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Time is on Our Side

Chapter 12 of Daniel Behrman's The Man Who Loved Bicycles

The bicycle is a vehicle for revolution. It can destroy the tyranny of the automobile as effectively as the printing press brought down despots of flesh and blood. The revolution will be spontaneous, the sum total of individual revolts like my own. It may have already begun. It will not be organized, the organizers have got us into Organizations, they are responsible for the behavior that Gallup can predict. I want to see a Unites States where a survey of 2,000 people will indicate the hopes, fears, preferences, loves of 2,000 people, not 200 million, and no one will survey them anymore. New converts are being made and new cohorts are being formed by the hour. Some 12 million bicycles are manufactured and sold every year in the United States. The rest of the West is bound to tag along as it did for blue jeans and wraparound windshields. Paris-Match has already featured a little outfit that the Galeries Lafayette suggest for cycling in the Parc de Saint-Cloud. Galeries Lafayette, we are here!

Americans still go around the world spreading the germs of change. Change must come, all the signs point that way. Extinction has overtaken many animals, but no species willingly heads for self-destruction in full awareness of where it is going. We are aware, the canaries are keeling over on all sides. In a New Yorker interview, a young woman named Kahn-Tineta Horn, an Indian activist, made some remarks that I keep remembering.

The Indians are being asked to be white people and they can't be. They can't be two people at once. They're trying to strip the Indian of his identity. The Indian is different. He can't make it in white society.

If the Indian can't have his ancient feeling of community, if he can't "go on the warpath"---that is, do work that suits him---if he can't go through the old rituals that signify to him he has become a man, then he is emasculated. He's a caged animal. That's why he has so much trouble in the city.

Let's not pity the poor Indian, let's pity ourselves. The Indians are getting it in the cities but they're not the only ones. I know Bretons, sons of farmers and seamen, who can no longer do work that suits them. They, too, are being driven away from their old rituals. What is happening to them is happening to full-dimensioned human beings the world over whether in the name of development or because it's good for business.

But it's not good for businessmen, they're not all that far removed from the poor Indians. An article in the Sunday Times of London speaks about the revival of cycling in Paris. "Middle-aged executives, keen to show that they are 'dynamique,' have started trying to improve their health by riding to work. It probably doesn't do them much good, since everybody else's cars pollute the Paris air so much that what they gain on the coronaries they lose on the chest diseases." The Sunday Times doesn't know its Parisians; they didn't become executives to choose between a lung cancer and an infarctus. Executives make their voices heard everywhere. No one cried very much about spilt oil in offshore drilling until tarry black goo started to decorate beachfront property in Santa Barbara, California, much of it bought, no doubt, by oil executives. They cried, their screams are still being heard.

Obviously, we are not all going to be converted overnight. It took twenty years for automobile registrations in the United States to rise from 8,000 in 1900 to 8 million in 1920 against entrenched interests no stronger than blacksmiths and stable boys. Before we start going the other way, we must slow down. In The Gilded Age, Mark Twain tells of one of those made steamboat races, using the most advanced technology of the day, that ended as they often did with one boat shattered by an explosion. Her rival's crew started to douse their boilers with buckets of water, there was no stopping her with the head of steam that she had on. There's no stopping us in our tracks, either, we have got to slow down, perhaps as I have slowed from Manhattan to Lanloup (pop. 250).

We are slowing down. Pedestrian malls are spreading over city centers everywhere from Verona to Tokyo. One town, Norwich in England, discovered the virtues of a "foot street" almost by accident. Back in 1965, London Street had to be closed to traffic for six weeks while repairs were carried out on a sewer. Shopkeepers, to their great surprise, found they were doing more business. Without cars, their street was more attractive, even with a sewer being dug up. Since then, Norwich has decided to keep cars out of London Street without waiting for the next big excavation job. They have learned that it is not necessary to burn one's house down to enjoy roast pork.

In 1972, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD to its friends) did a world survey of traffic-free zones.

In Vienna, shop owners reported a 25 to 50 per cent increase in business in the first week after the traffic ban went into effect last December. In Norwich, all but two shops in the exclusion area did more business. Some increase has been reported to be between 15 and 35 per cent; Rouen, in France, between 10 and 15 per cent.

