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Dave Cohen and an electric bicycle — an antidote, he argues, to “automobilism.”

Voices / Viewpoint

Our automotive culture, our disconnection with place

On our bike, my family and I share the road with people in cars, but it’s like we’re in different worlds. Can we move beyond automobilism and reconnect our bodies and senses to our mobility?

Dave Cohen has over 20 years of experience working with cargo bikes and promoting bikes for everyday transportation. In addition to being founder and director of VBike, a nonprofit advocacy organization (vbikesolutions.org), he also works as an integrative psychotherapist in Brattleboro, trained in somatic and cognitive therapies as well as specializing in ecopsychology.

Brattleboro

I had a conversation with my son recently.

“So, what projects are you doing today at school?” I asked him.

“What?” he responded.

“Projects at school,” I repeated.

“What at school?”

“Projects!”

Finally, frustrated, he blurted, “I can’t hear!”

Pro-jects!” I screamed.

“Oh — projects,” my son said.

That conversation occurred as we biked to school along Western Avenue through one of those gorgeous wintery-mix mornings.

My son doesn’t have a hearing problem (except when we ask him to clean his room). On good days, I usually speak fairly clearly. (This was a topnotch day for me.)

The problem was a Vermont soundscape and landscape subjugated to an ever-increasing collective rumble of cars and trucks, which happen to be excruciatingly noisy in wet, slushy weather.

With beads of frozen ice clinging to my beard, I was relieved once we were able to carry on a somewhat normal conversation.

“I don’t want to talk about school,” he said. “I want to talk about NASA going to Mars.”

I could have saved stressing out my vocal chords.

* * *

To the best of our knowledge, the drivers and passengers of the motor vehicles we encountered had absolutely no way of knowing the extent to which we were affected by their sonic disruption. Neither did they seem to be aware of the loudness of the other vehicles.

In fact, as we nodded or waved to the usual handful of walkers and cyclists we saw along the way, it was also clear that that nobody in a car acknowledged anyone (us, other people in cars, pedestrians, or other cyclists).

It was clear they could barely recognize if the cars in front, behind them, or passing them contained a best friend, lover, work buddy, or even a parent.

Added to this disconnection was the very act of driving!

We saw motorists texting, talking on cell phones, picking their noses while smoking a cigarette (that’s an amazing skill), and gazing blankly off into space.

But as we ride our bike, we’re not always concerned about what motorists are up to. When we can hear one another, we’re catching up on things or engaged in intense and sometimes very silly conversation.

We’re also reveling in all the sensory experiences Vermont has to offer — sensing the warmth or lack thereof, feeling the dryness or precipitation, noticing the position of the sun, taking in the natural scents, identifying a bird call, getting to know the feel of the day (wintery mix included).

It’s all about getting in tune with our actual habitat.

* * *

However, there is another side to our biking experience.

We are bearing witness to a world that is becoming more and more disembodied and decontextualized from the real world. It sometimes seems as if we’ve been dropped into a sci-fi reality version of the 1950s movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers, only the pods are now automobiles.

Just think about it. A driver’s range of communication to the world outside of the machine could be described as a greatly shrunken variety of personhood. Blinking turn signals, beeping horns, flashing headlights, a gesticulation here and maybe a shout out the window there: these round out the primary vocabulary.

Meanwhile, the rich places, diverse lifeforms, and life-giving elements we pass by are stripped of most of the sensory properties we would normally take in.

In addition, what we can see is presented to us in a flatscreen-like display through the fragmentation of the windshield and the car’s interior.

We think we are experiencing something real. Instead, we experience the techno-cloistered interior of a car, pretty much like all the occupants in cars in front of and behind us, and those passing in the oncoming lane.

This amounts to a sort of collective conformity of experience and a tragedy of the commons at the same time.

Worst of all, it’s happening at a massive level, with grave collective and sociological implications at time when we need to really show up with our bodies and our senses back to this particular Earth.

Don’t get me wrong. I really do think the automobile can be a fine tool. With some degree of discrimination, mindfulness, restraint, critical thinking, and perhaps balance, it’s a wonderful technology. And there’s no doubt that its flexibility, comfort, and convenience have moved us like no other thing.

But our obliviousness can spawn assumptions and blind spots of monumental proportions.

On our bike, we share the road with people in cars, but it’s like we’re in different worlds.

On one of our morning rides, we eyed a mysterious figure flying across deep snow on the slope at Living Memorial Park. We discovered we were being treated to a magnificent fox dancing on top of the snow drifts, as if it had skis.

We often stop to take such extraordinary moments in. There is no need to extract ourselves from a protective shell or press a button to scroll down a glass shield to see, smell, hear, taste, and feel what’s happening.

* * *

We appreciate just how much our worldview is informed by the ways in which we transport ourselves and our stuff across this landscape.

Transportation isn’t just a boring, stuffy technical subject that certain policy wonks discuss endlessly into the night. I came across something I believe is truly significant in the root of the word. Transport means to carry over, which coincidentally is the precise root meaning of the word metaphor. They are essentially the same word and, just as a good metaphor can elevate and change our understanding of the world, maybe we ourselves are transformed and redefined in the act of transportation.

