Thursday, March 24

How The Bike Has Saved My Economy

Not to detract from Elly Blue's series on Grist, but she has inspired me to explore my own history and how the bike has been a boon to me throughout my life and how it has led me along the path I've pedaled. And to put my current thoughts in context a bit I should explain that I've been reading and thinking on the ideas of Transition and Resilience. Of course this all stems from my fascination with peak oil which was born out of cycling literature (specifically Hurst's The Cyclist's Manifesto) and has grown into at the very least a confirmation bias supporting my lifelong post-apocalyptic fantasies. As I've (and many others have) stated recently: you're hard pressed to find someone who absolutely does not believe we are ever going to run out of fossil fuels, specifically crude oil, but people are going to argue about the timing of the Big Trickle until the spigot dries up.

ANYWHO! What this means for the purposes of this post is that what I've been discovering lately, confirmation bias or not, supports the gut feelings that have driven me in my life choices since I was a teenager. I never understood WHY I believed the US was headed for socio-economic meltdown, but I've always seen us as too big to resist falling. It was just a matter of time before a gust of wind toppled the whole house of cards. So without really going into that WHY so much in this post I will leave it at that and continue to the main point, hopefully with a few Dear Readers still in tow. I apologize in advance for the impending long-windedness that will ensue.

1988. I was infatuated with a petite beauty that lived at the opposite end of my neighborhood. It really was a love triangle. It was me, she and my Mongoose BMX. I cruised past her house relentlessly under the non-blistering southwestern Ohio sun day after day after day for hours on end. I'm surprised there wasn't a bicycle tire sized groove in front of it. I saw cruising past her house on my bike as the most efficient means of attracting her favor. I didn't have the esteem capital to throw at the problem, so I substituted it with a propaganda campaign designed to remind her of my presence and show her I would always be there for her. At least as long as it wasn't raining.

Moving back to Kentucky at the start of my sophomore year I tried to choose the bike, but in a rare moment of defeat by peer pressure I stopped riding my bike everywhere because no one else rode a bike. Ever. I gave it up. I didn't choose the bike for a long time. But when the prospect of going to college in a big city arose I decided I would buy a new bike to take with me. At 18 I was already somewhat disillusioned by the idea that the automobile represented freedom and independence. I had hada series of lemons in my late teens and lacked the capital or the knowledge to keep the clunkers rolling. When my parents hauled me and all my stuff to Nashville in the fall of 1992 my car, a 1985 Mustang, stayed parked in my parents driveway with a busted motor. But a shiny new Huffy "mountain bike" I had bought at Walmart lay nestled amongst the tokens of my adolescence in the back of the van as we made the four hour drive.

The first semester I didn't have a car on campus, and I didn’t really miss it so much. I rode all over the area of Nashville around the school and got to know the city and suburbs rather well. I don’t remember being stressed by traffic despite Nashville drivers having a wretched reputation. Even after I brought my car back after Christmas break I rode most of the time. I even rode to my job over the summer quite a bit. It was in Nashville that I was first hit by a car. It was a minor incident, but awakened my to the reality of riding in traffic. I didn’t have a lot of money to blow on entertainment, but I had plenty of juice in my legs to make up for it.

One thing led to another and I dropped out. Wow, such a diminutive sentence to convey the events of that year...

Back in Kentucky I settled into a completely unsatisfying life of shift work in a series of low paying factory jobs. For three or four years when I wasn't at work or sleeping I was driving between my bed and my job and back. I hated it. I wanted a better lifestyle, and while I didn’t see a solution that involved the bike my love for cycling slept somewhere in the stew of my brain. I spent so much money on my car during those years, keeping it running and keeping the tank full.

After a few years I was finally fed up enough with the lack of prospects that I decided to confront higher education again. I enrolled in a photography school in Dayton, Ohio. I would be moving back into another big city. And again, my first instinct was to buy a bike. A friend had a year old Cannondale mountain bike. I offered him $300, which he initially turned down, but later accepted. My long relationship with the Cannonball was born.

With an ailing car and a shiny new bike I landed in Dayton. I spent a winter in Dayton, riding to work most days and to school almost every day and night I had class, returning home after sunset with the benefit of streetlights and faith that the potholes would dodge to avoid me in the darkness. Despite my cyclo-centric lifestyle I couldn't afford to continue in school and with hat in hand I once again dropped out and returned to Kentucky. In the few months I was in Dayton I probably averaged two car trips per week. It wasn't enough to save me then.

And it was after that time that I truly started to recognize the economic and individual benefits of the bicycle as a primary mode of transportation. The car that ailed when I moved to Dayton was wheezing its last when I moved back to Kentucky to take a job working for an outdoor business located in rural Eastern Kentucky on the edge of a national forest. It was 15 miles to town, any town, and I was flat broke with almost no income. My socio-economic connection to the world was my bicycle.

I never believed I could ride the bike out of poverty and into financial success. I never really thought much about my bike. I didn’t maintain it, I didn't refer to it as the "Cannonball" then. I didn’t really romanticize it at all then. I never wore a helmet or a cycling uniform. I didn’t carry extra tubes or a patch kit or even a pump with me for years. The only cycling accessories I had were a cable and a U-Lock from when I lived in Dayton, which I rarely used in the backwoods of Kentucky. I had defaulted to the bike with little mental effort when the car failed to start or when I didn’t have money to put gas in the tank.

