saved from not keeping up multiple cars is being plowed into some of the most advanced, safe, and beautiful magic-carpet bicycles the world has ever seen. My bikes feature such things as fully automatic lighting (motion detectors turn on three separate lights on each of my bikes). These bikes also sport a handlebar stereo that I recharge using a solar panel on my garage roof. It tinkles out tunes from either CDs or tapes, as an early-warning signal for pedestrians that I'm approaching.
Bicycles: The Simple Solution
My decision to leave my car in the garage and start bicycling everywhere has made impulse buying and conspicuous consumption unnecessary -- or at least unlikely -- as there is a happy limit to how much cargo a bike can carry. (Never mind that I bought a bike trailer last year. Even without it, I often load up my bike with four full sacks of groceries in about the same time it takes to load a car or SUV with the same.) The bottom line is, even the fanciest bike will quickly pay for itself in saved healthcare costs and saved impulse-buying expenses.
True, I sometimes have to ask the guy or gal at the grocery store to help hold open each of the oversize waterproof saddlebags, as it's tricky to drop something as large as two grocery sacks in. This means that I occasionally have to talk to strangers -- something that fewer and fewer people do. If you are strapped into a gas-burning auto, it is rather difficult to carry on a conversation (other than by symbolic gestures) when the stereo in the car next to you is designed to rattle windows for a 3-block radius.
Have you ever noticed that people enclosed in cars are told never to trust those also in cars around them -- to "drive defensively" and expect the worst from every other driver? Whereas the opposite occurs in public transit or on a bike, one HAS to trust those around one. Smiles and conversation with strangers is what it's all about.
The very concept of the private automobile has eroded trust and civility -- just one of the myriad hidden costs of cars. And sociologists have reported that cities that have maintained their streetcar systems have the sharply lower rates of road rage.
The Joy of Biking
St, Francis of Assisi once stated: "It is no use walking everywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching." Perhaps in today's rush-hour world, St. Francis would advise: "It is no use bicycling everywhere to preach unless our bicycling is our preaching."
Bicyclists actually enjoy much cleaner air surrounded by cars than the cars' drivers who endure a long menu of insidious, colorless fumes the California Air Resources Board (CARB) reports are trapped inside every car. The CARB study was called "indoor car air" and observes what no one wants to notice, that the tailpipe of the car in front of you is outputting right to your car's air intake. Car ads invariably show solitary autos on open roads, free of traffic. Get real!
Biking is an acquired taste. It takes time to get used to how much fun it is; how much safer it can be to be doing 10 mph in fresh air rather than zero mpg in gridlock fumes. It takes some time to recognize how well biking can actually work -- and to rebuild the stamina and strength your body has lost to remote controls, computer mice and the brake and accelerator pedals.
Most bike trips I make take about as much time as most folks have to allow for finding parking after driving to their destination.
Too Dangerous? Compared to What?
A primary misconception that folks have about bicycling is that it's too dangerous. So they prefer to continue killing each other (and the planet) with tailpipes and wars for oil. Basic laws of physics apply: Accidents occuring at the 25mph or less speed bikes usually travel are unlikely to be seriously injurious; Accidents at the 40mph or more speeds cars travel at, are likely fatal or devastating, this is proved on US streets thousands of times every day.
I have been seriously injured, but only from having a set of car keys. My inoperable spinal injury was a direct result of my first car-jacking incident, where I was run over by my own car. And I was car-jacked a second time in the summer of 2002, by some kids who knocked me unconscious in my home office for the primary purpose of getting my car keys from me.
I have had certainly dozens of mishaps in my 50 years of bicycling, but not one of them came even close to causing the life-threatening injuries my possession of a set of car keys produced on those fateful evenings. It's important to recognize that bike accidents are usually trivial. I often regard such mishaps as a free chiropractic or Rolfing session. But when parking, for the sake of smarts, convenience, and luck, I always hang my bike helmet on the handlebar. Then it HAS to be put somewhere to get rolling.
Hidden Costs and Hazards: Hi-Tech or Die-Tech?
While it is wonderful to see novel, hi-tech vehicles capable of getting terrific mileage, these "new, improved" autos only exacerbate the problems of population growth, car manufacturing and mining pollution, rubber, toxins, and old car disposal. Not to mention the death and dismemberment caused by streets littered and crowded with uninsured, drunk, sleepy, distracted, dizzy, tipsy, stoned, medicated, eating, drinking, smoking, cell-phoning angry, deaf, road-raged or just plain crazy drivers that continue to plague society.
Beware the distracted driver. Auto supply stores are now specialize in fireworks type car stereos called "kickers" or "thumpers" loud enough to "light up" a whole neighborhood. And for just $299, you can have installed a CD/DVD television screen that folds neatly out of the dashboard. With a 7"-square monitor, you're ready to watch those priceless Hee-Haw reruns while you're eating pizza, drinking a beverage, talking on the cell phone, smoking a cigarette and making a lane change.
The enthusiasm for "bio-fueled" autos and the illogic of feeding food crops to cars in a world bristling with starving people evolving heinous diseases because they ARE starving, well, it boggles my mind. It's crucial to note that two-thirds of a car's pollution is produced during its manufacture. Getting 40% better tailpipe mileage is only reduces a fraction of the last third. If the CO2 from the new tailpipes was not colorless and environmentalists could see their own carbon output, they would faint.
Another hidden cost of cars is that (especially here in California) city planners and architects take it for granted that people want to live and work directly above their gas tanks and cars. Buildings are routinely constructed with a very weak first story, so cars can drive in, out, and around the toothpick-type legs buildings are then perched on. This design almost guarantees disastrous outcomes when the ground shakes. The Northridge, California quake cost $25 billion, most due to buildings that collapsed into garage space. How many similar complexes can you find in your community?
Flowers and Tailpipes
The in-your-dash plastic flower vase in the new VW Beetle is helping that impractical, dangerous and unreliable two-door car sell like hotcakes. Strange how many folks will buy a car based on cuteness rather than practicality.
Cars have become a primary method of killing all life on Earth, endangering flowers and the insects that pollinate them, due to global warming and the changes to photosynthesis global warming includes.
Two-door cars are particularly impractical, except for giving Grandpa a hernia trying to get in and out of the back seat. They are, however, particularly effective at "dooring" bicyclists since the two doors are usually much bigger than those on a four-door car.
The placement of a flower vase in a car is not a new idea. A few luxury vehicles of the past would have them for the benefit of the well-to-do. They were mounted on a doorjamb in the rear of the car for the enjoyment of the owner who is being chauffeured. They were not placed on the dash to add to the menu of distractions drivers now have to cope with.
Putting a flower vase under the driver's nose is asking for trouble: How many pedestrians will die because of drivers arranging flowers at the wheel? How many dollars will flow as a result of personal injury settlements when reflections from a bright silk flower on a windshield cause a driver to reduce a bicyclist or pedestrian to roadkill?
Putting a fake plastic flower vase in a car dash is a particularly tasteless idea. It's sort of like putting a sequin on a rat's ass.
Society is rapidly descending into an Autogeddon with the auto industry building three new cars for every person born. You can beat this Car-tastrophic system: Stay healthy, trim, shrewd and smiling with a sophisticated bicycle. You may move at a tortoise-pace in a hare-spring world, but remember who won the race.
Jim Doherty is a raconteur and bike radical who sometimes rides with a giant peace symbol in his bike's front wheel. He lives in the "Baja Rockridge" neighborhood of Oakland.
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