There is no denying the fact that Phoenix stinks. Seriously, the city (generally speaking) has a bad odor to it. This is a fact that I never really came to notice until I started bike commuting. And as it has become custom for me to do, I contemplate these things while I am riding to and from work each day. It is easy to see why the city has a foul odor – there is litter everywhere, a plethora of cars and machines spewing pollutants, very little natural “greenspace,” and trash cans baking in the intense sun. But why is that the case?
Reluctantly, and non-judgmentally, I think America’s “car-culture” is, at one level, a root cause of such a catastrophe as a smelly city. It is our willingness to drive even only down the street to a store or friends house that facilitates the downward spiral into poor city conditions. When we step into a car, we are removing ourselves from our surroundings, and just as Robert Pirsig wrote about in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, viewing the world through a frame – just as we do when watching tv. All of a sudden, the world around us does not seem real, but mere fiction. And therefore the problems in that world are just as fictional. When we are in cars, we don’t have to worry about the litter or the smell, because it does not exist. We do not see it and we do not smell it.
I never intend to force my personal beliefs on anyone else. But from time to time, in order to provide appropriate context, it is necessary to reveal things about one-self and the life one lives. So here is a story:
This past Sunday at church, the priest (Father Gil) gave a well-delivered sermon about the growing disparity between rich and poor. Episcopalians use 3 readings from scripture during every Sunday service, and this week there was a reading from Luke’s gospel about a rich man and a poor man, to which Fr. Gil stated the following:
What was the rich man’s sin that resulted in him being sent to Hades? It seems that his sin was what he didn’t do rather than what he did. He ignored the poor man Lazarus. He didn’t do anything to help Lazarus. He averted his eyes from Lazarus’ condition and did nothing to help him. [read more…]
And tying this back into bike commuting: it is our willingness, as modern Americans, to drive anywhere and everywhere that facilitates a culture that ignores the real problems of our own communities. I guarantee that no one who walks by all the trash on the road smiles and says, “that is so pretty, and the smell…heavenly!” Instead, we plop ourselves into a car to drive someplace, and are not confronted with the reality of it. It’s not that we are always the ones creating the litter. But we ignore it, all from the comfort of our air conditioned, sea breeze-scented, rolling world-shrinker.
So it is only when we immerse ourselves in reality that we can truly see what the problems are. And I have the youthful ignorance to believe that when those problems become real to each of us, we will eventually reach a tipping point and do something about it. And because of that, I urge people to take a bike ride or a walk around something as remote and small as your own neighborhood, and if you see a piece of trash, pick it up. It’s such a simple thing to do – and as we do it more frequently, it will become almost second nature, until we restore the care and respect for our surroundings. Our neighborhoods and our cities need it. And our conscience will be happy…
The Velorution is about more than bikes.