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I read the Times for the same reason I stare down from the top of tall buildings: Terrified fascination at what might come next. Here is a case in point:
But two years in, Citi Bike’s inroads have been decidedly uneven, with men far outnumbering women in using the bike-sharing system. A little time on Eighth Avenue on a recent morning, watching the stream of Citi Bike riders heading north past Pennsylvania Station and toward Times Square, was instructive. Man after man pedaled by, some in suits, others in jeans. From time to time, a woman on a Citi Bike rode by.
For the bike service, that is a problem.
It would be easy to dismiss this story for its very New Yorkish insularity. One of the petty obsessions of a self-conscious elite that have little impact on ordinary life. Yet it’s exactly these sorts of ideas that have a tendency to creep into daily life. Across the continent, in suburbs and medium sized cities, there are self-conscious petty elites eager to ape the manners of their Manhattan social superiors.
Biking in dense urban traffic is mostly an upper-middle-class affectation, something done to express simultaneous contempt for the private automobile and the humble bus and subway. There is the thin excuse that biking is healthy. It certainly is in areas with little traffic and clean air. It’s something of a stretch to argue that inhaling big gulps of heavily polluted downtown air, all the while dodging inattentive motorists, is an inherently healthy activity.
I’m old enough to remember seeing stock footage of Chinese cities before Deng’s great reforms. Every news story from that time was accompanied by the cliched image of thousands of Chinese riding around on bicycles. The general impression was of a lot of very poor people who couldn’t afford cars. Further proof, to any who needed it, that communism sucked. This was because way back in that distant epoch known as the 1980s seeing a cyclist in the downtown of a North American city was rare.
On spotting a two-wheeled unicorn the natural assumption was that the fellow was too young or too poor to afford a car or a bus pass. That adults with money, even a little bit, would willingly risk their necks in heavy rush-hour traffic was seen as madness. If people were looking for exercise there were things called gyms and stationary bikes. If getting from point A to B cheaply was the main issue there were slow but mostly safe buses.
Then came the environmental movement of the 1990s. The internal combustion engine was allegedly destroying the planet. Those of enlightened moral conscience were duty bound to oppose it wherever possible. The science of human-driven global warming was dicey then and hasn’t become any more plausible in the quarter century since. That hardly matters. The human need for belonging and transcendence, which traditionally has been expressed through religion, found its way into a sort of vulgate environmentalism.
This Greenista creed has naturally developed its own rituals. Over time it acquired a reflexive admiration for a limited form of asceticism. Thus the fascination with economically nonsensical activities like recycling and urban biking. In this light cycling has a particularly spiritual aspect. Any fat slob can sort trash. It takes a dedicated individual to sweat, swerve and cycle for the greater glory of Gaia. There is that special elevation that is felt in having suffered for your cause. That as a practical matter cycling impedes the flow of traffic, arguably generating more net pollution, is neither here nor there.
Think of the Left’s vision not as a practical program, which it is not, but as a vast vanity project for those comfortably divorced from reality. The Greenista creed has little appeal to those employed in farming, mining, oil extraction, manufacturing or the various trades. The Greenista is overwhelming a service worker, typically at the higher end of the income spectrum. They are those who do not sow, reap or build anything. Someone for whom things appears in stores to be purchased; the origin of those things attracting only a passing curiosity.
From that moral universe it makes perfect sense to worry about whether urban cyclists are showing the correct gender balance. Cycling isn’t about health, wealth or any practical value. It is about a peculiar form of moral vanity. The need to feel superior and moral without under taking any serious restraints or hardships in life. Others have died for their faith. The Greenista has the luxury of nagging, regulating and tweeting about social trivia.