Monday, May 14, 2012

Bicycles As Problem Solvers

May 14, 2012, 9:10 a.m.

Bike a Week, Bike for Life

As the Press-Citizen reminds us, "Bike to Work Week" has rolled around on its two wheels again this year. Editorial, "Try Biking to Work This Week, Month," Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 14, 2012, p. A 7 ("As we have during past Bike to Work weeks, we urge area residents to try biking at least part of their commutes or errand-running this week."). For local resources see "Think Bicycles" (and thanks to Rod Sullivan for that link).

Just as dutifully, here's my annual essay on the subject. These ideas were first advanced 40 years ago as a section of an article in the Saturday Review, Nicholas Johnson, "Test Pattern for Living; How About Trying to Find Out What You Would Do and Be and Think and Create if There Weren't Some Corporation Trying to Sell You on Doing Everything Its Way," Saturday Review, May 29, 1971, which was modified into a chapter in a subsequent book with the same title, "Antidote to Automobiles," Nicholas Johnson, Test Pattern for Living (Bantam, 1972), ch. 7, pp. 110-117, and later in the New York Times, Nicholas Johnson, "Bicycles are Model Citizens; The Bicycle -- It's Like Giving Up Smoking," New York Times, August 2, 1973, p. 35, col. 2 -- reprinted at the bottom of this blog entry.

Iowa City is once again devoting a week to reflecting upon, and riding upon, bicycles as a preferred system of small town transportation.

The week has often involved some data gathering regarding the comparative virtues of three transportation modes: automobile, bus, and bicycle. The conclusion from the bike, car, and bus race across town last year, from the Coralville Library to the Iowa City Library? "[T]he commute takes about the same amount of time, no matter what mode of transportation." As Emily Schlettler quoted Coralville City Council member Tom Gill as saying, "'Why burn the gas? The commute by bike is more convenient and quicker.'" Emily Schlettler, "Bike to Work Week Celebrated," Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 17, 2011, p. A3.

Of course, there are many more reasons than efficiency and comparable speed for biking. Here are some of them:

Costs. Even without $3 or $5 gas, operating a car is extraordinarily expensive -- and even more in time than in money. Years ago, when the average mileage was 7500 miles a year, I calculated (a) the total costs of car ownership: amortization of the purchase price, gas and oil, repairs, insurance and license fees, parking fees, tolls, and so forth. (b) The amount of time it would take the average car owner to earn the money to pay these costs -- plus the time it takes to drive the car, take the car to the mechanic and pick it up, pump the gas, look for parking, and similar non-transportation, car-related time consumption. (c) The total time totaled 1500 hours a year. (d) To take 1500 hours to go 7500 miles is an average of 5 miles an hour -- something you can do without an automobile in a very brisk walk. (e) Can't get from Iowa City to Des Moines that way? Think again. You start working, I'll start walking. I'll be there before you. And that's walking! A biker who's in shape ought to be able to average 20 miles an hour and get there days before you do. This may not be a reason to never own, rent, or otherwise operate an automobile. But unless you are so wealthy that "money is no object," it is certainly something to think about for trips around town when a bike would do as well, or better than, a car. You can acquire, operate, maintain and insure a bicycle for roughly 1% of the cost of a car.

Time Saving, Convenience. Parking in an urban area can be a real hassle, as well as an added cost, whether navigating a parking garage or looking for street parking. My rule of thumb when looking for street parking in the Georgetown area of Washington was to pick the first parking space I could find within one mile of my destination. The 15-minute walk would take less time than driving around and around looking for a closer place to park. Iowa City's not that bad, but you can no longer pull up in front of your downtown destination (and not have to deal with parking meters!), as was the case when I was a boy. And don't talk to me about parking garages! The ticket often turns into nothing more than a hunting license, as you drive around and around, ever upward, until you end up parking on the roof. And allow plenty of time to exit, especially if you're coming from an event where numerous other attendees are in line ahead of you trying to pay for the pain of parking and exit.

You don't have to warm up your bike in the winter. You don't have to search for your car keys (if you have a combination lock for the bike). The odds are good there will be either a bike rack, or something else to lock your bike to, right outside the front door of your destination. And you will be taking up about 1/30th the space required for a car when you do so.

War for Oil. We send our brave soldiers off to war around the world in search of an answer to the perplexing question: "How did our oil get under their sand?" It costs us taxpayers trillions of dollars to provide this military protection for our oil companies -- not to mention tens of thousands of lives, and hundreds of thousands of wounded, Americans and others, military and civilian. Bicycles do require a little lubricant for the chain from time to time, but aside from that their only demands for energy involve peddling with your leg muscles.

And Speaking of Muscles -- and Obesity. You can bike outdoors all over town for a month for far less than what your favorite fitness center will charge you to bike in one place indoors. And if you're interested in firming up, and losing a little weight -- and who isn't -- biking just may be your answer. It's cheaper than Lipitor and better for your heart -- as well as a positive for prevention of diabetes and cancer. In fact, virtually every bit of advice about our health, regardless of the disease or injury in question, ends up coming back to "diet and exercise."

Multitasking. "Don't move your thumbs while I'm talking." Students sit in class with their laptops, managing their Facebook pages. Couples sit in restaurants, each on their cell phone. Kids think they can do their homework while watching TV, talking on the phone to one person, while texting another. Whatever you think about those kids of electronic multitasking, bicycling offers another that is in no way socially offensive. You have to go to work, or shop for groceries. If you drive, maybe you'll listen to the radio, music, or engage in the risky behavior of talking on a cell phone or texting. But if you hop on your bike, instead of hopping into the car, for those trips (or even portions of them; drive to cheap parking, with a bike rack and your bike; bike the rest of the way) you're multitasking: building exercise into your day in a way that takes no additional time (or money!) whatsoever. Bike baskets can carry many of the items you formerly drove to the store to get; and if you want to do more, the relatively cheap bike trailers will enable you to carry almost anything -- up to and including your small child.

Stress Reduction. Driving can be noisy, aggravating and stressful. Biking makes virtually no noise and is more calming and peaceful; the additional oxygen to the brain makes you more creative. You are closer to nature and know you're doing something that uses no fuel, is non-polluting, and healthier for both you and the Planet. And that's just for the commuting and shopping trips. With 80 miles of bike trails locally, there's also safe recreational riding -- such as the Clear Creek trail from Iowa City to the Coral Ridge Mall, or the Iowa River Corridor Trail from the City Park to the new Terry Trueblood Recreation Area and lake along Sand Road. That will really clear your mind.

The list could go on and on, but as a concession to the necessary shortness of a blog entry, and life itself, it will stop here.

Finally, for old time's sake, a republication of a column I wrote on the subject for the New York Times about 40 years ago. A little background: I was then working as an FCC Commissioner in downtown Washington, D.C., living in Maryland, and commuting by bicycle each day along the C&O Canal towpath. The facts it contains are from 1973, and the theme of the column is as much an anti-automobile and petroleum-based transportation system tirade as pro-bicycle -- as befits the early '70s. But many of the points are still valid. Chapter 7 ["Antidote for Automobiles"] in Test Pattern for Living, published by Bantam Books a year earlier (and now available for free download), strikes a similar theme.

"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 way, 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.

Happy biking -- not just for "Bike to Work Week," but the other 51 weeks as well.

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1 comment:

Charlie said...

I agree with everything that you've posted! People should care more about the world and even your own health! Riding a bike is the perfect combination for that!