Sunday, June 10, 2007

A cyclist's dreams (and a chaplain's reality)

I was sitting in my office, just starting to write in the below about the difference between the Dutch and American approaches to bicycle safety, when the trauma pager went off. I rushed down to our ER to find it was a teenager being rushed in. You guessed it -- hit by an SUV while riding his bicycle (without a helmet!).

Happily, it looks like the bike rider escaped with no life-threatening injuries. But it was just yet another reminder that all the reality of life comes the chaplain's way when you're working in a large hospital, especially one with a trauma center. But, now, on with (the more happy business of) my speculations about bike riding . . . .

One of my longest held dreams is to live a car-free life. For the years I lived in New York City (the public transportation capital of America) and my year in Jerusalem this was something I actually achieved. Since leaving New York, it's been more of a challenge, but I still try. Last week, for example, I didn't start my car even once. I was able to do all my shopping and run all my errands by bicycling.

In a place like Reading, PA -- as in most of the United States -- using a bicycle to actually move stuff (instead of just for pure recreation) is a pretty counter-cultural thing to do. Not so, of course, in Amsterdam. I recently came across a very amusing page full of photographs of how the Dutch use bicycling in the normal course of their everyday lives.

The photographer was especially amused by the sight of people in business wear riding (see his photo to the right of a Amsterdam businessmen on a cycle). This is something I have done even in the car capitol of the world -- Los Angeles. When I was a chaplain for the summer at UCLA's hospital I used to go back and forth between the Westwood and UCLA locations in my white oxford shirt with my tie flapping behind me in the wind.

There are, of course, some here in the States who do advocate a more bicycle-centered lifestyle. They tend to be located in more counter-cultural locations like Northern California or the Pacific Northwest. I found the link to the Amsterdam page on the site for a new Portland Bike shop called Clever Cycles (for some laughs, check out the link they have to some Dutch pro-bike riding public service videos ). Here is a shot of what their shop looks like:

Note the wheelbarrow-like things in the right of the photograph (and also hanging from the ceiling in the upper left). Those are a Dutch-built cycles with a wooden cargo box in the front that is -- believe it or not -- actually designed primarily to put children in (check out the British version of the company's web site if you don't believe me).

The box is touted as a safer alternative to the way some Dutch move their children around town:

Clever Cycles also sells a particularly American solution to the problem of carrying cargo on a bicycle -- the Xtracycle. I first saw one of those on the streets of Boston. It looked so crazy, I thought it was a homemade one-time conversion job, but it turns out it's a kit you can buy from some folks in Northern California to convert just about any bike. Note the skateboard-like looking thing on the top of the cargo area.

Apparently, the Dutch aren't the only ones who can carry kids and cargo on a bike:

Note that, unlike the Dutch kids above, these American kids (and mom) are wearing helmets. Apparently, if you were to dare to wear a helmet in Amsterdam, you would be the subject of no end of ridicule. Unfortunately, there is more than American silliness behind our penchant for putting plastic on our heads when we hit the roads with pedal power: it is much more dangerous to ride here than in Europe. This is not because our roads are inherently less safe (the opposite is true as our roads tend to be much wider, leaving more room for bicycles). It's for cultural reasons -- we just don't respect the bicyclists' right to be on the road and our drivers -- in general -- aren't paying attention for them. All the helmets in the world aren't going to help much if automobile drivers continue to think of bikes as just a 'toy' that belongs in a park.

There are so many reasons why I love the idea of using the bicycle as a tool. Being kind to the Earth (=environmentalism) is definitely one of them. But it's also the beautiful simplicity of the thing. Why spend part of your day exercising (=people's obsession with 'going to the gym') and a separate part of your day driving to go shopping when you can do both at the same time? Overall, it saves time and takes less effort.

Unfortunately, the way we live in this country makes it hard to have a bicycle-centered lifestyle. We tend to live far from our places of shopping (and work). And, as I mentioned above, our roads tend to be treacherous. As regards safety, it was interesting for me to read what one Dutch-born commenter to the person who took the photographs in Amsterdam had to say about the photographer's amazement at the Dutch not wearing helmets:

The Dutch do take bike safety seriously. They've just taken a different
approach. When growing up in Holland, in first grade, we all went through a
full week of safe bicycle riding classes. At the end of the week, police
officers put together a course where each child was presented with traffic
situations for approximately 30 minutes while police officers observed.
Depending on how you did, you received your "safe bicycle" certificate.
Over the next few years, you received refresher courses. Additionally, when
you work on obtaining your drivers license, there is a strong emphasis on
driving around bicyclists.

Here I am constantly amazed how parents teach kids to ride their bicycles.
Kids are taught to ride on the wrong side of the road (am fairly certain
that's illegal) and kids ride on bicycles without lights in the dark
constantly. Signaling is never taught it seems like. (actually, almost the
same can be said for drivers).
Anyway, back to my dreams. I think I my dream is to have three bicycles:
  • The Commuter: a rugged hybrid-style bike that can handle potholes and that has open-top basket-style saddlebags permanently attached so I can stop at the grocery store on the way home from work.
  • The Roadster: a road and/or touring bike that is for going on hours-long excursions on days off.
  • The Truck: something (an Xtracycle?) that can handle serious trips to the supermarket, etc. . . . . . I had such a bike when I was a kid with a paper route. It had big metal baskets on both the front and the back. My Father (of Blessed Memory) even made a contraption so I could tow one of those folding shopping carts behind me. It worked pretty good (and held a lot of Sunday newspapers!), except for that one time I was racing my friends down this one hill with it behind me. When I got to the turn at the bottom of the hill, the cart flipped over and sent me and my papers flying. . . . No broken bones, though. :)

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