Friday, June 9, 2023

The Man Who Loved Bicycles


This year, 2023, marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of an underappreciated gem in the canon of cycling literature: The Man Who Loved Bicycles: Memoirs of an Autophobe by American writer Daniel Behrman. This little-known book, published in 1973 by Harper’s Magazine Press, is an eccentric but compelling work of nonfiction–part scathing polemic, part cosmopolitan cycle-travelog, and part urban-transportation prophecy. Behrman writes extensively of his experiences with both automobiles and bicycles (though mostly the latter) mainly in New York City and Paris, though with some other stops along the way, driving home his simple argument: automobiles take away life and bicycles give it. 

The Man Who Loved Bicycles is both a devastating and irreverent takedown of car culture and what it’s done to human health and urban life and a wonderfully strange love letter to the joys of a particular kind of cycling. But perhaps what’s most striking about the book now, looking back through five decades, is how remarkably prescient Behrman was. While some parts of the book are very much of its time, his critical assessment of the car-centric city, his evocative accounts of the myriad pleasures of being a kind of cycling flaneur, and his vision of the future of urban transportation all feel like something that could have been written in 2023, rather than 1973. 

The book’s opening chapter consists mostly of Behrman’s excoriating critique of car culture, some parts of which feel very much of the early 1970s while other parts feel ahead of their time. There are three elements to this attack on automobiles: how they negatively impact human health, how they embody capitalist greed on four wheels, and how they destroy urban spaces. Behrman’s first criticism concerns pollution. He explains how the idea for this book was sparked by an editor who suggested Behrman investigate mass transit systems–including how cars were a type of “transit system.” Behrman scoffs that automobiles were more like a “pollution system,” one “of chemical warfare we wage to defoliate our cities then our suburbs and our countryside.” This part of his argument is perhaps the one that feels the most of its time, solidly in the 1960s zeitgeist of a Rachel Carsonesque focus on environmental contamination that would eventually lead to the creation of the US Clean Air Act in 1963. (In fact, the chapter’s title, “Silent Springs or, Los Angeles Is Anywhere,” nods to Carson’s famous 1962 book.) Behrman talks a lot about those 1970s environmental buzzwords “smog” and “lead,” making numerous references to Los Angeles, which, at the time, was legendary for its petrochemical smog problems. Interestingly, though, Behrman only touches on Los Angeles in passing, seeing it as too easy of a target or perhaps a lost cause; his main concern is how automobile pollution threatens everywhere else.

The second part of Behrman’s anti-car rant is an economic point, and here Behrman delivers a more modern-sounding anti-fossil-fuel corporation screed that twenty-first-century climate-change critics such as Bill McKibben would be proud of–how the car has become so central to western economic systems because it is the oil industry’s main mechanism for profit. (It’s worth noting that this book was written just after oil production peaked in the early 70s and just before the full blown Energy Crisis struck–making the book seem even more prophetic.)  Behrman observes that, in 1973, oil was the “richest industry in the United States; 91 leading oil corporations earned themselves $50 billion in 1969.”  So powerful is the oil industry, he argues, that it routinely dictates government policy, demanding and receiving enormous subsidies. And not just in America. (One of the interesting things about this book is the way Behrman resists what would now be a conventional line of argument that sees Europe as far more progressive than America when it comes to transportation policy. In ‘73, it was the other way around, and Behrman describes the disease of urban sprawl and traffic congestion as a French one that was spreading to America.) Behrman points to the outsized role of Renault, the biggest automobile manufacturer in France, in French politics and culture. Just as what’s best for GM is what’s best for America, Renault, he says, calls the shots in Paris: “City Hall is Renault,” he writes. He describes the car as a post-World-War-2 “religion in Paris.” 

The impact of automobiles in Paris and other cities, he argues, has been especially devastating. 

The car erodes . . . cities, it gnaws away at their feet, it throttles their windpipes, it consumes them. It must feed on them to grow, it must grow to keep producing its own reward for those who make and fuel it. That is why the car cannot solve any urban or suburban transportation problem. It is the problem. It must inevitably lead to the discarding of cities, for they are frightful places to park cars. Inevitably, too, we must have the exodus to the suburbs, frightful places to park people, those consumer parks where productive work is taboo, where there is nothing to do but drive and buy.

You get the idea: Behrman believes we’ve allowed automobiles to dictate what cities look like and have flipped the intended order on its head. Instead of designing our urban spaces around humans, we design them for cars.

Behrman’s final anti-car argument is perhaps his most compelling for twenty-first-century readers: what I call his WALL-E theory (after the dystopian Pixar film), that the automobile is nothing but a ”full-power wheelchair,” which has turned humans into sedentary, passive movers, who sit behind the wheel getting soft, “reduced to a lump of helpless cosseted flesh.” We consume and consume, Behrman says, and we get bigger and bigger, literally; the more we eat, the bigger the car we need to be able to move, touching on what would become undeniable trends in both obesity rates and automobile design in our century. “The calories pour into the gut; the gasoline that goes into the tank is converted into motion, but not the calories in the gut.” He points wistfully to the example of his own father, who succumbed to heart disease after a sedentary life spent largely behind the wheel. He never had a car accident; rather, he just sat in his car, swelling in his driver’s seat, his arteries hardening all the while. Behrman seizes on the irony of car culture in America, in particular. What started out as a promise of mobility and freedom ( a promise, by the way, that a young Behrman also believed in) has become an icon of isolation, passivity, and containment. He likens our relationship with cars to that of cigarettes. We thought cars, like smoking, were cool but, it turns out, they’re both killing us.

