Thursday, March 29, 2007

Remember the joy of Cycling

I enjoy riding my bicycle. I find it gives me, in the words of Alice Monroe, "the freedom of a great unemotional happiness." I enjoy feeling the exhilarating freedom of moving on my own power so quickly, quietly, and nimbly through city streets and country roads, liberated from the metal cages we so often ride in, experiencing one of the great passions of my life, movement, wandering and change through my own body. I can think of few things more rewarding than seeing the world up close, feeling its streets and walkways, its sunshine and shade, smelling its smells. Few things make me feel so alive and connected as the simple act of riding a bicycle.

So why do we so often fall back on joyless ideological arguments for cycling? Why do we insist that such a pleasurable thing must have the added benefit of saving the world? A cycling web-log I read recently claimed the city could cut 20% of its greenhouse gas emissions if everyone cycled to work one day a week. Alas, given the actual sources of greenhouse gases, cycling to work one day a week would only reduce our greenhouse emissions by about one percent. Now, even a one percent reduction in greenhouse gases matters, so by all means cycle or take public transit when you can.

But I don't feel any need to justify my enjoyment of cycling. I love to ride. If you want a reason to take up riding a bicycle, I can tell you that you will quite probably find many pleasures, including ones you did not expect, on a bike, whether you first came to cycling to escape outrageous gas prices, get fit, or make a statement on the environment. I hope many other people get to experience the pleasure of a bike ride (particularly Rob Ford and Case Ootes, who seem sadly determined to deprive themselves of it).

If you enjoy cycling, never forget it. Never forget to remind other people of it, either, particularly if they don't cycle themselves (yet). Never fall for the temptation to think or write about cycling as a sacrifice, some grim ecological duty. I don't believe painting the bicycle as a duty attracts very many people to cycling, and worse, it ignores the sheer joy that (thank the Creator) some of us find in cycling.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace opened in Canada this Friday to some surprisingly bad reviews. I suppose this should not surprise me. Maybe an important story will always appear dull if you judge it by the standards of the profitably trivial fare that washes over movie screens every day of the year. Perhaps you have to fly into a rage at the film industry, and stay away from the theaters for months at a time, as I have done, in order to appreciate a beautiful film such as Amazing Grace.

But Susan Walker, who reviewed the film for the Toronto Star, expressed an opinion that astonished me when she wrote that Wilberforce's life did not "merit a 111-minute theatrical feature." Excuse me? This man stood at the center of one of the most important movements of history. However you apportion the credit, the anti-slavery movement in Britain overturned a blot on civilization which had existed throughout all of recorded history. And the anti-slavery movement did it first. The title has a supremely appropriate allusion: by an Amazing Grace, we believe, we know, that we as a society, a people, even a species can free ourselves from the most deep-rooted of evils. Thanks to Wilberforce, thanks to Granville Sharpe, thanks to Olaudah Equiano, to the Religious Society of Friends, and to all the people great and small who stood up against it, slavery no longer enjoys legal sanction in our world.

That means more than some reviewers seem to think. Rick Groen, who reviewed the film for the Toronto Globe and Mail, wrote that it left him "emotionally untouched". I don't know what would touch him. This movie requires the audience to bring to it some imagination of their own, an appreciation of what words mean. It shows us the chains, shows us the hold of a slave ship, shows us the exact dimensions of a slave berth. If the abolition of that horror leaves you untouched, consider this: for those of us working to end other horrors which have persisted from the dawn of human history until the opening of the twenty-first century, the name Wilberforce means hope. Three hundred years ago, reactionaries could argue that human nature, in its essentials, would never change, that no reform could ever have a lasting effect. After William Wilberforce, that argument has lost much of its force. People tell us that we will never see a world without war, that humans carry conflict encoded in our genes. They said the same thing about slavery, too, until 1833. The great emancipation tells us that the worst of our history need not shape our destiny. And that does bring tears to my eyes, because it seems to me a truly, deeply, wonderfully amazing Grace.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Rob Ford

Toronto city councillor Rob Ford said:

I can't support bike lanes. Roads are built for buses, cars, and trucks. My heart bleeds when someone gets killed, but it's their own fault at the end of the day.

I like Rob Ford. He's always struck me as an independent individual who stands up for what he believes. He doesn't take his convictions out of any standard package that I know of. I probably give him too much credit for not following the consensus of the "left/arts" crowd in this city. But I do respect the man.

That said, in this case, he's made a mistake. The law which defines the purpose of public roads in Ontario, the Ontario Highway Traffic act, defines a vehicle this way:

“vehicle” includes a motor vehicle, trailer, traction engine, farm tractor, road-building machine, bicycle and any vehicle drawn, propelled or driven by any kind of power, including muscular power, but does not include a motorized snow vehicle or a street car; (“vĂ©hicule”)

The Province of Ontario, which has the authority to build public roads and set the rules for their use, says that bicycles do belong on roads. The people of Ontario speak through that law, and until those who disagree change the laws (anyone has the right to try), cyclists by definition have the right to use the roads.

I have to go further; I think Councillor Ford should apologise. As a public servant, he has a responsibility to uphold the law. The law defines the public road as a space where people have a right to ride our bicycles. If someone dies in a crash while exercising a legal right, the blame does not rest with them. Any driver who carelessly hits a cyclist will quickly discover that. Nothing says Mr. Ford has to approve of spending city money for bicycle lanes, but out of respect for both motorists and cyclists, I urge him to retract his comments.