Thursday, June 17, 2010

Bicycles: Why Automobiles Are Like Cigarettes

June 17, 2010, 7:10 a.m.
[For BP disaster see, "Uncanny Prediction of BP Disaster & Response," June 10, 2010; "BP's Commercial: Shame on Media," June 9; "Big Oil: Calling Shots, Corrupting Government," May 26, 2010; "Obama As Finger-Pointer-In-Chief," May 18, 2010; "Big Oil + Big Corruption = Big Mess," May 10, 2010; "P&L: Public Loss From Private Profit," May 3, 2010.]

Why Fish Need Bicycles
(bought to you by*)

There's a wonderful column in the Press-Citizen this morning by D.J. Moser explaining why fish need bicycles. It's clever, well written, and analytically sound. It's reproduced at the bottom of this blog entry.

Do you recall the line from the 1970's: "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle"?

My own realization that fish might actually need bicycles occurred during Iowa City's 1993 flood, while I was bicycling through the City Park. The sidewalk between the ball fields and the River had a couple of inches of water over it, so I was biking even slower than usual to minimize the water on the bike and myself. Looking down, I saw a fish on the sidewalk, alive but lying on its side, also making its way slowly along the path. As I looked at it I said to myself, "Now there's a fish that really does need a bicycle.

D.J.'s point is less frivolous, more related to the day's news -- as you'll see in a moment.

Anyhow, even though bike to work week is long passed, it caused me to Google myself and "bicycles" to see what I might have written on the subject.

Last December someone kindly uploaded a column of which I had no memory whatsoever, with the notation, "
Federal Communications Commissioner Nicholas Johnson wrote this piece for the New York Times, Aug. 2, 1973." (They also nicely noted, in reference to my candidacy in the Iowa Third District congressional Democratic primary of 1974 -- following which Chuck Grassley won the general election to Congress -- "Imagine what the Senate might be like if Johnson beat Grassley back then.") Curious, I checked my online bibliography and lo and behold, there was the column. So I guess it is my writing, especially since there is a version of it in my book, Test Pattern for Living.

It's my take on how automobiles are like cigarettes. Because it refers to giving up smoking, I should probably quickly add in this anti-tobacco age that to the best of my memory I have never smoked a cigarette. (Unlike President Clinton, who smoked but didn't inhale, since I lived through a time when cigarette smoke was everywhere, I didn't smoke but did inhale!) The line does, however, reflect the true story of my father's path to giving up tobacco -- too late in his short life, as it turned out.

The column, reflecting the spirit of the 1970s, went like this:

"Bicycles are Model Citizens"
The Bicycle -- It's Like Giving Up Smoking
New York Times
August 2, 1973, p. 35, col. 2.

I ride a bicycle. Not because I hate General Motors but haven't the courage to bomb an auto plant. I don't do it as a gesture of great stoicism and personal sacrifice.

I am not even engaged, necessarily, in an act of political protest over that company's responsibility for most of the air pollution tonnage in the United States.

It's like finally giving up cigarettes. You just wake up one morning and realize you don't want to start the day with another automobile.

Cigarette smoking is not a pleasure, it's a business. In the same say, you finally come to realize that you don't need General Motors, they need you. They need you to drive their cars for them. You are working for Detroit and paying them to do it. Automobiles are just a part of your life that's over, that's all.

No hard feelings. You've just moved on to something else. From now on, you just use their buses, taxis, and rental cars when they suit your convenience. You don't keep one for them that you have to house, feed and water, insure and care for.

You ride a bicycle because it feels good. The air feels good on your body; even the rain feels good. The blood starts moving around your body, and pretty soon it gets to your head, and, glory be, your head feels good.

You start noticing things. You look until you really see. You hear things, and smell smells you never knew were there. You start whistling nice little original tunes to suit the moment. Words start getting caught in the web of poetry in your mind.

And there's a nice feeling, too, in knowing you're doing a fundamental life thing for yourself: transportation. You got a little bit of your life back! And the thing you use is simple, functional, and relatively cheap.

You want one that fits you and rides smoothly, but with proper care and a few parts, it should last almost forever.

Your satisfaction comes from within you, and not from the envy or jealousy of others. (Although you are entitled to feel a little smug during rush hours, knowing you are also making better time than most of the people in cars.)

On those occasions when I am not able to cycle through the parks or along the [C&O] canal -- because the paths are rough with ice or muddy from rain or melting snow -- bicycling enables me to keep closer to the street people, folks waiting for buses or to cross streets, street sweepers, policemen, school "patrol," men unloading trucks.

Needless to say, you cannot claim any depth of understanding as a result of such momentary and chance encounters but by the time I get to the office I do somehow have the sense that I have a much better feeling for the mood of the city that day than if I had come to my office in a chauffeur-driven government limousine.

