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The life of Neighbourhoods understood through Cycling

Over at BoingBoing Cory Doctorow twigged to a beautiful essay about the bicycle as an instrument of enlightenment: The Real Reason Why Bicycles are the Key to Better Cities by Kasey Klimes.

The essay below is an expansion on Klimes ideas – where I bring in some ideas and authors I’ve been thinking about of late – I therefore suggest you first read Klimes short essay at the tab it opens in, and I’ll wait here ’til you get back.

(interlude music)

Welcome back.

The central theme of the essay – that the bicycle is an instrument of experiential understanding that the car fundamentally, cannot be – reminded me of an idea from the book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” (1974 – by Robert M. Pirsig).  Pirsig’s idea – that the view through the rectangular windscreen of an automobile (like the TV set) provides a blinkered, romantic view of the world, a subjective impression – not the real thing — while the experience of travel on a motorbike is a true-er picture for several reasons.

This idea is re-framed by Kasey Klimes in his essay:

In their cars, the world is reduced to mere equation. “What is the fastest route from A to B?” one will ask as they start their engine. This invariably results in a cascade of freeway concrete flying by at incomprehensible speeds. Their environment, the neighborhoods that compose their communities, the beauty of architecture, the immense societal problems in distressed areas, the faces of neighbors… all of this becomes a conceptually abstract blur from the driver’s seat.


In the particular passage that I’ve paraphrased from Zen, Pirsig isn’t talking about the effect of speed in isolating the driver as Kasey Klimes does – Pirsig’s idea is more about gleaning an understanding through ‘being at one’ with the elements – the wind, the sun, the rain, the pavement zipping by just under your feet, the hands on experience – feeling the vibrations of the road – but I believe, and this is Klimes central point – that speed plays an key role in cutting car drivers off from a ‘real’ experience of the city they live in.

In this excerpt, Klimes describes how a cycling tour can turn that around:

Invite a motorist for a bike ride through your city and you’ll be cycling with an urbanist by the end of the day. Even the most eloquent of lectures about livable cities and sustainable design can’t compete with the experience from atop a bicycle saddle.

“These cars are going way too fast,” they may mutter beneath their breath.

“How are we supposed to get across the highway?”

“Wow, look at that cathedral! I didn’t know that was there.”

“I didn’t realize there were so many vacant lots in this part of town.”

“Hey, let’s stop at this cafe for a drink.”

Suddenly livability isn’t an abstract concept, it’s an experience. Human scale, connectivity, land use efficiency, urban fabric, complete streets… all the codewords, catchphrases, and academic jargon can be tossed out the window because now they are one synthesized moment of appreciation. Bicycles matter because they are a catalyst of understanding – become hooked on the thrill of cycling, and everything else follows. Now that new freeway isn’t a convenience but an impediment. Mixed-use development isn’t a threat to privacy but an opportunity for community. And maybe, just maybe, car-free living will eventually be seen not as restrictive, but as a door to newfound freedom.

The idea that speed blinds – and that cycling or walking provides a qualitatively different experience – is an idea I’ve been thinking about lately too; and it speaks to the suburban/downtown divide – the so-called ’905/416 divide’.

My idea is that in the suburban culture too much of our time is spent in our ‘private’ places (exacerbated essentially, by the ‘private automobile’ and the urban constructs that have been built in the last half century to enable it -  leave our ‘social selves’ under-developed) - and that leads to a reactionary view of development planning that is embodied for example, by Mayor Ford’s ‘War on the Car’ mythos.

The car enables a continuous private experience through the work day; and this maintains through the entire work week for suburbanites. Starting with the private world of the suburban home – isolated by curly-cue culdesacs, divided into squares by non-people-friendly four lane freeway-style avenues; then each morning suburbanites get into the private automobiles for the single occupant, one hour commute; then into the private underground parking via security pass card; and the pass-card activated elevators – that only stop on specified floors; then the private work cubical; working in a small teams connected by intra-webs (inter-office computer networks firewalled from the World Wide Web), with-in an over-arching corporate secrecy meme .

