Saturday, May 22

Bicycle Culture: Dying When Needed Most

Bikes gather in Osaka, Japan

Banished Bicycles: China's Car Culture Hits Some Potholes
This report caught my attention when it first came out and sent me into a fit of perplexity and anger for a good fortnight. Feeling quite powerless to prevent death of bicycle culture in China or elsewhere, I emerged from my fit only by selling what I believe will have been my last automobile, and most certainly my last fossil-fuel powered automobile. But this issue still nags me, since I realize that my personal resistance to "car think" is only a drop in a sea that is crying out for a sea-change.

In the report, we read that "bicycles have gone from carrying more than 70 percent of travelers in Shanghai as recently as 1990 to from 15 to 17 percent now." Can you imagine? Within the space of only 13 years, there was a drop from 70 to as little as 15 percent of bicycle traffic, while the population grew. It is almost as if a bike-specific bomb had been dropped on the city, and materials for making new bikes had run into short supply (while, curiously, materials for making cars were pulled from the four corners of the earth). What is happening in China is very troublesome. Shanghai was, broadly speaking, a perfectly functioning city in 1990. So, the shift to car traffic clearly responded less to a city's needs than to consumers' desires. Apparently, bikes are associated in the minds of Chinese today with "old China" or "rural China," much like cigarettes are arbitrarily (and idiotically) associated with "Western style," "youth" and "fashionability" throughout much of Asia thanks, in both cases, to marketing-driven, corporate distortions. This enormous drop in the number of bicycles in Shanghai, the article also says, is typical of all major Chinese cities. This means that, at a time when the remaining sources of oil in the world have begun to see their twilight on the horizon and alternative sources of power are known to be inevitable, Chinese citizens are swiftly following Americans in allowing "car think" to dominate their lives, their city planning, their laws, their economies, and, most problematically, the natural environment. On that level, the struggle against "car think" is one that would require diminishing the massive status that is accorded cars and car ownership. In light of struggles against addictive and public tobacco use, one can see just how difficult such a struggle would be; however, unlike the anti-smoking movement, the effort to undermine "car think" has a positive route to take: the valorization of bicycles. It can thus avoid antagonizing car lovers by stressing the positive alternatives of bicycle use in particular.

Incidentally, the French have a wonderful expression for what I just called "car think." Le tout voiture refers to the idea that everyday life can and should be managed in and by one's car, as well as the policies that support this presumption. The fact that there is a name for this stupidity suggests that, at least in Europe,
resistance to it has been organized. European cities have for several years held "no car" days in which citizens are encouraged to leave their cars at home, or drive only to the city outskirts, and seek alternate forms of transportation which the cities bolster for the occasion.

Car culture has long dominated the United States, where bike riders in many cities and along many roads are assumed to be participating in exceptional, risky, or deviant behavior (if you don't believe that statement and you are not a biker, take it on word from me that regular biking in many places in the United States often exposes one to all manner of jeering, taunts, and shouts from self-inflated car passengers who spontaneously look down on any pedestrian or bike peddler as being vulnerable).
Asphalt Nation, an excellent book by Jane Holtz Kay, chronicles, along with eloquent photographs, the total dominance of social life and landscape in America by automobiles. There is also a remarkable PBS report narrated by Ray Suarez that discussed how, at the end of World War II, General Motors purchased from the City of New York perfectly serviceable and well-running tram cars only to uproot them all so as to increase public dependence on private car ownership. So much for the necessity of cars in American cities. (If anyone knows how to find this documentary on this PBS-produced history of New York City, please tell me.)

Given the corporate hold on Washington, the national brain-lock in "car think" is not likely to loosen anytime soon. Despite all their likely benefits to public health and safety, policies that encourage bicycling are so far off the political radar screen that we are more likely to see astronauts riding bikes on Mars before we see bicycles in large numbers in our towns and cities. Corporate America simply has not been able to find a way to soak as much profit out of bicycle manufacturing as it has out of car manufacturing and car insurance, space travel, and war (to name the most famous areas of government knee-buckling at corporate behest).

The photograph that appears above was taken in Osaka, Japan in 2004. Japan presumably also had a thriving bicycle culture at one point, much like China, and relative to the United States, it certainly still does. I think this photograph suggests that bike culture in Japan is still holding its own. In your mind, turn each one of these bikes into a car. Imagine it is the size of an S.U.V. With that image in mind, you can see how the asphalt pictured within this photo would quickly disappear from sight under the cars' bloated presence. The cars would bulge out like a fleet of rescue vehicles parked haphazardly around a scene of distress. To be cleared from the road, they would require a parking garage, which would perhaps require a separate building, or a parking lot, which would steal room for a home or park and further congest the conditions of life for the city's inhabitants. With such thoughts in mind, think how sane is the simplicity of bikes.

Parked before an apartment building, these bikes butt into the street with confidence, covering almost half the distance of one lane. This arrangement is not uncommon in Osaka. Moreover, they are parked in defiance of "no parking" signs that sit before the apartment building (prohibiting cars AND bikes from being parked there). This reminds us of the somewhat ambiguous status of bicycles and the fact that they are given more slack in the eyes of the law. As far as I know, in the laws of most nations, they are deemed moving vehicles on par with automobiles; quite often, however, despite their legal status, they are treated with the permissiveness granted a pedestrian who crosses underneath a red light when no traffic is coming or never stops at stop signs. Few ever pay insurance on their bikes, and bikes are almost never tagged with fines to fill a city's coffers. They can be ridden on streets or sidewalks and allowed to meander among parked or idling cars as if they were evanescent, a mere fluid or vapor coursing through interstices. They can be carried in and out of buildings like sleeping children and hung from storage hooks like heavy overcoats.

Perhaps it is in the very flexibility, simplicity, and efficiency of bikes that lies their subversiveness in the eyes of corporate-driven law-makers the world over.