I ride bikes for a lot of reasons, but fundamentally only one of them matters:
It makes me happy.
Sure, it keeps me fit. (Relatively speaking, of course. I’m not that fit, but I’m certainly more fit than I’d be if I derived most of my enjoyment from a more sedentary pastime, such as knitting or high-stakes poker.) Yes, it’s an efficient and economical form of transportation. And it doesn’t create emissions or take an inordinate toll on either the countryside or the cityscape. But ultimately those are merely incidental, and are simply fortunate by-products of an activity that brings me great and profound satisfaction.
While I’d never argue that cycling is for everybody, I can say that it’s the means by which I make sense of myself and the world, and I also know I’m not alone in feeling this way. If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’re among the people for whom the bicycle is a conduit to some preternatural state of contentment.
I’ve never considered myself a “bicycle advocate” in the traditional sense. However, over the years I’ve written a lot that you could file under “advocacy.” This is because I believe deeply that cycling should be accessible to as many people as possible, for the simple reason that they might find the same sense of joy in it as I do. While bicycle advocates often cite the benefits of cycling I mentioned a couple paragraphs ago (it’s healthy, it’s good for the environment, etc.), perhaps its greatest attribute is that you don’t have to approach it with some sense of high-minded purpose in order to reap all these benefits. Riding a bike because it’s fun is high-minded enough–do that and the rest takes care of itself.
Nevertheless, it is possible to get so caught up in a pleasurable activity that it becomes unpleasant. This is certainly true of cycling; consider the rider who obsesses over equipment or training to the exclusion of all else. (This is not to judge the competitive among us, but the potential does exist to take that sort of thing too far.) Similarly, bicycle advocacy can also undermine your love of cycling–or at least the sense of well-being that compels you to ride in the first place. What I found was that the more I wallowed in the miasma of anti-bike sentiment in order to write about it (the Twitter posts, the newspaper columns, the spite-fueled community board meetings) the more unhappy I became. It got to the point I was looking for bike-haters everywhere, and when you look for something negative you invariably find it. The scene from “Annie Hall” comes to mind:
Though Woody Allen himself is against bike lanes, go figure:
“None of the streets can accommodate a bike lane in a graceful way,” Allen said, arguing that the DOT’s plan to add bike lanes to Upper East Side crosstown streets is out of step with the community. “Every street has a good argument why it shouldn’t have a lane.”
While I was tempted to tune out all the bike hate, I did not do so. This was partially because I equated a lack of vigilance with complacency, partially because as a semi-professional bike blogger it was more or less my job to wallow in it, and partially because social media means the sorts of hateful thoughts most people keep to themselves are always just a click away. (Actually they’re not even a click away, they just pop up in your feed.)
But then, Transportation Alternatives cancelled the “Bike Forecast,” a sort of a daily traffic-report-meets-local-bike-news-digest the previous director of that organization had engaged me to write. This meant I was no longer following citywide street-level bike news and the concomitant outrage in real time, which in turn meant I was a lot more relaxed. Drivers parked in bike lanes is irritating enough, but once you start running their license plates to see how many tickets they have (see: the @HowsMyDrivingNY Twitter bot) you open the door to a degree of fixation that can become downright unhealthy.
Next came The Pando. Outside put my column on ice. I stopped doing my radio show. The outrage that characterizes bicycle advocacy discourse seemed both disingenuous and laughably irrelevant as the city, the country, and the world ground to a halt. While the news certainly offered up plenty for me to obsess over and be unhappy about to the detriment of my mental and emotional health, I did at least find that I welcomed the respite from bike-related outrage, and that I remembered who I was back in 2007 when I started this blog–just a wiseass who loved to ride bikes, and whose metric for happiness was not how many miles of bike lanes the city added or how many community boards the city overturned, but rather how much time I’d spent in the saddle that day and what I’d seen and experienced along the way.
I find myself thinking about all this now because this morning I happened upon the following tweet from a New York City Councilmember:
In an age when we’re told to see every neighbor as a disease vector, and every police officer as a potential racist murderer, and every unseasonably warm day as yet more evidence that we’re all going to perish in an environmental apocalypse of our own making, I’ve never felt more strongly that by far biggest threat to all of us is not illness, or police brutality, or climate change; rather, it’s our pathological insistence on shaming each other, and on spurning happiness and beauty, and on rejecting everything around us as intrinsically insidious. In 2020, it is possible to feel guilty for simply being alive. Actually, it’s more than possible–increasingly, it’s political dogma.
I realize it’s easy to read this as a half-assed manifesto on apathy. (Is there any other kind?) However, I believe it’s ultimately joy and not guilt that drives the best human endeavors. It’s far better to tell someone they’ll love riding a bike than it is to tell them they’re a shitty person if they don’t. I’d also humbly submit we at least consider liberating ourselves from the medieval notion that humanity is fundamentally sinful and unclean and eternally one more misstep away from some sort of cosmic retribution.
If the sun is stressing you out, consider it will burn out in a mere five billion years. So we might as well enjoy the small amount of time we have left.