17 June 2009

On yer bike: adventures in new urban space

So I'm finally getting a bike. Finally listened to my road-bike warrior friends on the poetry of motion; finally accepted that it has to be the best way of getting around this tangled City. (Pretty good, too, to save some cash: life in this town eats money.) And suddenly I find myself moving in a whole new environment, find a whole new City opens up to me - a new city built from the same streets I've walked for years. What a tool the bicycle can be for urban perception! Let me explain:

You go fast on a bicyle. Having not cycled since I was 10, I had forgotten this. The same familiar journey becomes a completely different journey at four times the speed (say 4mph walking, 16mph cycling) - instead of taking an opportunity to think, one must be constantly aware of traffic, road conditions, your balance - and all these thiings change, every second. Architecture no longer matters, the dress sense of pedestrians (such an urban pleasure!) becomes inconsequential; the landscape becomes one of road signs, traffic lights, moving cars and parked cars and tarmac texture. Now you can see the grooves buses wear into the street surface; painted road markings are no longer signs & symbols but objects, raised up and tactile. This road-space is governed by rules I do not know; I read the Highway Code so I would not be a total liability out bike-testing, but this is such little fraction of the behavioural codes of roadusers. Cycling ignorant of this is cycling illiterate, a foreigner in a strange land.

Yet what is so intriguing is that these new processes and foreign meaning is re/inscribed upon streets I've walked and bussed down for years. As a pedestrian I handle traffic so fluently, jaywalking across roads watching traffic flow as a set of (differential?) equations, each lane to be solved one at a time. I weave in and out of cars without concern, guided more by instinct than concrete thought as to what is safe. Yet up on a bike it feels like a completely different problem. Instead of crossing perpendicular to traffic I must now move parallel with it - become part of it, I suppose, though my thinking has not yet quite understood that concept so far. This layering of spaces, of meanings within the same built architecture - it is the city as palimpsest, the overlayering of trace upon trace upon trace.

Cycling produces a new emotional geography too. I don't want to be ashamed to admit that testing bikes yesterday I was afraid - so easy to wobble into traffic, or, not knowing what to look for in this unfamiliar setting, to fail to notice impending danger. Cars are so much bigger, heavier, armour-plated - when cycling they felt like autonomous machines, their trajectories inevitable and unalterable. I'd forget there were people inside, people who were watching and thinking about how I was moving - people who would make an effort to avoid hitting me. Is this why cyclists talk of the road as warfare? It is hard to see it as teamwork, much as it may be that kind of social space of cooperation and allowance too. So cycling was this state of continual awareness of how I might come to harm - can I call this existential? - very liminal, danger a knife-edge away. Like standing on the edge of a tall building - and, what is more, knowing how easy a moment of madness could be.

I beg to know when cycling might become second nature; how long does it take to learn to read the road? I hate to be a beginner like this, a liability to myself and others. Though it'd be a shame to lose this novel frame of perception - must mine it for ideas while I can! - it is so difficult to inhabit this road-space of fear and trial and threat. Yet until I started thinking of buying a bike I did not know this arena of challenges was even there - hidden in plain sight, the materiality of the road users visible but the process and meaning obscure without practical experience. And now these streets become a place for me to test myself, to face my fears, and to develop this new competency and embodiment.

If, that is, I can find the right bike!

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