A Person Learns To Ride A Bicycle, Part One

As the writer learns to ride a bicycle, he reflects on the reasons bicycle riding is not something important in America.

Start with one pedal at the top.  Keep pedaling.  When turning, use your whole body weight to adjust rather than leaning in.  Keep pedaling.  When stopping, do not be afraid of the drop when your bicycle slows down completely.  Keep pedaling.  Keep your head up.  These are the things I learned as I learned to ride a bicycle as an adult, after several failed attempts when I was a child more than 15 years ago.  As I learned to keep the bicycle under some semblance of control, and tried to stay away from bumps, part of me wondered what took me so long to learn this basic vehicle.  Afterward, the reason came to me as my friend and I drove away from the quiet park where I trained:  America was not built for being close, let alone having a bicycle.

The bicycle is, and clearly seems to be, a European invention.  Developed in the nineteenth century, all the forms the bicycle took on (including the most ridiculous looking, the penny farthing) represented a need to move around from town to town on one's own terms.  Europe is a very dense, very packed land.  Using a bicycle made sense in those places, and as time went along, it became that in parts of that continent, riding a bicycle was not just some recreational thing, but a normal way of getting around, with the infrastructure accommodating to bikes.

America is the exact opposite of dense and packed.  People lived in spaces where the distance between neighbors was more than a few seconds, and lived apart from each other.  Even in parts of the so-called "Northeast Corridor" between Boston and Washington DC, the densest region in the country, there are some areas where there are few people in between.  Towns were not built to be bunched together, but rather as a simple hub for all the people living around it.  Riding a bicycle in this situation, especially in the early days when paving roads was a luxury to most communities, was a lesson in futility.  In my own hometown, I existed on the edge between rural and suburban, and getting to nearby neighborhoods was difficult without a car, since most of the roads were designed to carry large numbers of cars.

Eventually, the bicycle was relegated to being a child's form of transportation.  You would learn it, yes, and you may have gotten around this way to see people, but eventually you grew up, you put your little bike in the shed or give it to a young kid down the street who could not afford a bike, and you got yourself a car.  This is the way things have been for the last six or seven decades, since the automobile became dominant, and people went from the city to the suburbs.  Even if you chose to stay or live in the city, riding a bicycle was dangerous, and it was better to go on foot, or catch a bus or train to get where you are going.

It is in this situation that a newly-minted bicyclist such as myself faces.  Things have begun to change dramatically in the last decade, as the pendulum that sent people out from the cities into the suburbs is now swinging back the other way, among other things.  But that is for another time.  For now, I just got to keep pedaling.

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