I’ve always loved the cars I’ve owned, but as my current car has gotten a bit older and started to have minor problems, I find myself becoming less and less connected to it. This personal trend has been accelerated by the rising gas prices (around $4.50 in Los Angeles!) and my growing love for riding my bicycle around the city.
So far, it’s been an interesting experience becoming increasingly disenchanted with the pervasive California car culture. I’ve begun to see the car as more of a mode of transportation as well as the cultural text that it is. If you take an honest look at American car culture, it’s not difficult to see that few products have been as romanticized by effective advertising campaigns as the automobile. In the 1950s and 1960s, the car made the leap from mode of transport and status symbol to being both symbolic and emblematic of freedom and American individualism, if it is indeed possible to be both.
But as our population has swelled and our energy demands increased almost exponentially, the beloved American symbol of freedom has become less and less practical and increasingly problematic, jamming roadways and pumping countless tons of harmful chemicals into urban and suburban airspace. A solution feels sorely needed, and as simple as it may seem, the bicycle appears to be a great one.
Especially in a country where obesity is one of the leading preventable causes of death, the bicycle seems like it could do far more than alleviate our traffic woes. The bicycle serves several functions simultaneously: provides exercise, reduces demand for environmentally-damaging vehicles, drastically cuts down on pollution, and quells traffic congestion.
Besides practical benefits, the bicycle as a mode of transport provides other, more subjective pleasures. To the driver, the car is a small, self-contained room separating him/her from the environment. To the cyclist, the city becomes a new and interesting landscape to traverse. To the driver, the car (particularly the latest models) is inherently separate from him/her. To the cyclist, the bicycle is an intimate extension of him/herself, allowing him/her to fly through the streets under his/her own power.
Of course, the increasing number of bikes on the road also presents new challenges. Many drivers, especially those unaccustomed to more urban areas, lack experience sharing road space with other vehicles. This lack of experience has the potential to create an unnecessarily dangerous situation for both the cyclist and driver. Above all, it is important to preach conscientious sharing of public space as more cyclists take to the road to avoid crippling fuel costs.
Instead of the traditional “Share the Road” sign, which connotes that bicycles are a road caution which must be observed, perhaps a more creative sign such as the one below can convey the desired symbiotic relationship between bicycles and cars.
I’m not advocating a radical destruction of American car culture or automotive infrastructure. Simply leaving the car parked for a day or two during the week and opting to ride a bike instead would help substantially to stimulate positive social change on several fronts. I’m certainly enjoying the fresh air, saved money, and stress reduction my bike has afforded me in the brief time I’ve been opting to ride instead of drive. It’s definitely worth a shot.