Wheels of life

Skill, in the best sense, is the enactment or the acknowledgement or signature of responsibility to other lives; it is the practical understanding of value.  –Wendell Berry, “The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture”

Cycling up the Sandia Crest in Fall 2018 above Albuquerque

Eating and moving are everyday acts that connect us to the source of life.   In Wendell Berry’s book “Culture and Agriculture” the author discusses the relationship between our use of technology in agriculture, and the impact that has on our responsibilities and skills.  I am impressed with the parallel’s between Berry’s observations on agriculture and the dynamics of human movement in the transportation world.

In the sixth chapter, the use of energy, Berry notices that introducing machines in agriculture complicates our relationship with the life-giving soil.  In particular machines bring more power and consequence, but do not impose restraints or moral limits on the exercise of their power.  So humans have to bring responsibility commensurate with these mechanical powers that increase our impact and consequences on the soil. To complicate things, machines speed up our work, “but as speed increases, care declines…We know that there is a limit to the capacity of attention and that the faster we go the less we see” (Berry p. 93).  So being responsible for our machine-aided work becomes even harder, and necessitates greater moral restraint on the part of humans.

Cranes flying in at Bosque del Apache, November 2018

Skill is the connection between life and tools, or life and machines.  —Berry, p. 91

Driving skills are based upon our knowledge of the machines we are operating, the driving environment, and the potential consequences on our own life and the life surrounding us.  When I went to commercial driving school at age 21 to learn how to drive 18-wheelers, I had an instructor named Jim.  He made a moral argument.  Jim had driven trucks over a million miles.  Jim said that as truck drivers, we are the most powerful on the road and therefore must be the most responsible.  He had a certain moral authority that stuck with me.  Five days a week for three months, Jim and a team of instructors trained me and my classmates on the skills we needed to be the most responsible users of public roads.  We learned how to manage our speed and adjust it so it was appropriate for circumstances.  We inspected our vehicles before every trip to ensure proper maintenance, and practiced turning, backing up, and negotiating in traffic to protect all human life around us.  The skills we developed had nothing to do with always going slow, rather knowing when to go slow for safety, which effectively makes the whole transportation system work so much better, and enacts our fundamental values.  Driver training for me was not only about mastering my control of my vehicle, but about mastering myself.

In the traffic safety field, there is an overwhelming body of evidence that suggests we need to increase driving skills to have a safer transportation world.  The National Transportation Safety Board noted in a recent report that although “Speeding—exceeding a speed limit or driving too fast for conditions—is one of the most common factors in motor vehicle crashes in the United States”, there is no national program to communicate the dangers of speeding like there is for other crash factors such as drinking and driving (NTSB SS1701).  Drivers need training to follow the basic speed law, which “requires drivers to operate at a speed that is reasonable and prudent, taking into account weather, road conditions, traffic, visibility, and other environmental conditions” (NTSB SS1701).  We can do a better job of educating and guiding the public on how to anticipate and take into account the dynamic conditions of the road, the most important being the presence of people.

A group ride in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico

A complimentary action we can take is encouraging citizens to engage in activities such as bicycling and walking.  Bicycling in particular is a kind of technology that deepens and enhances our engagement with our local communities and the greater world.  It is what Scott Slovic calls a “technology of contact”, one that enables us to “connect with the world and think more deeply about our relationship to the world” (p. 358 Literature).  I think in part cycling works so well to engage our senses because we are supplying our own biological energy.  Going so far on our own energy is one of the magical things about cycling, and makes it such a rewarding technology to use, not to mention, cycling is almost completely renewable.  Cycling reminds me of organic farming.  It allows biological energy to flow at a sustainable scale and it gives us exactly what we need to be well and productive.  It’s about quality more than quantity.  Cycling does justice to what it means to be human pursuing happiness.

In this age of technology, it is not a question of always abstaining, but a question of wise and respectful use.  It is a matter of education, public training, and living within our biological limits.  To me, this is a beautiful challenge, or what Rachel Carlson called “a shining opportunity”.  Carlson wrote: “Your generation must come to terms with the environment.  Your generation must face realities instead of taking refuge in ignorance and evasion of truth.  Yours is a grave and a sobering responsibility, but it is also a shining opportunity.  You go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery–not of nature, but of itself.  Therin lies our hope and our destiny.  ‘In today already walks tomorrow'”.

