Misery in the Median: The Quality of Life Argument for Cycling

We bike commuters specifically, and cyclists generally, like to talk about how being on a bike heightens our awareness of our environment and our communities. But this aspect of cycling remains one of the hardest to communicate to a non-cyclist. Your most poetic description of “heightened awareness” won’t convince sedentary habitual motorist to think, I want to try that!

Take this passage from a recent and heavily-tweeted post on Sustainable Cities Collective:

The bicycle is new vision for the blind man. It is a thrilling tool of communication, an experiential device for the beauty and the ills of the urban context. One cannot turn a blind eye on a bicycle – they must acknowledge their community, all of it.

Here lies the secret weapon of the urban renaissance.

Bored Worker
Sorry. Were you talking about bikes again?


Invite a motorist for a bike ride through your city and you’ll be cycling with an urbanist by the end of the day.

See, I don’t disagree with any of that. Not a word.

But good luck with the, “Invite a motorist for a bike ride” part of the equation.

There is a large chunk of our society–and I don’t just mean the chunky hordes among us–who will respond to your invitation with a forced smile and a vacant stare, while thinking to themselves, Wasn’t there a War on Effort? Didn’t we win? (I’m talking mostly to Americans here, but other nationalities will understand the phenomenon.)

Stephen King's 'Misery" and a Dollar
Captured: The moment that convinced America to ride bikes.

A couple of days ago on my commute, I found a copy of Misery by Stephen King right in the median of a busy street I was crossing. Within half-a-mile, I found a dollar in the road.

For about five seconds, I imagined this would make a great See what you’re missing? case for cycling. Then I was brought back to reality. (If only it had been a DVD or a video game instead of a book.)

But I kept wondering how the quality-of-life argument could ever penetrate a culture so infused with the sedentary ethic that the argument must sound like complete nonsense to some people.

This recent article on NPR explores how our response to laziness defines (yet another) cultural divide in our culture:

[T]he battle over how we spend our leisure time turned into an all-out war between two extreme camps — those who use it and those who snooze through it. The divisiveness continues today. Some Americans exercise religiously; others grow more obese. Some go to night schools; others are diverted by video games.

I’ve got no answers here. Just a solid belief that cycling and walking make communities better, and make life more fulfilling. That belief of mine is substantiated by research. But it seems as though the entire discussion occurs within our enclave. To outsiders, this discussion sounds like, Blah blah blah bike blah bike blah

Is there hope that anything other than the rising price of gas can make people more receptive to the quality-of-life argument for cycling?

Read this:

Things like biking and walking trails, parkland and recreational areas, farmers’ markets boasting locally- grown produce and a strong public transportation system are also taken into account as factors that lead to healthy living.

Can you guess where that quote came from?

No, not Mother Earth News.

Not Green Left Weekly either.

Not even People & the Planet, or Grist.

That quote came from this article on FOXBusiness.

And no, it’s not the most focused or eloquent thing I’ve ever read in support of cycling and it’s role in better communities. But I marvel that it was slipped matter-of-factly into a piece from a “news organization” that is, if not anti-cycling, more than happy to play the “war on cars” theme and side with the cars.

Hope comes from the strangest places.

Thanks to Tom Bowden for sending me the FOXBusiness link.

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21 thoughts on “Misery in the Median: The Quality of Life Argument for Cycling”

  1. Tom Bowden says:

    Ted – You are quite welcome of course. And I am sure that Rupert and James would thank you as well, if not fully absorbed in the voicemail hacking scandal or whatever it is. How embarrassing for them – I mean – who do those News Corp investigative reporters think they are? Woodward and Bernstein?

  2. I wonder if it’s just a slow-build, word-of-mouth kind of thing. You, Ted, for instance, for all the good work you do, may not be able to convince a lot of people you don’t know to make a major lifestyle change like this.

    But people listen to their friends and family. And when they start knowing a few people who get around mostly by bike — along with noticing more cyclists on the streets — then they might start to get curious.

    And one day when they run into a friend on a bike outside the grocery store, they happen to say, “hey, maybe I should get a bike, you know?”

    I have no data on this, but I’m just wondering if that’s where converts are most likely to come from.

  3. Tom Bowden says:

    More germane to your article – I once found a partial set of J A Henckels professional cutlery in the middle of the road on my route to work. They were wrapped up in a nice black leatherette carrying case, and came complete with a sharpening rod. Top that!

