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The Bicycle as Transformative Agent

Submitted by on October 8, 2012 – 12:53 pm6 Comments

Christopher Alexander, in his startling book, The Timeless Way of Building, asserts that our lives are shaped by no more than a handful of repeating patterns: how we get ready for work each day, the morning coffee ritual, preparing dinner with family, ending our day and tucking into bed and so on… These patterns shape our built environment and define how we experience the world around us for better or worse.

One pattern that falls into the “worse” column is the daily commute. It is likely a defining characteristic for the majority of urban/suburban dwellers. In the U.S. it is becoming a ritual of affliction. Nick Paumgarten wrote a fantastic New Yorker article on the subject in 2007 titled, There and Back Again.

Roughly one out of every six American workers commutes more than forty-five minutes, each way… The number of commuters who travel ninety minutes or more each way—known to the Census Bureau as “extreme commuters”—has reached 3.5 million, almost double the number in 1990. They’re the fastest-growing category, the vanguard in a land of stagnant wages, low interest rates, and ever-radiating sprawl…

The summary caption that accompanies the article reads: “People may endure miserable commutes out of an inability to weigh their general well-being against quantifiable material gains.”

In a sense it is impossible to weigh the impact of a shift in a fundamental pattern of life without actually experiencing that shift. It becomes hard to simply “imagine” the trade offs we are making… That brings me to my life in Amsterdam and the role of the bicycle as a transformative agent. The bicycle is for all outward appearances a humble vehicle. But when you live in a city where cycling is the norm, your entire world changes in unimaginable ways.

The bicycle is the singular pattern that defines our life in Amsterdam. Cold or hot. Wet or dry. Whether dressed formally or casually.. Yvette and I are always on a bike. The bike allows you to experience your city in a completely different way. You move at a “a human” speed which allows you to apprehend so much more of what is going on around you. You feel connected to the city in a different way because your power of perception is exponentially increased. You actually see, hear, smell and feel the city that you live in. You are IN the weather. Upon a bike your options immediately increase. You can stop at a moment’s notice to pop into a store that you see on the side of the road. Simultaneously, your difficulties decrease. Parking is never an issue and there are no traffic jams when riding a bicycle.

Upon returning to San Francisco (another city that I love) for a business trip, I was struck immediately by a sense of claustrophobia. Being sandwiched in a car on a highway, start and stop. There was also the irony that while in perfect weather in San Francisco one rarely carches a glimpse of a commuter on bike. The city is so clearly designed around automobiles. Upon return to a Amsterdam I was more than happy to hop on my bike in the rain. It is well worth the trade

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  • Giorgos says:

    Can you please post a video with you performing the “shiver”

  • Chris Meyer says:

    What you describe is what makes touring on a bike equally unique

  • Bronwyn Ximm says:

    Great post! Amsterdam is certainly a bicycle paradise. But I have to disagree that one rarely catches a glimpse of bike commuters in San Francisco. In fact, commuting to and from a contract gig recently, I often experienced congestion in the bike lane. SF recently issued its Five Year State of Cycling Report; here are some tidbits that are interesting:

     -The number of people biking in San Francisco has increased a
    dramatic 71% in the last five years, with some neighborhoods seeing
    growths of more than 120%. -San Francisco is third in the nation for ridership, behind
    Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington. San Francisco currently
    has 3.5% of trips by bicycle, compared to the 2.1% five years ago.
    (This data is from the ACS, which is actually believed to
    undercount the number of people biking, as it only counts commute
    trips.) -Bicycle ridership is growing because of public outreach,
    bicycle education programs, and key infrastructure advances, like
    the new separated bikeways on JFK Drive, Cargo Way and Cesar Chavez
    Street. -In the last five years, more than 25 miles of bike lanes have been added, bringing the citywide total to 65 miles.

    To be sure, SF is no Amsterdam (though we now have a shop selling Amsterdam-style bikes capable of hauling a LOT of groceries), but as a cyclist, I feel pretty supported here.

  • joshuamross says:

    Hi Bronwynn,
    Glad to be corrected!  I have been away from SF for a few years.

  • joshuamross says:

    Giorgos…. As you know, the Shiver is an exclusive maneuver which I have developed in the strictest secrecy.   It requires deft maneuvering of a very heavy Dutch bike and is likely to cause injury among the uninitiated.   You are one of the few to have witnessed its glory.   Cherish the memory.

  • Paulmrandle says:

    I'm a bit late getting to this post Josh and whilst I agree with everything you say, for me you miss the key benefit / motivator for me getting my arse out on a bike every morning. I'm not talking the health benefits here, or any perverse enjoyment from being seen in public in tights, rather the extremely selfish ability of the bike to disengage me from the melee. 

    If I drive my commute typically takes me an hour. If I cycle its 45mins, or less if the heart  and legs are up to; alternatively its a lot more if the heart and legs fancy a more roundabout trip home. The point is that it's my decision or my energy that gets me home. In the car I'm at the mercy of others and sheer volume and I'm powerless to change it. The bike puts me on the same roads but releases me from the soul destroying drag of the jam and the only thing that stops me getting home is me. Of course you get the occasional idiots hell bent on wiping out cyclists, but one of the other luxuries of the bike is the expectation that you are fluid in a full range of verbal and gesture based abuse.

    Ohh and the final benefit of cycling. You get to spend lots of money on kit made from things like carbon fibre and titanium! Yummy 🙂

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