Last month I replaced the freedom of cycling with bus schedules and being on the passenger side of cars as friends tote me around town. While riding down a hill in wintry weather, my bike slipped out from underneath me. I fell and broke my arm. 1 surgery and 2 metal rods later, I’m relearning how to hold a coffee cup with my left hand. This isn’t sympathy bait, though. The accident could have been a lot worse, the care I got was top notch, and the hospital food at Johns Hopkins was actually pretty good. The worst part of my stay was accidentally watching 5 minutes of the local news in my hospital room.
I suppose a certain amount of hubris is involved in my accident. After cycling almost every day for the past 2 years in Baltimore, I barely had a close call. I’ve been lucky, especially considering I don’t follow the rules. I weave between cars. I run red lights when it helps me get ahead of traffic and take the lane. I yell at people using their phones while driving. Admittedly, I’m not a model cyclist, but my lack of fear is what helped me get on a bike in this city to begin with.
I was wearing my helmet during the accident, though. This is non-negotiable and probably saved me a concussion or worse.
So my people tell me to be more careful when I get back on my bike this spring. Some even suggest I buy a car. I suppose after something goes wrong, the knee-jerk reaction is fear. To contract your boundaries. If you have a close call with an undertow, you avoid the beach. If a relationship doesn’t work out, you second guess the next one. You hit some crazy turbulence and cancel your European vacation next year. This kind of subtle, spiritual atrophy can go on for awhile until you’re living in a metaphysical box.
At this point, it helps to remember the original things that inspired me to take the journey. I gave up my car to improve my health, spend less time and money on a depreciating asset, and discover a city as it was meant to be seen; outside of 3000lbs of steel. To an outsider, to someone who doesn’t get it, it’s just a bike ride. To a regular rider, it’s a new way of seeing a place. As Kasey Klimes says:
On a bicycle, citizens experience their city with deep intimacy, often for the first time. For a regular motorist to take that two or three mile trip by bicycle instead is to decimate an enormous wall between them and their communities.
Yes, the bicycle is a marvelously efficient machine of transportation, but in the city it is so much more. The bicycle is new vision for the blind man. It is a thrilling tool of communication, an experiential device for the beauty and the ills of the urban context. One cannot turn a blind eye on a bicycle – they must acknowledge their community, all of it.
To someone who has experienced at least a few weeks on a bike, the effects of auto-focused land use and transportation systems on what should be people-focused places becomes painfully clear. You don’t really notice the deleterious effects of 40mph traffic on what should be 25mph streets until you become a vulnerable road user. You don’t understand how a few trees and pedestrian lights can make a walk 100% more comfortable until you walk that street. You don’t understand why being able to bike to work safely is a basic human right until, as a novice cyclist, you have to go 10 blocks out of your way to find a low-speed, bike friendly street. I didn’t start off as an anti-car zealot. Getting out of American car culture made me this way. It completely changed my personal life and professional aspirations.
And that’s too important to give up because of a few broken bones. The undertow didn’t take you all the way down. That ex may of broken your heart but not your spirit. The plane eventually landed safely. I’ll see you on the streets this spring.