Death By Bicycle – A Rejoinder to Dorothy Rabinowitz

Background Reading


Let’s begin by watching the video together:

What Ms. Rabinowitz is objecting to goes a lot deeper than BikeShare or Urban Bicycle Culture. She is making the case for the Middle American Wake-up Call.

Tea Party Demonstrator

Tea Party Demonstrator

We live in a Buffalo Wings and Beer culture. What is amazing is how much alike the two polar extremes of American Culture really are. On the Right you have the Tea Party. It has managed to burrow under the skin of the GOP and in effect use them as their host. This is how most parasites work. They find a slow-moving susceptible target and live off of it long enough to satisfy their needs (sometimes at the expense of the host). The Tea Party has a view of the future that was originally all about taxation. But it has become a more far-reaching amalgam of groups that want in essence to maintain the status quo (as defined by them) while staking out a position that leaves the racial, gender and sexual orientation of the country pretty much as it was before the upheaval represented by the election of the first African-American POTUS followed by the momentous change in the electorate with regards to same-sex marriage and sexual orientation.

You could in essence make the case that the Tea Party is the “stop the world I want to get off” party.

On the other side of the spectrum is the current evolution of Counter-Culture that has its roots in the 1960s. But like the Tea Party it has moved well beyond a single focus like “peace” or at least the “absence of war” to a nebulous region where it is pursuing what I would deem is “global salvation“.  Like the Tea Party is has earmarks that are clearly anti-change. The difference is that this new Counter-Culture group is afraid not of social variance but rather of technologies that its deems non-sustainable.

You could in essence make the case that the Counter-Culture is the “kill fossil fuel forever” party.

World Naked Bike Ride Images

World Naked Bike Ride Images

Frankly the problem with both these approaches is that they exist because of fear of what the future holds. New and extremely useful ideas that could shape an as yet undreamed of world are out there. But at the moment the Counter-Culture has settled on the ones it knows and loves. These are namely solar and wind power. Both have great potential. But what is worrisome is the way in which the Counter-Culture groups are going about effecting change.

The Right And Left Are Extremists With Agendas

Every society has to make decisions that affect its future. It is always best if that future is arrived at with the occupants of the vehicle intact. But that did not happen either for the French or the Americans early on in their evolution from being ruled by kings into democracies. In fact our early democracies held one another in high esteem and were known to have given aid to one another.

But you really have to reach a point in human history where cataclysmic change can be avoided simply because you have Science on your side and can reason out which of many possible scenarios is the better one or ones to follow. We are sadly not quite there. We know that there are consequences to our behaviors and that there are changes occurring to our environment. What is debatable between these two group (I will use the Left and Right going forward) is what is causing that change.

Climate Change (it used to be called Global Warming) is real. Something is happening. Can we change the rate of the melting of the polar caps by eschewing the use of fossil fuels altogether? That is what drives the Left to such theatrical measures as riding bicycles naked down the High Street in broad daylight.

Debating Global Warming is like debating Sexual Preference. Both groups are attempting to establish the notion that there are Persistent Realities that govern all of human experience. Religious groups likely find themselves on the side of the Right when it comes to Human Sexuality. They eschew the idea that same-sex preferences are anything other than deviancy. And they have an entire history of the world from the perspective of Judaism to bolster their beliefs.

The Left has few religious backers save those who are Christian in their orientation or Agnostic perhaps. The Christians who favor the positions held by the Left are convinced that the value of the New Testament was its unveiling of a less vengeful God who in Numbers Chapter 31 ordered (by way of Moses) some rather nasty things which included killing male children and the mothers of children (some presumably still in gestation) all to satisfy the purity of the People of Israel.

So Is There Any Middle Ground?

People like Ann Coulter (darling of the Right) find the very notion of a centrist position to be morally bankrupt. That same notion is pretty much shared by the Left. Neither side has much patience for the “wait and see” attitude that has kept our cultures from spinning out of control between Social and Technological Revolutions.

And so what you see in the musings of Ms. Rabinowitz is the inevitable reaction to the over-reaching attitude of the Left as it thrusts its vision of a sustainable future on the Buffalo Wings and Beer culture that is indeed America.

