I Flooded the Mississippi

Thankfully the news media is keeping quiet about this or I could be in big trouble: I flooded the Mississippi earlier this month. I’m also responsible in some small part for the Arkansas killer tornados last month. I may even be implicated in the Japanese earthquakes earlier this year, though the evidence for that is not so clear. But certainly without a doubt (as I confessed in a previous post) I share with BP responsibility for the gulf oil spill last year. How did I manage to cause such massive death and destruction? Simply by living my life as usual, getting around by car. I feel a little bit guilty about it actually. But what can I do?

I think more and more people will, as I have done, make this important connection: my driving habit (among other things) causes global warming which causes extreme weather which leads to premature death and hardship around the world. I can no longer read about the misery in Mississippi, the anguish in Arkansas, the grief in Japan, and the environmental destruction in the Gulf of Mexico without knowing that I am in a small way responsible. I think more and more people will feel a little bit guilty like I do. And we’ll have to weigh our guilt against our need to use our cars. After all, don’t we have to use our cars to pick up our kids now and then? Don’t we have to go get the groceries, commute to work in the rain, and occasionally drive to our parents’ house in another state? What choice do we have? I mean, these are all errands that we can’t do on our bicycles, right?

Wrong. It depends how you define bicycle. Most people in this country think of a bicycle as a recreational device for children or athletes. Most people don’t think of a bicycle as something they can use to carry passengers or to carry heavy loads. And most people think that it requires great strength to bike up steep hills or to go faster than 10mph or to go long distances. These are all misconceptions stemming from peoples’ limited idea of what a “bicycle” is. I’ve spent the last couple of years rejecting what a bicycle “is” and experimenting with what a bicycle “can be”. And I’ve concluded that my large (cargo) bike with an electric motor can be almost as capable as a car for almost all of my errands.

I still have a lot of work to do to make my bike into a true car-replacement-vehicle. I recently added batteries for long trips that enable me to go 60 miles in 3 hours or 120 miles in 12 hours, depending on how much I lean on the throttle. As a former bicyclist that speed and distance is more than good enough for me. However I imagine others might want to add a few more batteries to make a faster but slightly heavier car-replacement-vehicle. How is a true car-replacement-vehicle different than a motorcycle? For starters, it uses one hundredth the energy of a gasoline-powered motorcycle. And the energy it uses (namely electricity) comes in a form that is easily gotten from renewable sources. I can satisfy all my transportation energy needs by putting a modestly sized solar panel in the sun for a day or two. Secondly, unlike a motorcycle my true car-replacement-vehicle is designed to go slowly. That’s right: slow by design.

My bike as it is now replaces almost all my personal transportation needs and most trips carrying a child; a little more power and a larger frame would enable me to carry adult passengers too. A canopy would make winter riding more comfortable. But these are minor improvements to an existing proven technology. The car companies would have us think that they need a technological breakthrough before they can offer us environmentally responsible vehicles. Not so. You can begin your car-free lifestyle now with an electric cargo bike.

If the car-free revolution doesn’t require new technology, what is stopping us? The revolution only requires a simple collective change in our attitude: the willingness to go slowly. An electric-vehicle-centered lifestyle requires a willingness to go say 15mph rather than 30mph in the city, or 30mph rather than 60mph on the highway. Is that too much to ask? I hope people are willing to make this attitude change. It seems like a small thing: take a little more time to run your errands in order to spare us all from extreme weather events, in order to prevent permanent damage to the earth’s climate.

Aside from preventing planetary destruction, there are plenty of other reasons for people to travel slowly. At 15mph traffic lights and stop signs are no longer necessary; people have enough time to negotiate their way through intersections. Other signage for restricting cars from doing annoying things (such as parking in the wrong place) becomes unnecessary. Pedestrians—even kids and pets—can roam the streets. Because we all have smaller vehicles, more of our cityscape can be green rather than concrete. People driving bikes and other open electric vehicles can greet each other, stop, and talk. No more massive concrete structures dotting our landscape and draining our government budgets. Imagine what our living spaces can look like without cars! It almost seems like paradise, until the next tornado comes rolling in because the climate hasn’t changed back yet.

I confess that I still drive occasionally. I apologize for that. I am confident that by driving an electric cargo bike I can wean myself from causing further environmental destruction. But until then, sorry about the flood y’all.