Monday, December 09, 2013

Kickin' back under the stars

Riding out the path on Saturday night through frosty air, between frozen lakes, with a sky full of glittering stars, I kept thinking this would be the time to ride a recumbent. It's not my preference in most cases, but sometimes it would be nice to pedal a lawn chair. Recumbent trikes are particularly suitable for sky gazing because you don't have to worry about balancing.

When the weather is bad, with rain, sleet and wet snow I wouldn't want to lie there, supine, letting it all just pool in my lap. In conditions like that it's nice to lean forward and let it roll off my back. And a little of that is plenty anyway. I'll take it for a short commute. For a long ride, stormy weather would make a velomobile seem like a great idea.

The variations of human powered vehicle are numerous. This might actually discourage some people who want to pick the "best" bike when there is no best bike. Certainly the configuration we've come to recognize as "normal" is the basis for the most versatile form of the machine, but even there we see great diversity for different habits and habitats. Best is often a compromise. How much better it is than worse or worst may be a slim margin in some cases.

For those of us addicted to using the human engine the temptation to acquire a fleet of vehicles is strong. I'll go further and say that it's a guilt-free indulgence compared to a fleet of vehicles that require fossil fuels, spew crap into the atmosphere and have a lengthy death toll associated with them. Indeed, those other vehicles present the biggest obstacle to people who might want to push the limits of their pedal-powered vehicles into winter conditions and darkness. It's bad enough with ample daylight and warm weather.

Motorized vehicles and equipment could have a place in Biketopia, constructing our travel routes and keeping them passable. And of course a well-developed rail network would serve a large network of communities for when quicker travel in spiffier attire was required. But then, humans set the standard for required spiffiness of attire. Maybe we should just get used to seeing each other in more casual clothing better suited to self-transportation.

The human powered vehicle industry could take up where the auto industry leaves off after the transition to healthy and sustainable personal transportation. Imagine Detroit and the Rust Belt coming back as the pedal-powered powerhouse of industrial renaissance. Imagine the road network of the United States devoted mostly to pedalers, with a few token "car lanes" stuck on the sides of some of them. Ha!

I never forget that I have financial advantages that many  people in the world do not. I'm relatively poor by American standards, but those standards are pretty warped. If I had to limit myself to one bike I could. I have it all picked out. But I would still make seasonal changes to broaden its capability.

Transportation costs money, even if you're just buying a pair of shoes. The economy adjusts to people's purchasing habits as people's purchasing habits adjust to the economy. If human powered vehicles dominated the transportation mix, they would pick up peripheral expenses from all the entities that make it their business to add peripheral expenses. Governments would require registration. Somehow the insurance industry would manage to get a hook in. Bike parking garages would have a regular fee schedule. All sorts of shady repair facilities would spring up. And the bike industry would continue to add dubious innovations that make repair more complicated and ownership more expensive, just as they are doing now with hydraulics, electronics, shifting systems and exotic materials. In absolute dollar amounts it could never rival the expenses and collateral costs of relying on motor vehicles, but in an adjusted economy the relative expense per person could rise to a comparable level. We could live on less money, but a similar proportion of it would be sucked out of us by the associated economic factors.

Some associated expenses are legitimate. Losing the revenue from motor vehicle registrations and other taxes and fees coughed up by the motoring public, governments would need to make up some of it to maintain the transportation routes formerly dominated by the smoking jalopies of a bygone era. Human-powered vehicles would damage the surface less, but weather still takes its toll. And human-powered travelers would benefit from facilities and amenities not yet constructed, or carried over in a modified form from the motor era. And without a doubt we would see increased enforcement of traffic laws related to human powered vehicles. Ever see those speed limit signs on bike paths? Ever whiz by the 15 mph sign at 20 or more and laugh about it? Now imagine some cop on an e-bike hiding in the bushes just beyond it. Yep. It could happen. It would happen.

Traffic laws could become more enlightened regarding rolling stops at stop signs, but cyclists need regulated intersections as much as motorists do. Imagine the carnage if everyone just blasted into intersections at whatever speed they could manage and tried to intimidate their way through. There would have to be some basic principles and someone would have to act as the referees.

I doubt if we have to worry about it any time soon. But it wouldn't be a bad worry to have. I would love to undertake the challenge of making a mostly human-powered transportation culture work. But it can't be achieved with an unwilling majority. Coercion is tyranny even if the end result appears beneficial. Process is important too. Process is vital. Consensus is indispensable. So that's the first challenge.


Steve A said...

"If I had to limit myself to one bike I could..." Would I have to trash the extra bikes or could I simply put them in storage? Also, am I allowed to replace that one bike or is this a "rest of my life" commitment? More questions also pop to mind.

cafiend said...

A good post should be thought provoking.

On the rare occasions that I have divested myself of a bike rather than just riding it until the frame disintegrated my main concern has been to find someone who would value it as I did. And I'd prefer not to see how it turns out.

I visit the "one bike" concept frequently to imagine how I might fare with less stuff. I don't see it as one bike for all time. It's one bike at a time, used until it is used up. Repeat as necessary to cover your lifespan. Serial monogamy.

I'm glad I don't have to limit myself to one. But it's a useful mental exercise.