  4. Tom Bowden says:

    One more thing – I want to thank Champe Burnley, the tireless president of the Virginia Bicycling Federation, for bringing the article to my attention. I don’t want anyone to think I spend too much time reading that particular publication. it’s not that I disagree with them so much, it’s just that they don’t have much to teach me. I’m sure other regular commenters would say the same, but for different reasons

  5. The other day I found a cell phone in the bike lane. I’ve found a lot cell phones on the road over the years. Usually, they’ve been run over a few times and are in many pieces. This one was still in working condition, so I called someone in the contacts and eventually got it back to the owner. So, we can extrapolate, I think, that riding a bike resulted in this good deed being done!

  6. Tom Bowden says:

    Ted – to your point about America winning the battle against “Effort,” I recently purchased an old fashioned reel-type lawnmower. I say old fashioned because it’s like the one I used to push around when I was a kid and we did not have a power mower, but in reality, it’s quite up to date. For years, I have been pushing around this big heavy supposedly self-propelled power mower, which seemed to push back as much as it propelled itself. The human powered mower, even though it only cuts 16″ swaths, is a joy to use. The blades are so sharp they go through all but the thickest grass with ease. And it’s so QUIET and LIGHT! I wonder what made me think I needed 6.5 horsepower to mow my little fraction of an acre. I was actually thinking of buying a lawn tractor!
    Here is the dilemma – since the human powered mower is actually easier to use, have I advanced or held back the battle against sloth and human stagnation?

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      You’ve proven that it’s not always intuitive what will improve quality of life. One of these days I’m going to write my Inconvenience Manifesto which will be about all of the ways I’ve improved my quality of life by inviting inconveniences.

  7. Ted Johnson says:

    I’m seeing a Stephen King pattern here in all of the objects found by cyclists.

    A novel

    Razor-sharp knives

    A cell phone

    I’m getting a little creeped out.

  8. Tom Bowden says:

    I heard that someone once found Stephen King by the side of the road, but it wasn’t a cyclist. Thankfully, he recovered.


  9. BluesCat says:

    “News Corp investigative reporters” is an oxymoron, Tom; “News Corp dirtbag print papparazzi” is more accurate.

    Speaking of low class collections of human DNA, I often pedal through a Wal-Mart parking lot where the motorists leaving their cars usually look like champion Sumo wrestling couples.

    When I pair the image of some of these folks with the statement that I should “Invite a motorist for a bike ride,” my very next thought is “OMG! My sturdiest bicycle is rated at 300 pounds!”

    Ain’t gonna happen, Ted.

  10. Gordon L Belyea says:

    While I agree that there is certainly an element of our disdain as a culture (even up here in Canada) for physical exertion and perspiration that discourages people from using bicycles for practical transportation, that isn’t the whole problem. I run with a club in our town – many of these folks compete in marathons and there are a couple of triathletes among our number. Yet they are continually amazed that I bicycle a few miles to meet up for our run. They comment when they see me biking around town to appointments for work. I’ve been asked with serious concern whether we even own a car, or if I can drive. People who will do training rides of 30-40 miles won’t hop on the bike for a trip across town.

    There is simply the perception, among the physically active as well, that bicycles are not a serious mode of transportation for adults. When I try to mention the practicality, pleasure, and even the time savings involved in bicycling for transportation, I might as well be speaking another language. Everyone is most sympathetic – in the way one is with that aunt who keeps talking to herself and lives with her cats!

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      Great feedback, Gordon. Thanks!

      Invite a [runner] for a bike ride through your city and you’ll be cycling with an urbanist by the end of the day?

  11. Jeremy says:

    Just this past winter I found a $10 bill in the snow at the curb as I was leaving for my morning commute. I definitely would have missed it if I hadn’t of been walking my bike to the street, and it totally made my day. It was a really cold morning and that $10 was enough for a coffee and fritter with change left over. I smiled about that for the rest of the week–that’s quality of life right there.

  12. Deanne Westerman says:

    A few years ago I found (?) a dead possum wrapped in a baby blue blanket next to a mailbox in our suburban neighborhood. I’ve never been the same. (To quote “The Book of Mormon” on Broadway: TURN IT OFF!)