This private experience day after day, leaves us isolated in the neighbourhoods where we live, and ignorant (and thus scared) of the neighbourhoods around where we work, in the downtown for example (where all the problems/opportunities are).

Jane Jacobs postulates it is these neighbourhoods that are what cities are made of, are the building blocks of. Thus many suburbanites can’t and don’t see the beauty of our cities — and conversely, the problems of our cities are ‘black box’ problems – unfathomable, scary, because they exist out side of any personal experience. And as such our impressions of what our city is comes more and more from the kick and slash police file news reporting that is typical of local news reporting these days (the product of tight budgets in media due to the IT revolution) that present simple black and white stories – in philosophy called ‘dualities’; like evil vs good – rather than for example, a paralyzed dialectic; one that can be fixed with a better understanding, better planning, better management.

The later is a world view that accents the good in everyone rather than the former which accents the darker angles of our nature. With out good data the human brain errs towards paranoid every time – it’s part of the flight or flight soft-wiring in us all. We either go seek out what we don’t understand and resolve the lack of data through experience and then find connection or we flee, hiding from the unknowns and create sub-culture cults marked by delusional thinking which leads to fighting.

The bicycle is a more apt metaphor for Pirsig’s idea than the motorbike in Zen, but this wasn’t Pirsig’s goal to describe this blindness – he was talking about the choice to not see (the  romantic path) versus the practical path to understanding. (In fact Persig ends up proposing both are necessary – and I agree.)

Based on this understanding, perhaps what is happening is, a generation down the road, so to speak, a cult has arisen amongst the specialists, the romantics who refused to understand the science around them and rely on art, sit-com television writing and bits popular eastern philosophy like the idea of Karma and other such metaphysical formulas to explain the day – with no understanding of the mechanical scientific environment that surrounds them, – a function of the terror of the nuclear bomb and the cold war where the guberment used terror in our class rooms (duck and cover),  and neighbourhoods (air raid sirens on every school) to sell a permanet military economy to the population – perhaps, or the ever speeding technological progress that destroys what we understand and replaces it too quickly with something we do not – what economist Karl Polanyi  in his great work “The Great Transformation”, described as technology ‘diss-embedding’ from the culture that created it.

This reactionary cult now balks when it is proposed they must change their practice and thinking, open their minds to more complex understanding. It is true I think that 99% of us would rather things stay exactly as they are, thus verifying the neurotic behaviour patterns we love and cling to. But change is constant, life is change; and even while a life lived ‘dead’ is what most of us covet on one level, ironically it is this dead-ness, this same-ness that leaves us existentially unfulfilled – which we then try to break out from – ‘getting out’ is the expression I hear – with diversions like more and more shopping, bigger and stronger Lattes, quadruple shot shooters, different, stronger, harder drugs.

And as the author Kasey Klimes points out so beautifully in the essay, the experience on the bicycle takes us in an ‘alive’ direction – it connects us to the places we ride through; it is “an instrument of experiential understanding” that changes scary, unknown neighbourhoods into places we know and understand. The bicycle tour of neighbourhoods transforms the terms city planners use to help them to work with highly complex systems (our cities)  into experiences we’ve had – pictures we can summon from our memories – after just one good ride.

And soon, visions of ways to make these places better occurs to us – because we are good at this civilization stuff – we are really good at it. And thus a route to a conversation about our communities, our neighbourhoods – between our neighbourhoods opens – and our learning, changing, alive selves are re-born.


Kasey Klimes – “ The Real Reason Why Bicycles are the Key to Better Cities” -  originally published at Secret Republic – April 14th 2011. (archive).

Robert M. Pirsig – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – 1974

Jane Jacobs -  The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) – required reading on urban planning

Karl Polanyi  – “The Great Transformation” (1957) – read an excerpt from The Great Transformation…


Posted: May 23rd, 2011
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