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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  2/1/2005

A voice crying in the wilderness

A few weeks ago, the federal government issued new dietary guidelines that--along with assorted revisions to the ideal mix of foods--for the first time emphasize getting some real exercise as part of what constitutes a healthy lifestyle. The guidelines recommend 60 minutes a day of moderate exercise a day to keep from gaining weight and 90 minutes to lose weight.

“Tonight, eat only half the dessert,” said Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, “and then go out and walk around the block. And if you are going to watch television, get down and do ten push-ups and five sit-ups.”

These recommendations should come as no surprise to any serious cyclist. The only surprise is that it’s taken this long for the government to take a sensible stance on the matter. However, as for Thompson’s exhortation, I have to say: “Get real, Tommy!” A walk around the block is not an hour or 90 minutes of moderate exercise, and how many couch potatoes are going to drop and do push-ups while watching the tube? The most exercise they’re likely to get is pulling up a sofa cushion to hunt for the lost remote.

The press release for the new guidelines was somewhat eclipsed the next day when Hardee’s, the fast food franchise, amid much hoopla, introduced the world to its new Monster Thickburger, the biggest, baddest cholesterol bomb on the fast food front: two 1/3-pound slabs of Angus beef, four strips of bacon, three slices of cheese and mayonnaise on a buttered sesame seed bun...over 1400 calories, 107 grams of fat, plus another 1000 calories if you get the fries and soda. Whew! Sort of the unrepentent Hummer of hamburgers.

Did we mention that the government guidelines note that over two-thirds of Americans are now considered overweight or obese?

Now, don’t get me wrong here: I’m not an orthorexic health-food nazi. I’m not going to tell you what to eat. I’m an omnivore, and one of my fundamental and most cherished tenets about hardcore cycling is that it allows me to eat whatever I want, pretty much with impunity. Okay, maybe not a Monster Thickburger. But it’s a hallowed tradition in my circle of bike buddies, after a long, hard ride--after burning up a great mass of calories--to slide into a booth at the local taqueria and hoover up a smothered chimichanga, washed down with a nice, cold Pacifico. Maybe for a serious racer on a strict, low-fat regimen, this isn’t going to fly, but for the rest of us--the weekend recreational hackers--it works pretty well. The key is the exercise, laid on in fairly liberal doses.

I read both of these contrasting press releases in the LA Times, while spending a few days visiting in-laws in the vast Los Angeles metroplex. LA is nothing new to me. I’ve never lived there, but I’ve visited the region frequently for over 40 years. However, in spite of past exposure to its dubious charms, the area never ceases to amaze me, and never fails to launch me quickly and firmly into a tailspin of cultural and emotional depression. Somehow those press releases about obese, indolent hordes and grotesque megaburgers seemed to dovetail rather obscenely with the wall-to-wall sprawl of the LA basin...the prototype of the auto-oriented community and still the prowling, growling king of the gas-guzzling paradigm.

Hey, I’m sorry: I know this is a mossy old tirade. Clichés heaped upon truisms. Folks from elsewhere have been taking potshots at LA pretty much forever. Nothing new in this. But what struck me with a fresh blast of reality-check this time was that it--the autoholic metroplex--just keeps growing. We visited acquaintances in some faceless, nameless, newly constructed suburb far, far to the east of LA proper, way out in what only recently was desert. Now it’s all off-ramp clusters and gated, cookie-cutter tracts from horizon to horizon.We drove for hours to get there, and we never once left the world of auto malls, fast food courts, big box stores, and tracts. No parks. No greenbelts. No back roads. Nothing natural except the domesticated flora that decorate the freeway medians and the fringes of a million acres of parking lots.

Most of the folks who live in these areas do nothing outside their homes that doesn’t involve a car. Walking or cycling don’t compute. They are simply not viable options. You could walk for hours alongside some of these boulevards without ever finding an accessible source of drinking water. Functionally, it’s almost as barren as the Sahara. And that’s presupposing the boulevard even offers a safe shoulder for a pedestrian or cylcist, which many do not.

Being a dedicated cyclist in this environment means an extended stay in a pedaler’s purgatory. Many do it, but most will admit that quality cycling does not begin at the foot of one’s own driveway; it begins with loading the bike into the car and driving for an hour or more, out beyond the high tide line of suburban sprawl, out into the hills where good cycling roads still exist.

In fact, there are superb cycling roads in the mountains overlooking the LA basin, but for how much longer will this be true? Two other articles in the LA Times caught my attention. One announced huge new developments planned for tiny backwaters way up over the top of the Grapevine...in Tejon Ranch and Frasier Park. The other reported on a big time developer who was suing local US Forest Service personnel who had the temerity to suggest that his big building schemes were inappropriate for the tiny village of Fawnskin, on the pristine, peaceful north shore of Big Bear Lake, high in the San Bernardino Mountains. Once considered too remote and inaccessible for practical commuting, these mountain hideaways are now apparently grist for the mills of the money men .

The LA basin doesn’t hold the patent on sprawl anymore, though. This trend toward off-ramp based communities has been replicated on a grand scale throughout the country. In fact, a very large percentage of all Americans now live in modern, auto-oriented suburbs fanning out from interstates throughout the heartland. Night satellite photos show the twinkling lights of these vast expanses of amorphous car zones, out in what used to be the farmlands of mid-America. Corporations have followed cheap land and labor and low taxes to these middles of nowhere and have spawned thousands of look-alike no-places with no downtown cores, no historical heritage, no cultural life, no architecture of merit, and no way to live except as hostages to one’s cars. As Gertrude Stein put it: “There’s no there there.” We’ve all seen it in little, local vignettes: the Walmarts and Home Depots and Lowes and the myriad ticky tacky tracts that support them. But it has taken sociologists and future thinkers to stand back and point out the pervasive shift this has wrought in the landscape and mind set of our country.

