Monday, February 23, 2015

Ride a bike, change the world

Today (Saturday), near our new (future) home, a bike rider- a cross-border migrant from Malawi- was killed by a truck, and it was terribly sad. So this post is preachy and sentimental, because that's where I'm coming from right now. And in amongst the preachiness, I just want to acknowledge that not everyone has the margin to ride or take public transportation everywhere. But I hope there are enough of you that do, to make this helpful.

I work in a field (public health) where we talk a lot about equity. We talk about the fact that, if you're born in a certain place in a certain time, you have a likelihood of 40 fewer years of life that your brother or sister who happened to be born elsewhere. Half a lifetime taken from you at birth. And this chafes at us. So we look at ways to change this, so that everyone has an equal chance of living a good, long life. When the UN or the WHO gets together, they consider all the ways to alleviate poverty around the globe. Some efforts work better than others.

In these attempts, the underlying argument is that some basic needs must be met-- for water, sanitation, and housing. Perhaps education. These are human rights, we declare. So many of my peers and loved ones are hard at work to promote greater equality of opportunity, and it's awesome.

Where am I going with this? The problem comes when we imagine if we were, in fact, collectively successful in our efforts towards equality. The tough question that I struggle with is this: Could everyone live the way I live without the world's resources becoming utterly overstretched? What if "equal" meant living like I live.... would that be ok? If not, how can my family live a joyful, abundant life that does not use more than our share of the planet's resources? If, by "equal", I mean a little worse off than my life, why?

In 2006, each individual on the planet could make use of the resources of about 5 acres (including raw materials for clothing, fuel, etc). This is rapidly declining- it'll likely be around 2 acres by the time my children reach adulthood.

Using this acreage, a family car is simply not tenable for every family or adult in the world. It's intuitive, too. There are traffic jams in China that last for days. But it's so hard to imagine not having a car. If you're in places like South Africa or the U.S., and are vaguely middle-class, it's our norm. I dare say that many South Africans consider the level of convenience provided by a personal vehicle, their "right". Bought and paid for. But one can't put a cost on reproducing this notion of the car as a right. We reinforce this picture of what "middle-class" looks like. It is weird and very difficult to be a professional without a car, and there is a strong assumption that one MUST have a car if one is to be a busy and productive member of society. As the middle-class grows, so does the demand for personal cars.

The knee-jerk reaction to the death of the cyclist today has been "we should ban riders on busy roads" or "we saw someone with a child, riding!! that's not safe!" I understand such responses. But I think we need to turn our perspectives around, recognising that many people do not have a choice but to ride or take public transportation.

This week in Cape Town, if you are going less than 5km, consider being brave and ride there. Or if you don't have a bike, walking. Taking a minibus or bus or train is certainly an great alternative to riding- and there's a desperate need to improve these services in many parts of Cape Town. Find a day when you can practice riding during a relatively quiet time of day. Then later, try during rush hour. Tell your friends. If a hundred people took their cars off the road during rush hour, imagine how much calmer Kommetjie Road would be. Then a hundred slightly less brave people will be willing to try riding, or taking a minibus, also. And a hundred more. Soon enough there'll have to be a dedicated bike lane and bus services might progressively improve, as they are in other parts of the city. If we are willing to offer up our collective vulnerability, or some level of comfort, so much could change.

No comments: