The Bicycle as Transformative Agent
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