Friday Group Ride #432

Friday Group Ride #432

My kid said, “Mom makes more money than you, because she went to college, and you didn’t,” and then he laughed. And I said, “I did go to college, but I studied philosophy, which is an excellent preparation for selling bikes and writing blogs,” and I laughed. My wife didn’t. She stood and closed her eyes and shook her head, as she does.

Of course, when I was in college, I didn’t even begin to know what I didn’t know. Like so many who came before me, I wish I’d paid more attention. Of particular disinterest were the early, core classes on moral philosophy, the Greeks, the Catholics, and the British. It all struck me as simplistic and boring, and I was eager to get to Nietzsche’s post-moral ideas on the “real world.” I remember, eventually, sitting in a graduate level seminar with a Czech professor whose English was lacking and who mumbled in a way that suggested he knew just how badly he was mangling every sentence, with me thinking, “Yeah. This is the stuff!”

But of course now, as I’m older, morality and how to live a good life are current topics again, and I realize that the simplicity of the Greeks was a way to boil enormously complicated topics into practical terms. I don’t want to reread those texts, but I see now what I didn’t see then. Last week’s Group Ride was an expression of my recent pondering of moral conundra, and I should apologize. I should have known better than to mention the cyclist-whose-name-shall-not-be-spoken, because invariably the conversation becomes about that specific person, even when you’re just trying to use him as an example of one aspect of thing you’re wondering about.

This has all been a long introduction to today’s Group Ride, which again delves into the shallow water of morality and cycling.

Here’s what I’m thinking about. The weather is getting colder, and I have transitioned my bikes and gear to winter mode. I’ve pulled out the thermal wear, the balaclavas, the GoreTex boots. The studded tires are there by the workbench, and the ski gloves have come out of their storage bin. It’s yearly ritual, and one that signals the end of more difficult riding. My commute is short, so the weather is manageable for me, but in some ways that makes the inner dialogue about whether to ride or drive more difficult. It’s a lot of work for a little ride time.

But global warming, or rather GLOBAL WARMING, if you read the papers, or the recent non-fiction from scientists popular and not. Also, I should mention, given last week’s distraction over the aforementioned unnameable cyclist, this Group Ride isn’t interested in whether global warming is real or not. I am behaving as if it’s real, because the overwhelming evidence suggests that’s so, and for the purposes of this piece, let’s all work with that assumption, or at the very least acknowledge that driving causes pollution that has a deleterious effect on our world. Maybe it only needs to be that simple.

Anyway, back to me, lying in bed, casting one squinty eye at the weather app on my phone, and pondering the pro/con-ness of riding my bike. It’s a pretty loaded decision to take on pre-coffee, but I find I’m most successful when I form an early intention. Sometimes I even take out the winter riding tights the night before to create some good momentum. I can tell you, regardless of long term effect on the planet, my life is better when I ride, and maybe I should just hew as closely to that home truth as I can and forget all the other noise in my head.

But then I think something like, “When the oil is gone, and the earth has warmed, and all of the other mammals have gone the way of the mammoth,” will I have wished I had ridden my bike more?” I literally think bat shit crazy stuff like this. It’s how I navigate my day.

So this week’s Group Ride asks, am I really crazy? Or is this an entirely rational way to think in changing times? I would not for a moment judge someone for the way they get to work, so if you drive, that’s cool. You do you. All I’m trying to explore is the question: Is there a valid moral component to bike commuting, i.e. is this a reasonable way to decide how to get where you’re going? In my cynical moments (which likely outnumber their opposite), I think, “There is no way we’re not burning every drop of oil on the planet, so it doesn’t matter what I do.” As you can see, I’m no more certain about the way to live than I was when I was twenty and straining to hear Dr. Mumbles talk about Beyond Good and Evil.

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  1. Tom

    Do not worry, your thoughts are my thoughts exactly. And yes, there are two ways to reason. You mentioned both. It’s way more fun to commute by bike, and it’s better for the planet. If everyone would only change what they do (not entirely, just partially would be awesome), we would still burn all fossile fuel, but we’d take a lot longer and we’d be much more cheerful doing so!
    Weather permitting I drive to work, cycle home in the evening and back to workin the morning after a good night’s sleep. That’s 30mi one way though. Still this means one less roundtrip for myself in this unhappy place called motorway traffic queue.

  2. Furry MAMiL

    Oh geez. Yeah, you’re crazy.

    The amount of carbon you don’t add to the atmosphere by riding is such a tiny amount as to make no difference. Even added up over a lifetime. So, ride for you. Ride because it improves your mental outlook. Maybe ride because it improves your moral outlook. Definitely ride because it improves your physical well being. Don’t do it for the rest of humanity.

