Wandering by bike

Part of a series about riding Baltimore's streets.

The ideal way to explore a city is on foot. On foot you are grounded to the world around you. The slow, plodding pace of walking, hiking, or running forces you to consume the local environment slowly and carefully, much more slowly than almost anything else that is broadcast to us from televisions and web browsers and control centers; probably much more slowly than you’d choose. On foot you retain a kind of extreme proximity to the world, intimately exposed and familiar to everything around you, a line running out your body through each of your senses to every object within their purview. For building and retaining knowledge there is nothing like this kind of firsthand, embodied experience. But the downside is that walking is slow. Even at the rather bustling pace of 4 mph, it would take over 400 hours to cover all of Baltimore’s streets, and that assuming you could make a single pass over all of them with no redundancy. The short answer is that a bike is the right tool for the job. You could address this a bit by running, but running is nonstop work. And either way, it would be a project executed over many years that would require driving to different parts of the city. In the end, it’s an ambitious goal, just not one that I am drawn to.

This is in extreme contrast to the world’s most popular tool for mobility and exploration. An automobile buys you speed and comfort, but both of these are in opposed to learning. The purpose of speed is to take you through a place, not into it, and comfort dulls the senses and inhibits curiosity. The cabin of a car is by design a barrier for shielding the senses from the outside world. On top of this, the monstrous size and weight of a vehicle limit its last-meter mobility, where everything of interest lies. You could explore a city by driving every street in it, but it’s an assault on reason. Driving in cities is unpleasant, and putting a car in reverse is a paint. You’re never going to go down every dead end street whose end you can already see and which you won’t see any better when seated at the end of it. A car is useful for grand-scale exploration, for depositing you in places you might feel are out of your reach, but in the end, you have to get out of it if you want to experience something. It’s pointless.

A bike is the perfect compromise between them. It retains much of the intimacy and flexibility of walking (you can always dismount and carry it), while magnifying your speed. In fact, in a city like Baltimore, a good rider can get nearly anywhere at roughly the same door-to-door time as by vehicle. It is this underrated comparison with a vehicle where a bike really shines. A car is huge and complex. Most of the energy it consumes is spent moving the vehicle itself. This energy comes from an external source that feels limitless but is in fact diminishing and can never be replenished. The act of movement degrades the vehicle, introducing wear and tear that requires external maintenance. In contrast, a bike is tiny and simple. Most of the energy it consumes is spent transporting the weight of its occupant(s).1 This energy is produced by eating food. And amazingly, the act of drawing this energy actually increases the efficiency and improves the health of its power source. It is an engineer’s dream, and the full comparison will naturally appeal to any person with any admiration for efficiency, a distaste for waste, and a care for thriftiness will find his or her spirits raised at this comparison.

automobile bicycle
room-sized person-sized
extremely complex quite simple
powered by (finite) oil powered by (infinite) food
energy spent moving the car energy goes to moving the person
driving wears down car parts riding improves the body

Quite apart from the efficiency appeal, biking is exhilarating. It retains most of the grounding of walking. It is an extension of the body, an amplifier of its energy. What a marvel it is, when you consider the extraordinary gains it provides in terms of mobility and power, relative to its complexity.

  1. On my bike, about 86% of the energy I expend goes to moving the thing I care about, i.e., me, my own body. In my minivan, that number is about 4%.