After the most recent gas hike, actor Chris Guthrie of Walnut Hills gave in to the desire to invest in a bicycle.
"I am loving it," he says. "I think I only drove my car three times this past week."
Cycling is one of those things usually begun for purely selfish reasons — health, exercise, convenience, frugality or fun — but which can have a greater impact. For many, including this writer, bicycling is more than a pastime; it's a lifestyle, a movement.
The last Friday of every month is Critical Mass, a community bike ride held on the same day in 306 cities across the globe, including 213 cities in North America. The movement began in San Francisco in 1992 in opposition to a law prohibiting cyclists from the streets on certain days.
This summer about 50 riders ranging in ages from 8 years to 50 — with the majority being twentysomethings — gathered at 5:30 p.m. on Fountain Square to meander through the streets of downtown. Though race and gender diversity could use a boost, the diversity in personalities of the crowd was evident. A demographic gamut was on display, from people wearing padded spandex and racer jerseys to the hard-core tattooed punk-rocker to the business professional.
Many bike types were also represented: cruisers, road bikes, full-suspension mountain bikes, one tandem and one recumbent.
The Critical Mass in August marked the fifth monthly ride in Cincinnati. It included one very large homemade stereo, towed via trailer while blasting a superb soundtrack from a rider's iPod. Hoots and hollas emitted from the crowd, from both participants and on-lookers, whenever we encountered large groups. Traffic stopped without honks of protests but rather in stunned awe.
On the surface, Critical Mass is simply a statement promoting the joy of riding and the legal right of bicycles to take up a lane of traffic. But an underlying message about the degrading car culture rides along.
Government policy has added fuel to cycling's protest power:
· Cycling discourages an oil-based economy, the sort that is sometimes the impetus for war. If the United States weren't dependent on gasoline, would we have invaded Iraq?
· The United States is the only industrialized country that didn't sign the Kyoto Treaty to decrease gas emissions and slow the earth's global warming. Cars take up an enormous amount of space in our landfills and encourage the paving of city green space for parking.
· Cycling significantly reduces vehicle maintenance, parking and gasoline-related expenditures. How much do you spend on gas each week? How much longer would your car last if it weren't your primary source of transportation?
For me — and many other avid cyclists — the lifestyle has additionally removed gym membership, psychotropic drugs and psychotherapy from my monthly budget. Because profits from oil and pharmaceutical companies influence public policy, denying them our dollars by using our bikes is a way to replace business interests with grassroots influence.
In any city, biking fosters a sense of community and encourages human interaction. In Cincinnati, riding through segregated communities is an opportunity to reduce alienation. Critical Mass riders are psyched to ride through Over-the-Rhine.
"The folks on the street really warmed up to us," says rider and architect Mike Uhlenhake, who lives in Over-the-Rhine. "We made a lot of people laugh."
Initial remarks of vehement shock — "You lost, little white girl?" and "I ain't never seen no white chick on a bicycle," plus more daunting remarks — have given way to daily, "You go, girl!" and "It makes me smile to see you ridin' through." Over the past year I have seen a noticeable shift in attitude: from resentment to respect, from a wary glare to a neighborly smile.
I can only hope this shift carries over to all future "outsiders" who pedal down these streets.
One mayoral candidate, State Sen. Mark Mallory (D-West End), mentions a more bicycle-friendly community as a major transportation issue.
Every day I ride by someone who says, "Now that's what I should be doing." Yup. Grab your bike, get out there and ride.
You know you want an excuse to wear spandex in public.
For more information on Critical Mass, visit criticalmass.org. For bike related political paraphernalia visit microcosmpublishing.com or properganda.com.