Saturday, February 20, 2010

You and me and the Culture of Speed

Cycling advocates use the term "Culture of Speed" to describe the moto-centric mentality that breeds contempt, hostility or neglect toward the needs of non-motorized travelers on the public streets and highways we all try to share.

Truly addicted drivers will be as rough on each other as on the hapless bicyclist or pedestrian who happens to interrupt their flight. In fact, it's probably worse between motorists, because they tend to be going closer to the same speed, in vehicles that are harder to overtake because they fill more of the lane.

Two things got me into bike commuting 30 years ago. One was exercise. I knew I needed it, and forcing myself to do it to get around seemed like an excellent plan. Second, in the congested streets of Annapolis, I could get around faster than a driver and I could park much more easily. So in pursuit of speed, I adopted a human-powered vehicle.

As my commute shifted from one part of town to another I used roads on which I did not go faster than the cars. The other advantages remained.

Here in New Hampshire, I ride most of the distance to work on a highway. The trip definitely takes less time in a car. The little town of Wolfeboro, however, is very congested in the summer, and parking is scarce. I can't claim better speed than the cars, but I do enjoy a better mental and emotional flow.

Humans are content when their flow rate matches their expectation. Bicyclists enjoy this much more often than motorists do. Too many things can and should hinder the flow of motor vehicles. Motor vehicles are large, hard and heavy. They can do a lot of damage to themselves and their surroundings when they follow an unplanned trajectory. But because they have the potential to go much faster than is often advisable, their pilots live in a near-constant state of discontentment.

Because cyclists have done the calculation and decided to accept a lower overall speed range, we are happier in our culture of speed than the drivers of powerful vehicles held in check by what can often seem like artificial limitations.

People drive because they want to get where they're going. Motorized transportation allowed people to pack their schedule with more events. That capability became the norm. Yes, a power-assisted lifestyle has many undesired, unintended consequences. But it's very easy to descend into the addiction.

We who are our own engines purchase equipment and learn techniques to make our rational choice work. Some of us have to shower when we get to work. Often we have to give up events or activities if we can't get ourselves from here to there in time and in acceptable condition. Or we make special arrangements to work around what someone else might accomplish by driving a car at a faster speed than we can pedal, to arrive fresh and ready, not breathless and sweaty.

Many people who use bikes as transportation also use motor vehicles. We just use them less.

I'm really looking forward to using mine less in a few weeks. I hope the weather cooperates with the increasing daylight to allow an early transition to bike use. The winter certainly has been a bust for alternative training and fitness activities. My main worry is that this has been my worst winter in decades for keeping fit. Music is partly to blame, as I put time into instrument practice that I formerly would have put into various forms of indoor exercise when the outdoor conditions went bust. I confess it is all too easy to talk me out of using a Nordic Track, a bike trainer or even the weight bench anymore. But even before my late-life grab at musicality I was trying to put more time in at the drawing table. I really need my commute, for all the reasons that made sense 30 years ago. It's so damn convenient to stick that ride between me and the paycheck in the morning, and me and supper in the evening.

Worse yet, my brain is shifting to motor mentality. Deprived of the balanced equation between the speed I'm capable of doing and the speed I'm getting to do, I grow irritable. I try to do creative or useful things in the morning and then dash to work in the rocket sled, only to find other people's sleds in the way. I try to get to work early, to get the place set up for the day, only to lose my high ground because some rolling speed bump happens to ooze out of a driveway or a side road just before I get there. At the end of a frustrating day devoid of exercise or creative satisfaction, I want only to get home to the music stand and the drawing board, or maybe just the blog, only to come up on the dim taillights of someone driving inexplicably at 42.17 miles per hour on the highway where 55 is permitted. It's a clear, dry night. They're not slowing for an intrepid cycle commuter. They're just meandering.

I really miss my bike. When I ride it I get home later than I would in a car, even driving behind a meanderer. I'm frequently sore and tired. But at least I got myself there as fast as I could go. I can shower, stretch, eat, relax and think. Sometimes I wish I lived a shorter ride from work, but I never wish to be in the car if I have a choice. I have too much need for my speed.


RANTWICK said...

I really liked that. Transportation cyclists are really speed / frustrated by slowdown freaks... that speaks to why I do it quite well!

Anonymous said...

But is there anything worse than coming off a hill and getting a grill full of headwind to slow you down? I have more than once shaken my fist literally at the air feeling like if I stopped pedalling I would go backwards. Equally frustrating in my opinion to the 42 mph speedbump. Sends me happily to the woods with my mtn bike on many an occasion.

cafiend said...

@Rantwick: Thanks!

@Anonymous: True, headwinds are the worst thing about cycling. However, if you're really giving it all you've got, at least you have the satisfaction of that.

We could have a contest for "worst headwind I ever faced." One top contender for me would be the one I encountered after struggling up a 13 percent grade, looking forward to the shallower, but still continuous downgrade on the other side of the notch. The wind coming up the slope was so strong I had to pedal in a low gear for miles DOWN.

On the other and, when you have that tailwind you're free to let it rip.

In the woods around here, your free flight often gets bogged in mud. There's no escape!

Ham said...

You talk about speed as if it is the preserve of the motorist, it's all I can do to keep smiling at the wobblers and weavers on bikes.

I find it fascinating to compare commuting environments, in London in commuting time, it is faster by bike, full stop.

Much as though I like my new single speed folder, getting back on the roadie or my commuter is like putting on an old and comfy glove. And, much faster. Having done the return trip home on the folder a couple of times (30 miles) I can't wait for the days when I can ride both ways in decent time without fear of a deluge.