Monday, August 18, 2008

One Less Car. Screw the Rest of You!

The weather forecast this morning called for a hot, humid day, so I decided to wear a T-shirt for my bike ride to work. I coast as much as possible to avoid over-heating when it's warm, and I actually end up sweating less on my bike than I do riding the subway; just standing on the platform makes me feel like the baby wearing the diaper that leaks in those old Huggies commercials.

I grabbed the most accessible T-shirt, which turned out to be my new Transportation Alternatives shirt. It's beautifully designed: it's white, with TransAlt's new logo (designed by Milton Glaser, the great graphic designer of "I [Heart] NY" fame) on the side. On the back, in huge, all-caps text, it reads, "ONE LESS CAR."

I put on the shirt, and was putzing around the apartment getting ready to go, when my brother, who's visiting from California with his wife, joked, "Why don't you just wear a shirt that says, 'FUCK ALL OF YOU DRIVERS'?" I laughed and joked back that I'd like one that said, "ONE FEWER CAR" – typical humor in our family.

When I rolled down my street I thought about my brother's joke, and figured that I might as well wear a target on my back. I'd had this shirt for just a few weeks, and loved it – the design is great, and I agree with the message. But I realized that I would prefer a shirt that used humor rather than what can be interpreted as sanctimony and even hostility. On one hand, motorists in New York should be happy that I'm not driving – I'm not adding to the congestion that they experience on a daily basis.

On the other hand, if I saw a shirt that said, "ONE LESS ATHEIST," I'd interpret it as judgmental and holier than thou, and wouldn't feel at all compelled to see the Light and become a believer. Sanctimony doesn't work. Plus, I hadn't owned a car anyway (well, I did for a year, when I was rowing in Pelham at 5:30 a.m. each day, until last summer), so it's not like I used to drive, but then the clouds parted and I heard a chorus of angels, and then changed my ways. The shirt would be more accurate if it read, "ONE LESS SUBWAY RIDER."

A few other reasons the shirt doesn't make sense for me. First – or rather, third – I ride my bike to work because I like to: I feel more awake when I get to work (I like to think this is due to the exercise, not from the adrenaline that comes with looking Death in the eye); I love being outside; and I'm much more physically comfortable biking than riding the subway (the same can be said of motorists in their cars, by the way).

Fourth, what about all the transit riders? As I waited at an intersection this morning for pedestrians to cross in front of me, other cyclists whizzed through them like they were so many gnats. I shrunk at the sight, hoping no one would associate me with those cyclists ( – but, oh yeah, I was wearing a target on my back!), and I reflected on the sanctimony in the bicycling community that I think justifies the "I wait for no one and no thing" attitude. What a way to make friends! Anyway, most of those pedestrians were walking to or from bus stops or subway stations – each of those transit riders is "ONE LESS CAR" too. Do any of those people commute to and from work in righteous indignation?

Believe me, I know that riding a bike in New York City will make the most patient, kind person into a raving, indignant jerk. Bicycling really should be a viable option in New York – it's relatively flat, the weather is pretty good most of the year, and the distances between most destinations in our daily lives here are fairly short. New York as it could/should be, juxtaposed with New York as it is (despite the vast improvements thanks to TransAlt and the current Transportation Commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan), makes cyclists pretty angry.

Bicycling is a fantastic mode of transportation: it's clean, good for our health, quiet, and space-efficient. And yet a short ride in New York will very quickly tell you what New York thinks of you and your stupid bike. You feel like a cornered rat, giving proof to the obverse of Jan Gehl's somewhat-broken-English remark that "if you love people, they love you back": if a city, through the manner in which it builds and manages its streets, shows people no respect, they will, in turn, show that city and its laws – as well as other people – no respect.

I've ridden in righteous indignation myself, and I'm sure I will again, in weaker moments. But if we cyclists want to improve our reputation in this community, and therefore contribute to lasting change, we must rise above the dangers and slights we experience almost every day and not treat others as we do not want to be treated. So no rudeness, no riding through people as if they're a cloud of gnats, and no sanctimony and righteous indignation.

About 20 minutes into my commute this morning, on Third Avenue in Manhattan, I ran into a friend from college. He was walking his wife to work with their kids – they run a business together. We were chatting when my friend noticed the logo on the side of my shirt. I turned around to show the back, and mentioned my brother's joke. They both laughed, and my friend's wife said, "Yeah, why stop there? Why not just, 'FUCK ALL OF YOU'?"