The bike got me through those lean times. When I was bored and lonely I would ride. I rode further because I found I had more time than I knew what to do with and no money to fill it with. I discovered I could ride upwards of 50 miles and not die and that began to rebuild the fragile framework of my ego. And it was truly then, when I realized I could cover great distances under my own power, that I did begin to gain some perspective on my other efforts in life. I began to realize that so many things that I thought of as insurmountable problems could be overcome by doggedly cranking away until the gulf was spanned. The steep hills of life could be conquered in a lower gear.

In the summer of 2000 I was married to the love of my life. She inspired me, for the fourth time in my life, to go back to school. For seven years I persisted and for seven years she and I commuted by car back and forth over winding, narrow eastern Kentucky roads to get Eastern Kentucky University degrees. During that period of time the bike was not a solution for us. The distances were too great and the time too short.

Being on campus all the time awoke in me the desire to live a condensed life. Campus living is great when you can walk out of the dorm and then walk or bike everywhere you need to be in half an hour or less. I wanted to build a life that resembled that. I wanted to be free from parking hassles, traffic congestion, vehicle maintenance costs, and rising fuel prices. By then September 11 was a cool memory. But it had burned hot on my brain and it was only after 9/11 that I had any care for the wide world. I became more aware of larger issues in the world and in our country. I started to see the bigger complex machine I had been fighting against in oblivion for so long. I started to care about my impact in the world.

The last few years of my undergraduate sentence was a time when I really tried to pare down what I wanted out of life and what I believed in politically and socially. I'm still working on that, five or six years later, but I've come a long way. During the last couple of years of school Mandy and I talked long and often about what we wanted out of life, where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do. We wanted to provide opportunity and perspective for our children. We wanted them to get out of our hometown where there is not much future for a young person and see that the world is an amazing place full of life and beauty. As we tried to pin down criteria to determine what would be an appropriate area to relocate to I kept returning to one in particular: I wanted to be free from the car. I wanted to be able to walk, or ride the bus or ride my bike to work, to school for the kids, to church, to play and everywhere in between. I wanted a smaller scaled life. After so many years of sitting behind the wheel dreaming about a better life I was tired.

And so we ended up in the Denver Metro area. While not exactly what I had envisioned for us, I think it has been the best compromise of what Mandy and I both wanted. We're happy here. And despite many unforeseen hardships we've endured. We've transitioned away from that old life. We've become more resilient in so many ways.

And so the last chapter, not the end, but the most recent has been our evolution from the auto-centric people we were when we arrived here to the bike-centric people we are becoming. Our evolution has been a long process, incremental and slow, exacted with the patience of Job. But each time we could make a decision that put us closer to the goal we did. And with each baby-step the distance closed and it has become easier and easier.

So how has the bike saved our family economy? When the choice came: dump money into a polluting clunker or sell it and commit to the bike, I chose the bike. Then when we decided we needed to get out of the two bedroom apartment for our sanity's sake we were able to afford to move into a modest 3 bedroom house in a good town. If we had held onto the car we would still be screaming through the walls in that 2 bedroom cell or stuck in traffic, or circling the parking lots like vultures. The bike freed us from those things. I believe it wholeheartedly. It has only been since we sold that car that I have FULLY come to realize the value of my bike and how it has benefited me economically over the years. It saved me at times when I had cars that I couldn’t afford to maintain or replace. It has saved money on gas and upkeep and wear and tear. Bike tires are so much cheaper than car tires, and there are only two!

We've been living with little surplus income for the past three years like so many in this country. By not having to put gas in two cars, and often getting away with buying no gas at all for days and days we have had more money to pay our other bills and to buy food. We are better able to weather economic hardships. We are more resilient than our neighbors.

My vague survival instinct against the apocalypse has reinforced our day to day resilience. In preparing for the worst, we've more enjoyed the best. My confidence in the face of what I see as impending turmoil in our world surprises me sometimes. I've weathered the storms of life riding on my bike. And at times I took it for granted and never gave much through to how I was staying afloat. I realize there was more to my success in life than just my two-wheeled steed, but I have to acknowledge that it was a key component throughout it all. The bike was my backup plan, my safety net in some of my darkest times. When I lived alone in big cities, when I lived alone on the edge of a wilderness…I could always pedal back to safety.

We're planning for leaner times now. I'm upgrading my old standard, the Cannonball, into a longtail cargo bike. Who needs a car when you can carry a family on your bike? Mandy is also going longtail with a Ute. We found one on craigslist that will save us a few hundred dollars. Lord willing it will still be there tomorrow. Regardless, we're stepping away from the car. We're putting distance between ourselves and the complexity that can lead to collapse. Without a car to worry over we will be able to give more attention to more important things as the socio-political and socio-economic climates begin to change.

As an individual I believe I have almost completed the transition from petro-centricism to a more sustainable life. As a family we are making big steps in the right direction. And we're first seeing the health and economic benefits and I believe eventually we'll see the fruits of a more resilient life.

There is no danger from living a simple life. I embrace the limitations of this era, which will be the freedoms of the next.

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