The following post is the text of a short presentation the author gave at the Reno Bike Summit in early 2013.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 80s and early 90s, Cuba was left without the resources to run and fix its vehicles. Their need for transportation — to go from here to there — did not change, but their transportation context had. Without parts and gas, they imported a million bicycles from China and Voila! A biking culture was created.
One example of that culture is that the entire right-hand lane of every two-lane road is available for slow-moving vehicles such as horses, carts, and bikes. When my wife and I biked across the island in this culture, we both felt safer and more empowered as cyclists than in any other place we'd been.
Cuba's bike transformation was the result of a change in context induced by external forces. It was a disruptive event that forced them to adapt. Here in America, a land of such excess, no such sudden disruption looms (nor could it be predicted, I believe). Our transportation context is centered on the car. Our culture and economy are “driven” by the car. So, how do we create a culture of transportation that is dominated by bicycles?
I propose that the quickest, most effective, most inspiring way to do so is for all of us bicycle users (in whatever capacity) across the country to voluntarily change our transportation context. To create our own artificial disruptive event by giving up our cars.
By a show of hands, how many of you biked here tonight? (6 or 7 hands go up out of 120 people in attendance, followed by spontaneous applause.) I'll return to this question at the end.
My wife and I, with our two young sons, run the Be the Change Project. It is an urban homestead and learning center dedicated to service and simplicity. We live without electricity, without fossil fuels, and own no car. We also thrive on about $7,000 a year. My point in sharing this is to demonstrate the power of changing contexts to create the world in which we want to live.
I cannot rely on — cannot trust — my willpower alone to live in alignment with my values. If the electricity were hooked up and dozens of light switches were within reach, it would be a daily fight to not turn them on; to not support the coal industry; and to not have the great joy I gain from a deeper connection to the rhythms of nature and her seasons that results from living without electricity. Same with a car. If there was one in our driveway with a full tank of gas, I would drive it...often. I know, because it happens sometimes that a friend or my mother-in-law drops one off when they go on a trip. I find excuses to use it.
So, we avoid those tests of will by changing our context and rejoicing in the creativity of biking to meet our needs. We get exercise, see the city and its people in a closer way, we slow down, and reduce our footprint. And yes, we do use cars and trucks on occasion, but that causes me to ask for help from friends and neighbors. It's another conversation, another connection, building blocks for the world I want.
Back to how many of us biked here tonight. It's cold and dark outside and I commend those of you who biked here. It points to the fact that perhaps a bike summit should be held during the day (changing a bit of context in how we meet). But if we, the bicyclists who love biking enough to attend a biking summit, can't bike to a bike summit in town in any great number, how can we hope to create the culture we want and advance the causes we support? Get rid of your cars; change your context.
Photo by Fotolia/Cousin_Avi