Friday, May 10, 2013

Capital Gains & Losses

Cycling around Washington, DC, for the past 10 days has been terrific—about as good as urban cycling gets in a major North American city, in my experience anyway. It’s got the kind of cycling infrastructure you’d expect in a Portland, Madison, or Tucson: the usual web of bike lanes, sharrows, and secure lock up stations, not to mention an impressive bikeshare program. Then, to boot, there’s a remarkable network of cycling paths (such as the Capital Crescent Trail and Mount Vernon Trail) that connect major suburban areas (Bethesda, MD; Arlington, VA) to the core of DC. The sight of these trails at rush hour is a marvel to these North American eyes: a steady stream of thousands of people riding their bikes to and from work.

In addition to all the impressive infrastructure, there is a deep cycling culture in DC. I don’t just mean the existence of numerous clubs and advocacy groups, of which there are plenty; more impressive is the way cycling seems to be such a commonly accepted way of getting around—for virtually all ethnic groups and social classes—that most folks don’t even seem to notice bikes, let alone think of them as some “alternative” or “unconventional” means of transportation. (Incredibly, this is true even when cyclists behave recklessly. I saw some crazy, aggressive, dumb-ass urban riding, and yet not once did I see a motorist honk or show the slightest disapproval.) 

You might say there is no cycling culture in Washinton; there’s just culture, of which cycling is as much a part as the subway or the French restaurants or the political set. And isn’t this normalization precisely what we—that is, cycling advocates--in Alberta and everywhere are ultimately shooting for? In so many ways, Washington represents precisely the kind of urban cycling scene that people like me in Edmonton dream about having some day. 

But . . . if you ask me, there is an unexpected down side to all this. I’m talking about a curious loss of a sense of camaraderie or connectedness to other cyclists. In Alberta, there are so few cyclists on the roads that it’s hard not to feel a sense of brotherhood with any and all cyclists one encounters, from the recreational rider to the commuter, the Lost License Larry, the Semi-Serious Cyclist, and occasionally even the Über-Serious Cyclist. There’s a sense of connection, often subtle, that might show in a nod of the head, eye contact, or a smile. We’re such a tiny minority that we can’t help but feel a sense of community, a sense that we have to stick together.

But in a place like DC, where there are so many cyclists, where it’s common to see bikes everywhere—hundreds each day—you start to not even notice them. And you rarely see that same nod or smile from one cyclist to another. There is little brotherhood of the wheel left in such places; I suppose it’s not needed in the same way it is in Alberta. In fact, the code of the road in DC is simple and primal and selfish, the opposite of what you might expect: it’s every cyclist for himself or herself. I found it strange to wait at a red light with five other cyclists, a few feet away from each other, and no one making the least effort to acknowledge the fact. The irony is glaring: I’ve rarely felt so isolated as a cyclist as I did in Washington, surrounded by people on bikes.

It made me strangely nostalgic for good old redneck Alberta, where cyclists may have to deal with a frustrating lack of infrastructure and some intolerant motorists, but where we still have a sense of solidarity or connectedness with strangers on bikes. If giving up that sense of community is part of the cost of reaching the goal of a high-volume, efficient, safe urban cycling experience, of growing up as a city, then I wonder if it’s worth it.

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