Neither side is very good at listening to what the average person really wants. They share a mutual smugness about their visions that makes it very easy for them to hold your nose and to force their Castor Oil down your throat.

What is most chilling is the fact that neither side really wants to admit that it is experimenting with our shared future. We really do not have a homogenous culture that makes it always possible to transplant bicycle infrastructure ideas to the Americas with a seamlessness that works 100% of the time. Part of the problem is that Yanks are tinkerers and are prone to doing things on their own.

So when we transplant protected bike lanes we get mixed results. And when anyone (like Ms. Rabinowitz) takes exception to the hyperbole that was delivered upon the roll-out of this or that set of changes to bicycle infrastructure that did not materialize everyone is upset. The Left is very good at using their Grand Ideas about how things should be in the same manner as the Right uses the Bible to support its view of the world. What the Right will not admit is that what it is selling is its interpretation of the meanings of the Bible and not necessarily the Truth that actually lies behind it.

The very fact that hundreds if not thousands of sects have developed over the centuries since the death of Jesus of Nazareth is testimony to the divergence of opinion on everything from Baptism to Marriage to Racial Purity to Sexual Orientation and whatever else comes along. And as with everything else in this world the interpretations change with the shifts in demographics. As the reigning generation dies off and the next succeeds it in leadership the prevailing reality on the ground becomes the accepted meaning of Scripture. Just now the Right is aiming at turning back the Social Calendar to sometime before the 1960s when the Civil Rights Movement and the Hippie Culture with its insistence on Free Love and Drugs became the norm for my generation (Baby Boomers).

Establishing Middle Ground

The Left is largely a haven for folks who find Social Engineering a thing of beauty. If you are a person with a preference for Scientific Truth then the current incarnation of the Left is just your “cup of tea“. The Achilles Heel of the Left however is its lack of financial engagement in the Social Engineering Movement. It is using what I term “funny money“. This is money that comes from the Federal Government and does so in large enough quantities to attempt to accelerate the desired shift of the social landscape in one direction or another.

BikeShare is exactly what this looks like. Someone writes a grant and gets money to put up a BikeShare system in a given municipality. The local government bets on the vision of the future that looks like a more verdant and people friendly environment. At its core is the belief that we can transform cities into what Main Street America looks like in small towns. However what these Social Engineers wish to keep are the benefits that accrue to highly concentrated populations of wealth. Is that really possible?

Europe is a bit smaller in scale than places like Chicago, New York or even San Francisco. These are metropolitan areas that have been developed over almost 100 years. They are quite car-centric and their energy infrastructure is just now making the transition from coal to gas-based power generation. But the reality is that where abundance is concerned we have the corner on the world’s supply of coal not gas. So whatever future we have that is sustainable will have to come from something like wind or solar energy production. And of course that means more Social Engineering to give a kickstart to these industries to get them where they need to be before our supplies of Natural Gas are at levels that require painful choices that could destroy our natural landscape.

So what do we do? I say first muzzle all the prophets. Or at least realize that what they are selling is not a “slam dunk”. Social Engineering brought us Cabrini-Green and the Robert Taylor Homes. Now some 50 years or so later we realize too late that our visions of the future were a bit wonky. There is a very good chance that we may create hundreds if not thousands of miles of bicycle lanes and discover that overall the level of safety for all three segments of the transportation landscape (motorists, cyclist and pedestrians) is no better than it ever was in the past. And as with large scale housing projects we have in fact created problems that we never fully anticipated.

So the first order of business is to get out of the Snake Oil business. We are less in need of wholesale changes than we are in careful meaningful experimentation that is validated by real numbers. I know that we are currently tossing around numbers like crazed statisticians in methamphetamine binges. But there really is a crying need for trying to find something that really works.

In Chicago we have seen our schools transition from public to quasi-private charter schools whose presence has secured one thing for certain, a landscape in which the clout of teacher unions has been diminished. The level of student achievement is woefully stagnant for much of the school age population. The testing craze that swept the nation a few decades ago has been shown to have been corrupted as large districts have cheated and lied their way to a semblance of success. What has been lost in the process is a generation of students who thought they were succeeding only to learn that principals in school districts had lost their principles. Instead of living the Character Counts motto emblazoned on banners in their hallways these individuals were lining their pockets with bonus payments for cheating.