In Tokyo, of 574 shops surveyed, 21 per cent showed an increase in sales, 60 per cent showed no change and 19 per cent reported a decrease. Seventy-four per cent of the merchants interviewed pronounced themselves in favor of the scheme.

We've got a contradiction here. Pedestrian malls are good for business, but they're bad for the automobile business. Does this mean that the automobile business is bad for business? Does this mean that we are being hoaxed, conned, swindled, and hornswoggled by all of our friends who tell us not to touch a hair on Henry Ford's old gray head if we do not wish to see desolation and depression visited upon us and our grandchildren's grandchildren? Ask the OECD, maybe the merchants it interviews are all running head shops. We get contradictions everywhere. Ban the SST, cut out exhaust smoking, shut down the detergent plants and you do people out of jobs, so we are threatened by more or less the same quarters that are busy devising PRTs to do bus drivers and subway motormen out of theirs. To no one's surprise, the OECD concluded:

In New York City, the closure of Madison Avenue to traffic in the spring of 1971 resulted in a threefold reduction of carbon monoxide concentration levels. The recently introduced ban on cars in the inner city of Vienna has lowered pollution levels by 70 per cent. In Tokyo and Marseilles, results have been equally impressive.

Too bad that the OECD did not query shopkeepers on the edge of the traffic-free zones. What kind of business were they doing, how did they like trying to make a living in a parking lot, did they, too want to be freed of traffic? We can see interesting possibilities here, some kind of a seed has been sown. This may be where we are going away from the shopping center and back to the city center. It's not all that hard, we don't have all that far to go. The foundations of what we have been destroying are still around, we need only build on them anew. The motor city is a big adversary, but it falls hard. It is like the brontosaurus, it wastes all its energy just trying to stand up, it spins its wheels to say in one place, it has nothing left with which to defend itself. It reminds me of a friend of mine who works for an Organization. He spends hours at his desk, he takes papers home, he receives telephone calls only by appointments made a week in advance. One day he told me: "You know, above a certain level here, people spend all their time holding meetings and writing memos to inform each other of what they are doing. There is absolutely no output."

He could have been describing the city of Paris as it appeared to me on my infrequent visits from Lanloup. I did nothing there, I was exhausted. The energy I saved because I did not have to haul water from the village pump was wasted hauling myself around. Most of the power that such a city uses goes to overcome the friction that it generates. Even by bicycle, I lost time dodging traffic jams, getting out of the way of delivery-truck drivers screaming at pleasure drivers. I had to lift my bike from sidewalk to street over the bumper-to-bumper rank of automobiles outside my door. In the case of cities, big isn't beautiful, it's not even practical. One day, I had to meet a train at Guingamp, a town on the northern side of Brittany, a megalopolis of 11,257. I had no bike, I left the car at the station. Inside of twelve minutes, I had bought some bicycle tape, a typewriter ribbon, two pieces of apple tart (ate them, too), and the French translation of an American book written by a fellow I know. I had never shopped in Guingamp before, I did not know my way around. Except for the typewriter ribbon, I made all my purchases in small family-run shops. My only difficult moment came when I had to cross the intersection of the Pontrieux and the Saint-Brieuc highways, where pedestrians must run a gauntlet of zebra crossings. Otherwise, medieval granite Guingamp was functioning pretty well. I understand that it doesn't during the summer, when the Parisians are traveling, but you should know by now how Parisians travel.

One can shop well in a small town like Guingamp or even in a village like Lanloup where the Duvals' general store sells everything from yogurt to rubber soles for wooden shoes. One can work well there, too. I found I was three times more productive in Lanloup than in Paris. This gain in production is not necessarily limited to writers and other parasites. In Denmark, one sees small machine shops in farm country, turning out precision equipment next to the cows and the chickens. Apparently, they do all right against big-city competition. So does a chemist I met on one of my bike sorties around Copenhagen. I ran into him and his family while they were swimming in a woodland pond and he invited me to his house for tea. He was living in a thatched-roof farmhouse, where he did research on new ways to stick molecules together, sticking as many as fourteen Ph.D. heads together on his projects. He was independent of the city, his wife did most of the shopping. Whenever he ran out of shoes, she took an old pair into town for size and came back with a new one. If they fitted, she bought him another pair for a rainy day.

