The bicycle

“Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the human race.” ~H.G. Wells.

It’s about ten and a half kilometers from my house in the suburbs of Ottawa to my office downtown, a trip that I like to take on my bicycle when the ground isn’t covered with two feet of snow. It’s days like today, when the sky is grey and the ground is frozen, that my mind drifts to summer days of pedalling down the River Pathway bike trail, to the sights and sounds of nature, and the flocks of baby geese and their mamas sitting by the water.

Last year I bought a fairly mid-range bike that quickly glides along the path and is light enough for me to carry with one hand. The trip downtown can easily be made in less than half an hour, making it much faster to hop on my bike every morning than subject myself to the throngs of SUVs and minivans stuck in rush hour traffic. The beautiful scenery and steady stream of endorphins relax and energize me all at the same time, and I often find myself smiling at the thought that I am not one of the thousands of agitated drivers slowly putting along in first gear.

My dad has been an avid cyclist for nearly as long as I can remember, ever since a sabbatical a few years ago left him feeling quite bored and restless. He spent hours riding around town while we were at school, and every day returned with stories of adventures and discoveries and bonding with fellow cyclists over challenging weather and flat tires. Bicycling changed the way my dad experienced the world. It was good for him, good for his soul.

The Bike Movement has been growing steadily across North America and it’s not hard to see why. For some, it’s part of a decision to be healthier, to burn some fat and build some muscle. For others, it’s a convenient way to beat rush hour traffic. Sometimes it’s a financial necessity. For many, cycling is (admirably) part of their effort to decrease fuel emissions, reduce roadway congestion, and lower their carbon footprint.

But the more I pedal instead of drive, the more I realize that bicycling isn’t simply a recreation issue or a health issue or an urban planning issue. It isn’t even just a ‘green’ issue, at least not entirely. When it comes down to it, bicycling is a justice issue.

The effects of motor vehicles on our environment should be pretty much common knowledge by now: in Canada, road transportation made up nearly 25% of Greenhouse Gas Emissions.1 Even more shocking? A recent Canadian census estimated that somewhere around half of Canadians live within 8 kilometers of their school or place of work – a commute that can easily be done by bike.2 And because of the mechanics involved in engine “warm up” time, these short trips are the worst polluters by a long shot.3

But think about this: we are now beginning to discover that many global issues are caused or made worse by climate change, including such basic needs as food, water, health, and shelter. Let’s take agriculture as an example. Climate change – caused in large part by pollution from cars – is causing a huge increase in heat stress, droughts, and flooding, making it much more difficult for farmers to grow the food that they need for their families and communities. And if we don’t do anything to change this, it looks like the problem is only going to get worse, with climate scientists predicting that farms relying on rain to grow their crops (instead of more sophisticated and expensive irrigation systems) could see a 50% decline in the amount of food that they produce.4

There is no distinction between a people issue and a planet issue, or a local issue and a global issue. They are one and the same. What I do in Ottawa affects the life of someone in Arnprior and Toronto and Idaho and Mexico. My commute affects communities around the globe. Small decisions matter.

The other day I asked my dad why he bikes, what gets him in the saddle even in sweltering heat, deluges of rain, and sub-zero temperatures. Bottom line? he said, Cycling equals a simpler and more wholesome life. No pollution. You’re not stuck in traffic. You’re not feeding this unfettered oil-based capitalism where profit is the only thing.

So, it’s mainly about the environment? I asked.

The environment is a big part of it, for sure, he replied. But mostly I love the sense of community. Bicycles lower barriers and people are more relaxed interacting with you. I can pass someone and look at their face, and often get a smile and ‘hello’ in return. In the locker room at work, there is a real sense of community and camaraderie and common purpose. It’s beautiful.

You see, changing the world is no easy task. What is easy, is getting bogged down by the weight of the world’s problems, overwhelmed by injustice and inequality. And big problems like the ones we’re fighting certainly demand radical solutions. But maybe the most radical solution starts with the bicycle. Maybe big problems can be solved when we start to think small. Local. When we invest in our communities. When we realize that every choice we make, moment by moment, day by day, can either make the world a better place or keep the world turning just the way it always has been. The most radical world changers, the ones who look at their planet and see a broken system and who nevertheless decide that they will challenge that system head-on, those are the ones who know the power of even the most simple, small, seemingly inconsequential action.

And when local communities are strong, when we start to realize that it’s not just us in the world but that we are all connected together, when we get to know our neighbours and when a stranger stops to help change a flat bicycle tire, beautiful things start happening. We start thinking about others, about being selfless. Our world begins to change.

So the next time you feel that you are too small and the problem is too big, remember this: it all starts with the bicycle.

1. Environment Canada, “Canada’s Emissions Trends,” p. 15. Available online at: http://www.ec.gc.ca/ges-ghg/985F05FB-4744-4269-8C1A-D443F8A86814/1001-Canada%27s%20Emissions%20Trends%202013_e.pdf. Last accessed 27 February 2015.

2. Statistics Canada, “2006 Census: Analysis Series: Table 2: Median Commuting Distances of Workers (in kilometers), Canada, Provinces and Territories, 1996, 2001, and 2006,” Available online at http://www12.statcan.ca/census-recensement/2006/as-sa/97-561/table/t2-eng.cfm. Last accessed 27 February 2015.

3. National Geographic Green Guide, “Buying Bikes: Environmental Impact,” Available online at: http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/green-guide/buying-guides/bikes/environmental-impact/. Last accessed 27 February 2015.M
4. United States Environmental Protection Agency, “Climate Impacts on Global Issues,” Available online at http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/impacts-adaptation/international.html. Last Accessed 27 February 2015.