BikeShare did not do well in Australia. Or for that matter in France. We need to know why these places did not flourish and thrive as they should have. But we will not get there if everyone on the Left is bound and determined to forge ahead regardless the consequences on the strength of their belief and hope that bikes are the future of urban life.

The Land of Reality Shows

The Biggest Loser and Survivors have shaped our thinking about ourselves. We are certain that we can do what we see the folks on these reality shows do and that is succeed despite the odds. But frankly obesity is still the number one cause of chronic health issues in what is now referred to as the Stroke Belt. Inner-city kids are still growing up live a life sustained by kidney dialysis and curtailed by diabetes and nothing seems to have made a lasting impact on these issues including the Biggest Loser.

Kids still favor the Ghetto Breakfast of Coca-Cola and hash browns on their way to school. In suburbia kids are finding it difficult to love healthier diets because frankly when you could have bacon on everything why not do so? Vegetables are not nearly as popular with teenagers as they would need to be if we are to secure a healthier future.

And why would any of this be important in a world where cycling is the leading activity for city dwellers? That is simple to answer. You cannot pedal a bike everywhere if you are overweight and out of shape. And sure you can get there by biking and dropping a few pounds (or perhaps lots of pounds) but the inertial affect of obesity makes that less likely the more you age.

So we need to find a lasting and meaningful change that sparks a transition to the bicycle for short errands rather than automobiles. There may be a way of boosting participation that is lasting in nature towards bicycles. But Americans are truly a race of fad lovers. The 1970s were populated by folks certain that tennis was the up-and-coming sport. All over the nation indoor tennis courts were built to allow middle-aged folks a chance to workout year round. Today tennis is still popular but it has not sustained the levels of that day.

Cycling is likely to suffer the same fate. It might enjoy popularity for a few decades and then go into decline again. It all depends on how embedded we can make the use of the bicycle in the daily routines of adults and children. But living in North America where few places outside the South have moderate temperatures year round means that cycling is likely to face an uphill battles in capturing the hearts and minds of urban dwellers for very long. The first time one falls and breaks a wrist on an icy road is perhaps the last time you will ride a bicycle until the weather turns warmer. And that means that you will continually suffer the indignity of having to get into biking shape every spring.

This is of course what makes the automobile so very attractive. You can travel inside a car year round and do so well into your 90s. All you have to worry about it keeping the cars you buy maintained and fueled and the rest is easy.

Do Not Make The Mistake of Dismissing Ms. Rabinowitz

Ray Tamarra / Getty Images Contributor / TODAY's Al Roker spotted riding his cool bicycle on June 19 in New York City.

Ray Tamarra / Getty Images Contributor /
TODAY’s Al Roker spotted riding his cool bicycle on June 19 in New York City.

Whether we like it or not our politicians do not bike to work. They may tout the use of the bicycle but frankly security reasons make that impractical. In fact for most people biking to work is difficult if they live more than say 5 miles from the office. That does not bode well for people living in suburban areas where the distances are greater between home and shopping or whatever.

What may develop is a better understanding and use of multimodal  transportation options. I have long been a fan of the folding bikes produced by companies like Brompton Bicycles. My personal preference would be to use one of these bikes to get to my office from the commuter train station or even from my downtown condominium or apartment.

Elsewhere on this site is a video of Weatherman Al Roker taking his Brompton to and from work each day. But not everyone lives as close to the office or has access to a shower like he does. That is something that serves as an impediment to most people adopting cycling as their primary means of transportation.

Ms. Rabinowitz has come to understand the dynamics of how a culture based on the culinary delights of Buffalo Wings and Beer actually functions. Until we can change that basic element of our national existence bicycling is likely to be marginal at best.

If the preponderance of bacon and beer shows on television is any evidence of where we are headed, then bicycling and active transportation modes in general have a long steep ramp ahead of them.