Friday, February 12, 2010

Let's roll

Despite the climate change going on, soaring energy costs and the fact that we all know too well about the environmental impact of highly industrialized societies energy, a scarily high number of Americans is still proud to be part of the most wasteful country on this planet. I live in the land of a gazillon gas guzzlers, SUVs, pick-up trucks, and other obscene big cars which are used just to show off but not what they are built for. Or is that in the end their only raison d'être? In this country you can be elected even as Senator by saying: "I'm Scott Brown, I'm from Wrentham, I drive a truck and I'm asking for your vote." If you would only put a snow plow on it to make sense of this. It just doesn't give him credibilty as a people's man (look at his assets) but transports only a kiss-my-ass mentality about environmental concerns or reform in a bigger sense.

Buffalo, NY, 2009. The bigger bumper sticker says: "I am the NRA and I vote."

I always had a hard time understanding why Americans love these cars that much. Speed limits in all 50 states, but 300 hp under the hood. Paved roads, but four wheel drive pick-up trucks with twin tires. What for, please? To ship around a lawn mower and a set of guns, at least?

Whoever knows me, knows also that I love fast, strong, and lightweight cars. I was sad that I had to leave my 325i behind in good old Germany. But I am also known to try to leave a car on the parking spot whenever possible. I cycled to school, to university, and eventually to work for many many years and enjoyed it most of the time.

After moving to New York, I discovered another reason why this city is so different from the rest of the US: People here walk. Not only do they have an angelic patience with the humungous public transportation system, no, they just walk to places, commute per pedes to work and feel good about it.

Bicyclists though have a bad reputation here, and well earned:
  • Many delivery bikers, who are supposed to wear helmets and have lights on their bikes, show up out of nowhere like invisible grim reapers.
  • Quite some messengers and an awful lot of hipsters ride these stupid track bikes - you know, these "fixie" thangs without brakes. That's IMHO ok on a race track, but in Manhattan traffic murderous for them and me as well. Anyway, one feels like on a Billyburg playground.
  • Riders of all kinds go against the one way traffic, ride on sidewalks, detest traffic lights and the rights of other people and vehicles.
  • In addition there is a new "yellow danger": Electrical bikes boom like nothing else in China - and so in Chinatown as well. These vehicles are really great except in the hand of noncaring drivers. They zoom by at a remarkable speed - just without any sound. That can hurt when combined with reckless drivers clad with at least four plastic bags on the handle bar and a cigarette in mouth who give a flying f...

No wonder that nobody can stand them, there's serious discussion about the question if bikers are participants in traffic at all. And in the hasidic part of Williamsburg the city even took a bike path down again - just starting a hipster riot painting it back on the pavement.

So what happens is:
  • Cops are taking down bicyclists regularly during the Critical Mass. (See also the Critical Mass Wiki and (though closed in Jan 2009))
  • Your life gets literally threatened by raging card drivers, and I have to say, that the cab drivers are really the worst. Shame on you. Do you really wonder that the first person ever being killed in a car accident in the US was struck by a New York cab driver? I do not. Poor Henry Hale Bliss. And that was a while ago - just read the New York Times article from 9/14/1899. How to slow them down at least? Here are some brilliant ideas how.
  • You feel like an outlaw riding a bike. Your Midtown friends look at you as if you tell them about a dirty hobby or sex practice.

Nevertheless: I bought my first bike here before I even lived in New York. It eventually died of old age, being not more than a cracking chain and quite arthritic parts around a wonderful frame. Some neighborhood kid tried to resucitate it, so I see it sometimes around. But: When it ran, it ran really fast.

During a personal road rage over another broken chain I spent spontaneously 200 bucks on a brandnew no-brainer Schwinn workhorse which made me feel like switching from a BMW to a van. A solid and comfortable bike, but heavy and slow as hell. Good for shopping, slow excursions and guided city tours on wheels. Mudguards, lights, peace of mind. But just too slow.

Today I got myself the necessary addition: A used Giant FCR 3 - for about 1/8 of its average retail price.

Giant FCR 3 (© Giant Bicycles)

A fitness bike at its best - serious bikers call it a hybrid between a normal road bike and a racer. I don't care. I can't wait until it's here, spring arrives and the snow will be history. At least for now. I am Janko Puls, I live in New York, and I am driving a bicycle.

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