12.12.2013

Mad Dashes Tonight- and some (actually a lot of) thoughts on Vermont's bicycling community

First and foremost, if you aren't already planning to do so, you should get down to ArtsRiot tonight to race bikes on rollers and cheer on other people racing bikes on rollers.

I am, of course, nervous about this event. I've never helped out with running one of these before. It is only by the grace of Old Spokes Home, one of their former employees, the ArtsRiot crew, some serious luck involving scheduling, and spending borrowed time I really don't have to spend that this event is happening tonight at all.

All right, now for the manifesto:

Ever since I started VTIndoor two years ago, I have been amazed by how much time I spend on the edge of just abandoning the whole project and fading off into the roads and backroads of Vermont, content to ride my bike in solitude. I am lured by the idea that I could spend my nights at home wishing that somebody else would do something to get me some better infrastructure instead of imposing on my family to deal with my absences. I sometimes feel like I should just go ride and let somebody else worry about how to get more bikes on the roads, more bikes in peoples faces and on people's minds, and a future for Vermont where my young son might not experience near vehicular assault and homicidal infrastructure on his bike on a daily basis the way I do.

I've been on that edge for so long now, but I don't have any intention of going over it.

It's just too important. The stakes are too high. In even the most conservative projections, and even as Vermont's population may decline over the next 20 years, Chittenden County's is expected to expand by 6400 people. And the size of the county isn't going to expand at all, which means there are going to be more of us, in the same space, trying to get to and from more homes, jobs, schools and everything else than we are trying to get to today. Take a look around. Do you see a lot of physical space where we are going to be able to make our roads and parking lots bigger for more cars? Would we want to be doing that even if we could? What's the price of gas going to be in 20 years? How many of us are going to be sacrificing the quality of our food, our housing, our lives in order to keep driving the way we do?  How many of us are willing, the way things are today, to get around by bike?

Would you feel better about getting around by bike if there were more bikes on the road? If more people you knew and worked with also rode their bikes to get where they needed to go?

Would you bike more if you felt like the roads were safe for cycling?

Would you bike more if you felt like motorists respected your right to be on the road?

Given everything you see going on out there, the advocacy organizations, the planning, the funding, the politics, do you feel like things are going to change significantly in your lifetime in favor of getting significantly more people out of their cars and on to bikes around here?

We are not doing enough:

Frankly, I don't. That's pretty pessimistic. But I think collectively, the bike community here has been too timid (afraid to ask for too much or take action that might offend somebody) and at the same time too insular to really make any progress. It's great to have events and have the same loyal crowd show up every time, but that's the foundation, and without a house on top of it a foundation is just a hole in the ground. If we want to build the house, we are going to need more stuff than we have now, and that stuff is made out of new riders.

We are our own worst enemy:

When I started VTIndoor, I got a lot of sideways looks about how I could possibly expect that event to be part of the larger cycling community, because it was "too weird." Let alone that in a matter of weeks I found myself riding bikes with and connecting with people I had never met before.  Let alone that before the end of last year's season, people were jazzed and talking about doing BYO bike and trainer flash mobs in more public places, just for the visibility! When I started BTV Kidical Mass, I was warned that I might "confuse" people by not partnering with a larger advocacy organization. But on those few rides I did pull off last year, there I was again, riding with and meeting people on bikes I never would have connected with otherwise, and making bigger plans for the year to come. Community, just like that.

And here I am with Mad Dashes. It's not really my event at all. I don't own the racing gear (Old Spokes does). I don't own the venue (ArtsRiot). I'm not the guy who got it going so many years ago. I'm just the guy who noticed it wasn't really happening last year and started agitating for it to happen again.  I don't have a lot of say about how the event is promoted, how it will grow, or what it can become. But, like my other efforts, I believe that through direct action, by the simple act of riding bikes and putting them in front of people in unique and unconventional ways, we can overcome the malaise we are in now. We can inspire new riders to join the fold, and we can pull people back over that edge that I dance with on such a regular basis.

That's the thing. It's easy to stay comfortable. It's easy to ride bikes alone or just with the people you've always ridden bikes with- the people who don't challenge you in new and interesting ways, the people who agree with you about how it ought to be done. It's easy and it's comfortable to drive to work, coffee cup in hand and dulcet tones on the radio. It's easy to not be the weird guy who showers at the office and dons his neon every night to go home. It's easy to be the lone wolf rider with the $5000 bike who never interacts with anybody at all.

Doing enough is not going to be easy:

Making significant social and infrastructural change is going to take something much bigger than what we have now. Those of us who are already riding bikes are going to have to start working with each other. Leg-shaving roadies are going to have to be in the same space as mustachioed fixie-riding hipsters, dirty mountain bikers will need to join with neon-wearing commuters- and together, we are all going to have to reach out to artists and poets, hunters, truck drivers, kids, urbanite yuppies, golfers, lawyers, suburban soccer moms, Democrats, Republicans and Progressives, and we are going to have to show them together this complicated, simple, beautiful, easy hardest thing in the world called bicycling and we are going to have to convince them that it should be part of their lives.

Come join me, outside of the Comfort Zone

Until a lot more of us stop doing the easy thing, though, not much is going to change. Bike lanes are going to begin and end unexpectedly, and often in the worst places. The majority of drivers aren't going to pass you safely. Working environments are not going to change to be more friendly to cycling. Those things are not going to change at a perceptible rate until:

  1. Those of us who already ride bikes break out of our comfort zones, climb back over that edge, and work our collective butts off  to bring non-riders into the fold- we'll probably clash sometimes over the right way to do things and we'll probably make each other uncomfortable, but it's good practice for what comes next because
  2. We have to get more people into this  thing called bicycling by bringing it to  wherever they already are- their location, level of fitness, objections to bicycling, etc- and we are going to have to break out of the political, social, demographic, and economic circles we are used to to make that happen. We are going to have to talk to people we don't like, who don't like us. We are going to have to convince people who think that it is crazy to ride a bike on the road that it isn't crazy at all. 
There's no room for ego in any of this, mine or anybody else's. I realize I probably sound like Don Quixote here, I realize there's a possibility that my activities might sometimes be seen as duplicative or confusing when there are other similar efforts going on. I get it that some people might feel like I'm stepping on their toes. None of that is my intent, but I also don't intend to coddle my fellow cyclists in their complacency. What we have all been doing isn't enough. I'm not doing enough, and neither are you, but it isn't going to stop me from trying.