Tuesday, April 27, 2010

How to be forgotten and invisible

On Facebook, I follow Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's posts in addition to other cycling and alternative transportation contributors. The comments always reflect the cycling philosophy of the writer. They provide glimpses into other cyclists' worlds.

One comment reminded me of my own car-free years. The writer said his "social life is non-existent" because of physiological limitations on his cruising range as a cyclist and a lack of public transportation.

For about ten months I lived in a shabby apartment with no telephone. If I wanted to get in touch with anyone, I had to go to a pay phone, write a letter or pay a visit. I might as well have been dead.

In a related incident, I was staying in my parents' home right after I graduated from college. I was alone in the house when an upholsterer who was doing work for my parents stopped by. There were no cars in the driveway. Before I could get to the door, the visitor assumed no one was home and left. As I recall, he didn't even bother to knock.

As a cyclist who works weekends I am cut off from a lot of normal society even now. Over rural distances it takes me longer to get anywhere by bike than by car. I don't always arrive in the best shape, if the weather is really hot or wet. To be honest, I take advantage of my car when it will get me and my stuff around more efficiently. Commuting by bike saves me a lot of money and excess body fat, so I'm not about to turn into a full-time motorist. It's just not always the best answer.

If there were no cars we would all view distance and use land differently. If no fuel can replace the convenience of petroleum, we will face that in less than a century.

Convenience is a funny adjective for a substance we go through so much trouble to pump out of the ground and transport around the world. The oil companies and the governments they finance do their best to put gasoline in the pumps without calling attention to the wars, explosions, fire, death and environmental destruction that go on behind the scenes, as it were. From the consumer's standpoint, it is convenient.

In the early 20th century, the business wasn't exactly innocent, but it was less mature. World War I was actually the first war for oil as that fuel rapidly came to power military and civilian activities in proud and imperialistic nations. The politics of Europe made it ripe for a conflict anyway. Oil emerged as an issue as a matter of simple logistics. Technology was shifting to an oil-powered basis. If you wanted to have a strong nation and a successful war machine, you needed petroleum.

Wild, isn't it? Nineteen-freaking-fourteen and the British Empire had its sights on oil in Persia and Iraq. And here we are today.

Between the dawn of the automobile era and its sunset we have enjoyed personal transportation unequaled in any other period of human history. The bicycle was described as the poor man's horse even though the purchase price was relatively steep in the late 19th and early 20th century, because the cost of operating and caring for the bike was minuscule compared to housing and feeding a horse. But there was no national network of highways. Roads were unpaved. Activist cyclists agitated for better roads, while inventors and industrialists like Albert Pope and numerous others perfected their manufacturing techniques in the bicycle business before moving on to motorized transportation.

For bicycling, the best years lie ahead. The cars of the future, powered by steam heated by fires of dried feces, probably will have neither the performance nor the sex appeal of the current product. The fuel will be cheap and widely available. Fiber-fed cyclists can probably make some pocket money by selling raw material to the fuel companies.

I can't tell you how I got from a reminiscence of phoneless, carless isolation to the 2035 Stinky Steamer, but some days are like that.


ChipSeal said...

If a cyclist want's to noticed, all he needs to do is roll through a stop sign!

cafiend said...

Good point, Chip! I meant socially invisible, but there's always the issue of visibility in traffic and to the various authorities.

Oh yeah.

Steve A said...

Yup, there's a WORLD of difference between a cyclist that has a car, but never uses it, and a cyclist that hasn't got a car at all. It is the knowledge that you COULD drive to Lowe's to get that big sheet of plywood if you really NEEDED to...

Rantwick said...

Nice post. I like the ones that travel from nowhere to somwhere all by themselves like that.