Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Bicycles, Time and Leisure

Pilen, Charles River Trail
I was outside the post office, unstrapping a bundle of packages from my bike's rear rack, when a woman walking past with a toddler looked at the bicycle and smiled.

Her: That's a beautiful bicycle!

Me: Thank you.

Her: (Whistfully) It's nice that you have time to ride a bike. Wish I did.

Me: Oh, but I ride a bike to get places, so it actually saves me time.

Her: Yeah, but you know. When you're married and have a kid, you have no time for anything and need a car.

Me: Well, depending on where you live, it can be faster to get places by bike.

Her: Maybe if you're a student, but those days are past me! Love your bike though, take care...

Okay, so I've basically been told - albeit in the friendliest way - that I was either a bum or a woman of leisure if I had the time to travel by bike. It is a sentiment I've heard before. Looking at things objectively, I think that it is difficult for those raised in the US to overcome the association between the bicycle and leisure. It follows then, that if you ride a bike, you must have a lot of spare time. For people who like to project an image of being busy and hardworking, riding a bicycle can compromise that image. That's one aspect of it, I think.

Another aspect, is that of course it can take longer to do things by bike - for instance in the suburbs or in the countryside, where distances are vast and car parking is plentiful. I acknowledge this as a genuine obstacle to transportation cycling. But it is illogical to apply it to contexts where the opposite is true and where the bicycle can indeed function as a time saver - with or without children.

One thing I found particularly curious, is that the woman did not cite being worried about cycling with a child, whereas I didn't have that issue (which would also have been an assumption, but never mind). Instead, she just kept bringing up time and the difference she perceived in our lifestyles.

Our society has a complicated relationship with time and leisure. Both are viewed as commodities; we seek them out and are envious when others have more than we do. At the same time, we willingly give them up and waste them - be it by watching hours of uninteresting television just because it's on, or by organising our lives around stressfully long commutes for a small difference in salary. I am not critical of the way others live their lives and I make no assumptions about their values and priorities. Three years ago, I did not seriously believe that riding a bike to places could save time compared to driving there, but after trying it both ways I now believe it. I wonder to what extent the bicycle-leisure association is an obstacle for those who would otherwise benefit from transportation cycling.


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