Perhaps the way in which we move on the landscape and on this Earth is both poetically and physically crucial to our perceptual and emotional attunement to it.

Transportation, then, could be so much more that the dispassionate, technical idea of getting from point A to point B. It could be a meaningful dynamic process by which we get to know the ever-changing natural and social terrain, and through that process discover a deeper understanding of our ever-transforming selves in relationship to the world.

But we’ve planned our lives around the car and have so invested in our vehicles that there is no time or place to consider the enormity of what we have bargained away.

We have gained immense power in the world but at an extreme cost — a cost that seems to be 99-percent invisible.

That’s perhaps one of the most insidious and scary effects of something called “automobilism” — a denial, a forgetting, an avoiding, an ignoring, or just a plain unknowing that there is anything going on between us and our car’s deeply sensory-depleting innards.

But even more than that, automobilism represents a radical shrinking away from our potential as beings with bodies, senses, and emotions. It’s a clouding of our ability to cultivate resourceful strategies to keep us connected to the vitality of the Earth, which might just be the one thing that can hold us off from our perilous free-fall into a mostly technologically sanitized world.

Thriving off a 1950s model of how to live on a planet, automobilism is hidden in plain sight from us and easily suckers us into believing that an electric car, a carbot (self-driving car), or cars with any number of “Bernie” bumper stickers are going to bring the change we really need.

* * *

You might be asking if this self-righteous-sounding guy who rides on a bike with his kid in the winter actually thinks Vermonters are going to ditch their cars and get on bikes.

No, not exactly. But in places across the country, folks are showing up to repopulate their streetscapes and breathe new life into their communities by walking and biking.

And the great news is that new bike designs can seriously move families with innovations like e-assist which enable nearly anyone to ride up any hill. There are even partially enclosed hybrid-car-like vehicles that incorporate human-power and e-assist along with solar charging.

Now we can go farther, schlep more, navigate difficult terrain, carry the kids, stay safe, and go faster, but we can still remain attuned to the amazing world around us and keep our bodies active.

So this isn’t about getting everyone on foot or pedaling around — we’ve already made far too many decisions based on automobilized landscapes, planning, communities, and lifestyles.

However, more and more families and households are gravitating toward car-lite lifestyles that just so happen to also make for a saner life.

And now there’s this big movement toward — of all things — winter bike transportation!

* * *

In February, I attended the fifth International Winter Cycling Congress, held this year in Montreal, bringing together some 450 government officials, planners, activists, and others.

The event originated in Oulu, Finland, a city 124 miles south of the Arctic Circle, which has a significantly higher share of folks riding year-round in their winters than Portland, Ore. (our premier bike city) boasts for its ridership in nice weather. Oulu’s winters make Vermont’s winters look like a tropical paradise!

Winter bike transportation is also on a big upswing in places like Minneapolis, Minn., and Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where folks are connecting to the fact that our sedentary lifestyles are having a tremendous negative health impact, both physically and mentally. Sitting is the new smoking.

The other day, a woman rolled down her car window to remark on how odd it was to see us biking on a 6-degree morning, which also happened to be brilliant and totally glorious.

Later on, my son observed that “as we bike in colder temperatures we get better at it.” In fact, the next morning, riding in 20-degree thermometer readings, he said it felt like riding in a heat wave.

Just as our night vision is undermined when someone turns on a flashlight, in our cars, we short-circuit our potential to acclimatize to the cold. And, of course, as we and our bodies conform to the automobile, we become far less resilient.

Biking in the cold blesses one with a myriad of health benefits and opens a whole world of exercise, outdoor time, excitement, connection, insights, and lots of waving. We ride the joyful wilds of the winter on the electric cargo bike with special studded tires and good lighting, and we do so while dressed as any active Vermonter does to keep safe and feeling great.

Of course, some local commutes are nearly impossible on a bike of any type — especially during the winter — primarily because on some roads everything besides the automobile have been wholly marginalized or eradicated, creating a transportation monoculture.

But that’s poised for change.

Among many other things, questioning automobilism is a bona fide resistance against the fossil-fuel industrial complex and an authentic response to the monumental issue of our era: climate change.

For those Vermonters who can’t make the shift, bless the ones who can and help support their movement — we’re all in this together.

Because walkers, wheelchair users, bike riders, transit passengers, truck drivers, motorcyclists, and motorists alike all become more humanized and connected when there are more of us showing up in the world in a way that lets it be touched, felt, tasted, heard, spoken to, and directly sensed in all manners.

That we need to feel and experience our world in order to bond with it and protect it is essential, basic ancient wisdom that you will find in story, myth, song, and ritual in a multitude of cultures. So, too, is the warning that we can lose touch with reality by getting carried away with our technologies.

And now, this primal wisdom and intelligence is calling on us more than ever to think, feel and connect with the world outside of the box.

That’s so Vermont!

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Originally published in The Commons issue #400 (Wednesday, March 22, 2017).

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