A Fall walk in the Manzano Mountains

Resources:

Wendell Berry wrote “The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture” in 1977 and still enacts his values on his small Kentucky farm

Scott Slovic’s Literature chapter appears in the “Routledge Handbook of Religion and Ecology

NTSB SS1701 is a landmark safety study.  Produced by the National Transportation Safety Board, the working title is “Reducing Speeding-Related Crashes Involving Passenger Vehicles

The Rachel Carlson quote is from her 1962 address to Scripps Institute.  She was influenced by Albert Schweitzer’s “reverence for life” philosophy.  The address is called “On Man and the Stream of Time and appears in the book”Literature and the Environment: A Reader on Nature and Culture

Expanding the cycling movement

The bike movement, which was accustomed to being a little movement, hasn’t necessarily figured out how to be a part of the broader landscape of social change.  –“Bike Advocacy’s Blind Spot

Southwest Bike Initiative is about increasing and expanding the positive impacts walking, cycling, and great transit add to our lives.  To do that, we have to open up the dialogue and see how sustainable transportation benefits and fits into the fabric of our whole communities.  To grow the relevancy of cycling in particular, we have to build a coherent, united bike movement first.  That’s why the new partnership between USA Cycling and the League of American Bicyclists is exciting.

USA Cycling is the national governing body for the sport of cycling in the United States, and the League of American Bicyclists is a nationwide bicycling advocacy organization.  By formally uniting efforts, they are recognizing how integral all the different aspects of cycling engagement contribute to growing the movement.  Cycling is a holistic activity that brings together so many elements of what is important to upbuilding human lives and communities.  But so often we separate out cycling into categories such as “transportation” and “recreation” even though that is not really how it works in our daily lives.  In reality we know cycling is both transportation and recreation, and often simultaneously. Think of cars, for instance, which are driven for commutes and recreational purposes.  Cycling works the same way.  And just like cars, bicycles are also about design, art, expression, desire, in addition to being very useful mobility technologies!

And that is where I think we are going with the cycling movement.  It reaches way beyond cycling! It is about seeing every form of human movement as integral in our transportation systems, and understanding transportation’s impact on our lives together.  The larger question is how we adapt our mobility technologies to meet our needs without imposing undue costs on ourselves or others.  Bicycles show us how to use mobility technology as a technology of contact that deepens our engagement with health, our surroundings, the well-being of the whole environment.

In this way cycling is a primer on how to behave in the travel environment.  Bicycles lend themselves to teaching us how to travel respectfully in the context of everything else we need in the places we live, work and play.  Cycling activates our senses.  We tune in.  It connects us.  Cycling teaches us how to manage vehicles in balance with our vulnerable human selves, our animality, our emotionality, so that we feel connected with our surroundings, and our own inherent mobility powers. Learning to drive bicycle vehicles teaches us how to use all kinds of transportation, including motor vehicles, in a lower-impact, kinder and more sensible fashion.  Cycling helps us learn travel skills with respect for ourselves and others.  Sharing the road is about coordinated movement.  The skills we learn through cycling can be applied everywhere.

Uniting the cycling movement is a beginning for uniting citizens in the public realm which serves as our transportation environment.  This is where we begin to see we are really no different, and learn how to better interact with each other.  It is not about one particular use or only one way of moving, rather it is about people being free and learning how to live with dignity, so we feel like we are not just moving through, but are here to stay.  It’s about belonging and feeling good about our lives and the prospects for our children’s future.  The cycling movement is leading the way.

The cruiser criterium at the Iron Horse Bicycling Classic was spectacular

References and resources:
USA Cycling and the Bike League join forces:  https://www.bikeleague.org/content/usa-cycling-and-league-announce-partnership

The opening quote is from an article in City Lab that asks good questions about how the bike movement can include more people and address social inequalities.  https://www.citylab.com/equity/2018/07/is-bike-infrastructure-enough/565271/

Lots to think about regarding how cycling knowledge, skills, and practicing a more sustainable transportation culture can be building blocks for reaching UN’s Sustainable Development Goals:

From my personal blog, here’s an attempt at discussing movement as a metaphor for change, and weaving together a more sustainable world:  https://bikeyogiblog.wordpress.com/2018/04/14/cycling-and-walking-to-get-our-bearings/