Someone stole my bicycle yesterday. He walked up a 30 foot long driveway right up to a house full of people, took it from under the porch, and rode away. For most people, such a theft wouldn't mean much, aside from the ordinary feelings of violation. Most people don't use their bikes for anything more than an occasional supplement to their exercise routine. They fasten their bikes to the racks on top of their cars and drive to the place where they ride.
For me, it's different. I use my bicycle as my primary means of transportation. Once or twice a month I might borrow a friend's car or take a taxi. When I have to travel long distances, I rent a car or take a train. For my everyday travel, however, I ride my bike.
The idea of an adult riding a bicycle instead of driving a car seems strange. After all, learning to drive a car is supposed to be a rite of passage into adulthood. To use one's own muscles to move farther than the length of a parking lot, it is believed, is a sign of a childish restlessness. Adults are supposed to use machines to do their work for them, to keep them separated from the dirty world ouside.
Ironically, most of the real filth in the world is produced by the devices we use to separate ourselves from the dirty world of physical work. Showers, washing machines, and toilets pump waste into our rivers and lakes, making the water unfit to drink or even to swim in. Anti-bacterial cleaners promote the development of strains of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. Air conditioners make the air outside our buildings hotter. Cars, with their plush, air-freshened, quiet interiors leave behind puddles of motor oil and antifreeze, trails of smog, and a dull roar that can be heard from a mile away.
Cars make the world an uglier place. First of all, they're unattractive themselves. I know some of you, particularly those of you who use a car wash on a weekly basis, will disagree with me. Think about it, though. Which of the following is more aesthetically appealing to you: a field of wildflowers, a grove of trees, a blue sky filled with white clouds, or a parking lot full of cars? Cars are big, rusting, dull metal boxes painted in gaudy colors, resting on large round tubes of smelly black rubber. You want to park that in front of your house?
The prevalence of cars also forces us to make other ugly things. Where there could be a quiet, wooded path leading to their front doors, car owners are obligated to cover huge areas of their property with gravel, concrete, or even worse, tar. We cover our cities, towns, and countrysides with endless corridors of asphalt that quickly accumulate vast amounts of trash and the corpses of animals struck by cars that didn't have the time to slow down. When was the last time you looked at a piece of pavement and admired its beauty? Think hard, now.
The ugly world of the car is not in itself what we want. The real object of desire is a world in which waiting and effort are made unnecessary. We would rather work out than work. We enjoy doing nothing when nothing has to be done, but detest doing nothing when there is an end to be achieved. Cars keep us from the annoying feeling of being challenged that comes from physical effort and indulge our impatience to get all of our tasks done in a shorter amount of time so that we can assign ourselves more tasks. We are willing to sacrifice the beauty of our surrounding environment for cars because it takes both time and effort to appreciate that beauty. Who wants to stop and smell the roses when they're moving a mile a minute?
I know the attraction of a car because I used to drive one myself. I had been working independently and so didn't need to commute every day. After a couple of years, however, I got a new 9 to 5 job for which I needed to commute 12 miles every day, no matter what the weather. I needed to wear a suit and tie, and I couldn't very well show up to work sweaty. I needed to get a car. I drove it for a year and a half, and during that year and a half, I became more tense, more impatient, more confined. My life became defined by the structure of my daily commute.
I bought my car because I needed it for my new job. After a few months, however, the situation had become reversed. I had to stay in my job in order to keep my new car. I had forgotten how to get around without a car, so I spent all my extra money on gas, tune-ups, repairs, registration, and insurance. I felt trapped.
After a few months of living hell, I quit my new job, and not much later my car quit on me. I could have gotten it fixed, but somehow I found it hard to spend money on an object that had caused me so much grief. I knew there were things I'd miss, like repair bills, road rage, and the nice feeling of getting into a car that's been sitting out in the hot sun all afternoon. Nonetheless, I realized that it was time to let go of my driving days. As I write this, I'm waiting for a mechanic to come by and buy the car for a ridiculously low price. He'll think he's getting a great deal, but I'll know that I'm lucky to get the accursed machine off my hands.
Maybe there will come a day when I need to buy a car again. Until then, I'll be riding free, pushing two thin wheels down the road using the power that comes from my own body. I'll be making myself healthier, saving money every day, and I won't be causing any harm to anyone else - no pollution, no traffic, no pressure to build more parking garages where there used to be parks. I can't help but think that our cities might be better places if more of its residents gave up their cars and started using alternative means of transportation.
So what if someone stole my bicycle? I only need to spend a couple hundred bucks, and I'll have a brand new one and be back on the road again. In the larger scheme of things, I don't really mind that my bike was stolen, so long as someone, in some part of the city, will actually end up using it instead of driving a car. If that's what it will take to get others to give up their cars, I'd be willing to lose quite a few more bikes this way. I've learned that what one gains when one loses a car makes the sacrifice well worth the while.
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