Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Politics of the Wire Donkey

There’s a word in German that I love which doesn’t translate gracefully into English:  Drahtesel.  Literally, it means “wire donkey.”  Figuratively it refers to our beloved invention: the bicycle.  I find the word affectionate, since with its advent, the bicycle in effect replaced the cuddly horse as a convenient form of transportation.  But unlike a horse, a bicycle doesn’t need to be fed, washed, and cleaned up after.  It doesn’t stink, it takes up less space to park, it never gives birth, and with good maintenance, a quality two-wheeler can be passed down for generations.  In addition, as we all know, a bicycle after production leaves essentially no carbon footprint (not even passing gas in a barn) and is one way for us humans to stay in shape. 

Yet for the docile and faithful road companion that bicycles are, I’ve observed an implicit political statement that is made by these elegant creatures of metal and rubber.  One evening in San Francisco, when I was mingling at a German Stammtisch (a regular gathering in the Teutonic tradition of raising the beer glass and socializing with glee), an engineer from Frankfurt reflected to me, “In Europe, bicycles are a normal form of transportation.  But in America, they are toys for the children, or sporting equipment for adults, like a canoe, that you use on special occasions.” 

His words set off a chain reaction of thoughts in my head, and a certain a-ha realization about my impression that there was a lurking hostility on American streets between four- and two-wheelers.  Indeed, in Germany as in many European countries, the self-evidence of the bicycle is made obvious by the bike lanes that the government has laid throughout the cities.  Even in Berlin, with one of the largest urban surface areas in Europe, I remember commuting forty-five minutes from Neukölln to the suburb of Karlshorst on my bicycle, and every meter of my way was a bike lane, even in the most desolate, Kafka-esque, Eastern German neighborhoods where no one wanted to live.  Not only was there a bike lane, but it was a paved segment of the sidewalk in that characteristic red brick that pedestrians all know as being a danger zone of bikers ruthlessly whizzing by.  On the other hand, in the US, the most we could hope for would be a white line painted on the ground, sometimes leading the biker into oblivion, if not into a gutter or across an exit ramp of the New Jersey Turnpike.    
Why is this so?  Why is America so bicycle ignorant?  Back in my high-school days in Texas, where there are no bike lanes but so much space, my bike rides to school would be interrupted by well-meaning SUV drivers who would pull over and ask if I “needed a ride.”  And even in liberal, anti-petroleum San Francisco, I frequently get congratulatory remarks from non-bikers, which I find baffling given the flocks of two-wheelers in this city. 

But we know why America is anti-bicycle, it hardly requires further explanation.  There are industries (auto and petroleum) that perniciously seep into our culture, encouraging us to believe that the only fathomable form of transportation is a car.  That's the truth, and if you don't know it, accept it now.  Which brings me back to the lurking hostility that I feel on American streets, particularly in San Francisco.

One thing I do adore about San Francisco is its incredible bike-ability, despite its world-famous hills.  Like water in a pebbly creek, the city’s powerful biker’s coalition has plotted out the city’s lowlands, claiming miles of bike lanes with suggested pointers that guide a biker from downtown to Golden Gate Park without having to climb a single hill.  But among the throngs of velo-commuters that flow like a river down Market at rush hour every morning, I always get a sense of, dare I say, snobbiness, that makes me wonder if I and my 17-year-old Cannondale fit in to this scene.  My feelings are embodied in the following:  Critical Mass.  
The event that calls itself Critical Mass scares me a little, to be honest.  As many hours as I have spent pedaling around this planet, and as much as I respect this movement, the group which is known as an “ideal, not an organization” frightens me.  There is nothing wrong with Critical Mass.  According to their mission statement, it is “a monthly bicycle ride to celebrate cycling and to assert cyclists' right to the road.”  It also acknowledges that Critical Mass rides are different in every city.  But if you ask me, there is plenty of innuendo (not least CM’s volunteer webmaster Michael Bluejay’s sad reason for ending his ten-year service) that Critical Mass members are growing a reputation for being combative and confrontational.  One unfortunate event was caught on video, partially shown above, where a 72-year-old motorist was caught in the middle of a CM ride, his minivan being engulfed by bikers on all sides in an apparent act of Critical Mass phagocytosis.  The video clip clearly has a pro-bike lean, and while I agree that the man should not have stepped on the gas pedal when he did, the video has tactfully omitted later footage where bikers have opened one of his doors and begun verbally assaulting him, visibly allowing tensions to escalate.

Would something like this have ever transpired in Berlin or Amsterdam?  I can’t imagine it.  Because everyone rides bikes out there, even the drivers.  And because the citizens don’t feel they have to make a political statement against the invisible hands of industries that brainwash our fellow country-people into believing that life equals car.  Thus in America, movements like Critical Mass end up attracting individuals who are fighters and activists, who hang “No Blood For Oil” plates on their bike frames, and who embrace the soapbox, for better or for worse.

Back in Germany, on a Sunday when I’m sitting in the garden of the in-laws, my 60-year-old mother-in-law returns from a bike ride through the forest, dressed perfectly as always in cotton khakis and a floral top.  Later, I mention that there is  a monthly ride back in San Francisco called Critical Mass.  She answers, “What do you need that for?  We’ve been riding these things since after the war.  We had no other way of getting around.”

But in America, a bicycle is a toy and a piece of sporting equipment.   
It is also a battle cry.