When he wasn't working on his chemistry, he tried to solve the problem of the little bull he had bought to crop his lawn. He was getting his grass cut for nothing, in six months he would be getting his meat, too. The only trouble was that he had second thoughts about getting within range of the bull to move the stake to which it was tethered and he liked it too much to butcher it. He was better as a chemist than as a stockman but, at least, he was trying to do both.

In Brittany, in much of provincial France, there are still people with more than one occupation. A young fisherman at Brehec used to work as a cook in Paimpol, he can always go back to a restaurant if the fishing gets bad. The fishermen at Collioure down near the Spanish border of France grow wine as well, the anchovies they catch will raise a thirst, the Banyuls that they bottle will slake it. The best blood sausage I ever ate in my life was made by a locomotive fireman near Montargis who butchers hogs in his spare time. Serge Vitry, the locomotive engineer who served it to me, grows all the fruit and vegetables needed by himself, his wife, and their three hungry sons. They get their protein from the rabbits he fattens, they can wash it down with cider from his trees, the cider I once saw as fresh apple juice squirting out of the itinerant press that works the countryside around Montargis. When Serge retires in a year or so, he will be able to do any number of things, he knows any number of things. On his obsolete job as a steam locomotive engineer, he managed to escape that breakdown of work into specialized operations that leads to the breakdown of personalities.

I do not know whether to howl with laughter or gnash my teeth with rage when I hear all the cant about how we must choose between the Environment and jobs. Once, there were jobs in Brittany and in the other provinces of France. They were eliminated so that the production lines could be manned and the environment destroyed. It would be so easy for us to change the payoffs so that jobs could be brought back to the countryside and to the sea, so that people could produce once more what they know best, so that their lives would have meaning every day of the year.

I do know that we cannot go all the way back and still take care of the excess population with which we have saddled ourselves. Yields higher than those of traditional farming are needed, bright minds are already working on ways to achieve them without wrecking the land and our lives. Still, I cannot help but think that we should also try to save what we have, to keep countrymen in the country instead of driving them into the city where, twenty years from now, their sons will discover brown rice and grow tomatoes in a backyard. I understand that if manure is properly composted, it will produce enough methane gas to run an automobile. That's a great way to get around; so is riding a horse.

Just how much can we slow down and live well? I've no data, this would be another good research project for some energetic young scientist with, perhaps, a big Ford Foundation grant. Let him try to define "living well"; he could sample people who rent shacks by the beach or who camp on their vacation. Most of us go back to simpler ways when we have a chance to do as we please. That's not enough; we must slow down all year round, not just on Sundays and holidays. It is the automobile that has speeded up our lives, so let's get it out of our lives. The bicycle can get it out of cities, we can let it survive in the country for a while as the Percherons have around Pommerit-le-Vicomte.

Then there is essential traffic. Like trucks. We can't get along without them right away. That means we will have to get along with them for a while. First, let's slow them down to bicycle speed, fifteen miles an hour, wherever a kid can run out in the street. What are more essential, trucks or kids? Then, put in steam engines, put in some kind of silent power, we could even clean up their diesels. In England, diesels are used to haul loads in coal mines without gassing their miners. There is no reason why our streets should be less healthy than coal mines.

In my dream, big trucks would wither away, starting with the ones that haul gasoline to service stations. Then we could go to piggyback and containers, using all that excess railroad capacity we have lying around. I know a double-track line between Chaumont and Saint-Dizier in eastern France where one can take long naps without ever being disturbed. It runs parallel to a two-lane road where the trucks barrel along in an endless train. Those trucks could be hauled by flatcar. They could drive on at Saint-Dizier and drive off at Chaumont. The service could be easily subsidized by money saved on the upkeep of the road.

Such flatcars could keep busy everywhere. Some could also handle electric automobiles used for long trips. When the railroads first began in England, that was how the gentry traveled. They rode in their own carriages on special cars, with the horses in other cars. If some people insist in riding around in containers, then let's handle them that way.

Setting up a rational transportation system would supply jobs for all the automobile workers who may not want to become bicycle dealers. We could build the system tomorrow. I have heard of a young man who has procured maps of all the abandoned rail lines on the east coast of the United States. He has a little gasoline-engined railcar that he hauls around in a big station wagon. He uses it to ride along the old tracks, chugging for miles through wilderness without anyone seeing him. His hobby could come in handy the day we decide once more to move freight around without anyone seeing it.