Now you have huge populations who simply think through and for their cars. Cars and television are their only windows on the world, and when your car is a super-sized SUV battle cruiser and your TV is network dreck and superficially “fair and balanced” news, it’s not hard to imagine a great mass of people more concerned about the private life of Paris Hilton than about the privatization of Social Security. And from there, it’s not a great leap to imagine a great mass of people placidly acquiescing in the preemptive invasion of another country to steal its oil reserves...or as one White House word smith put it, “to protect our blessed way of life.” (If you think this sounds like the demented raving of a distraught, disenfranchised liberal, you may be right. But I respectfully refer you to the results of the recent election, where somewhat over half the voters said: “We like things just the way they are, thank you very much!”)

Speaking of the evening network news... Have you noticed how about 80% of the commercials on those vapid, vacuous broadcasts are for pharmaceuticals to fix something that’s out of whack in the human body? And most of those are for the digestive tract...halitosis, constipation, diarrhea, heartburn, acid reflux, ad nauseum. You don’t suppose there’s any connection between these ads, the Monster Thickburger, and no exercise? Nah, probably not.

But wait...it gets worse. The automobile as alpha transport mode is spreading abroad...working its way with astonishing speed through the formerly undeveloped third world. China, with its new-found free-market economy and prosperity is leading the charge to the brave new world. It seems like only a few years ago China’s population passed a billion, but this past month, in spite of their Draconian birth control programs, they zoomed past 1.3 billion, and hundreds of millions of them are throwing away their traditional Chinese bicycles and slipping into cars. Not that long ago, cycling advocates held up Chinese society as a shining example of how bikes can rule a country, but I made the point in another column that those millions of Chinese didn’t ride bikes as a healthy lifestyle choice but because bikes were all they could afford. Now, given the financial wherewithal to dump the bikes in favor of cars, they are doing so in staggering numbers.

This month’s Road & Track has a fascinating article on China’s emerging car culture, to whit... As recently as 1986, there were fewer than a million cars in China. Now, they’re selling two and a half million new cars a year. In 1989, there were only 168 miles of highways in all of China. By the end of 2003, a year in which Chinese road building consumed 40% of the world’s cement, there were 18,500 miles of modern highways. And if they keep at it as they now plan to do, by 2008, there will be 51,000 miles of freeways in the country...far more than the 46,000 miles in the US Interstate system. In 2004, China passed Germany to become the third largest auto manufacturer and consumer in the world, behind only the US and Japan, and within five years, it will pass Japan. It is quite simply the hottest auto market in the world.

And while this may paint a rosy picture for the auto manufacturers and the proud owners of their first cars, it is by no means a net positive. Driver education is minimal, and most new drivers hit the road without one mile of in-car training from an instructor, with the result that the roads are the very definition of heavy metal anarchy. So while the country has only 2% of the world’s cars (so far), it already accounts for 15% of the traffic fatalities. And while 80% of American traffic deaths involve car occupants, in China, it’s only 3%. Who are all the other fatalities? Bicyclists, motorcyclists, and pedestrians! These happy, clueless new drivers are mowing down cyclists like fields of wheat. At least--according to this report--the specter of road rage is rare. That bizarre aberration still seems to be a uniquely American phenomenon.

Also, their emissions controls are extremely lax, and their diesel fuel is of a very poor quality, so what with the proliferation of new cars, coupled with already horrible problems with dirty coal power plants, many large Chinese cities have rocketed to the top of the charts for most polluted in the world. And it’s only going to get worse. China is just hitting its stride, and India won’t be far behind.

So where is all this heading? I’ll tell ya: it’s heading in the wrong damn direction for society as a whole, and in an especially alarming direction for those of us who like to ride bicycles. I see bikes as the canary in the coal mine of our modern world. Show me a city or suburb where a bike cannot be ridden with pleasure and security, and I will show you a region at risk...a dysfunctional disaster waiting to happen.

But all is not lost. Not quite. There are little breaks in the smoggy clouds where we can catch a patch of blue. There are older cities whose residents and planners are cherishing their historical old downtowns and reinventing them as places to walk and work and play. There is a very exciting New Urbanism cropping up in developments where living and working and shopping are all intermingled within walking or cycling distance of one another. And, happily, there are still--in some places--greenbelts of woods and wetlands and agriculture separating small towns that still function as they were intended to do a hundred years ago. In places such as this, the bike still serves as a viable vehicle, and those who ride them can rejoice in their daily exercise and exposure to the lovely world around them...not to mention enjoying the satisfaction of putting one less car on the road and burning that much less foreign oil.

However, what my trip to LA brought home to me quite forcefully is that we on the bikes constitute a tiny, marginalized minority in our modern world. Strangers in a strange land. We support one another in the wonderfully healthful and liberating activity of cycling, and sometimes I think we imagine ourselves to be the cutting edge of everything that makes sense. Well, perhaps we are, but it’s worthwhile and sobering to remember that most of the people in their big battle cruisers do not share that point of view. To them, we are only slightly less trivial than the bugs that splat on their windshields.

Take care of yourself: it’s a jungle out there.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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