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Sunday, May 20, 2007

Bicycling against car culture

Image of Pontiac Solstice advertising campaign with Maxim
"In short, the American has sacrificed his life as a whole to the motorcar, like someone who, demented with passion, wrecks his home in order to lavish his income on a capricious mistress who promises delights he can only occasionally enjoy."--Ivan Illich, The Ecologist (February 1974)

It's hard enough to begin bike commuting. And it's often hard to persist with a transportation mode that isn't provided much support by government planners, and which most Americans view as eccentric or odd. I succeeded with bike commuting in part because of the supportive community of bicyclists I found in San Francisco, through activism with the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and participation in Critical Mass.

But in many cities in the U.S., such support isn't always available. One of my goals for this blog is to encourage those isolated bike commuters scattered around the country in smaller communities, who may feel alone in their daily conflict with vehicle traffic. In addition to providing "how to" information, I hope this blog helps to illustrate that bicycling commuters are not alone, but are part of a healthy and growing movement.

One of the challenges is, of course, the hegemonic dominance of the automobile in American culture. The U.S. automobile industry spends $17 billion each year on advertising--by comparison, almost double what the federal government spends on transit ($9 billion)--to promote the supposed ego-satisfaction benefits of their product.

Automobile marketing, like the Pontiac campaign illustrated above, creates an image of cars as tools for sex, power, style, freedom. Movies are filled with heroes getting the "hottie" after demonstrating their superiority in a climactic car chase. Television, magazines, radio, newspapers all promote automotive empowerment. What appeal does a puny bicycle have against all that?

"The current American way of life is founded not just on motor transportation but on the religion of the motorcar, and the sacrifices that people are prepared to make for this religion stand outside the realm of rational criticism."--Lewis Mumford, 1963, The Highway and the City (1963)

The challenge for bike commuters isn't just about finding space on our streets. It's also about finding space in our culture. Why I Ride: The Art of Bicycling in New York City is a great example of bicyclists fighting back. Bike to Work week organizers succeeded in cracking through media indifference. Critical Mass has galvanized bicyclists, and where it has succeeded, has made bicycling fun, hip, and, dare I say, chic.

Thankfully, there are signs the American motoring religion may be eroding. Disatisfaction with suburban sprawl culture is fueling a renewed demand for urban living. Endless traffic jams and rising energy costs are causing many to seriously reconsider their transportation options.

We're riding two wheels on a rising tide.

Image: Web capture.
Visit: Zen and the Art of Bike Commuting
Visit: Paul Dorn's Bike Commuting Tips