Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Riding on two wheels, memories and hopes.

(This is the first of a series of short reflections on public transit, our dependencies on oil, and my child hood memories on two wheels; stay tuned.)

Elly Blue writes a series on the Grist about bicycles and sustainability. She got me thinking about my childhood and the transformation China has gone through to begin its self-destructive fossil-fuel dependencies. In one of her recent blogs, she writes:

close to half of U.S. oil use today is in the form of gasoline. Most of this gasoline goes directly towards fueling automobiles . . . 377 million gallons every single day . . . a bit more than a gallon per U.S. resident per day . . . more than the daily amount of water most of us drink.

She argues that we can have a sustainable bicycle culture because (amongst other things)

40 percent of our driving trips spanning less than two miles, [making] the distances [] feasible [for a bike culture to emerge] -- so long as the roads aren't designed to be terrifying.
Growing up in Beijing left me a nostalgic respect for bicycles. I remember my reckless days of riding an old rusty 27-inch down the streets, hands off the handles trying to impress girls.

That was in the late 80s and early 90s. Rock’n Roll had just hit China’s emerging pop culture. There were no McDonalds on street corners and no gas stations. Hardly anyone owned a car privately. The streets were filled with bicycles, and from what I can remember, Beijing was proudly known as the “bicycle capital of the world;” or at least that’s what the patriotic media propaganda machines would let us believe.

These days the city is known for traffic jam and bureaucrats. Corrupted politicians and their paying customers litter the city like rats, buying up cars like toys and condos like dollhouses. The once bustling market streets filled with farmers and their produce are replaced with honking and rumbling highways. Along with the change, Beijing is now under an impermeable grayish layer of smog permanently blocking the sun from looking down directly. Fortunate for the locals, tanning has not caught on as fashionable and being pale is still a status symbol for the rich and spoiled. So no complaints have been filed to lift the veil.

Luckily, I no longer live in the city. I only occasionally visit to reminisce and fill my lungs with gunk from their tailpipe emissions. My dark summer tan would label me as either a farmer or a brute, but no longer a native; and I treasure the moments when I get a sharp poke in the eye by a “sunmbrella” from someone so carefully hiding from the sun beneath the filthy air. At times I would fantasize riding my bike down the Beijing streets again, but I’d be lucky if I last ten minutes without meeting the front end of a car in a dual: being a pedestrian is hard enough these days. Don’t get me wrong, there are more than enough people brave enough or poor enough to ride a bicycle to and from work or school, but they are pros and they’ve had 20 years of training in this new Beijing that I missed; they also carefully conceal themselves from the CO2 impact zone behind surgical masks and they have developed a resilient “hit me so I can demand money from you” attitude.

I miss the biking days of Beijing. I never once thought of oil prices or air pollutions back then, just my youthful fantasies. These days I worry about the price per gallon like the rest of you and I get depressed about global warming. I wonder if I could ride my bike more and drive less and I get excited to see our city is trying to become more bike-friendly; everyone seems to want more green options for transit these days.

But it seems no one is paying much attention to reducing oil dependencies in general, the politics these days is about reducing “foreign dependencies.” This troubles me. No one is talking about just how much oil we use and everyone is worry about how much oil we have left. This tells me we have not gotten over the hurdle yet to making a sustainable transition.

"Even so, the most powerful US transportation organization, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, has just made a move to curtail bike infrastructure spending. The outcry from advocates and states has stalled but not thwarted this effort. Clearly the political pressure is powerful to keep throwing money into increasing rather than decreasing our demand for and daily reliance on not-so-cheap energy.
Elly writes,
Bicycling can't save us from our energy crisis. At this point, nothing can. But it does point us toward a way to get through it with grace and possibly even build ourselves lives, communities, and a transportation system that we can truly afford."

Of course I don’t expect we have a overnight transition and everyone all of the sudden just started to ride bicycles everywhere, but maybe we can start talking about the idea of transitioning into a bicycle economy and test it to see if we will find it enjoyable as I once had as a child.

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