Thursday, August 5, 2010

moral sustainability and cycling - robert nelson

(Moral sustainability and cycling: an ecology of ambition for a hyperactive planet. Published by St. Andrews Sustainability Institute and Ellikon, Melbourne 2010.)

Although I was aware that the author of this text frequently commuted by bicycle and that he was an active art critic, the discovery of his new mini-book on the links between cycling and our current environmental predicament was an exciting surprise. In this essay Robert investigates the reasons many people make uncomfortable cyclists, in particular why many are unwilling to cycle-commute despite recognising its health and environmental benefits. So, why do people buy themselves a shiny new steed on which to commute to work, and then after a few days hide it in the spare room to gather dust and cobwebs?

As well as dealing with the obvious discomforts associated with vigorous activity in the outdoors, the author addresses a number of seldom considered aspects of the daily pedal to work. He reveals several reasons that have little to do with the availability of bike paths, the extra time that might be involved or the danger of mobile-phone wielding mothers in 4WDs. One reason explored was the disparaging high-speed, lycra-clad bunches of athletes and their portrayal in the media as “real” and glamourous cyclists. Cyclists outside of this context are perceived in the Australian psyche as inferior and sub-human. There are of course exceptions. For instance cycling helmetless down a country lane with a basket of bread, cheese and wine is acceptably Euro-romantic and a “simple” pleasure that even advertisers legitimise. Commuting when a car would do? Holding up peak hour traffic by occupying a lane? Never would cycling in this way be seen as desirable or marketable in our country.

It is here that I find one significant issue that the essay misses, the “fixie phenomenon”. Countless teenagers, university students and some alternative lifestylers here and in many major cities hostile to cyclists, have, in the last ten or so years, cottoned on to the New York bicycle couriers’ preference for track bikes. They carry messenger bags slung over a shoulder and hefty bike chains are worn as bodily adornment. Melbourne now has fleets of NY messenger impersonators heading brakeless into traffic. They run red lights, skid and skip their rear wheels through pedestrian crowds, before heading like bicycle salmon against the flow of one-way streets.

I have even witnessed a student at my university driving his fixie to a nearby hotel carpark, removing it from the boot and cycling the last few hundred meters to university. I can speculate on the reasons for this: (i) It is too far and too hilly for him to ride his fixie’s one gear from home to university; (ii) The fixie is cool, a geared bicycle is not. He would not consider riding geared; (iii) He saves himself the cost of the permit required to park his car at university and has the added bonus of impressing his friends with his lovely bicycle upon his arrival.

I have also seen a different student call out to another as he rolled past on his way to class, “Yeah, sweet bike. Fixie mate!” The bike was not actually fixed, it was a single-speed with a freewheel. It was not "sweet" either. It was a crappy 1980s ten-speed conversion. But these subtleties were lost in the excitement of the pedestrianian's proclaimation of his identification with the rider.

This phenomenon has made commuting by bicycle cool, even here in the motorcar’s second homeland. It contributes to providing a solution for the middle-aged commuter who understands the sense in having brakes, mudguards and panniers. I have seen cyclists aged between 14 and 80 riding fixed gear bikes, with and without mudguards, lights and panniers. The mere fact that a bike is fixed gives its rider the credibility that many crave. Maybe, just maybe, this removes a few cars from our roads. It certainly raises the visibility of cyclists on our roads. For this I am thankful.

As Nelson indicates, as soon as you can afford a car it is barely socially acceptable for you to ride. Our society is set up so that there is no prestige associated with making your appearance at the office bathed in sweat. Physical activity in this context is uncouth. Are you too poor to afford motorised transport? Nelson proposes the electric bicycle to be one machine with the potential to remedy these problems.

Unfortunately, as he notes, electric bicycles have one major drawback — they are seriously uncool. Whilst the fume-spewing 50 cc Vespa has euro-cafĂ©-style and Audrey Hepburn, Roman Holiday sophistication, none of this washes off on the humble electric bike, despite its better environmental credentials. I agree with Nelson that these are marvellous pieces of engineering. But as he knows too well, they are not sexy artefacts. I am not sure how this might be rectified, if at all. Maybe a manufacturer could convince a supermodel to pose naked on one?

A valid engineering solution to a recognised problem may stare people in the face, yet it may be overlooked for purely social reasons. The consequences of this type of human stubbornness have often resulted in a needless struggle for survival. This has sometimes been followed by extinction of entire cultures. Colonial societies for instance have carried the ways of their homelands to new horizons. Rather than adapting their behaviour by mimicking the successful lifestyles of the locals, they have stubbornly clung to inappropriate agricultural practices, poor hunting and gathering choices, incongruous architectural styles and scarce but familiar building materials. The results include malnourishment, starvation, decimation of local ecosystems and, as Jared Diamond discusses in his book of the same name, Collapse. As a planet we are headed this way via our momentum-propelled reliance on fossil fuels and unsustainable population growth.

Nelson’s book is entertaining, slightly rambling but always insightful. This style suits me perfectly. A diversion exploring the eroticism of the bicycle saddle was amusing but, I felt, unnecessary. This tangent in particular seemed to confuse the book’s main drive to detail our relationship with the bicycle in all its engineering simplicity and marketed complexity, and to explore its socio-environmental credentials. In these latter respects the text is informative and original. It has stimulated me to think more deeply about why I ride so often and why I seldom commute.

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