A New Myth for Cycling
“We are, when on our bikes, timeless kids crawling fast; experiencing what we had (and lost) when the conscious mind began to impede us.” – Robert Seidler
At the end of my essay Which Cycling Politics: Doom or Possibility? I presented two stories for cyclists to live by. One in which we see ourselves as vulnerable, pleading to the government to give us a place to ride; the other in which we present ourselves as confident equals, fully entitled and capable of using the existing roadway system.
Stories can have great power. For thousands of years people have told stories – myths – to illuminate how we should move forward toward fulfillment. While the word “myth” often has negative connotations in our culture, often disparaged as “somebody else’s religion,” or something foolish or untrue, the late mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote that one of the key purposes of mythology is to psychologically carry us through the stages of life; from the dependency of childhood to the responsibility of adulthood. With a truly mythological perspective, one doesn’t worry about “facts” (not that they are unimportant) as much as a universal truth.
Campbell wrote extensively of the mythological Hero’s Journey; in which the hero hears a calling (often resisting it at first), undergoes transformation and trials, and comes out the other end with new wisdom, freedom and power.
You can read on it more extensively here:
It’s a story of such universal power that every culture has some version of it, and our culture has told the story over and over, including in many books and films. George Lucas was heavily inspired by Campbell in his writing of Star Wars, and Campbell lauded the original film trilogy as a superb retelling of the Hero’s journey brought into the technological age.
To make an analogy between cycling and Star Wars, if Luke Skywalker had used the strategy of the “please give us a place to ride our bikes” side of bicycle advocacy, he would have asked for a barren little moon to live on where he wouldn’t have gotten in the Galactic Empire’s way. And spent the rest of his life as a slave.
Most people in government have bought into the bicycle traffic myth. When they say “bicycling in traffic is dangerous,” they rarely understand what they’re talking about. They can’t explain coherently why it is dangerous, and have no idea how to remedy the risks of cycling.
Their “common sense” (in the most original sense of that term) of cycling is that small, slow and vulnerable users and large, fast and massive users cannot safely share the same roadway. This common sense isn’t based on any objective data, but on experiencing large vehicles passing fast and in close proximity while on a bike (because they’re hugging the edge) – a scary experience for many – and hearing sketchy fatality reports on the news. People conflate the scary feeling of being passed close with the fatality stories and assume the former is the cause of the latter, when more likely the death involved some other violation of the basic rules of traffic.
Former Bogota, Columbia mayor Enrique Peñalosa has notably claimed that “A city should be so constructed so that it is safely navigable by any seven-year-old on a bicycle.” A laudable goal, but is it practical and affordable, or even possible within our current land use configuration? I’m afraid not. As long as people in the suburbs have the need and money to travel long distances to work and shopping, they will demand that they be able to do so at speeds that make it unsafe for that seven-year-old on a bicycle to travel freely. No bikeway design can remedy that problem. We are far from ready to convert four- and six-lane arterials into woonerfs. We are stuck with suburbia for at least decades to come. People are not going to willingly let their large lot, single family homes be torn down to be reconfigured into pods of high density.
Over the past six decades we have created a type of wilderness on many of our arterial and collector streets. Dangerous things run wild there. Pre-civilized tribal peoples certainly didn’t put their seven-year-olds out there with the dangerous animals; they kept them safe in camp. Take the bicycle out of the equation for a minute. Would you let your seven-year-old walk along this road, or cross it, unescorted?
Putting a six-inch high wall (a curb) between those wild things and our kids will not keep them safe, whether those wild things are cars or bison. So the “seven-year-old bicyclist as design vehicle” argument is bogus. It makes for good political rhetoric, but unrealistic traffic policy.
Our tribal ancestors understood the continuum concept of allowing kids to be exposed to risk when they were ready – both through training and maturity. The problem today is most parents don’t understand the risks, so they don’t know how to train their kids or set boundaries for them.
Where this animal/car analogy breaks down – to our benefit – is that the bison are us. We can change how they/we behave. Ultimately it’s changing the way we see our streets that will make them humane again.
