Paul Dorn knows that getting Americans to ride a bike to work instead of driving a car is quite the uphill battle. Even on a good day, he says, only a tiny percentage of the nation’s commuters use pedal power to get to their jobs.
"I'm fairly typical of most Americans in the sense that the day I got my driver's license, the bike went into the garage. I didn't really touch it again until my mid-30s, when I was living in San Francisco, and didn’t have a car," he said. His frustrating mass transit commute took 90 minutes. So he hopped on a bike, cut the commuting time in half, felt healthier, stopped paying bus fare and just generally started having more fun.
Of course, starting out in San Francisco helped. It’s a generally bike-friendly city, and Dorn...found a supportive cycling community to tell him about equipment, routes to avoid traffic and other advice. ( Read more.)
Bike to Work Day has been an effective promotion, encouraging commuters to reconsider their default transportation mode. A major challenge facing many prospective bicycle commuters is what we might call (with a nod to James Howard Kunstler ) the "Psychology of Previous Investment."
Motorists have made a huge investment--social, psychological, emotional, and financial--in their automobiles. "I love my car" or "My car makes me look hot!" They've made payments on car loans and auto insurance. They are afraid of diminished social status: "Jeff's not driving, I wonder if he lost his job?" The characters on their favorite TV dramas and sit-coms drive; their friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, everyone drives. Cars evoke nostaglic memories; our parents took us on car trips, not bicycle tours. There's also the perception that bike commuters are either eccentric geeks or low-income transients. It's not mature or grown up.
Our entire culture has been built around the automobile. While the rest of the world built transit and high-speed rail, we built freeways and parking lots. In much of our country, it is truly unpleasant to walk or bike to destinations, which in sprawling suburbs are often separated by long distances and dull numbing strip mall streetscapes. In short, our public policy for the past 60-70 years has discouraged walking, transit use, or bicycling.
It's a challenge to consider shifting to bicycling.
Bike to Work Day is effective at raising awareness, as individual commuters and as citizens in a culture long-dominated by the auto-petrol industrial complex. BTWD offers a "safe" day to try bicycling, makes us confront our transportation reality, and causes us to examine our real options. And a few of us will try bicycle commuting, and possibly continue with it. Happy Bike to Work Day.