In his 1873 work Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell), Arthur Rimbaud wrote “One must be absolutely modern.” Rimbaud was one of those guys, restless, dissatisfied, usually in a bit of a rage, basically difficult to be around. His influence on poetry, and prose too, was to push things hard in unconventional directions, to find a newer, more modern approach to self-expression.
But the future is fraught. Cultural lag is a real problem. Strivings for a better future come with the unavoidable, negative consequences of incomplete foresight. So I want to be absolutely modern, but I don’t want to fall into the kind of thinking that has led humanity into problems like global warming and nuclear proliferation. These species-threatening quagmires were actually pretty foreseeable. We just failed to the math, or ignored it when it produced outcomes we didn’t care for.
The thing is, progress is seldom linear. It’s stop/start, like a lab rat’s fumblings in a maze. Sometimes it has to go backwards to move forwards again.
There was a time when I was more or less completely living by bike. I had a car, but I didn’t use it much. I didn’t yet have kids that needed to be delivered places. I guess I used the car to grocery shop and not much more. Because of how I moved around the world, I was in a headspace that allowed me to see just how much of our living space was devoted to cars.
You’ve got roads of course, mostly paved with rock that is bound together with asphalt or tar, which comes either from crude oil or coal. That stuff is terrible and it’s everywhere, and it’s there mainly for cars. Then, on many roads, you have parking on both sides, which widens that toxic surface. Parking is just car storage. You’ve got gas stations with massive underground tanks. You’ve got mechanics. You’ve got parking garages. Those are like walk-in closets for cars.
It’s a lot of space and a lot of not-carbon-efficient infrastructure, and that’s before you even delve into the car itself, it’s components and its toxic output. Please don’t read this as sanctimony. I’m a driver too. This is just stepping back from the status quo situation and trying to see it for what it is.
None of this existed 150 years ago, when Rimbaud was madly scrawling verse. Sure, we had roads, and many of them were ankle deep in animal manure, but this whole petro-infrastructure is new to humanity. We managed without it for a long time. This is not to say we can just shut it all down now, because that would be better (although it might). This is just to try to see the enormity of it.
And then there’s a future, which is what I like to think about. I can’t imagine personal mobility becomes a non-issue, so a lot of this space is still devoted to moving humans around, but how could it be less toxic? Cars will, hopefully, move toward renewables. They have to. Will road surfaces evolve toward non-toxic substrates? Will the way the space afforded to transportation be revised, so that biking is safer and storing your bike where you’re going gets easier? How would we go about shifting the value perception, so that more people come to believe in pedaling instead of driving? Would less solid roads, say we move to a porous paving paradigm that is rougher, encourage more people to seek alternative transportation?
I don’t know any of the answers, and obviously I can only really try to evolve my own approach to getting around. But I love to think about that future and try to see the bike’s place in it, and yeah, on some level, I like to believe I’m better prepared for it than a lot of people, though I’m mindful that humanity is consistently wrong about what the future looks like, about what is means to be modern.
Thanks, as always, to Shimano North America, for making TCI possible in 2022.