The following piece was submitted to Orlando’s Transit Interpretation Project (TrIP). Since I am working from home today and won’t get my usual Monday bike commute in, I thought I’d post it here.
January 5th, 2016
It was 53 degrees in Orlando, Florida, at 7:45 AM. In Roanoke, Virginia, when I rode my bike into work, it was 20. When I ride home this afternoon it will be 34 degrees here and 66 in Orlando.
I am lucky enough that most of my commute route takes me off-road, following the Roanoke River along a few miles of paved greenway.
During the ride the wind was like a tattoo needle, inking my knuckles and kneecaps blue and bloodless. On the upstream side of the low-water bridges near Smith and Wasena parks, steam rose off the sluggish water where it gathered at the narrow passageways running under each bridge. Downstream, the water tumbled free from its barriers in a white-capped rush. The morning sky was gray, still hung-over from weeks of on-again, off-again rain showers. It’s remarkable how the cold is something you can see as well as feel: in the mottled silver light on the river currents, in the bare branches of the hibernating trees, in the clinging shadows of late mornings and early winter evenings.
On warmer days, the Roanoke River Greenway would be busy with joggers, dog-walkers, and parents pushing strollers. During the winter months, there are often only a handful of people on the path, bundled tight against the morning, and mostly in pairs. One could imagine them being there from mutual peer pressure after an early-morning phone call: I’ll go if you go. Today, I passed one bike commuter going in the other direction, and a single runner in form-hugging jogging pants and a scarf wrapped around the lower part of her face.
By the time I got to the office, I was sweating under my heavy jacket but my legs were red and numb since my dress slacks are poor insulators. I am still getting over a cold that laid me low for most of the New Year holiday. When I got to my desk, a coworker asked, “Was that you on the bicycle? You’re still sick. You’re insane.” I told her the good air was good for my lungs, but that, yes, it was a painful ride.
And I’ll do it again next week.
James Howard Kunstler writes, in Geography of Nowhere, about living on a human scale. Primarily, he writes of the relationship between buildings and, in abandoning traditional concepts of that relationship, the ways we have degraded our way of living. Our physical environment, he argues, has forced us into cars and therefore out of our neighborhoods and relationships with our neighbors. It has gutted local economies by encouraging long drives to big-box stores huddled together in ugly strip-malls. It has created long swaths of places no one cares about because we don’t interact with those places in any way other than to drive through them. It has eroded meaningful architecture since we’re no longer interested in how buildings present themselves to or interact with the streets, since we’re driving past them too fast to care.
In that vein, I find biking to work a civilizing act. It forces me to interact with my environment, to take notice of it and respond to it since I have to physically interact with it. Biking also allows me to take a human-scale route to work. It may be cold, but I get to ride past a quiet river, through tall and arching trees, through park land shielded from the roar of traffic. I can wave at my neighbors as I ride by, say “Good morning” to people I don’t know.
Even the act of passing someone from behind, calling out “On your left” or ringing my bell to let them know I’m coming, takes on a more human and civilized tone. I say thank-you when they let me pass. They thank me for not passing them without warning. Imagine a similar interaction in your car – the blaring of horns, maybe a silent shout from within the projection of your air-conditioned cockpit. I suspect the words exchanged would not be quite as polite.
What it comes down to is this: The human brain simply is not capable of processing the information it received traveling at 65 miles an hour. We have proven, time and time again, with often deadly results, that we simply don’t understand how we’re interacting with our surroundings at that speed. Tom Vanderbilt, in his book Traffic, discusses the science behind this at length, marveling, at times, that we’re so ill-suited to move at that speed that it’s a wonder our highways aren’t more of a bloodbath than they are. But to travel on a human scale, at a human-powered speed, means we’re moving through our environment at a rate that our minds can process.
Think about that. Most of the time when we’re driving around – or even being driven around, in the case of transit – we are actually moving at a speed that our brains have not evolved to comprehend except in the most superficial of ways. We receive basic signals that give us some sense of our momentum, some general concept of the objects around us. We don’t have time to understand the scenery. We barely acknowledge other vehicles on the road as being piloted by people – our propensity to road rage (and the fact we even have a term for it) is evidence enough for that. When we drive we absorb only enough information to keep us safely on the road. There’s just too much stuff flying by to do any more than that.
I don’t bike every day during the winter, but I challenge myself to bike as much as I can, despite the initial discomfort, because there’s a value in slowing down. If I see something interesting, I can stop and explore it, which I could never do in my car. If I pass someone, I can talk to them. On an empty bike path on a January morning, I can let my mind wander without fear of rear-ending someone. I can smell the bacon cooking at the Green Goat restaurant as they prepare the day’s meals.
It hurts, a little, those first deep, icy breaths as I ascend a hill. It takes a bit to warm up and my muscles are slow to respond. I feel like I’ve worked a little harder to cover the same distance. I’ve probably prolonged my already interminable cold.
But, I think of it this way: I got to play outside on my way to work this morning. Really, that’s nothing to complain about.