Ten reasons why you should bike to school
James Nolan | Monday, September 10, 2018
According to the Oxford dictionary, ‘universal’ is defined as “the quality of involving or being shared by all people or things in the world; the quality of being true in all situations.” Nowadays, everyone thinks that society is marching toward universal progress. The advances of science, democracy and Amazon.com, they claim, are making more liberty and happiness available to all people in all situations. Are they really? If the words of St. Mother Teresa are worth any consideration, she sees our culture headed in a different direction: “The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty.” It’s called the universal fallacy: narratives of progress and modernization, rather than elevating all of humanity to its universal ideal, levels culture to a particular flavor of mediocrity.
So the other day I felt an unspoken camaraderie with the lowly, loveable bike mechanics of ProForm, a local bike shop. The meek, neighborly affect that spread across my face seemed to say “if I am a wealthy university student, it’s also true that I wear Chacos.” As they repaired my punctured tire, I felt at home in a place that seemed to, like myself, value people and locale over cold, universal money. A “buy where you bike” sticker was stuck playfully on a computer’s back. I shivered in ecstasy. But my world darkened as the clerk took my credit card and stuck it in the chip reader: a banner hanging in the shop window advertised the latest bike machine whose apt homophony is only one letter off. “TacX” is an indoor bike resistance machine that clips your street bike in, liberating bikers from the age-old obstacle, winter. The ad pictured a man of contented exertion biking in his own living room. What is he smiling so smugly at? Not the snow out his window, but the laptop screen in front of his “TacX” that transports his mind to whatever climate in the universe he fancies.
We should all start riding bicycles as a concrete practice to re-educate a modern American lifestyle that wreaks of existential hubris. The automobile is probably a perfect illustration of the universal fallacy and its bankrupt promises of progress. The ability to traverse miles in minutes flattens the value of geographic locales for the traveling human psyche. Everything is five minutes away. Nothing is special. The difference between grandma’s house and that suburban strip mall is no longer felt in the journey to get there: both require slamming car doors, gas and federally regulated street dimensions. And we let this experience open and close our working days.
As a strategy of resistance, I started biking to school. And you should, too. The wind in my face, the red lights I trespass, the local shops I must acknowledge — these contingent particulars constantly remind me that I am a specific human in a particular space, whose every expression presupposes the flaws and features of my body. I am not a universal man, with a universal perspective. If I may edit a phrase of my college to make my point, “Study everything. Marry a single spouse.”
Recent research has affirmed the bicycle’s status as a counter-practice to the woes of modernization. According to Picker Joyce, a sociologist from Harvard, after reaching its zenith in Western cities following the second World War, the popularity of bicycles “wane[d] with the advent of the automobile.” The bicycle became obsolete as a method of private transportation: the engine of modernization had perfected the combustion engine for private use. However, by the mid-1970s, the bicycle began to make “a comeback.” Already experiencing some of the undesired effects of modernization’s rapacious transformation of rapidly growing urban landscapes, western cities began encouraging bicycle use to stem problems like traffic and social stratification. Cities like Seattle led the avant-garde toward biker-friendliness, so that today, even our own South Bend boasts generous, bikeable downtown streets. Lime Bikes make this conscientious provision available to all. Bicycle use and modernization, Joyce maintains, are inversely proportional.
But Choyce doesn’t stop there. The renowned French-born researcher (to say nothing of his profound opinions on contemporary matters) brilliantly unearths the previous symbolic weight that the bicycle bore for the West. The bicycle as we know it today first entered the scene around the 1880s, at the advent of the studio apartment. As the century turned, hailing modern conveniences like packaged cereal and the war plane, the bicycle became emblematic of the new atomized, economized individuality of life in modern cities. Modern man no longer needed to bother family or horses to travel: he could rely on his own power to get on to where he needed to be.
When your tire pops, where do you go? Do you order a new one off Amazon, playing into the false universality of modernization that promises you whatever, wherever, so long as you isolate yourself from others? I go to ProForm. As I walked out of that local shop the other day, I tried to erase the image of that man biking in his white-washed living room and focus on the integrated pura vida I would soon be living. I threw my repaired bike on the rack, slammed the car door behind me and drove out of the parking lot. I winced only a little at the receipt in my hand: the new tire was just a little more expensive than a tank of gas.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.