  13. Julian says:

    Every year, at the shop where I work, we bring in an offering of utilitarian/ commuter-appropriate bikes. Every year at season end we have to put them on clearance. We commute ourselves, two of us year round through heavy snows, so it isn’t as if we aren’t “walking the walk” when we show them to people. People ooh and aah when we demonstrate the belt drive systems and swoon as they try out the upright seating position that seems to be their personal holy grail. Despite all good intentions, these bikes sit and collect dust. Running small errands or commuting by bike seems to be viewed as some Herculean effort that requires more stamina than the average person can muster. I can’t count the number of customers than gush in amazement when they learn that I actually ride my bike year round at 51 years of age, lol.

  14. BluesCat says:

    Julian – Let me just start a thought experiment for a second. I have a lot of folks come up to me — when I have my Sun EZ-Sport recumbent, Bluetiful, sitting in front of Starbucks — and start asking me all about the bike. They seem to be interested in it, about how comfortable it is and about how quick it is, and some of them get really excited when I tell them it’s not a custom bike but there’s one just like it sitting in the window of the bike shop just down the street.

    Yet that EZ-Sport has sat there for over a year; the shop owner says although they’ve had several people test ride it, and liked it, none of them have bought it. I get the impression that several things are happening:

    1. When non-riders think of bicycles, I believe they think of drop handlebars, skinny saddles and big 700 wheels; I’m wondering if they shy away from the ‘bent, and from cargo bikes like the Xtracycle and the Surly Big Dummy, because these craft don’t fit the picture of a “regular” bicycle and people are afraid of being viewed as a “goofy bicyclist.”

    2. You can buy a decent hybrid or comfort bike at the bike shop for $300 or less, but even the cheapest cargo bike will run you $400 or more and a really good ‘bent or cargo bike will be north of $1-large; I’m wondering if price is playing a factor.

    3. Riding a bicycle across town conjures images of being squashed flat by an SUV; Mrs. Cat suffers from this fear, and no number of times seeing me ride up with a big grin on my face has convinced her to give it a try; a fear factor, maybe?

    4. Cars are the vehicles of American prosperity, and bicycles are the symbols of the hordes of the third-world; Rich people snobbery?

    What do you think?

  15. Tom Bowden says:

    Maybe if they made carbon fiber commuter/cargo bikes more people would think riding was actually useful.

  16. Julian says:

    Lol, Bluescat….reminds me of the time I’d just finished the build on my own SWB underseat steered ‘bent. I wheeled it out onto the street one fine spring morning. My regular riding partner came over for our usual Sunday ‘cross ride and looked at it…from a safe distance. I told him to give it a spin. He said the expected “naw, it’s okay”. I pointed at the seat and said “get going”. He pushed off, missed the other pedal and veered over onto the grass. He went to dismount but I told him (forcibly) to try again. He wobbled off….and came back 15 minutes later with a huge “gotta get me one of these” grins on his face.

    There are agreeable points to what you say. I’m sure that the average person in a car views a commuting cyclist as a sort of “Fred”. Forced to have reflective stuff here and there, helmet, tons of lights, stupid fenders, maybe even a ridiculous orange flag. They cant get their head around the fact that some of us LIKE to travel by bike in inclement weather, be it hot, cold or wet.

    The average North American tends to view the bicycle as a children’s mode of transportation, or as something to ride if you’ve lost your licence due to driving while intoxicated. In the case of the mountain bike, it’s a toy to be played with on the weekend.

    You’re right. The freaky stuff attracts comment…but, as in the case of my friend, they’re afraid of it at the same time. My main commuter is an old fixed gear ex-10 speed road bike with those wild looking Jeff Jones bars and the most ragged, ancient, beaten down Brooks-styled saddle on it…..I’m always explaining THAT one.

  17. BluesCat says:

    Julian – (chuckle) A “Fred.” Now there’s a term I haven’t heard in a long time!

    Yeah, the Ol’ Cat is definitely a Fred. Even a cursory glance at Bluetiful will confirm that. (Also, naming your bike is recognized as a key element of Fredishness.)

    Okay, so how do we work towards convincing others that being a Fred is “cool” and disparaging “Freds” is uncool?


  18. dominic says:

    Ted, good topics and writing. Hats off to you! Here is my take on biking in America. It is the mirror image of our society. Look at the way Americans dress. T-shirts, ball caps baggy shorts, shoes untied, sweat suit bottoms etc. The look is sloppy. Well,take a look at the way many people ride bikes. There is a large share that have no idea about shifting, fit, maintenance or safety. That would make for sloppy bike riding. Sorry to say, but, until the uninitiated bike rider steps up their game, bike riding will stay sloppy. Maybe biking could take a page from the world of golf. At least the look is clean and neat.

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