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China 1980, Germany 1950, A Personal Encounter with Sane Pleasant Mass Transportation

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[From 1988]
Once, after a two week working trip in Shanghai, where I had become accustomed to enjoying riding a bicycle all over that enormous city, both in going to appointments and as a means of recreation and exercise, I returned home to New York to find a huge box in my apartment. It was my roommate's new pedal exercise machine.

I thought, gosh, how lonely and sad. I pictured my poor friend pedaling this exercise bike, in order to use his legs and work up a sweat, going nowhere while looking at the four walls of the apartment, when I had just spent weeks cycling along the special bike lanes of the wide colorful avenues, tree-canopied streets and intimate, narrow, life-filled, winding back alleys of Shanghai, outdoors, and in the company of Shanghai residents.

Then I felt even more guilty as I remembered and realized that all my family - my mother, my father, my brother, my sister - all have exercise bike machines (they call them exercise bicycles even though they are stationary devices.) They all bought them to save their knees from atrophy, but no-one uses them every often. It's too boring. What a dilemma. Everyone is a prisoner of his or her car and has weak knees. Only my sons have real bikes - the one who lives in the city sports a scar on his face as a badge of courage.

A lot of good people, especially in the Third World, have been captivated by Western commercial advertising techniques propagandizing the dream of a slick comfortable life on the wheels of a shiny and posh new car racing along a deserted road amid beautiful scenery. They will often consider this anti-car-proliferation attitude of mine impractical, nature-loving, and even selfish, and accuse me of wanting the rest of the world to be quaint, old fashioned and uncomfortably backward on the seats of slow moving leg-powered bicycles suffering in the rain and sun.

Well, yes, I did enjoy the use of a car in a small town in the 1940s when the expression "traffic jam" had not yet been invented. Now, I rent a car if I need to make a long trip with others. I was never healthier than the year I rode a bike even in rain and snow while a student in postwar Germany. I was never unhealthier than during those years of being trapped every day in my pretty Toyota box on wheels moving haltingly along with everyone else, separately, in the tropical sun of Puerto Rico (where there are few buses).

I experienced this mellow, tingling bicycle-bell traffic paradise in Chinese cities (recently a bit compromised by blaring car horns) in my maturity. I consider myself fortunate to have got to know quite a few cities and towns of this wonderful planet not very long after World War II when their old-world charm of wood and brick was available to pedestrian appreciation, well before they were converted into highways and parking places. Those were the days before the lovely streets with pavement cafes on different continents had deteriorated from pedestrian friendly to air-polluted, noisy venues of choked lines of smelling, overheating vehicles and wall to wall parking.

Today, for me most cities and even small towns on the world map are characterized by painted, hot and mostly dirty metal.

I remember in the 1960s, when my when my children were little, on Sundays we would like to make use of the family car to go to the country or beach. Whether we were in New York, Rome, Italy, or San Juan, Puerto Rico, the frustration was the same. While it was still early morning, we'd look out of the window down on the slow moving highway traffic. We'd consider the hours needed to go just a short way out of town and imagine the kids acting up in the car out of boredom, and then the whole scene all over again, coming back in the evening. We usually stayed home and I felt trapped in town by traffic. I began to dislike even my own car as a symbol of this confinement. I never felt that way towards my bicycle, which always seemed like a reliable pony-horse that could slip me through any traffic jam.

Travel by bicycle, though not a universal solution to traffic congestion, pollution and personal health problem, has many benefits:

(1) Inexpensive; (2) Non air polluting; (3) Quiet (no noise pollution); (4) Consumes little of our natural resources; (5) Does no harm to the earth's atmosphere; (6) The exercise promotes one's physical health in air enjoyment (as long as not riding alongside vehicle exhaust pipes); (8) Good for the psyche - keeps one inside society rather than isolated and confined in a private car.

Even such a traffic intensive city as my New York has attempted to encourage bicycle use, painting white stripes down the sides of many busy downtown avenues and posting "bike lane" caution signs.

But world wide, the bicycle has been losing ground. One the plus side are the many northern European cities maintaining their specially cordoned-off bike lanes, and China, which, while prohibiting bicycles even from their separate divided-off lanes during busy hours, also prohibits motor vehicles from using many side streets which become quiet and peaceful for bike riders.

On the down side are Jakarta and Seoul, where the bicycle is almost entirely prohibited. Indonesia clogs its avenues with fine Japanese motor cars while pedestrians outside the city center walk along a narrow dirt path beside traffic so backed up that an extra tariff is charged to cars with fewer than two people during rush hours. Drivers in Seoul will be heavily fined if caught driving a car with the last digit designated to be out of circulation during its no-use number day.

In poorer countries where class differences are dramatic, there is often disdain and scorn by drivers for the bicycles (and their riders) they must be attentive to. In wealthy tourist accommodating China and Vietnam a car can carry false prestige. I once had to speak to the manager of the Shanghai Towers Hotel to get the parking lot attendant to allow me to part my bicycle in the hotel parking lot instead of far out of sight around the back of the hotel where employees stationed their bikes.

I guess everyone is conversant with the car pollution horror of Los Angeles, and the most hellish of them all, Mexico City. Yet both of these cities are basically on level land, ideal for bike transportation.

In Japan, the nation benefiting from the profit of car manufacture, bicycles are prevalent everywhere.

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Jay Janson is an archival research peoples historian activist, musician and writer; has lived and worked on all continents; articles on media published in China, Italy, UK, India, in Germany & Sweden Einartysken,and in the US by Dissident (more...)

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