  3. Zvi Wolf

    I doubt we burn every last drop. As Sheikh Yamani said “the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stone”. Technology switches are like bankruptcy, they occur slowly until they happen quickly. I have faith that we will switch to more sustainable fuels. Of course, I did attend an engineering school, not a liberal arts college. The ethos was solving problems, not pissing and moaning about them. Get out and ride.

  4. Scott M.

    The strength of belief that bike commuting is morally superior to driving is directly proportional to the amount of bike commuting one does. When you bike commute more, you’re a handlebar thumping apostle nailing your manifesto to the office doors of the uninspired humans around you. Commute less and well, Pee-wee Herman.

    When I rode 35 miles round trip four days a week, drivers were “Suckers.” In their SUVs. Bumper to bumper. Putzes all.

    Now that my commute is a scant 5 miles, and there’s no shower or locker at the office, it’s easier to rationalize driving and discard my once-zealous beliefs. It also helps that I can go 2 weeks without filling the tank in my commuter – see, rationalization, right there.

    1. Author

      @ Scott M. – This resembles my experience. I used to be a zealot. I don’t feel that way now. And it might be true that I mis-framed this week’s question (or am trying to split hairs). I don’t want to judge other people’s choices, although we all do this somewhat reflexively. What I want to do is be consistent with myself and my own choices. So this week’s question didn’t mean to be about deciding drivers were morally bad, but rather weighing the personal moral consequences for myself. I am a driver often enough. I drive kids around. I do plenty of driving. In this one area of my life, commuting, I have a choice pretty often, so…I wondered if other people thought about it this way.

  5. scott g

    I go for a winter group ride, the Saturday Breakfast or Brunch ride,
    depending on the temps, sometime it becomes a lunch ride.
    Rides this time of year are a social/mental health exercise.

    On morality, as a child we are taught to clean up after ourselves and
    not leave messes in other peoples yards.

  6. AG

    By framing the question of commuting as a moral/amoral decision I think you have already indicated your judgment? This appears to be common among cyclists who by luck or by financial ability can live within a short distance of their place of work. It’s very easy to ponder these questions when you have the choice. “You do you” seems to be a bit cavalier for the working mom trying to make ends meet, no? Maybe a way to ask the question is: if you have the choice, is there a moral component in choosing how to commute (I might even say “yes there is”)? I love you Robot, but this one kind of pricked my finger.

    1. Author

      @AG – I’m sorry. I should have been more clear that I really do understand, not everyone can do this. There are myriad circumstances that would preclude bike commuting. Also, it is entirely fair not to expect people to ride when it’s freezing cold, raining, too hot, etc. It is also fair not to expect people to want to sweat or deal with bike parking/storage, etc. I really mean this. My circumstances are stacked entirely the other way, so I write from that perspective.

  7. Joe

    From one philosophy student to another, the ancient Greeks knew a thing or two. There’s a moral component to most things in your life. But I agree with some of my fellow commentors—the most important factor is that it makes you feel better.

    I live 4.5 miles from work (currently working through a back injury that makes even that slow, 25 minute ride difficult), but even when feeling fine, I ride when it seems fun (e.g., not in the rain/below freezing, etc).

  8. S Barner

    I appreciated John McCain’s independence and was impressed when he broke the party line during his presidential campaign and said that it didn’t matter whether one believed in human-triggered global warming or not, as the actions that would reduce related human impacts are things that we should be doing anyway. I started riding because I needed a way to get around as a young teen, and I quickly learned to appreciate the efficiency, range, versatility and enjoyment of cycling to the places I needed to go. My interest in the bicycle as a machine landed me a job working with bikes and that helped to solidify my engagement in the sport. Now, 50 years later, I’m still using the bicycle as my preferred means of transportation, to the point where I put five times the number of miles on my bikes as I did on my truck last year. The fact that the bicycle is an incredibly efficient and healthy form of transportation is welcomed icing on an already sweet cake. Bicycles truly could save the world if we’d only let them—but we won’t.

    I rode the 18 miles into work and even farther back, today. The morning was plenty sketchy, with several inches of light snow that fell last night and roads that were either unplowed, or only plowed the first pass, with the shoulders untouched. There were quite a few places where I had to keep looking back for cars, to time when I’d have to dive across the crap in the transition zone between the traffic ruts and the untouched snow on the shoulder. Like riding a fixed gear helps your spin, there’s nothing like trying to stay upright in snow to improve your balance and bike handling skills, especially when the yee-haw commuters are zipping by a couple feet away as if you were not there.

