Friday, October 12, 2012

A spirited bike with a message to ponder

My travels in town often take me through Willamette University (full disclosure: this is my Alma Mater), where there are great paths upon which one can slowly ride and notice the buildings, the seasons, the students, and the bikes. Yes, the bikes are interesting here. It is as close as Salem gets to the crowded bike racks of a large college town. Though WU is a smaller school, the cycling scene gets better each year, both at the undergraduate campus and at the law school. A mini smorgasbord of bike types and conditions are to be found here (I'll post more on this later). However, one bike caught my attention a few days back.

This is a fairly modern, but very traditionally-styled yellow 3-speed. It is a pretty good bike for Upright Cycling, with fenders, collapsable rear racks, chain-guard, and bell. It appears at various places around campus (there are quite a few bike racks at WU now), but was locked up by Goudy Commons for several sunny days when I took these picture. Its color and adornments bespeak an in-your-face-but-not-aggresively-so attitude about cycling, education, activism, and livability...

I've not seen this bike being ridden, but even in repose, it sends its messages loud and clear.

As the effects of the Great Recession gradually spill out into more and more of our lives, one of the questions more people are asking is: "How much stuff, as opposed to how many relationships, do I need to truly enjoy life?" The average size of our homes has increased even as family size decreases. The number of possessions people have--and the rate at which they are replaced--has spiraled exponentially over recent decades. We are told in myriad ways that our patriotic duty is to buy more and buy often. 

The whirl of consumeristic capitalism has temporarily lulled in our economy, but there remain many voices urging us on to "business as usual" as soon as possible. Yet, so many people report a sense of isolation, disconnection, and alienation from others, from the central institutions of a democracy, from a spiritual foundation giving meaning to life...and from their own selves. To me, these things seem interrelated.

This bike suggests that perhaps the calamity of our recent economy, though undoubtedly extremely destructive to many, could have a long-term benefit to succeeding generations if its lessons are properly absorbed. Perhaps we can begin to define satisfaction in new ways. Maybe--just maybe--life is about more than packing our limited time with more and more stuff and activity. It could be about something based on an inherent meaning, dignity, and purposeful enjoyment. It could be about people and relationships, not only material transactions and mechanical efficiency. To paraphrase Eliot, where is all the knowledge, the wisdom we have lost in the seemingly endless stream of data, information, and purchasing? What have we become in pursuit of goals that have left us in this sorry and divided state?

Human nature being what it is, I don't look for us to embrace only the highest ideals coming out of this recession. However, I like to think that such things as the proposed 3rd Salem auto bridge project (and all it would mean) can now be questioned not just from a price-tag point of view, but from the perspective of what they say about a community's inner life: 
  • Would driving a concrete-and-asphalt stake through the heart of developable portions of the City of Peace really free us to live better? 
  • Would the modest savings of time for a few (through town, to their homes, going to/returning from the coast or the casinos, &c.) actually make up for the continued degradation of an urban core already overshadowed by auto-centric and increasingly antiquated views of transport and community? 
  • Why are we continuing to fund even the studying of such forlorn projects year after year when the significant amount of monies used in doing so could make tremendous creative impact in near-term livability (e.g. planning for fully-functioning mass transit, a "destination" downtown, and a truly inviting and effective multi-modal transport plan)? [Yes, the "pots" of money are different, but the continued fixation on so apparently hopeless a project is a strong statement itself; where we put our research and planning money is probably the main way we make statements about our vision for the future.]
The above questions may not be those of a significant portion of today's city leadership, but they are those of the rising generations who live here (or who might choose to live here), and deserve to be asked with greater urgency.

All this may be more than some would think reasonable from an encounter with a bike, but I think it is in line with what the owner of this spirited vehicle probably intends.


  1. Thanks for bringing up the 3rd Bridge, U.C. It would be wonderful if you shared these insights with the Salem City Council at their public hearing on the 3rd Bridge on November 5th at 6:30 pm. To help folks prepare for that my friend Scott Bassett and I are presenting a NO 3rd Bridge Briefing on Sunday, November 4th at 3 pm in the Anderson Room at Salem Public Library. We also have a "NO 3rd Bridge" Facebook page (you can Google it) that has lots of good information.

    1. Thanks, John, for the link, the schedule, and the urging. The FB page has a fair amount of helpful information.