Provided by Dave Kannas
Kannas writes a regular column about biking for the West Seattle Herald and westseattleherald.com.

View From the Saddle: The bicycle and our culture

The struggle between “civil society” and bicyclists is nothing new. We had our battles before the turn of the 20th Century, when bicycles were relatively new on the scene but rapidly expanding in numbers, especially in France.

“As early as 1869, some of the larger French cities had passed municipal by-laws to control this new public hazard…” (Christopher Thompson, The Tour de France, University of California Press, 2006). Thompson goes on to note that in the city of Sens, bicyclists were required “to attach warning bells to their machines, a lantern when traveling at night, and a sort of license plate with their name and address.”

This sounds like something right out of an editorial page. At least The Seattle Times editorial page editor, James Vesely, hasn’t referred to the bicycle as “…an instrument of chaos and degeneration…” which was a popular opinion in 19th Century France. I probably shouldn’t give him ideas for more anti-bicycle editorials, though.

This conversation in France was taking place just before and at the time that the Tour de France had its start in 1903. France is way out front on the issue of bicycle versus car, bicycle versus tranquil country life and bicycle as instrument of moral degeneracy.

If I recall correctly, when my wife, Delores, and I visited France not too long ago we saw the final result of the debate. There are bicycle paths in evidence throughout the country. Not all of the riders, not even most of the riders, were wearing those flashy clothes that seem to attract the wrath of some drivers here.

Most riders were decked out in dresses, suits and work clothes. A lot of them had the ubiquitous baguette sticking out of the rear pannier. Most were sitting upright on the saddle in a fashion that in no way suggests that they were in training for anything except another long lunch. 

But here we are in bike-friendly Seattle, still arguing the merits of extending the Burke-Gilman Trail through the industrial area of Ballard and whether this will damage the fragile psyches of commercial truck drivers or whether widening the same trail through where it winds beside Lake Washington will damage the culturally deprived citizens of these fragile areas.

As the saying goes, “go figure.” What it all boils down to is this: nothing changes except the dates and faces. The whine and rant continue even when the City of Seattle has finally “gotten it.”

The Ballard commercial truck drivers will not be saddled with the burden of driving alongside a designated bike trail and being distracted by a tight pair of spandex shorts. They will only have to slow behind a bicycle that is now riding on the street.

And those poor, deprived lake-front residents along Lake Washington who are threatened by the very thought of an improved Burke-Gilman Trial can rest easy in the knowledge that their city council is being every bit as obstructive to progress as they possibly can be.

Again, “go figure.” You may want to examine the tortured logic that both those who argue against completing the Burke-Gilman through Ballard and those who oppose the widening of the trail along Lake Washington. You will have to conclude, as do I, that these people are grasping at the same straws as those in 19th Century France who ranted about the evil consequences of bicycles and bicycling.

So, it’s back to the days of yore. The days when the primary concern was how the bicycle would impact the culture of France in various ways. The military saw the bicycle as a tactical tool to be used to counteract the strength of France’s arch enemy, Germany.

The bicycle manufacturers, dealers and sport newspapers saw the bicycle differently, as a source of revenue, source of physical well being, and source of national sport. Races began to take shape throughout the country. Some of them exist to this day: Paris-Brest-Paris, Paris-Roubaix and, of course, the Tour de France are three examples.

We in the United States and, for that matter, the world, are being challenged to rethink how we live, what our hopes for the future are, what we will leave for future generations and many more questions that I’ll leave to you to ask. We can get stuck on the small issues like standing in the way of transportation progress, or we can work together as a unified civil society where paying for alternative transportation as a ticket to the future and the privilege of living in a civil society are paramount.

The choice is obvious, in my humble opinion. While contemplating your risk of moral degeneracy, ride safely.

We encourage our readers to comment. No registration is required. We ask that you keep your comments free of profanity and keep them civil. They are moderated and objectionable comments will be removed.