Last night I received two invitations: one was to a meeting about transportation options and budgets, the other was to a free concert. I pick the free concert. Choosing between truck, bicycle, or bus is a seven-day-a-week need that must be answered so I can get to work; but, the nature of the meeting demonstrates why organizations and convention rule political discourse. The meeting is free. The concert is free. But attending the meeting will cost about two extra hours, enough cash to pay for a day or two of food, and put myself at risk getting there and getting back. The concert (actually the pre-concert lawn party) is on my way, and the hour and a half will be spent on entertainment with dear friends. I want, and am going to, the concert.
Back in May an overlooked, under-maintained, and over-worked bridge collapsed on the main West Coast highway leading to Canada. This was not a local issue. Freight from California suddenly was dramatically slowed as traffic had to be routed through a small city’s streets. A temporary bridge is in place, but the issue remains. Too many bridges are in need of repair. Budgets are too tight. Choices have to be made. Evidently, tonight’s transportation meeting is meant to address those choices and may include everything from bridges to bike lanes. The public is invited. I’m sure many will attend. I’m sure industry will be represented, or will make sure their voice is heard before, during, or after the meeting. The freight must flow. Like I said, I won’t be there because the free meeting costs too much.
More than two years ago my finances were hit by a Triple Whammy. I’ve always lived a frugal life, but those choices that were made at leisure with an emphasis on what I wanted were subsequently made based on need. As finances diminished and as I began working seven days a week, my bicycle increasingly replaced my truck for chores. The truck was reserved for things I didn’t want to risk or couldn’t carry on the bike: my art, my books, my computer, my camera; or, for those times when time was critical. Meetings in scattered locations could be met by bicycle, but time is money. The bus could only work if I wasn’t carrying much and only needed to go to one place. Besides, the closest bus stop is more than 1.5 miles from my house, only runs on weekdays, and has two hour gaps in its schedule.
Our nation and our selves have many unmet needs. We’ve always had unmet wants; that’s the human condition. But so much money has gone to things that aren’t food, shelter, health, or infrastructure that we are overwhelmed with deferred maintenance. At some point, deferred maintenance must be prioritized, or it becomes more expensive repair, or even most expensive replacement. So, our bridges fail, schools aren’t repaired, and we have to make choices within needs instead of prioritizing wants.
Our selves are more on my mind. Individuals are facing similar dilemmas. The Bible says there will always be poor. But it is worse news if the number is growing. Despite the recovery, 1 in 7 Americans are considered poor. One in seven. One-seventh of our population and citizenry. One seventh of We The People. Ironically, these are the people that will have the roughest time attending a meeting about transportation options.
Bicycling is becoming an answer to a need instead of a choice for a want.
“Driving is down among younger Americans” – Salon Magazine
They can’t afford it. Student loans, underemployment, the price of gas and gas’ effect on their future environment are all disincentives to driving. I’ve bicycle commuted for over 35 years, but mostly from a want, not a need. Now, I am deeply aware of the fact that every day I use the truck to get to work I’m spending more on gas than I am on food.
Tonight’s meeting is basically the public side of politics, which I applaud; but, its nature exemplifies the growing inequalities in the system. If one in seven are in poverty, and if an entire generation is avoiding vehicles, then holding a meeting that is focused on transportation is focusing on those who can afford to attend it, those who may consider bicycles to be toys instead of the necessary choice to meet basic needs. The more you have the more likely the government will spend money on you. (I’m looking forward to hearing what Robert Reich has to say in his new movie Inequality For All. Tell me how it comes out. I’ll save the money for other bills.) The folks who need it most won’t be at the meeting or the movie.
Incredible to some, this is not political. I know politicos who can dive into that debate with great fervor. For me, it is a awareness of the impact on personal finance. Bicycling is a fact of my life. Fortunately, I enjoy it. Bicycle commuting costs less, improves my health, is nicer to the environment, and is actually fun. Bicycles can allow us to do much more than go to store. I bicycled across America. Whidbey Island, where I live, is positioned nicely to funnel transcontinental cyclists. Two nights ago I met a man bicycling from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. A couple of months ago I met a woman who was bicycling to - well, I don’t know exactly where, but I’m glad I steered her back on course to the ferry.
Yet some realities are apparent. Cargo bikes are appearing. Trailers carry other things besides kids too. You might be surprised to see what bicycles can carry. Fat tires win out over road slicks because they are more puncture resistant, and are safer when forced off the road. Carry the right gear to guard against the curse of the lack of budget that means blackberry bushes reach out and catch cyclists in the face (and yes, scars have happened), tree roots that create speed bumps (and sometimes necessitate swerving), and potholes that eat tires and cause puncture. Also curse broken glass, nails, screws, staples that are only swept away twice a year. Thank whoever invented the LED lights that run bright and long on cheap batteries.
Some transportation funds do go to aiding bicyclists. Bike paths are better than bike lanes which are better than bike routes; but they all are only useful if they have signs that say where they lead. Too many bike path signs lead on scenic tours instead of helping a cyclist get to a destination. And if you’re lucky a bicycle map exists for your area, and if you’re really lucky it will mark the best streets, the dangerous streets, the hills, and the places you can find support.
Usually though, a bicyclist should be prepared to be an unsupported individual with essentials like tools, spare tubes, a lock, lights, rain gear, luggage rack, and that ultimate safety feature: a cell phone. Yes, it costs money (but a lot less than repeatedly filling a tank of gas). Yes, some of it is even more necessary because of the level of support probably won’t change appreciably. One-seventh of the population trying to minimize their cost of living isn’t as noticeable as our bridges collapsing. What is noticeable and valuable is a local and active bike club. Find yours or make one or prepare to ride unsupported.
I look forward to the day when we don’t have to choose between people and bridges, when there’s enough budget to meet both needs. Until then, I’ll keep my tires pumped, carry lights and reflectors – and make sure I have a blanket and some simple picnic food for this evening’s concert. It is DjangoFest. Good music. Maybe some dancing on the lawn. Ah, there’s something I want.