I barely bike anymore. Every time I do it is this wheezing affair along the sidewalk next to six lanes of traffic on the way to some exhausted coffee shop. I tried biking in my neighborhood and nearly died from the hills and boredom of one house, the next yard, after another. There is no majestic goal in the suburbs, just one shop after another. And there is little pleasure in the pain of moving my long dormant legs over and over again. I have been sitting too long in this school, in that office. Doing mind work without any body work.
I wouldn’t dare drive in the street in this condition. I know what it means to be stuck behind a slow weak biker in traffic. Being that slow weak biker, I stick to the sidewalk out of deference to the greater mass and speed of traffic, but also out of fear. Fear of being honked at. Fear of the revving engine. Fear of an involuntary soda. Fear of looking the fool. Fear of my feet falling out of the toeclips and ripping my pants on the spinning pedal. That has happened.
The involuntary soda has happened, long ago, in an unfamiliar part of Atlanta. I violated some family van’s expectation of what the road was for on a long hill, so they decided to give me a shower in fruit punch as they revved up the hill past me. Young and cheeky. I thanked them for it, robbing them of the satisfaction of my demise. That was when I was at the peak of my strength, and I was more amused than dispirited by the intended insult. It was illustrative of the Atlanta attitude towards bikers in the road, though.
Biking has fallen from an adult activity of the well-to-do to a children’s hobby in 50 short years between 1880 and 1930. The first highway department, a board of inquiry under the department of agriculture, was commissioned in 1893 to investigate national road paving policy for the benefits of bikes, not cars. Until very recently, the 1970s at the earliest, bikes were seen as the province of children, to be set aside or given away with the first drivers license at 16. In the last the years, cities have begun to build for bikes as a more fiscally conservative mode of transportation. However, the majority of America has no choice, they have built for traffic, so they have to keep building for traffic. Throwing good money after bad.
The beginning of my fall from biking was when I learned to get around by car, but the transformation was not immediate. When I worked in IT in Atlanta, I started out biking to and from work in all kinds of weather. Then I learned that my parking credit could be used to pay for transit. I had no interest in driving and parking to work, but I could see the use in taking the train back from work. It was cold and dark when I got off work at midnight, after all. Why not take my bike down into Five Points and catch the let train home. The cars that time were;t crowded at all, and it would be a short, bearable drive home from the station after that.
Then I got married, and transit continued to tempt me. I made sure when shopping for places with my new wife to look for places within walking distance of a train station; The regional rail in Philadelphia was not frequent like MARTA, but it was huge, convenient, and on time most of the time. We lived five miles from school, mostly a nice scenic drive along the banks of the Scuyllkill, but a straight hill the final mile up to our place. The street was a former stream, and it showed in the steep aspect of that street. Better to walk up and down part of it to get to the train every morning and night, than to have to bike up the whole length of it in the cold of the night,. I maybe biked back and forth from campus a coupe dozen times in two years at school. Each time seemed like a worse idea than the last, when I could just the riding the regional rail into school without expending any effort.
Since Philadelphia, we have lived in the DC suburbs. I was able to walk through a metro station to work, but there was little else to recommend walking or biking in this area. Everything has plenty of space for packing and lanes for driving, but nothing to recommend walking. The nine blocks of downtown Fairfax nearby were built out before 1900, but everything else was built with the car, not the biker or the walker, in mind.
Yes, this is a mewling post, but I think it holds an important lesson. I don’t bike where biking isn’t obvious, and biking isn’t obvious in most of America built since 1930. More on this Monday.