Trapped!

Christiania bike
Freedom on wheels

This week I am chafing against the enforced sluggishness of my physio’s ruling. “Stay off the bike for a week,” he opined.  “Give it time to recover.” With a rather unhappy knee, I also don’t have the option of long walks, so I am stuck with driving everywhere. Once I did this as a matter of course, but now that I am used to riding everywhere, I find the car almost unbearably stifling. (Literally so in this weather – a pleasant 28 degrees outside turns the car into a solar oven. Hopelessly poor design.)

Every time I pull into a car park I am struck by the number of other people doing the same – even in the relatively quiet suburban shopping strips that I much prefer over vast chasms of commercial despair. (What? That’s not what you call Chadstone?) Cars come. Cars go. Cars zoom along every street and byway. Cars take us round the corner to the milkbar. A few blocks down to the supermarket. Down the road to the railway station. Vroom, vroom, vroom, in air conditioned, almost hermetically sealed comfort, with the stereo booming.

This is what we do. It is very nearly who we are. Surgically connected to our cars, so that we are completely  incapable of doing without them. Yet it utterly disconnects us from the world. I still pass the same crossing supervisors every day – but they never see me. You don’t realise from inside a car, but it’s quite difficult to see people inside cars these days. All you get is reflection. It’s no good waving at someone you know on a bike, or standing at a pedestrian crossing – unless they recognise your car, they’ll have no idea who you are, if they even see that you are waving. All they’ll see is shiny glass and metal.

Visiting a friend in the UK some years ago, his car air conditioning was automatically on, even though the outside air temperature was 22 degrees Celcius. Open vents would have been delightful – we were driving in the Yorkshire countryside, so there wasn’t much pollution to worry about. But air conditioning was a matter of course, even in the north of England where it rarely reaches a temperature we Aussies would consider hot.

Here, temperature-control (or climate-control as it is hyperbolically known – would that it truly were) is the norm in most new cars. We want our environments strictly controlled, heedless of what we lose in the process. That sense of connection with the world is fundamental to our understanding of it, and our connection with the systems that sustain us. I recently heard David Suzuki argue that the greatest mistake environmentalists have made is in depicting the environment as distinct from us. “We are the air. We are the water. We are the earth. What we do to them, we do to ourselves,” he declared.

On a bike I understand that at a visceral level. I can feel the air pumping in and out of my lungs. The weather becomes a creature with which I interact, instead of a remote concept that I never really encounter directly. I am forced to plan for wet weather, hot sunshine, or frosty mornings. Yet none of them, barring the occasional freak hailstorm that comes bearing golf balls, are enough to stop me from riding. I have friends who happily ride through snow in a European winter, where cycling for transport is a normal way of life.

A huge percentage of our car trips are less than 5km. Most of us could be doing them on a bike trivially easily. Of those who physically can’t manage that, many would be fine with an electric bike. For the longer trips, a combination of cycling and public transport would usually be fine (although I won’t deny that the public transport network could use a wash and brush up). We could so easily be a cycling culture, but we are puzzlingly resistant.

Cars enslave us, and the puzzle is that we happily let them. I can’t wait for my knee to recover so that I can be free again.

PS. My knee injury is from too much kneeling on hard floors, so don’t go blaming my bike! :)

PPS. This was written some time ago, so please excuse the mismatch with the seasons. My knee is now fine.

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One thought on “Trapped!

  1. Joe

    Much nodding and agreement from this reader. I’m much more aware of the world when I’m cycling than when I’m driving, and it’s good.

    After ten years of usually walking to work followed by five years of ferries and trains, I’ve been trying to get back on my bike as routine for my current commute of 7km to work. It’s been “on the cards” since Jan 2010 but my shoulder was out of action for most of 2010 and a series of mildly annoying colds and ailments has made it somewhat punctuated so far in 2011. Working on it though.

    I have a similar “that’s odd” reaction to parents with prams. I guess prams sort-of work in shopping centres and on some streets, but seem to me more restrictive than beneficial… troubles with stairs and escalators and rough terrain and curbs and struggling in and out of the ever-present car, or the fun of trying to get on and off trains and buses in peak.

    We own a pram, but it’s rarely had use. Both our kids went from being in “the sling” up to about 15 months old, to joining us walking to the shops on their own two feet… about 1km each way. (20 minutes with an 18mo toddler.) Also walking around the shops, walking around the zoo, walking to the station etc. etc. I’m always astonished at parents pushing clearly 3 or 4yo kids around (or even older) on wheels.

    Which is a lead-in to commenting on a recent / current NRMA car insurance poster ad along the lines of “never be without your car” (they offer substitute vehicles during any claim) with photos like a mum with a child on each hip and arms full of shopping … … buuuut … that’s how we often shop anyway, with two kids younger than those pictured and no car. (The kids walk.)

    While no doubt my kids will, as teenagers, fall into line with society and get lazy. But at least they’ll know they can walk, even encumbered, and as adults they’ll probably revert to leg power more often.

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