Saturday, January 31, 2009

X Ways to Ride a Bike in the City

"The ruins of the unsustainable are the 21st century's new frontier."
- Bruce Sterling

Coast: Downhill with no traffic, push pedals as if you're being chased by the headless horseman. When you're too exhilarated to add any more speed, let gravity take over. Awareness is focused but time spreads out, and location is smeared and streaked across the millisecond-scale past and future. Subject only to the laws of ballistics, you're following a moving target: the ghosted future of your own potential position in space, speeding towards a frame of reference that is itself also moving, pulling you forward.

As a Swimmer among Monsters: In motion, a car becomes something more and different than a simple piece of steel with a human pilot. A bicyclist navigating among these beasts can start to learn their tendencies and habits: when they are sluggish and hesitant, and when they are prone to make sudden, selfish moves. From the outside, you can see the boundaries of the personal space they maintain between each other as they jostle, and you can move through these gaps in such a way that they are reassured. You are not a threat, just another more agile being, sharing their space respectfully for a moment and moving on.

Synaesthetically: Don't wear headphones. Listen. You can hear space moving around you: close high walls of rowhouses, open uncertainty of an intersection, and dopplered vectors of cars accelerating and coasting through. Behind you and around blind corners, hear them before you see them. You can smell and taste space: in summer, the harbor and storm drains, and in winter, even warm cups of coffee in the hands of pedestrians. Measure the city in pedal pushes. Feel weather. There's something about exercise in the cold, around 20 degrees, when your skin is protected from wind. To inhale air is refreshing, like breathing ice water.

Risk vs. Reward: It's a constant calculation, a numbers game that takes place almost entirely below the baseline of awareness. As this article points out, cyclists in the city run red lights and stop signs because it takes extra energy to get started again. The reward of sustained momentum meets the risk of an oncoming car. Righteous drivers don't realize that there's a lot of space inside the binary stop/go behavior that the law asks of them. A straight shot through a light without slowing is statistical suicide, but a measured glide based on time of day, knowledge of territory, and exposure to all of the sensory information around can be a reasonable response to certain situations. The exaggerated articulation of this internal math, in pointed deep glances left and right, can be a useful cue to drivers that you're aware of the danger and acting anyway.

Mindfully: Different modes of transportation can rearrange perceptions of the urban environment. A city is so densely layered that the ability to quickly scan and pull relevant information out of noise and react to it can become virtuosic. With a nod to AG, the street is an interface, Here for You to Use. A bike rack, for example, is really just a specific configuration of certain geometric and material properties. One looks for something solid, secure, and within a line of sight that is low and narrow enough to get a U-Lock around. Take nothing for granted, a silhouette of a head in a parked car could foreshadow a door in your face, and a flashing crosswalk signal can prefigure a vehicle making a run at a stoplight. Imagine and plan for the worst, wear a helmet. Take care, secure in the knowledge that, like Rumsfeld's unknown unknowns, some unforeseen but consequential circumstance is inevitable.


Anonymous said...

Very nice, and certainly rings true for me.

I sometimes think of how my mindfulness when cycling is a lot like dreaming. The ideas I have on the bike are like the ones that come to me in dreams... I'm vaguely aware that I've had them, but they happen without any critical reflection. It's only when I get home, or when I wake up, that I remember I had this random thought and can figure out if it makes sense or not.

sevensixfive said...

Yes, and, if you can remember them at all, things that seemed completely meaningful at the time can collapse into nonsense when brought back with you.

Unknown said...

awesome phenomenological perspective on biking in the city

Anonymous said...

Very cool,
My personal favorite is Synaesthetically,
I find biking to definitely be a multi-and mixed up-sensory experience.
Biking to work in the morning is for me a great almost meditational time. I feel like I am in a super aware state, especially regarding my surroundings as i have seen them for the last 3 years. A super-familiarity? Sometimes i find my trip to be over and think man i wish it was longer.
But never when leaving work for back home.