    Luckily, I had decided to ride my 1985 Fat Chance (the last of my many bikes that I bought brand new), with its fat, 26” studded tires. The extra time that it took to plod through the snow made me a bit late for the scheduled morning workshop. I was struck at the irony as a few people whispered that I was nuts to ride my bike in these conditions, while the presenter was droning on about “hidden curriculum” and how schools can tacitly favor a dominant culture through favoritism and bias, aimed at “correcting” behavior of other cultures that deviate from the “norm.” Apparently, we’re only supposed to recognize this bias when directed towards students, not cyclists. I had been thinking on the ride in that I relied on the automotive infrastructure to ride my bike, but I was unwelcome within that realm. I was, indeed, one of a different culture, and some of my neighbors didn’t really care all that much if I got killed or maimed for my infraction. Anything I got would have been my own, damn fault.

    I don’t care. I like riding more, now, than I ever have and I’m going to keep doing it. I’ve reached a point where when some twinky starts berating me about cyclists and cycling, I look him or her right in the eye and say just one thing – “I’m 63.” It shuts them right up, every time.

    1. Tominalbany

      You state your age and watch the disparity run across their faces. I like to offer to tell them how much I weigh. I don’t actually tell them, unless they ask. But, it’s my favorite!

  9. Michael

    I work at a university (and yes, I teach about the science of climate change in some of my classes, although it is not my specialty) in a small city with one of the shortest average commutes in the US (something like 6 minutes average). So, I ride my bike. It is about six or seven minutes in if I don’t stop for coffee, and 12-14 minutes home. The university charges $600 for a yearly parking permit, but gives a bus permit to those who do NOT buy a permit. So, I ride, rain or shine (on icy days, I walk or take the bus). Moral, yes, I can get up on a soapbox, but the system makes it easy to make the decision to ride. I ride all the time, since I am not going through the hassle of buying a one-day permit for $8. I also am a vegetarian because I don’t like the taste of meat, and never have. Again, I could get on a soapbox about the climate benefits of this, but the truth is that the knock-on benefits of my choices are just that – secondary to the real reasons. So, perhaps this is an argument for structuring a system so that incentives are there for people to make choices that happen to benefit society, even if the reason they choose is not because of an interest in that particular societal benefit.

    But yes, when all is said and done, I will always wish I had ridden more.

  10. nlt

    Every time someone commutes under their own power rather than driving, a little less carbon is released into the atmosphere, which means climate change happens a little more slowly, which gives us a little more time to adapt to it, which, if we use that time wisely, could save lives. So if you can, go for it. It all adds up.

    I often wonder what I will say when a generation not yet born turns round and asks, “so how did you let this happen, exactly?”. Whether I let that hypothetical question motivate my choices to a sufficient degree is another question entirely!

  11. Shawn

    You well know there are moral arguments for everything.

    My problem is with moral delinquents. Not just any moral delinquents, mind you. Im talking about Prius drivers. These people used to ride buses, bikes or carpools. But they were always seduced by the convenience of the car. They probably cheat on their spouses while away on business. And then along comes an environmental nightmare that farts out a little less bad breath, and suddenly these delinquents have seen all they need to see to jump ship and join the car culture. Don’t get me wrong–I’m not judging them for abandoning their morals for expediency. I’m a racing cyclist after all. I’m judging them because they have hated cars and people who drive cars for so long that they never learned to drive. If lesser humans can safely helm an Outback, then certainly morally superior persons such as they could master the art, no? No. So now they are clogging the roadways, making it difficult and time consuming for me to navigate my land yacht from my climate controlled palace to my climate controlled throne of capitalism, high in the clouds above. C’mon, you Primus drivers: get back on the bus!

    1. Shawn

      Bus? No way. Enter Lyft and Uber, allowing moral delinquents to remain smug about not driving yet use even more fossil fuels than if they’d just driven a Camry in the first place. 🙂

  12. Jim

    Bike commuting has physical and spiritual benefits. Car commuting does not.
    Regardless of morality, I just shake my head at people who have not made the effort to discover how huge these benefits can be.
    Life is short. Commuting is something most people do every day. You have to ask yourself, “is there a better way?”

  13. Dan Murphy

    Regarding riding in cold weather, I learned that getting my bike gear on is 99% of the battle. A hot chocolate before the ride helps, too.

