Bicycling Around the City

Evolution of the Bicycle | Deke Slayton Museum

One of the benefits of living in a city is the chance to get to places quicker than living out in the country.

It has been a relatively new phenomenon, now that I am thirty, but I seem to be noticing many people opting out, of leaving the city.

It’s not just Joe Rogan heading for Texas. My family and my wife’s family are interested in buying property out in the country, “far from the madding crowd” I suppose.

Then again, having my family live through the traffic headache that has been the city of Houston is something I cannot blame them for wanting to avoid. Ever since Hurricane Katrina had people flocking from New Orleans in 2005, and due to a lack of zoning restrictions, Houston has swelled in population, into a size that has congested their highway infrastructure.

Luckily in the city of Forth Worth, the spacious construction allows for suburbs to be miles away.

But what happens if you want to support the environment? Living in the country means commuting to your Costco one city over, or in making routines trips to whatever Walmart happens to be twenty minutes away, and though you cannot hear other cars (only the constant call of the windy grasslands), there is plenty lost in being out in the middle of nowhere.

It may be easy to forget that in the throes of political instability, coronavirus, and economic decay, that cities can still be beautiful.

Just typing that sentence had my eyes twitching…

It is true: the longer coronavirus goes on, the less that restaurants and local establishments call out to us as a viable option. Choosing between an expensive veggie omelet (even if it does manage to cook kale in a way that I love) and choosing a sickening virus, is no choice at all.

But as my parents and in-laws are making plans (or have already done so) for living out in the country, I have been gifted a bike that they no longer wanted. I had not ridden a bike since I rode my bike to school as a 13 year old boy, and my first attempts at “getting back on the wheels” was laughable at best. Some near collisions with road signs were just for starters.

Eventually I got the hang of it, and the truth is that riding a bike for these first 20 miles have shown me a different view of the city I have been spending years in. Here are some of my thoughts so far.

1. Most of a city feels wasted

Wide Open Spaces - Sightline Institute

Maybe this is a problem exacerbated by the coronavirus, but much of a city is plagued by inefficiencies. So many of the buildings I have passed feel like “single-use structures.” There are churches which rest empty besides the services on Sunday, bible studies on Wednesday, and various other events that do not quite add up to the whole weekly schedule.

Even if you happened to take the defense of a church, few would confront me about empty parking lots for sports arenas, venues, or historical sites, that rest like concrete deserts. Cycling through these places is eerie, because here I am in a place filled with millions of people, and yet many of the buildings we take to be landmarks of the city become these sorts of dollhouses, ill-used but pristinely cleaned until their appropriate time.

The movement towards rented office space was a step away from this trend, and had it not been for the skip many took straight to working from home, it may have saved us from constructing ourselves to death.

China: The King Of Concrete

Consider the statistic that Geographer David Harvey brings up every chance he can get. Seen above, China used more concrete in just three years than the U.S. did in an entire century. When China wants to go big, it goes bigger than everyone else. If anyone is curious what that looks like, Vice has done a documentary on “Ghost Cities” that bears a look.

But the connection I want to make here is that this building of cities as investment opportunities, rather than places to live in, can distort the intimacy of what a city could be.

If China seems a distant problem, consider the situation of luxury apartments in New York, where as late as 2019, according to The New York Times:

Ask about their sales. Among the more than 16,200 condo units across 682 new buildings completed in New York City since 2013, one in four remain unsold, or roughly 4,100 apartments — most of them in luxury buildings, according to a new analysis by the listing website StreetEasy

In chasing after wealth, rather than income, the city is building luxury buildings that few in the city can actually afford.

The worry is that cities are no longer a place for the cosmopolitan and the beat poet. Instead, it’s a place for the chrome-plated elite.

Now, is Fort Worth at this level? Hell no. These problems that I have with the city pale in comparison to the very real conundrum of established cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. But still there is the question: who is the city for?

2. Short Cuts and Perspectives

Trinity Trails | Fort Worth Hiking & Biking Trails

One of the things I am grateful for is the trail system that was embedded into the city of Fort Worth. Called the trinity trails, these run all the way from the edge of my neighborhood up to the cultural district and even into downtown. If I was so inclined, I could take my bicycle up to the central library in Fort Worth, check out a book, and make it back in an hour flat.

Most surprising to me is the differential in time in cycling versus car riding. In driving, the amount of starts and stops, as well as turns and highways, in order to see my friends, means less of a path “as the crow flies.” With biking, many of the stops and sidesteps are avoided.

Is driving faster? Yes, obviously. But the thing I have learned is that biking is not that much of a loss.

What I gain is the satisfaction of a workout and a stimulating journey in not getting run over by big Ford trucks. The knowledge that I did not hurt the environment unduly (or put wear and tear on my car) more than makes up for that faster arrival time.

Seeing people on these trails makes the city feel less anonymous and more alive. The hatred that comes from road rage while driving seems to drift away while cycling. Granted, endorphins are rushing, but it is hard to be oppressive to someone who, like me, is just trying to keep their bikini weight…

Another change in perspective is just how much lies in between my home and my destination. A city has spaces between the points. A greek restaurant, equestrian events in the stockyards as you dodge horse shit, the botanical gardens. Despite the fact that we live in troubling times, and that most of these things are now unavailable to the public, there is that twinge of regret where I wish I had the opportunity to see the wealth of the city.

It has been a promise I have made to the city, once all of this pandemic business has sorted itself out.

3. I Am Out of Shape

There is this discrepancy I have been seeing in my body.

I have always prided myself on being “fit,” but simply being skinny does not quite mean the same thing as being “fit.”

In fact, most of the work I have done on my body has been sterilized. It’s working out at home away from people.

But out here, on a bike, you learn that the resistance of the bike, the friction of the tires to the tarmac, and the hills and valleys that test your raw strength, all add variables that my body was not well-equipped to handle.

The city is a variety of things, but it is also a test of the body to respond to it. The city of Fort Worth leads me down to the Trinity River, and I have to bike down and bike out of it. This kind of resistance is of a level that I have never experienced on an elliptical, treadmill, or stationary bike.

I suppose I did it to myself. Now that I have biked more I can feel the tension in my legs and back, and even my arms, wear off.

But still, there is a very big difference between staying in the “lab” and going out for “real world experience.” It is strange that much of the fitness that I had done had not been transferable to cycling. It is a careful thing to note. Like the mind learning a skill, the body is a toolset for certain practices as well.

Conclusion: I Love Biking

I think we often think of biking as something for children. It is a vehicle that is efficient, yes, but also a little plebeian. That could not be further from the truth.

To me, I think it is a reminder of why I live in the city. It allows me to take advantage of so much of the architecture, beauty, and variety of a city that I have been overlooking in the past. Where the city has been a sterile technosphere of coffee shops, banks, and schools, now it reminds me much more of the ecosystem that we all love.

I say all this in defense of the city. For generations, the city has been the stomping grounds of people leaving the farmlands of their rural ancestors, and though I think we have hit a rough patch in 2020, I believe cities are here to stay. At least for right now, I love what the city is for me, and I am so grateful that I now have the chance to ride around in it. Now it’s time to bring myself to the city.

We’ll see how I feel come winter…

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