The sky is falling, the sky is falling! It wasn't just the Mayan calendar and the line-up of the planets that suggested we're at the end of the world, or at least the end of an era. What with climate change, peak oil, the ongoing worldwide economic crisis, the obesity epidemic, continuing mass extinction of species, even the growing reliance on Prozac to get through one's days...it becomes ever clearer that Something Is Wrong with the World.
And then there are days when suddenly everything seems right, or at least the potential for things to go right becomes beautifully crystal clear. Such a taste of paradise happened for several hundred of us on 16 December 2012, Victory Day in Bangladesh. The colours of the Bangladeshi flag are red and green, and those were the colours worn by most of us on a mass bike ride that attracted somewhere around 600 to 700 festive and noisy cyclists.
It was exhilarating to fill the normally car-choked streets of Dhaka with bicycles instead. We covered a fair amount of ground, a journey that is usually painfully slow by car. We shouted, tooted with noise makers, and waved at bewildered and amused people gathered on the streets to watch this unheard-of event. The group BDCycles has been organizing mass bike rides for months, but this was by far the largest turnout they've had. Though there were several collisions—including one young woman in a red sari perched on the metal carrier of a bicycle, who fell on the ground, smashing her red glass bracelets—nobody was seriously hurt. Quite different from what happens when cars are involved!
Fun, shouting, and the few minor collisions aside: what struck me most about the ride was how natural it felt. Or perhaps supernatural: it was a glimpse into the near future when cars will no longer be treated as the normal form of transport, and when the value, the absolute essentialness, of the bicycle will finally, universally, be recognized. Probably not because people will get smarter, but because we'll have no choice.
Riding in that sea of people, chatting with fellow riders, it was easy to imagine the roads of the future filled with cyclists. The conversations one can have, the friendships one can develop, while pedaling together around one's city! The sense of community and commonality, of shared space and shared goals!
A review in Independent of Paul Roberts' book The End of Oil says that as the book "brilliantly shows, there are answers, but they are neither clear nor easy...read this book, fill your roof with polystyrene and buy a smaller car." Jumping up and down and yelling at the inanity of suggesting that we can solve the peak oil crisis by buying a marginally smaller car does not of course address the root of the issue. Then again, such ignorant, facile, determined denial of what is happening around us can only last so long. The price of petrol will continue to rise, and the global economy will likely continue to stagger. (In The End of Growth, Richard Heinberg suggests that the two—rising oil prices and sagging economies—are directly related. As to what Paul Roberts says in The End of Food, I'll let you know when I finish reading it—one can only digest a certain number of "the end of" books at any given time!)
At some point it will no longer be affordable on simple financial grounds to continue driving in cars. The shift to other means, which for more than very short trips will usually mean the bicycle, will bring with it many other benefits as well. With billions of people on the planet and a limited supply of non-renewable resources, and of the space needed to make room for cars, it makes no sense to consider driving as a "normal" way of moving around the city. We need no longer assume that the lifestyle changes needed to slow climate change are too difficult to make. We can stop accepting the million yearly deaths and countless injuries from road crashes. We can halt the obesity epidemic. And, equally important, we can bring sociability and conviviality back to our cities by using means of transport that allow for interactions even as we travel about.
I cannot imagine being a child in many cities of the world today, a child for whom fun means computer games, communication means the Internet and cell phones, and "independent travel" is an empty phrase. I see 15-year-old boys in Dhaka being led across the street by a maid. With the expansion of a few opportunities has come the curtailing of many others. I see nothing "normal" about this "new normal." Fortunately, I also see little chance that the reliance on technological devices, as opposed to face-to-face communication and other "old-fashioned" approaches, can last very long.
Which brings us back to the bicycle, which can break down boundaries as no other technology can. Just as perfectly calm, seemingly civilized people can suddenly become demonically aggressive as soon as they are behind the wheel of a car, so those same people are transformed in far more delightful ways when riding a bicycle. Bicycles bridge rather than break connections between those sharing the road. They are an inherently social means of transport (which is why I always find it sad to use bicycle lanes in various North American cities that are designed for single file only—what's the point of riding a bike if you can't chat with the person cycling next to you??).
When cycling was still the normal mode of transport in Hanoi, a colleague likened the streets to a cocktail party. People rode together, chatted together, waited together under trees near the intersections for the lights to change. Cars promote selfishness and lack of concern for others; bicycles do precisely the opposite. This is not to say that some people don't cycle in aggressive, nasty ways, but they tend to be the minority—and it is far more challenging to try to hurt someone while on a bicycle than while in a car. Bicycles cannot entirely prevent aggression, but they certainly don't encourage it the way cars do.
Having experienced a "bicycle city" in Hanoi, I can easily picture it everywhere. People stand on nearly every corner pumping and repairing bicycles. Every block or two there is secured cycle parking. Nobody minds if you show up at work or at a meeting a little sweaty or rain-drenched. Nobody bothers wearing a helmet because there's safety (and not much speed) in numbers, and after all, when bicycles take over the streets, gone are the cars that could otherwise kill you. Bicycle theft may still be an issue but thieves mostly target hotshot bicycles, so it's easy to get a bicycle that isn't a target. And all sorts of devices can be attached to the bicycle, from a simple basket to a quality carrier, to allow you to take your children, groceries, gardening supplies, and so on around the city with you. (And of course to make a personal statement: the bicycle as extension of personality could become just as popular as, but vastly more sensible, than using the car to do so.)
The most fun I had during my recent trip to Dhaka was on the group bike ride. In the mid-1990s when I lived in Hanoi, my favourite way to celebrate a beautiful day was to cycle out of town, into the countryside. What could be better than combining transport, ultimate utility, eco-friendliness, economy, and good clean fun, especially when it means a sociable way to end so many of the world's problems? I for one would be delighted to see a rapid end to the Automobile Age, and to usher in instead the Bicycle Millenium!