    I’ve never given much thought about the morality of riding. Except for a very few times, I have never commuted by bike. All my rides were for pleasure. The worst part is that I had excellent situations to ride to work, but chose not to. In my last job of 18+ years, the ride would have been ~7 miles of country roads. Even worse, I drove to work, then went out for a 1-2+ hour ride. I thought about that every once in awhile, felt kinda bad about it for a few seconds, and got on with my life.


  14. Parker English

    As a fellow philosophy-major, empathize with the need to later find work with a living wage that’s also fulfilling. After many twists and turns, I wound up at age 53 with a job whose commute was only two miles, all with a good shoulder. So, was easy to use it till retirement for a little daily exercise as well as for slightly stoking a dry weather sense of self as outdoorsy. Which seems related to feeling moral, even if slightly so, as a cyclist regarding the problem of global warming.

    I’m one of the culprits who veered off towards Armstrong in the comments following your question last week. But my idea there might be relevant here also. Namely, it’s reasonable but not necessary to view cycling as importantly involving values other than fitness, recreation, and friendship.

  15. Pat O'Brien

    Your concern and worry about climate change are entirely warranted. It is not bat shit crazy. You have children, and you should be concerned about what kind of country and world you leave them. We all should be.
    Anything you do to limit your carbon footprint, no matter how small, is important. That applies to all of us. It all counts. Climate change is real science. And 2 plus 2 equals 4. Whether someone believes it or not doesn’t change it, period.
    I worry that he next gallon of gas I burn will put the warming climate over the tipping point. On today’s ride I thought about getting a custom jersey made. On the back would be printed “This Is My RV” with an arrow pointing down.

  16. Tominalbany

    Is it your morality we’re talking about? Seems so. If you think it’s important for ‘you’ to do ‘your’ part, than, there’s your morality. How flexible you are with that is all on you as well. I tend to believe we do the best we can. Not the best possible but, the best that we can in our current states of mind and being.

  17. Aar

    Working from home for darn near 20 years leaves me a bit detached from this topic. For me, the commuting decision really came down to shower facilities back when I did have a commute. I just couldn’t stand feeling that dirty while working. I also have challenges with bike commuters whose entry into a conference room immediately changes the entire room’s odor. How can one not notice that about oneself? Please pardon the digression. Environmental impact was a relevant factor in my commuting decisions 20 years ago. So, I align with you, Robot. I don’t believe that applying one’s own values to one’s own decisions is ever crazy, unless it has clinical applications. Trying to apply one’s values to another’s decisions is another story, and conversation, entirely.

  18. geoffrey knobl

    does it matter? yes, it does. the more not driving internal combustion to work, the better. (it would be walking, running, mass transit, even, or biking). is it crazy to think like this? no – more of us are thinking these things every day. it’s when it gets into a fugue state that it’s bad – depression or mania or something like that.

    you can only control what you do, and only do it when you feel you can. try your best and hope enough others follow suit. ignore the fascists in power (but vote for non-fascists that you can verify as much as possible aren’t terribly corrupt) and work locally or if you’re a gifted person in a position of influence or power – act regionally, nationally, etc. to push the bad out and the good in.

    i’m not e e cummings but i am lazy today

  19. S. Daniel Zaleski

    I have been riding my bike as much as time and relationships will allow for the better part of two decades. Some for racing, commuting, errands, but generally for an improved state of mental and physical well being. In that same time I have worked as a chemical engineer for several large corporations. One of those being an energy company where I worked at a 3.5GW coal power plant (at the time one of the largest in the world). On a tour during my first day, from the plant’s roof overlooking the quarter mile long coal piles, they proudly told me the plant burns roughly 25,000 tons of coal per day (about 200 full rail cars). That plant’s output represents about 1% of U.S. power production.

    That experience, as well as a myriad of others working in manufacturing, has set for me the frame of reference by which I view the world’s climate and pollution problems. It’s awfully cynical so I’ll leave you to infer it.

    To answer your question I do firmly believe if presented the option, riding a bike is a more responsible choice. It does help improve local air quality: that which you and your neighbors breath. I, however, see it as the moral equivalence of walking on grass.

  20. David Arnold

    I see a lot of this discussion brings such things as fossil fuel, morality, environmental issues, etc. into the mix. Having lived, worked and raced in Belgium and The Netherlands for 5yrs. we as Americans have a little different take on bike riding and commuting. Gas prices are not 6-7US dollars a gallon, we don’t pay the government by how much our cars weigh, our cites for the most part are not as bike friendly for commuters as most of Western Europe and we for the most part own more than one car per family. Small differences but they do impact the reasons Euros ride their bikes more to work, shopping. or training/racing.

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