Making Winter Work

Quick note off the top: I hope to attend the Winter Cycling Congress in Minneapolis next February, where the theme is equity. To get my thoughts started, I put together a draft Pecha Kucha-style storyboard on the question of winter cycling and ownership—even though it's May and there is no snow in the forecast. It's not exactly what in cycling circles is meant by equity, or maybe in a way it is. In Happy City (read it, btw), Charles Montgomery writes: "Despite the obvious effort [my emphasis] involved, self-propelled commuters report feeling that their trips are easier [his] than the trips of people who sit still for most of the journey." I wanted to explore that idea, and see if something in addition to good feeling isn't being lost in our thinking about winter and bicycling. I wanted to think about work and ownership. This draft starts with John Locke and ends with Bob Mould, with some David Byrne and Abe Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and John Hiatt sprinkled in between.

It is not yet widely accepted enough that the 17th century English philosopher John Locke—seen here in the pose that made him THE poster, or, rather, THE painting boy of the dead, snow-white male set—is a great friend and guide to today's urban winter bicycle commuter.

Those of you who watch TV may be thinking: whaaaat? John Locke, dead? You thought John Locke was very much alive on that island in the TV show Lost after the crash of Oceanic Flight 815! The character who somehow after the crash regained the use of the lower portion of his body below the waist. Well, you have the wrong John Locke in mind. And, spoiler: he was dead all along. Maybe.

No, the John Locke I am thinking about is that old British philosopher who, if you have read him, went around and around on questions of ownership and equity. Locke's problem is this: how does one actually come to own something,? Of course, it's a version of the question before the Winter Cycling Congress 2016 in Minneapolis. Where the question will be: How do individuals, how do communities acquire a sense of ownership in bicycling and active transportation, especially in winter?

But let me just revisualize that question slightly, being, myself, under the influence of David Byrne. In his Bicycle Diaries, Byrrne reminds us that he has to remember that bicycling is not an end. Rather, it is a means to having a better life. And so that Lockean question can be recast, slightly: how do we acquire a sense of ownership where public life is lived—our cities and our streets—through bicycling, especially in winter?

Part of  the answer is this: labour. Or, work. That's what Locke said was the key to ownership. You own your body, you work with your body, your work improves what you work on, and as long as enough is left over for others to do the same, what you work on becomes your property. Work transforms things. Of course, he was thinking just of men being owners, but you get the picture. Work transforms stuff.

Linclon got the picture. You can hear Locke behind that famous quote from The Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, who said, in a piece of wisdom preserved in the vinegar of Twitter, that labor is prior to and independent of capital…It is labour that deserves much the higher consideration. Abe. Honest.

Cyclists know this truth about labour in their frames. Because all the differences between driving an automobile and pedalling a bicycle (and they are legion) stem from this fundamental difference: in an automobile, you sit, you tap a toe on the gas pedal, and you are conveyed. On a bicycle, you actually work. Legs go around and around and around. Watts are produced, joules per minute can be measured. And bicycle riders get a sense of being in the city...

...that automobile drivers just don't. Automobile drivers know a different experience. They have been translated into pieces of data. This view from above is increasingly what we feel as cars move us. The work is the work of others. The designers. The key is flow. A to B as quickly as possible. Driverless cars complete this devolution. And in that car landscape it is the work that is going out...

…of style. But it is the work that comes back onto the stage when cycling comes back into the conversation. That it is work can be disguised. It can be dressed up, furred over, hatted and gloved, booted up, accessoried to the nines, but the point is that riding your bicycle is work. What disguises it is the fact that it is pleasurable work.  But remembering the work at the core of bicycling is important, because…

…there is a conventional media blizzard that would return us to a state of watching, not working. It is the spectrum of the bias that equates winter with bad, abnormal, the powerful voices that would have you believe that winter is to be sat out, left as it is. Voices like….

…this one from a leading newspaper editorial writer where I live in Edmonton who wrote this in April 1915, I mean 2015. Read it out loud:  Bicycles will never be a significant all-season transportation alternative in a city where the streets are snow-covered between five to seven months of the year. Well, there it is.

Now, let's hit the translate button. That statement sends two key, anti-democratic messages beyond its purportedly populist one. First, this argument is really saying that a winter city, properly understood, reserves its streets—its very arteries for the movement of life—for those who are licensed to drive automobiles, for half the calendar year. That is not a city. It's a drive-thru for the privileged.

And, second: it proclaims that snow and ice are destiny. That is, a winter city is a city that winter happens to. Not a city that uses its expertise and imagination to make life happy and liveable in winter. The heavens rule. Actually, the ones who rule are the writers and critics and fair-weather citizens born with the ability to descry the meaning in the winter skies.

Here's the thing. That supernatural power to translate meaning in the skies into municipal priorities on the ground is not the power of old. It no longer uses its exclusive channel to the truth above to make people down below work against their will. It doesn't enslave. It is more subtle than that. When we internalize the message that snow on streets equals no bicycles on streets, we agree, as we stop bicycling, to stop working.

And when we stop working, we stop transforming. Remember your Locke? Work transforms nature. He believed it was the yeast that made common property private. The bicycle itself transforms. We know that in our bones. It transforms the work of the legs into forward motion. The work of urban winter cycling transforms, too. Its work turns cold to warm, and it turns what borders on fear to what feels like joy. It turns watching to doing. It can turn a fairweather regard for the place we work into a kind of affection for the city we live in—an affection that is not seasonally adjusted.

Remember the great urban cyclist David Byrne? He was actually channelling Enrique Penalosa when he reminded us that bicycle transportation is not an end. It is a means to having a better life. In a real way, though, it can be an end. For those who live in winter cities, it can be the end to a way of thinking that keeps the streets off limits, that keeps us strangers in our city between five to seven months of the year. And that is the great promise of equity that the work of winter cycling offers. It can reopen the city, and all that that promises about a return to public life that we own, or, at least, share.

We should be wary of shortcuts to that kind of connection. In the important work to make the bicycling mode safer and more more popular, we should not forget that work is work. One-time New York Police Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt, the creator of the NYPD bicycle squad, taught that far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.

The great philosopher poet of the US Midwest, John Hiatt, also sings the virtue of work over just talking, or editorializing, about things:

Don't ask what you are not doing
Because your voice cannot command
In time you will move mountains
And it will come through your handlebars

Okay, he said through your hands, not your handlebars, but, you get the picture.

So, yes, Locke is dead, yes, he was white, yes, he was a male, yes, he is claimed as ancestor by some specious offspring who don't ride their bicycles. But that kinda thrilling idea about labour, about working your way into a sense of ownership, for us a sense of co-ownership of public property that are streets, is a powerful one. Okay, fast forward:

In all the important talk, the work it will take to get more people pedalling down more safe lanes in more seasons in more cities visited by the state of nature's snow, never forget that Locke's key is work. That's the revolution. That's the freedom. That's the message of the turning cassette wheels. With apologies to the great Minneapolis band Husker Du, that's the road where the sun disintegrates between a wall of clouds to the celebrated <winter>, where everyone is allowed


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