Although I am willing to brave the traffic and exhaust, I am aware it is dangerous. I think bicycles ought to be accorded a preferred position in the city's transportation system. At the very least, they deserve an even break.

Notice that bicycle riding also has some significant social advantages over the automobile. Cars unnecessarily kill sixty thousand people every year, permanently maim another one hundred and seventy thousand, and injure three and a half million more.

The automobile accounts for at least 66 percent of the total air pollution in the United States by tonnage -- as high as 85 percent in some urban areas -- and 91 percent of all-carbon monoxide pollution; it creates about nine hundred pounds of pollution for every person every year.

One million acres of land are paved each years, there is now a mile of road for each square mile of land. The concrete used in our Interstate Highway System would build six sidewalks to the moon.

Even so, everyone is familiar with the clogged streets and parking problems -- not to mention the unconscionable rates charged by the parking garages.

Automobile transportation is the largest single consumer of the resources used in our nation's total annual output of energy. It is an economic drain on consumers -- in no way aided by auto companies that deliberately build bumpers weaker than they were fifty years ago in order to contribute to an unnecessary bumper repair bill in excess of one billion dollars annually.

The bicycle is a model citizen, by comparison.
If you've read this far you will understand why D.J. Moser's column caught my eye and caused me to smile and applaud.

(Headlined, "If You Give a Fish a Bicycle," I couldn't help myself from playing with the thought: "Give a fish a bike ride and she can ride for a day; teach her how to ride a bicycle and she can ride for a lifetime." Something like that. Maybe you had to be there.)

Here is Moser's column.

(Because it is copyright, if either he or the Press-Citizen objects to my reproducing it in this context I will, of course, remove it.)

If You Give a Fish a Bicycle
D.J. Moser
Iowa City Press-Citizen
June 17, 2010

You've probably heard it said that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. This phrase has been around since the 1970s and is a variant of the earlier observation that man needs god like a fish needs a bicycle.

Without getting into such complex matters as feminine needs and religion -- neither of which I yet understand -- I think it's important to point out that fish do need bicycles and they need them badly. [Photo credit: Iowa City Press-Citizen.]

Which fish, you ask?

Well, for starters, the fish that are currently floundering around in the pool o' stank previously known as the Gulf of Mexico.

And what, exactly, are their biking needs? They need us to get off our cans, ride our bikes a little more, drive our cars a little less, and thereby reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.


I know what you're thinking.

Here's another diatribe from one of those hyperintense, neon spandex-clad bikers who slow traffic by riding four abreast on Iowa City roads.

Not the case.

While I do believe that bikers and motorists must learn to share the road, and that choice of biking apparel is both personal and tricky, please know that I'm a regular guy who rides a 1999 mountain bike to work, using the bike lanes and wearing the baggiest clothes I can find.

But my question is this: "Why do so many people refuse, or not even give consideration to, riding their bike to work or on errands?"

Well, I've conducted my own unscientific poll and the answers are generally unconvincing.

• Biking takes too much time. Really? If you take various shortcuts and bike paths, I think you'll find that bike time and car time are actually pretty comparable in a city like ours. Not to mention the fact that you'll be multi-tasking by running your errand and getting some exercise at the same time.

• Biking makes me sweaty and gives me helmet-head. There are a couple options here. Some bike commuters choose to shower and change at work. It's actually pretty easy to do once you get in the routine. (Admittedly, this isn't an option available to everyone, but it is a choice that many simply fail to consider.)

As for helmet-head, just unbuckle and keep your helmet on as you do your shopping. Shoppers might stare at you, but they might be thinking how sporty and awesome you are.

• Biking's dangerous. Maybe so, but if you obey traffic laws and signs and use some common sense, you can greatly reduce your risk. I've crashed my bike twice in the past 10 years with nothing hurt but my pride.

Of course, there have been some nasty and even fatal car versus bike accidents, but plenty of people get hurt while driving or riding in cars, too. So be alert, be visible, and ride defensively, but don't let safety worries keep you off your bike.

• Bikes are expensive, uncomfortable and complicated. This is simply untrue. Many of us have one or more bikes getting dusty in the garage. Furthermore, there is an almost endless supply of affordable bikes available through sources such as Craigslist, eBay, the Iowa City Bike Library, etc.

As for being uncomfortable and complicated, bikes are getting more user-friendly every day. Take a look at any bike rack in town and you'll see that practical, comfortable bikes are all the rage.

Maybe you're already biking occasionally. If so, great job. Keep up the good work. But if you're using one of the above excuses, please reconsider. Just ride once this week -- just once -- and see how it goes.

You'll be giving the fish the bicycles they need while becoming less addicted to companies like BP.

Ride Baby Ride!
As you see, it all circles back to the prior blog entries linked from the top of this one.

You want to know what you can do about BP's pollution of the Gulf of Mexico.

Here's our suggestion. Think about it.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself.
-- Nicholas Johnson
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