Absolutely Modern

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.

Join the conversation
  1. khal spencer says

    Great essay, Emlyn. No answers, just a lot of hard questions a fair number of us are grappling with….with very limited success. And you are spot on. When you create a rigid transportation paradigm and glue the country, if not the first world to it, the breaking of habits will be messy and unpredictable. Also, with car companies now advertising 7,000 pound pickup trucks running on giant batteries (as advertised in a Buycycling Tweet the other day), I call that greenwashing. That just replaces one form of environmental rape with another. Choose your orifice.

    There was a time I too avoided the car whenever possible. Back in grad school, people called me “Mr. Bicycle”. I even scored a date one day when I was loading up the panniers with the week’s groceries at the Freak Brothers Natural Food Store. Life sometimes gets more complicated. Like when you go from living five miles from work to 33 miles. Wish I had been Pete Penseyres, but nope. That behind us, with both of us now retired, the cars are mostly sitting there.

    Happy New Year to all,

    Khal Spencer

    Vice-Chair, Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee
    Democratic People’s Republic of Santa Fe, NM

  2. Pat Navin says

    >>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.<<

    So true and this struck home with me with a bit of news I received a few months ago. For nearly 20 years, I commuted to work in downtown Chicago and locked up my bike at the Millennium Park bike station across the street from my office. The city had received federal money to build a bike commuting facility, and it was an incredible community of cycling commuters. With an annual membership (only $250 when I left), a commuter got a permanent locker, great lockerr00m/shower facilities, a full-time mechanic on duty and secure bike parking. The facility was shared with the Chicago Police bike patrol.

    We built a helluva' cycling community there with 4:00 Thursday beach stops for beer every Thursday afternoon in the summer, and a bunch of hearty souls who encouraged full four-season riding. The place became a second home for most of us.

    In 2021, the city kicked out the longtime contract operator of the facility in favor of a politically-connected operator who lasted exactly one year before shutting the place down. Granted, the pandemic didn't help, but the new operator did absolutely no outreach to businesses and companies downtown to boost membership. I went by my old haunt a couple of weeks ago and it was empty. All of the double-stacked bike racks had been moved out and the space was bare. It was heart-breaking for so many reasons, not the least of which is that the center contributed to making bike commuting a much more doable and pleasant experience for hundreds of my fellow commuters.

    I'm hoping the city will bring it back at some point, but there are no guarantees and rumors are swirling that the police will take over the entire facility which would be a crime. So it's a step backwards, a big step in my opinion.

    At one point, the city was talking about building two or three more similar facilities scattered throughout the downtown area. Those plans failed to materialize. If we want to get people out of cars, we need to incentivize them to do so. Making cycle commuting safer and more convenient is a start. I hope the arrow heads back in the other direction soon in Chicago.

    Post-pandemic urban cores are struggling. With less traffic, one would think that some of the space currently devoted to traffic lanes could be converted to safe cycling lanes. This post-pandemic world is chance to revitalize America's downtowns, making them more vibrant, more livable and less polluting. Given the current polarized political climate, I am not optimistic that big changes will be made, but all it takes is a few visionary city leaders to get the ball rolling. I am actively lobbying for just such action in Chicago with cycling groups and other sustainability organizations.

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