On that day, we'll still function as we functioned in 1900, with only eight thousand automobiles in the United States, or from Pearl Harbor to V-J Day, when we concentrated on creaming people on battlefields in Europe and Asia instead of on highways at home. We can slow down a long way, but we are not going to come to a standstill. That is another of those windmills that we are supposed to be fighting: the choice between all or nothing, Cadillacs or Calcutta. This is computer thinking: yes-no, on-off, no room in between. This is the way the computer runs, it is not the way the world runs.

It is not the way the Third World runs, either. We tend to take its per capita income figures, then to try to stretch them over a European or an American budget. From that point, it is easy to extrapolate all those underpaid hundreds of millions into the equivalent of an army of hunger marchers waiting to engulf us. This just is not so. The Third World is a semantic invention, it contains far more worlds than the other two. Most of its inhabitants are subsistence farmers (which is another way of saying what certain communes are trying to achieve). Many of them make a living, many of them do not. They need help, but they do not need oil refineries and expressways. Certain of their leaders may say that they do. I think that such leaders, perhaps unwittingly, are taking up the white man's burden. They may not have his skin, but they have his education, his living standards, and his values.

I have walked on the sidewalks of Bombay and Calcutta. These cities are shocking, they are the biggest industrial cities in India. Compared to most of the country, they are highly developed. I have also been in rural Ceylon in a region that lacked both development and hunger. I know what Ceylonese of fifty look like in their sarongs and I also know what Long Beach, Long Island, looks like in bathing suits on a Sunday. Long Beach is in trouble, perhaps rural Ceylon could send some experts over. They should be more qualified than the well-meaning experts I saw twenty-odd years ago among the Tarascan Indians on Lake Pàtzcuaro in Mexico. They were trying to convince people to stop sleeping on the floor and to cook on backyard stoves instead of on smoky open fires inside their houses. The polite Indians never told the experts that the fires warmed the floor and made it fine for sleeping on a cold night in the mountains. People in Calcutta have got far worse problems, but the cowboy approach is not going to help those Indians any more than it did any others.

It is true that I dream. I have been too long in Lanloup where there are still sorcerers around, although, so I was told in the village graveyard, they do not practice any more. Perhaps the retired sorcerers have been casting a few spells over me just as the retired seamen cast a few nets from the little boats they sail out of Brehec on a calm sunny day. We need spells and mystery in our lives, the modern city drives them away and replaces them with drugs and neuroses. Just as the automobile allows us to travel without moving our muscles, drugs let us dream without moving our minds.

The motor city can drive mystery away from Lanloup when summer starts and the migrating birds arrive from Paris, pendulous men and women in their mustard-colored Asconas and Taunuses, yachtsmen coming ashore in hip boots, bright yellow slickers, and stocking caps, they look as if they've been clewing up the topgallants off Tierra del Fuego. It's easy to tell the yachtsmen from the fishermen, the fishermen wear coveralls and look like mechanics.

I wonder where Merlin spends his summers. I suspect he comes to Paris as an Augustan. That may be why I can dream in the Paris of August. I coast hands off down Rue d'assas on a Sunday morning, the first batch of newly made air comes fresh to me through the grille of the Luxembourg Gardens. The Seine sparkles like all the seas I have ever known, the sky over the Left Bank is as washed and clear as it is over the English Channel between Saint-Brieuc and Jersey. I dream of a Paris year of twelve Augusts.

I dream of the day when we will travel once more on the little wooden passenger coaches that were turned into sheds and summer houses when the branch line closed down at Brehec. I do not know who will be driving the train, perhaps it will be the man who ran a switch engine I once saw outside the old roundhouse at Nogent-sur-Marne that is now dust. From the track, I admired his engine; from the cab, he admired my racing bike. He told me that he came to work himself on a racing bike all the way from Livry-Gargan. Perhaps it was from Brooklyn Heights, it could have been from Dragør, I am not sure. I saw him only once. All I can remember is that he invited me to come aboard his little steam engine for a fireside chat. Its copper pipes gleamed, he opened the firebox door, threw in a shovelful of coal and closed it, all in the same dancing movement.

Then we talked about bicycles.

Lanloup, June 1972

 

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