Monday, November 07, 2011

A real advocacy opportunity

The Lakes Region Planning Commission is updating the regional bicycle-pedestrian plan from the most recent version issued in 2006. They have scheduled four public-input meetings around the region. They also have an on-line survey so you can record your opinion within the usual cumbersome limits of such surveys. Take a few minutes to fill out the survey here.

The first meeting was in Wolfeboro last Thursday. The next one is in the Tamworth Public Library tomorrow night at 6 p.m. On Wednesday, November 9 they'll be at the Bridgewater Town Office at 6:30 p.m. The final meeting in the series will be Thursday, November 10 at the Belmont Corner Meeting House at 6:30 p.m.

I'm sorry the notice is short, in case anyone reading this blog is in the region and would like to attend. I've had trouble finding writing time of late, so I didn't post anything at the instant I found out. I'm not sure how much difference it would have made. Whether you get to a meeting or not, fill out the survey. Use the "other comments" blocks to try to make up for the misleading nature of the over-simplified questions. Surveys are a woefully blunt instrument. However, a large number of respondents will indicate that people are interested, so funds are worth expending.

Eric Senecal from the LRPC and Seth Creighton, who works in the planning department for the city of Laconia but was not attending in that capacity, have prepared a short program to introduce their project, but stressed early and often that they really want to hear from the public so the updated plan responds to citizen needs and wants. They're not coming in as experts to tall people how it ought to be.

The Wolfeboro Public Library had provided plenty of chairs. Most of them were empty. The people who showed up for the meeting, perhaps a total of a dozen, were the usual suspects. They were the people who have already been working for years in town to create such facilities as the Cotton Valley Trail and the upgraded sections in the Sewall Woods and Abenaki trail networks. Every one of us was over 50 years old. Other people, most of a similar age, will show up for volunteer work days on various outdoor projects.

The age emphasizes the graying of the self-propelled demographic. Cross-country skiing, for instance, tends to draw primarily from the middle aged population looking for beneficial exercise to stave off the effects of aging that can no longer be denied. Some might have started in their twenties or even in childhood, but many enter the sport after they have to give up sports that cause more impact, or after years without significant daily exercise. The same is true among the customers looking for a comfortable bike for path riding and a path without motor vehicles on which to ride it.

It occurred to me as I jotted a few notes before the meeting that bicycling has never -- in its entire history -- been necessary.

In the beginning, humans walked. Before they were even humans, they walked. To cross water, they grabbed floating logs and then began to shape those logs and use other materials to invent and refine boats. They domesticated animals to carry loads, and pull carts and whatnot. Eventually, along came steam engines and railroads.

The bicycle was the greatest idea never to catch on. It had its fashionable periods, even before it had pedals, but most of the public considered it an annoying nuisance. It seemed like a plaything for the idle classes to zip around on. Sure, the Wheelmen may have made a stink about improving road construction, but not because massive numbers of people were depending on the bicycle to move people and things in a unique and vital way. As conditions improved for bicycling, and industrial practices pioneered by the cycle industry improved to make bikes easier to build in quantity, the motor vehicle industry was already surging ahead with a more publicly-desirable product. Roads got better, but bikes were already being run into the ditch. We have no strong sentimental connection to a great period in which the bicycle was a huge force advancing our civilization. Conestoga wagons, clipper ships, railroads, cars and airplanes covered the major distances. Few made a big whiz-bang deal about how the bicycle helped people of fairly modest means cover more minor but more common distances.

The bicycle belonged to childhood in this country. I say belonged, because kids don't use it the same way anymore. The normal childhood of a kid born in the 1950s would probably be considered abuse, neglect and endangerment today. On a summer day I might disappear from the house right after breakfast and not return until dusk. The bike was the first set of wings. My friends and I rode everywhere. Yes, we nearly got into trouble in various ways. I don't remember losing any schoolmates to those dangers, though. The first one to die succumbed to bone cancer when I was in sixth grade. That had nothing to do with our common practices of playing on active railroad bridges, bushwhacking along jungly creek banks for miles, or sneaking up on guys target shooting with a .44 magnum in a vacant lot. He was at the top of a steep river bank, practically a cliff. I'm sure he never expected ten-year-old boys to scramble up it like little commandos because they homed in on the sound of gunfire with an uncontrollable instinct to go toward anything that sounds like it might be blowing up.

When it came to the bicycle, that which did not kill me I would get back on as soon as I healed sufficiently. Kids didn't even think twice about it. Get back on the bike or be that poor whiner going "guys, wait UUUUUP!"

Regardless of the bike's place in kid culture, we were also meant to outgrow it and get into cars and cigarettes by our late teens. As generation after generation got its driver's licenses and hit the road, those roads looked less and less like a place to send the kids to pedal. As a nation, we let that get away. It's easier to sell the idea of protecting a vast tract of wilderness hearkening back to our pedestrian and equestrian past than it is to get plans approved to upgrade the roads in any major city or suburb so that people can walk or ride their bikes without fear of getting mowed down by a motor vehicle or at least annoyingly and frighteningly harassed by bullying drivers who want only clear running room.

The bike may finally see its time as a world finally paying attention to its resources starts to try to use them more wisely, including human energy. It's too early to be sure.

For millions of years, humans never had to plan very far ahead. Every generation could duke it out for money, power and sex without thinking about the kind of world they would leave for their children. A few aggravating prognosticators might go on about how we were going to hell in a handbasket, but never for the real reasons that we WERE going there. A very few thinkers started to catch onto that mess in the late 1960s and early '70s, when the terms "ecology" and "environment" trickled into common use. It was still the first time in the entire history of the human species that anyone started to realize just how carefully we might have to think about the future if we really cared about the the little yard-weasels some of us were raising to inhabit it. Of course the offspring born in the 1960s and '70s have had their own offspring and probably become grandparents by now, all without doing a whole lot to improve the outlook for their own little squirts. Someone is always looking back the glory days of the late 19th Century or one of the economic peaks of the 20th, with or without glorious bloodshed, and trying to get us to go back to the good old days even though they weren't really a good idea at the time, and they certainly aren't now. Humans simply make things up as they go along and then look back and call it wisdom.

1 comment:

greatpumpkin said...

I agree with you about the freedom cycling gave us as children. Even now, a bicycle means freedom in ways that a car does not. And I don't see any parents turning their kids loose the way we were, with only an instruction to be home for dinner. Thus today's parents are slaves to their childrens' busy schedules (much busier than ours were), operating taxi services until their kids are old enough to drive themselves. As I recall, anything we could get ourselves to, we were expected to get to without parental assistance.