And we can change the manner in which we see our streets. I wrote of this in my review of the book Fighting Traffic. Such a change happened in the late Teens and early Twenties of the 20th Century. We went from believing our streets were public utilities open to a multitude of uses – commerce, play, and socialization as well as travel – to thinking of them as a commodity paid for by motorists for the purpose of going fast. It is that perception of the street that is the key to change. Asking to be shoved into bicyclist reservations alongside the “adults” in cars is just reinforcement of that motorist mindset.
The Galactic Empire of Star Wars could just as easily be our current Gasoline Empire. This Empire, which I named The Tyranny of Speed in another post, depends entirely on the belief that streets are primarily for fast-moving cars. Overthrowing the Empire will require people behaving in ways contrary to the Empire’s desires. Segregated bikeways are not at all contradictory to the Empire’s belief system; indeed, they fit it perfectly. (Some even claim that the concept of the bike lane originated in the motor-centric traffic engineering realm; and that while it was pitched as a “safety improvement,” the real agenda was keeping bicyclists from slowing down motorists.)
In her novel The Dispossessed, Ursula K. LeGuin wrote:
“You cannot buy the Revolution. You cannot make the Revolution. You can only be the Revolution.”
“Being the revolution” is a Hero’s journey. One moves from childhood to adult. From childish cycling – the playground, the sidewalk, staying out of the way of the adults – to adult cyclist; an equal, negotiating and standing up for one’s needs and principles. Does a free and empowered adult ask permission to do the right thing? Does she ask to be segregated from other adults in order to avoid upsetting them?
The most important thing the Hero does is inspire others to follow in his path. In him they see the possibility of a better future. Even the primitive Ewoks were inspired by Skywalker’s example. Indeed, those Ewoks played an integral role in the defeat of the Empire.
But Empire’s can be defeated by means other than force. Campbell wrote, “Revolution doesn’t have to do with smashing something; it has to do with bringing something forth. If you spend all your time thinking about what you are attacking, then you are negatively bound to it.” Once again, such a strategy is well suited to the cyclist’s situation. Most people have positive feelings about cycling; it has a primal power over us. Robert Seidler believes it taps into memories of early childhood, while we were crawling, experiencing movement for the first time. Now we are in much the same position as that crawling toddler; head up, torso leaning forward, arms and legs down, but now with immensely greater freedom. (Of course this head-forward position is not essential for the enjoyment of cycling, as any recumbent rider will tell you.) Focusing on the positives of cycling is the most effective strategy we can use.
(By “defeating the Empire” I don’t mean eliminating cars. I simply mean ending their hegemony.)
Where we have been failing for so many years has been with marginal education and outreach programs, and with messages that reinforce the Empire’s agenda.
“The adventure he is ready for is the adventure he gets.” – Joseph Campbell
First things first. If Obi-Wan Kenobi had told Luke right off the bat that he was going to confront Darth Vader in a duel, Luke would have been frightened out of his mind. Instead, Obi-Wan focused first on building Luke’s basic skills in training for a “simpler” task – rescuing Princess Leia. Similarly, we don’t start out by teaching cyclists to confront the Gasoline Empire on the worst arterials or in the political arena, we just get them comfortable with the skills of traffic cycling.
We show them what is possible. Like this. (Mindful cycling can defeat mindless motoring.)
And this. (A light saber duel can also be a dance.)
The average American cyclist believes safe roadway cycling without special accommodation is like lifting an X-wing fighter with one’s mind – impossible. Those of us who know better have to learn how to be Obi-Wans and Yodas; the shaman. Campbell described the shaman as the one was drawn, by natural forces, beyond the commonplace. Into – for lack of a better term – insanity. Or at least seen as insane from the point of view of the rest of the community. But traditional tribal cultures respected the views of the shaman; he was able to lead others to see new ways of dealing with the world.
That’s us – those of us who have left the fear of traffic behind and learned to be cycling Jedi. It only looks supernatural to the uninitiated.
And that’s the role that awaits you if you’ll take it.Posted in Culture, Traffic Skills