Sunday, June 10, 2007

Amoral bicycle commuter

A few weeks ago, Paul Dorn reported the results of an informal survey asking his readers why they commute by bike. Not surprisingly, most respondents selected selfish reasons: they commute by bike for their personal fitness and because it's fun. Only about one in five reported they bike to save the environment.

This matches my experience -- I ride a bike partly because I'm a natural cheapskate, but mostly I'm hooked to bicycling like a coke fiend is addicted to his drug. I don't bike for hippy dippy reasons like global warming or resource inequity.

Media attention and higher prices are raising awareness among Americans of these "hippy dippy" issues, however. While some of my cycling compatriots express glee at the economic pain of their gas-burning neighbors, the decline in oil production will soon result in pain and suffering for large portions of the world population, including people right here in the United States as CycleDog points out: "Fuel prices ripple through the economy, and cyclists are not immune. It costs more money to deliver groceries to the local store. It costs more for bus service or any other service that relies on a fleet of vehicles," he reminds us. "If oil prices increase drastically, expect other forms of fuel to increase as well. Pressure from upwardly spiraling oil costs will cause similar increases in natural gas."

In spite of my non-ethical reasons for bicycling, I'm becoming increasingly convinced that the driving I do is immoral. When auto fuel reaches $10 a gallon, you can bet that a significant portion of worldwide food production will be diverted to fuel American and European cars, and too bad for the starving brown and black babies who will die.

I have full confidence in the ability of my fellow Americans to shrug off the moral quandary of convenience over sacrifice, but perhaps more of us will switch to a lower-footprint lifestyle for the selfish reasons. Phil @ Spinopsys reports on a quiet revolution of bicycling. "Having someone see money flying out of their pockets on a daily basis is a far more successful agent for change than appeals to think of the poor residents of Dhaka who may soon be under water and burning cow dung to heat the daily meal," Phil writes. "So yes, a quiet revolution is taking place, though sometimes it may be more sullen resignation than joy."

I've encountered many many new bicycle commuters over the past few years both in person and over the Internet through blogs, forums, and email discussion lists. While many of the newbies have been motivated by finances or white guilt, I hope you've come to find cycling as a wonderful, beneficial, fun and positive way to get around.


  1. welp, it's no longer "cool" to be a hippy dippy except in certain enclaves in Urbana. People are reluctant to admit they are Trying To Be Good, since it's obviously a Lost Cause and simply not comprehended by The Masses.

  2. (or perhaps people are reserving the moral stuff for the Religious Right?)

  3. Too true... driving in a two-ton energy consuming beast so as to save a bead or two of sweat is serving the devil of civilization. Too bad DOTs in every state have already sold our future to these demons.

    The only way civilization will wake up from this stupor is through skyrocketing prices and much unnecessary suffering.

  4. I started riding to work about 15 years ago simply because I love cycling and the commute is free riding time. Back then, I didn't really even think much about the environmental benefit of replacing the car trips. Now, I still primarily ride because I enjoy it, but I also feel good about getting around under my own power. I am lot more of an evangelist for bike commuting these days, and luckily there is a growing receptive audience.

  5. I, too, have been recently considering the notion of the morality of driving. I doubt the notion would ever take off, but I'd sure like to see it do so. [my post].

  6. When I'm thinking about, or actually riding, the environment, gas prices, fitness never cross my mind. But if anyone asks me I say, "for the environment, gas prices, fitness".

  7. I wrote on a forum days ago that in an era of dwindling resources motorized recreation is nothing short of immoral.

    My reasons for practical bicycling are partly selfish, partly idealistic. Why not have both? I never gave up on what was truly good about the hippy dippy stuff, regardless of how the trendoids might sneer. How many of them drive to spinning class? Meanwhile, we who really ride are out there on the road reminding the motoring public that there's another way to do things and some of us are doing it.

  8. My new policy is to answer the question of "Why don't you have a car?" with "Because driving when other options exist is unethical."

    I can't wait for the blank looks of response.

  9. Thanks for the comments, all.

    I wonder: Because hippy-dippy is uncool, do we tell others cycling is fun "but I also appreciate the side benefits" doing so for the same reasons many of my Christian friends tell me they fast (or pray or whatever) for practical, non-spiritual reasons? Is it to avoid social ostracisization that all humans naturally avoid?

  10. We are like soup or soup ingredients. We rub off on each other, even if we are unique. I try to be curry instead of tofu in the mix :-) Whether it's The MEdia or Your Momma, it isn't in current fashion to do things because it's right. I believe there's an undercurrent of fear that we really can't afford to do that; that there really isn't enough to go around, so if we share, we'll end up with Nothing 'cause we're the sucker. (Okay, I recently read The Road in preparation for GITAP's Velosophie, which is a pretty insipid, too-long book but that's one theme... and in the soup it has rubbed off a little on me.)
    Unlike soup I can resist it, though - but that soup is also an arteryin the bloodstream of life, and it's best to resist in ways that don't activate the antibodies of fear that make others surround you with white blood cells and nullify you...
    FDR was right. We have nothign to fear but fear itself. That fear really can take us down. Fear not to simplify.

  11. I bike because I can't afford a car.