This all reminded me of my old Mao fetish, which started with some old posters my grandmother had bought in China in the 70s that I hung for a few years in the 90s. The posters show Mao, looking to be about seven feet tall, striding through factories and fields, with eager, fawning peasants and workers walking alongside and behind him – some of them literally walking bent over and grinning, like in some old Western, racist depiction of "Chinamen"! – so proud of their work and so grateful to him for his magnanimity and wisdom. When I was in China in 2001, I bought a T-shirt that likened Mao to the sun – red and yellow rays emanated from his floating head as he wore that Mona Lisa smile. (I also bought a Mao watch that worked for about two days.)

After a year or two of owning this shirt, I realized that I might as well wear a Hitler or Stalin shirt ( – yeah, it took me that long). Wouldn't that be kitschy and cute? So witty, hip, and tongue in cheek! Mao, a deranged megalomaniac, who was carried on a litter during the Long March, and, later, as dictator, killed millions of people? Ha! What a doozy!

I promptly threw out the Mao shirt. (The posters had already been stashed – my wife never liked them – and an uncle has since taken them.)


This afternoon, on my ride home, I'll just wear my undershirt. I love my "ONE LESS CAR" shirt, but I think I'll give it away to someone who doesn't over-think everything or take his older brother's jokes so much to heart. As much as I admire TransAlt, my desire not to risk being viewed as hostile trumps my desire to broadcast my love for bikes. Besides, I'm not so much anti-car as I am pro-bike.

If I ever get the inclination to make my own pro-bike shirt, I'd like to use something gentler and more humorous, like "THIS, TOO, COULD BE YOU!" with a retro drawing of a guy on a bike flashing a toothy grin and winking. Kind of like, "if you lived here, you'd be home now." What do you think? Let me know. Also, please write in with other ideas. If I like your idea the best, I'll print up two T-shirts – one for me and one for you. And we'll both know that there's at least one other person out there who waits at intersections while people walk across the street – and that that person is just happy to be outside on a bicycle.


Holly said...

I also love to commute by bike. I do it to help my health, help traffic congestion, and help ease air and noise pollution. I’ve tried it in a few cities, and decided that respect between bikers and drivers is really the only answer for safe commutes for everyone.

Vancouver is a great place to bike - as long as drivers stay off the bike routes. In Vancouver there are small bike lanes on some roads but the main bike routes are streets that are designed in a way to discourage car traffic. This works beautifully early in the morning when I leave for work and late at night when I return home, but if I ever have to make a trip during rush hour it is a nightmare. The cars that jump off the main drags to take bike routes tend to be the aggressive drivers, tailgating and trying to squeeze past bikes on a single-lane road. My friends and I have often joked about developing a system with which we could somehow mark the aggressive drivers to give bikers fair warning. Paintball guns? Doesn’t work if the cars come from behind...

But then, in the same town, I see bikers cruising down Broadway - parallel to and one block away from the bike route - getting honked at by the busses and cars and I think to myself that they deserve to be honked at. By not respecting the car and bus transit routes they are inviting motorized traffic onto our designated biking streets.

Likewise, the Critical Mass demonstrations that I saw in Valencia - what could be another perfect biking city if busses didn’t run cyclists off the road - seemed to be the antithesis of finding harmony for bikers in cities. Instead of demonstrating that bikers and cars can co-exist, bikers in Critical Mass jam downtown traffic on rush hour Fridays. Not a great way to convince people of the virtues of biking in my opinion.

I agree that the more people that commute by bike the better. But more importantly, the whole darn system could work so much better if cyclists, pedestrians, and cars could learn to respect the boundaries. But I´m just preaching to the choir, so I´ll work on a ¨respect¨ T-shirt!

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed your thoughts and agree with the results of the overthinking. For the shirt... how about photoshopping an image of Ratso Rizzo onto a bike, with the line "I'm RIDIN' here!"

A Queen song just came into my head (as they do) and I had to look up the lyrics... interesting. Maybe you can use these:

You say coke I say caine
You say John I say Wayne
Hot dog I say cool it man
I don't wanna be the President of America
You say smile I say cheese
Cartier I say please
Income tax I say Jesus
I don't wanna be a candidate
For Vietnam or Watergate
Cos all I want to do is

Bicycle bicycle bicycle
I want to ride my bicycle bicycle bicycle
I want to ride my bicycle
I want to ride my bike
I want to ride my bicycle
I want to ride it where I like

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