Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Going Multi-Modal: Why, and Why Not...

A few years back I decided to use my bicycle for more day-to-day transportation needs. The fit with my life as a parish priest was a good one, and my trusty old three-speed was (seemingly) ready for another go.  It took a little bit of courage for me to essay the streets of Salem, as the distance between my home and the parish church took me through several auto-obssessed speedways, canyons of metallic worship and community-busting asphalt triumphalism--not to mention the main railway through town.

Part of my motivation to get out on my bike was to put some exercise back in my life, part was to put some time back in my life, and part of it was because I like to see myself as a plain old "vicar" of the English village sort, making pastoral rounds via bike in a world based on community and relationships. Quaint, I know.

The previous parish I had served was really such a place, though. Many of its parishioners were reachable by bike, and I was able to do quite a lot of pastoral work that way both during the day and in the evening. I put in a lot of driving, however, as there were members of the parish living twenty miles in just about each direction, and all of the major hospitals were far away.

So, when I moved to Salem, I was both delighted (a great parish, a major hospital just minutes from my home) and frustrated (a town with a lot of steep hills in parts, a sudden spike in gas prices that ate into my travel allowance quicker than a dachshund lunges for a slice of warm Quiche Lorraine).

Then, of course, there is the rain....

Eventually, the desire for some exercise and savings colluded to overcome my objections. I eventually found that I really did need a new bike, and I learned many routes through town, gradually extending  my range. As time went by, I learned some interesting things:

  • It really doesn't rain as consistently in the winter as even this Oregon Native thought.
  • A heavy-weather bike and good rain gear makes winter cycling tolerable.
  • A lot of drivers are pretty courteous; others need considerable prayer.
  • Cycling allows one to practice humility and forgiveness.
  • Real improvement in cycling infrastructure has come to Salem; however, the assumption generally made is that cyclists are of the "fearless and bold" variety, ensuring it will remain a small part of the transportation picture here.
  • By their actions and attitude, many fellow-cyclists are poor PR for cycling
  • Riding an upright bicycle and/or not wearing shrink-wrap clothing on a bike is a minority proposition in the apparent view of both many cyclists and cycle stores.
  • Utility cycling has lots of class issues tied up with it. Some do it because they have to, some because they want to, and some because it makes a statement. None of these groups does much talking to each other.
  • I can often get to places downtown faster on bike than by car, especially the hospital.
  • A person connects with people, nature, and life in a much deeper way on a bike.
  • You learn a lot about a community when you bike through it.
  • I still need a car.

At another meeting, via bike; parking is usually so much easier...
Over the last years, I have become what the experts call "multi-modal." I drive, I bike, and I walk to things. Due to my often spontaneous schedule, I don't use mass transit...but I would if I could. This multi-modality is something I very much enjoy, and it makes me sound very "environmentally-conscious" or "pure" or "new-urbanist" to some. But, believe me, it really is none of those things.

My multi-modal approach to life is not so much a statement or a cause as it is a practicing of the things that matter most to me. I value practicality a great deal. This is part of how I know I am an American. Cycling often "works" very well, saving money, allowing my mind to clear between meetings, helping me understand the community I serve better, and getting some much-needed activity in my life (believe it or not, I am rather book-tea-chat-music oriented).

I also value the quiet and peacefulness utility cycling often involves. Riding through neighborhoods, parks, the grounds of a hospital, a park, or even a prison, is complex experience of reflection, quiet, observation, and prayerful encounter.

I have very little interest in all the purism of some Utility Cycling advocates. Purism tends towards joylessness and arrogance. It is indeed wonderful to see that some people have dropped using a car because it is superfluous to their life. But, it seems pretty hard not to move from purism to judging, and that's where I would like to get off the ride.

I still drive a car because I need to, and I don't see anything deeply wrong about that. I do, however, believe that auto-ism is a kind of idolatry our culture has long practiced, and like all idolatry it exacts a steep price for the delusion and pollution (of all kinds) it produces. This results in my decision to try to work in as much cycling as possible in my ministry. I think it leads to a greater clarity and consideration.

All of this is to say that being multi-modal, to me, is a putting into practice of my faith and its principles of contemplation, compassion, community, and sacramentality (that the created world is able to show forth the underlying holiness of God). If that is a "statement," I guess I'm making it...but that is not how I understand it. It is more of a matter of being than doing, to my way of thinking.

Today was a good example of this. I have some visits to make this week via car, but the deliciously cool and clear weather, coupled with the need to be at church and then later on at one parishioner's home across the river to bring Holy Communion made it a perfect day for cycling. I chatted with several fellow-cyclists, took in some lovely sights as I crossed the Willamette (on an unusually dry day for this time of year), and smelled lots of lovely scents in the air (food cooking, earthy mid-winter scents, and particularly aromatic wood burning in fireplaces to ward off the cold). Tomorrow I will likely be in my car much of the day. But, today, it was blissfully bicycle-ish.

There were actually a number of us Upright Cyclists on the bridge this afternoon
This is what multi-modality in transportation means to me: using the right tool for the right job, and seeing transportation as a part of the way one's faith, life, enjoyment, and connection to the world is nourished. That is reasoning I can live with...and for.

Where some of the best cycling ends up...

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