Friday, April 27, 2012

Community, Personhood, and the Bike Boulevard

When members of our parish are asked what means the most to them about our church, one of the top words is always "community." So many pressures and conveniences today seem to be driving us into isolation, but the human being requires community in order to become a person in the full sense of the word. Thus, when people find it, they value it. Part of real leadership today is to help people see these pressures toward isolation (with their associated "conveniences"), name them, understand their full impact, and then make appropriate changes where needed.

For years the ideal neighborhood in much of the USA seemed to be found in suburbia. Even in mid-sized towns like the one I live in, new neighborhoods have been built to resemble distant suburban environments, with loop-and-lollypop street plans that make the automobile about the only practical transportation tool, a plasticized sameness of architecture, and mini strip-malls selling boring/unhealthy products placed far away from homes but near major roads. It reinforced a common mindset of escape-the-city, was unimaginative, but sold lots of homes—and lots of gasoline.

Today, though, there is a new attitude towards desirable living conditions. Being near the downtown core is good. Walking or biking to work or a meal or other activity is attractive. Being stuck out in a cookie-cutter funny-farm of pseudo-craftsman or bogus-Mediterranean villas feels silly. Spending money on a second car (or, in some places, any car) is outside the budget. Add to these points the relationship we are beginning to want with the environment and Creation, and the "drill-baby-drill" mentality of the 20th century along with its concept of the ideal neighborhood begins to look not only unsustainable but grotesque.

Beyond this, community is becoming attractive. Before the twentieth century, most people lived very communal lives, either as part of farming communities or in urban areas. This was normal and maintainable. Suburbia, with its promise of “little king consumerism” was, it turned out, the unsustainable newcomer to the human living pattern—and it had also become a big bore.

As we move into a new kind of “good life,” things like community are mattering in ways they haven’t for a long time. Cycling is part of this. People who cycle as a main transportation form (as opposed to purely leisure or sport cycling) tend to like less auto-dominated streets. To encourage more cycling, some cities have created bike boulevards or greenways that promote a safer, quieter, bike-friendly environment.

Those same streets become more desirable because they are quieter, more livable in the way we like things to be now. Housing values go up. Neighborhoods that were once neglected are gradually transformed. Streets that had no aesthetic appeal receive improvements that bring in beauty and tranquility. Communities are being renewed because someone in local government had the foresight and the courage to read the tea leaves of contemporary America and put in a series of bike boulevards connecting neighborhoods to the core.

The early phases of this process are sometimes marked with miss-steps, heady idealism, and some stiff resistance…but as we see what the results are in one community after another, it becomes clear that the future includes a strong emphasis on exactly this sort of accommodation for people-oriented environment.

Upright bicycles are creatures of the bike boulevard mentality, really. They are not fast. They aren’t made for sport. They are entirely utilitarian and encourage one to take stock of the surroundings. I see such cycling and the culture that supports it as part of a much deeper trend: a move away from isolation towards community and true personhood in our society, and I delight in it.

This video gives some idea of how cycling and pedestrian accommodation can help create the conditions for such community to exist.

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