July 20, 2015

Our bigoted bicycles: The moral vanity of the urban cyclist

Richard AndersonRebel Blogger

I read The New York Times for the same reason I stare down from the top of tall buildings: Terrified fascination at what might come next. Here is a case in point:

But two years in, Citi Bike’s inroads have been decidedly uneven, with men far outnumbering women in using the bike-sharing system. A little time on Eighth Avenue on a recent morning, watching the stream of Citi Bike riders heading north past Pennsylvania Station and toward Times Square, was instructive. Man after man pedaled by, some in suits, others in jeans. From time to time, a woman on a Citi Bike rode by.

For the bike service, that is a problem.

It would be easy to dismiss this story for its very New Yorkish insularity. One of the petty obsessions of a self conscious elite that have little impact on ordinary life. Yet it's exactly these sorts of ideas that have a tendency to creep into daily life. Across the continent, in suburbs and medium sized cities, there are self-conscious petty elites eager to ape the manners of their Manhattan social superiors.

Biking in dense urban traffic is mostly an upper middle class affectation. Something done to express simultaneous contempt for the private automobile and the humble bus and subway. There is the thin excuse that biking is healthy. It certainly is in areas with little traffic and clean air. It's something of a stretch to argue that inhaling big gulps of heavily polluted downtown air, all the while dodging inattentive motorists, is an inherently healthy activity.   

I'm old enough to remember seeing stock footage of Chinese cities before Deng's great reforms. Every news story from that time was accompanied by the cliched image of thousands of Chinese riding around on bicycles. The general impression was of a lot of very poor people who couldn't afford cars. Further proof, to any who needed it, that communism sucked. This was because way back in that distant epoch known as the 1980s seeing a cyclist in the downtown of a North American city was rare.

On spotting a two wheeled unicorn the natural assumption was that the fellow was too young or too poor to afford a car or a bus pass. That adults with money, even a little bit, would willingly risk their necks in heavy rush hour traffic was seen as madness. If people were looking for exercise there were things called gyms and stationary bikes. If getting from point A to B cheaply was the main issue there were slow but mostly safe buses. 

Then came the environmental movement of the 1990s. The internal combustion engine was allegedly destroying the planet. Those of enlightened moral conscience were duty bound to oppose it wherever possible. The science of human driven global warming was dicey then and hasn't become any more plausible in the quarter century since. That hardly matters. The human need for belonging and transcendence, which traditionally has been expressed through religion, found its way into a sort of vulgate environmentalism.

This Greenista creed has naturally developed its own rituals. Over time it acquired a reflexive admiration for a limited form of asceticism. Thus the fascination with economically nonsensical activities like recycling and urban biking. In this light cycling has a particularly spiritual aspect. Any fat slob can sort trash. It takes a dedicated individual to sweat, swerve and cycle for the greater glory of Gaia. There is that special elevation that is felt in having suffered for your cause. That as a practical matter cycling impedes the flow of traffic, arguably generating more net pollution, is neither here nor there. 

Think of the Left's vision not as a practical program, which it is not, but as a vast vanity project for those comfortably divorced from reality. The Greenista creed has little appeal to those employed in farming, mining, oil extraction, manufacturing or the various trades. The Greenista is overwhelming a service worker, typically at the higher end of the income spectrum. They are those who do not sow, reap or build anything. Someone for whom things appears in stores to be purchased; the origin of those things attracting only a passing curiosity.

From that moral universe it makes perfect sense to worry about whether urban cyclists are showing the correct gender balance. Cycling isn't about health, wealth or any practical value. It is about a peculiar form of moral vanity. The need to feel superior and moral without under taking any serious restraints or hardships in life. Others have died for their faith. The Greenista has the luxury of nagging, regulating and tweeting about social trivia. 


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commented 2015-07-21 13:48:39 -0400
Not everyone rides a bike to make a political statement. I drive a car and ride a bike. I use the bike downtown because it’s faster to get from A to Z and parking is easy and free. Richard, your preoccupation with urban elites comes across as a little irrational. This piece seems grounded in your own foggy imagination.
commented 2015-07-21 11:54:54 -0400
“Biking in dense urban traffic is mostly an upper middle class affectation.”

I’d be interested in seeing your stats on this one, Richard. Cycling is the cheapest form of transport next to walking. You can buy a serviceable used bike for under $100, about as much as it would cost for a month of public transit, and certainly far less than two months.

“Cycling isn’t about health, wealth or any practical value. It is about a peculiar form of moral vanity.”

Perhaps in a rural or suburban area, with big distances between work, home, and shopping, this holds true. In cities, where it’s often faster to bike than take transit, this is a ridiculous opinion. Cycling is cheap, quick, and healthy. Some years ago, I used to ride 15km to work downtown and did so faster than on transit, and the bike paid for itself after one summer. The healthy aspect was icing on the cake for me. How many urban cyclists do you personally know? None I would hazard, if you’re prepared to paint them with the same brush.

Just because you can’t fathom using a bike in an urban environment doesn’t mean cycling has no merit. You’re the elitist on this topic, not the cyclists. Perhaps you would prefer people cram themselves into an already stressed public transit system or operated vehicles at a far greater expense?
commented 2015-07-21 09:10:54 -0400
Here is the mystery; in an age where every municipal government is, theoretically, squeezing every buck they spend for the most bang available, how do these governments rationalize bike lanes? How can we spend tens of millions of dollars providing bike lanes, which will be used by a tiny minority of tax payers for three months of the year ( of course there will be those who reply “I rid my bike all year long!” but that should be discussed under another title, perhaps dealing with why the mentally ill were turned out onto the street). How can bike lanes be justified when they remain virtually unused for more than nine months of the year, and even when in use, are enjoyed by just a few hundred users? How can a municipality install bike lanes, while simultaneously discouraging cars and trucks by narrowing driving lanes, increasing congestion and generally making driving more dangerous by allowing bike riders to ignore the laws that govern the roads?

There are better places to spend these tens / hundreds of millions of dollars and bike lanes ain’t one of them.
commented 2015-07-21 02:36:21 -0400
In Toronto there are lots of bicycle couriers. They are used for B2B when using someone like FEDEX or UPS is either to expensive or slow. As to rent-a-bike companies, aside from tourist areas they don’t make profits at all. The Bixbi system that was installed in Downtown Toronto went under and was subsequently bought by the City of Toronto and I presume it still runs at a loss. The costs of use were too much for those just using them once in awhile and only hardcore activists use them regularly. I knew two people that owned bikes but had a Bixbi membership to support the system. Both people also lived downtown where accessing the system was easier.
commented 2015-07-20 21:57:08 -0400
I haven’t driven in a city of any size in many years. I do not like driving and would prefer public transportation. It does not make sense to have millions of vehicles traversing the landscape usually with only one person, the driver, inside, so a network of efficient public transportation would be lovely. Lovely, but unlikely to be realized. Does anyone remember youngsters delivering telegrams by bicycle? Do they still use bicycles for, say, inner-city deliveries of small packages? Just curious about whether bicycles are still part of any delivery system. Do the rent-a-bike companies make a profit? Are they publicly financed? It is dangerous to combine bicycles and large vehicles. Your points are well-made.
commented 2015-07-20 21:23:58 -0400
You said it, Richard! That was very well put. Thank-you!