Striated clouds glowing with the sunrise

Freedom Machine

Published 2020-02-21

For the nth time in a year now I have an internal infection that’s keeping me, very specifically, off the bike. I can do most of the other things I normally do but it’s nearly impossible to ride a bicycle.

So I’ve been going the places I usually go, but by car or (less frequently) by bus.

Any given mode of transportation has its own mental properties but the freeest mode is to travel by bike. A bicycle is a freedom machine.

  • it moves at exactly the speed my legs make it move.
  • it requires no source of energy that I do not already carry (truth: I have a little too much of this energy source, especially around my midsection)
  • I am never stranded somewhere thinking “now how am I going to get my bike home?”
  • it is easy to maintain with a literal handful of tools, which I carry with me all the time
  • it moves about 3–10 times faster than walking
  • it is almost entire unhampered by road closures, traffic or weather

The weirdest thing is that I drive along — or more accurately, near to — the streets the kids and I take on our way to school when we’re on bikes. The exact routes we’ve chosen have a lot of “secret passages” — our code word for paths or shortcuts that are not available to us when we’re in the car. For example through a park, or down an unmaintained street (in Portland these are often completely overgrown with trees and blackberries), or around construction barriers, or between commercial buildings. This dissonance underlines how much freedom a bike gives you: we flow like water around obstacles that stop a car cold.

People who don’t ride bikes often don’t understand this freedom, I think. Most of our lives are very constrained, never more so than when we’re stuck in a car. Sometimes the non-riders hate — just fucking hate — people on bikes. (We are so smug!). It’s not hard to see why. I spend thousands of dollars every year on our car, which promises to be a freedom machine. (Look: the spedometer goes to 140 mph!) But most of the time this machine is trapped in a narrow grid of acceptable travel, boxed in by all the other false-freedom machines locked into the same grid. And over and through and around that grid, like water, flow the real freedom machines.