I started this column long before the New Year’s deep freeze, much of which I spent ensconced indoors except when I was out driving. Now, my cold-weather biking gear will be tested.
I can imagine myself as the hero of my own bike-to-work two-mile epic journey. But it takes far more than one guy on a bike to make this business (Knox College) run. Even if we concede the necessity—and celebrate the power—of motor vehicles to get our work done in 21st Century Galesburg, why do bikes have such a low status?
I routinely check the weekly newspaper ad from a local sporting goods store, comparing the number of items pictured in three categories: bikes, boats and guns. The totals for one week last November: four bikes, four boats and 25 guns. Statistics for a full-year consistently show far fewer pictures of bikes than boats or guns. A lot of kids must be going to the School for Pirates.
Unlike most boats and guns, a bike is both a toy and a tool—a device used by the average person in routine, everyday tasks like going to work or to the store. Still, most people aren’t buying or riding.
We don’t have to make streets friendlier for older men who’ve been riding a long time—such as the author of this column. The streets may be dangerous, but I don’t feel it.
If you want to measure true bike-friendliness, ask women. The website peopleforbikes.com reports that “54 percent of women expressed a fear of being hit while bicycling, compared with 49 percent of men.”
Is there a solution? Maybe separated bike lanes? I’m not convinced they are affordable or necessary in Galesburg, IL. I support lower speed limits—they seem to work in the grocery store parking lot, where cars are going more slowly and everybody shares the space without the need for special lanes.
Even if speed limits were lower—25 mph in most areas and 20 mph on selected streets, aka “bike boulevards” or “school zones”—that might not be enough. The PeopleForBikes website also reports: “Women also worry more than men about their overall personal safety in areas where they ride.” The “Take Back the Night” movement began with “protests about women not being safe even walking down the street alone.”
What about more light on the streets? These upgrades come with big upfront costs. Research is not conclusive. A study in the UK indicated that “crime didn’t skyrocket [when one third of] streetlights were [turned] out.” At the same time, people whose “neighborhoods were darker were upset. People reported feeling less safe and thought it showed neglect by city officials.”
Astronomers’ experiences notwithstanding, our town is drastically under-lit. The street in St. Louis where I grew up, a well-traveled but relatively minor urban avenue, is much brighter than the main drags of Galesburg, let alone our typical neighborhood streets.
Would it help to have more policing and especially more community and neighborhood policing? Unfortunately, the ongoing costs have made it impossible to enact and unlikely to be tested.
The bottom line is that, for whatever reason(s), if people don’t feel safe, they won’t go out—except in a high-powered glass and steel carapace.
For most of human history, to be transported by someone or something else’s energy—horse, sedan chair, howdah, carriage, etc.—was only for the rich and powerful one percent. Today, not only can many Americans afford a really nice SUV, most can afford a car that accomplishes the same thing: clean, comfortable and convenient, all made possible by someone else’s energy.
Talleyrand, a French aristocrat and diplomat, wrote: “Whoever did not live in the 18th century before the [French] Revolution does not know the sweetness of life and can not imagine what happiness can be in life” when you are able to take advantage of someone or something else. For us and our cars, the unimaginable sweetness and happiness comes from exploiting the encapsulated, explosive power of liquid fossil fuel.
The ability to exploit someone else’s energy, Talleyrand wrote, “contributed to the satisfaction of physical, intellectual, and even moral appetites, to the refinement of all voluptuousness, all elegance and all pleasure.” To see how this has worked out over 30 centuries of the history of personal transportation, covered in 30 seconds of TV advertising, web search the video of the Cadillac Escalade commercial featuring “Fame” by David Bowie.
And that is why bikes have low status, in this town and many others, now and for the conceivable future.