Although the polemical parts of the book are terrific, both pointed and prescient, the majority of the text actually consists of a kind of travel writing, off-beat accounts of Behrman riding his bicycle around urban spaces, mainly Paris and New York City, but also Washington, DC, Copenhagen, and rural Brittany. (He explains that his own conversion from car driving to cycling came when he was in his 40s, living in Paris, and out of desperation during a Metro-strike-induced traffic jam, hopped on his old bicycle in order to get to work. It was a revelation. From that point, he rode his bike whenever he could and wherever he went in Paris–and everywhere else.) These sections of the book constitute a charming testimonial for a particular kind of cycling lifestyle. Behrman is, I would argue, a 1970s version of what some have called a cycleur –a cross between a cyclist and a flaneur. 

The flaneur is that quintessentially nineteenth-century Parisian archetype of the “leisurely but vigilant urban stroller”  (Wrigley), who wanders aimlessly, usually alone, gazing upon the everyday interactions of the city. Modernity and mobility are central to the concept of the flaneur. To truly experience the city and all its dynamic energy, one must have the agency to move through it. For Baudelaire, in the mid-nineteenth century, this meant walking, but just a few decades later, the bicycle offered another means of urban transportation that might have been even better for flaneuring. A flaneur on wheels enjoys a freedom of movement (able to cover far more ground than a pedestrian), a sense of agency, access to fresh air, nature, and social connections, and a unique perception of the city. 

Behrman offers a 1970s version of the rolling flaneur or cycleur (think long hair, sideburns, and tube socks instead of top hat and walking stick)–a low-profile, semi-invisible agent of observation, a recorder of details, a tabulator of small urban pleasures that Baudelaire would respect. “Exploration comes easy on a bicycle,” Behrman asserts. It is uniquely made for adventure and discovery in the way it can cover a lot of ground and go almost anywhere. 

For the cycleur sees things in the city that car drivers won’t or just can’t. In Washington, DC, for instance, it’s a spellbinding exhibition of elegant sanitation coordination.   

I have never seen anything like those Georgetown garbagemen. They belonged in the Olympics; no pro football team could have put on a better passing performance even with presidential play-making... They sent great plastic garbage cans arching through the blue sky in mortar trajectories that landed them right into the basket on the rear of the truck  . . . There is nothing demeaning about street cleaning, not when it is a game of skill and strength like polo that only a few can play. 

Meanwhile, in Paris, Behrman gets lost in “forgotten alleys” around Les Halles market, Pont Neuf, and flower markets of the Ile de la Cite. He recalls cycling with his young son near the pet shops of the Right Bank. 

By bicycle, that trip can be repeated time and again, [but] it is never the same. I once made it with my niece and, lo and behold, there was a monkey up a tree on the edge of a flower market. Two firemen were up the tree with him, clambering about in their leather boots, shaking branches with a long stick while he clung for dear life until he let go to the gasps of the crowd, only to fall to safety onto a market shed. He could have skipped from shed to shed until the end of his days, but he was too much of a ham. He liked to hear the crowd gasp. 

This passage nicely illustrates Behrman’s claim that cycling “is not so much a way of getting somewhere as it is a setting for randomness”--using a term well ahead of its time. In fact, he enjoys playing around with the conceit that his bicycle is somehow inherently programmed to find randomness, that, like a horse, it has a mind and instincts of its own, and all one really has to do is “follow the handlebars.” The bicycle will take care of the rest. 

While the most of this book consists of Behrman’s personal accounts of cycle-flaneuring, in the final chapters he returns to the bigger picture, this time to imagine the future of transportation. Perhaps the most striking feature of Behrman’s book today is his uncannily prophetic vision of what we now call multi-modal transportation. Inspired by Copenhagen’s example of trains providing storage space for bicycles, Behrman imagines the ways that future humans will combine various forms of transport (train, bus, ferry, walking) on single trips through urban spaces.

Behrman’s been proven right in many of his predictions, at least in some more progressive cities (Amsterdam, Portland, Montreal), with his claims that, for instance, cargo bikes will be a great way to move stuff; that folding bikes make a lot of sense in cities; that bike parking and bike-repair stations will become common in big cities; and that folks will combine multiple modes of transportation in a single trip; and that a proliferation of bike shops can be an economic boost and community builder. His description of how one need only “[s]crape away the recent veneer of our cities and you discover they are interlinked villages . . . capable of engaging in fruitful commerce with their neighbors, giving and taking rather than consuming” (106) sounds a lot like the 15-minute neighbourhood model that is all the rage in urban planning (not to mention right-wing conspiracy) circles. 

Other parts of his vision still sound pretty utopian, such as his proposal for how a six-lane LA freeway for cars could be converted into a more efficient, balanced, and aesthetically pleasing urban space: four lanes converted into electric trolley ways and the remaining two for gardens, including “apple orchards, strawberry patches, chicken coops, and rabbit hutches.” “Instead of poisoning Los Angeles, the expressways could feed it.” 

 Ultimately, Behrman argues, humans must decide what we value, and build cities that reflect those values. As he puts it, “We must adapt our transit systems to our way of life, not our way of life to our transit systems.” Near the end of the book, Behrman describes going for a morning ride near the village of Lanloup in Brittany, and encountering two older women walking their old one-speed bicycles up a steep hill.

I got off [my bike] and talked to them. One was seventy-two, she had gone back to the bicycle after giving her Velosolex [moped] to her niece. The other, who would admit only that she was old enough to be my mother, was riding a bike that weighed somewhere between a Mack truck and a Sherman tank. It was easy to see why, it had been originally motorized, now the lady was pedaling it. I asked her what happened to the motor. Did it wear out?

“No,” she said. “I just took it off one day because I wanted to see more.”

No comments:

Post a Comment

Speak up!