In 1979, I emerged from the 16 years of schooling considered normal for middle class young people, and started trying to make my way as an adult in what we referred to as The Real World.
For practical reasons, I chose to use a bicycle for transportation, and to shape my life around that, rather than automatically assume that I needed a motor vehicle, and all the expenses that go with it. At the time, you could actually come through a basic college education without debt, but I knew I could not guarantee my income in an uncertain job market. Why load myself down with living expenses?
The 1970s bike boom was nearing its end, but I didn't know it. In Gainesville, home of the University of Florida, bikes had been a dominant mode of transportation when I arrived at school in the mid '70s, and were still going strong when I left there in the early spring of '79 to journey north.
I hit the streets of Annapolis, Maryland, and firmly believed that I was better off on the bike than in a car. My friends and I took a lot of risks, but we got away with it long enough to refine our skills and develop better judgment.
The motoring public could be quite hostile. Occasionally the encounters would escalate from verbal (or salivary) to actual physical combat. Being young and idealistic, I could not understand why the vast majority of people was so blind to the Utopia in which we could all be living if more people took up bike pedals instead of the gas pedal.
The bike represented strength and freedom, but it also represented mutual trust. Strength meant personal physical energy, built and maintained by an activity I found entirely fun and beneficial. Freedom meant freedom from the massive expense and logistical hassle of owning a motor vehicle. Trust was a key element because the bicyclist is balanced on those two wheels, vulnerable to the accidental or purposeful incursions of nearly everyone else. A motor vehicle of any size can crush you, but even another cyclist can take you out. For that matter, a pedestrian could do it, too. A well-timed shove, a quick thrust with an umbrella or a stick, and the bicyclist goes sprawling, to the amusement of onlookers.
At the very end of the 1970s, widespread mutual trust still looked like a societal goal, nationally and globally. Sure, there were international tensions and we could be taken out by a nuclear holocaust at any moment, but most people seemed inclined to avoid it, not solicit it. We were getting better. Weren't we? Meanwhile, I was going to keep showing how it could be done, making the bike transportation thing work, and living a comfortable life on modest means. When I look at my tax returns from the period, I'm pretty horrified at my casual acceptance of a cockroach existence, but such is the nature of idealism. I was not wrong, but I was in the minority.
In the minority I may have been, but I was not alone. Baltimore and Washington had a lot of bike commuters, messengers, and recreational riders. Advocacy groups managed to keep us on the road against various legislative challenges. Of course we still fight the same battle over and over, because the motorist mentality has such a firm grip on all aspects of life and infrastructure, but progress inches forward. It would do more than inch, if people felt more welcome on bikes in the transportation system, but that goes back to the curious resistance to Utopia. Concerning bicycling and nearly everything else, people seem suspicious of happiness and of each other.
I'm the last person to want to be all huggy touchy feely, swaying in unison and singing some stirring anthem of universal siblinghood. You be you, I'll be me, hopefully we'll each find some people to hang with. But I sense and absorb the increasing general paranoia that has grown out of decades of alienation, as we drive like hell on our vital errands of personal advancement.
Many institutions seek to divide us. Certain devotees of certain religions eagerly try to connect the dots of prophecy to bring about the final bloody battle between their version of good and their version of evil. To the dividers and the faithfully divided, there are no innocent bystanders. If you are not with them, you are against them, or at least disposable. If you have not chosen the right path, you shall be cast down, and rightly so. It isn't rational, but rationality itself is prideful and a sin. Add in greed and a whole smorgasbord of bigotry and phobias, and you have a species running in all directions to find some sense of security.
By the late 1960s, it was commonly accepted that we were moving toward a more inclusive and tolerant humanity. Obviously that was a misconception, and the resistance to that point of view has been virulent. As with other virulent things, it may only resolve through a high fever and convulsions which could prove fatal. There's a chance that other treatments will reduce the inflammation, but it's really in the hands of evolution now. It would be funny if our evolution was violently ended by people who don't believe in evolution, but who would be left to laugh about it?
Riding a bike really does symbolize the benefits to be gained from finding your own balance and not interfering with the balance of others. It is among the best of human inventions.