A Cyclist’s Vehicular Confession

I have a confession to make – I had a very difficult time selling my car. One might think that an avid cycling and walking advocate like myself wouldn’t own a car, or at least would have a mild distaste towards the actual vehicle. However, one would be wrong. Although I don’t like driving, I had a surprisingly deep personal connection to my car.

However, I’m far from alone. While bicycle advocates often talk about how the United States’ infrastructure favors motorized vehicles, cars are also tied up in Americans’ identity. (They’re a major subject of identity in many other countries as well, but I’m American, so that’s my area of expertise.) From the very beginning, automobile advertising has connected the ideals of freedom and the open road. To those limited by the speed of a horse, it must have seemed magical. Even now, this theme stands the test of time, showcased in all of those European luxury car advertisements with serpentine roads. In the 1950s, American culture began associating cars with individuality and rebellion, exemplified in the oh so clichéd yet indelible Grease. As baby boomers grew up, minivans replaced hot rods, symbolizing responsibility and care for one’s family. More recently, SUV commercials have tapped into surbanites’ desire to get out in the wild, even if their car touches nothing muddier than a flooded driveway. But none of this is surprising to anyone who’s watched TV over the last 50 years.

But what was surprising to me was how much I bought into these cultural themes despite knowing better. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, my car, a 2000 Saturn coupe that hasn’t been manufactured for years, had a catastrophic failure. In addition to replacing the alternator and battery, the mechanic had to jerry-rig the ignition around the computer and straight into the battery to prevent the computer from being fried. Although he reassured us we would know if anything went wrong, we were far from convinced. As Chris has good reasons not to go car-free, it was without question, time to purchase a new car.

And yet when it was time to sign off on the paperwork, I froze. Despite knowing the need, I Did Not Want to get rid of my car. I owned that car for 11 years, since I was a junior in high school. I drove it to my first full-time summer job. It carried me back and forth to college numerous times, coasting down and up the hills of Western New York, as I tried not to push its engine too hard. Chris and I pushed it out of a snow bank on a ski trip, trying to use Goldfish crackers to create traction. We drove it to our month-long volunteer trip in Maine, bouncing along pitted dirt roads that it was never meant to handle. I talked to it as if it could hear me, encouraging it to calm down or not fall apart. It was a mess, sure – but it was my mess. My car even had a name, an honor I haven’t bestowed on my bike. It was named Night Sky, or Sky for short, after its black paint with purple sheen. The color reminded me of dusk falling.

At the dealership, thinking of all of that personal history being sold within a few minutes was overwhelming. I felt like I was giving away a pet. After signing the paperwork, I went outside, literally hugged it, and took a photo. I was tearing up a little.

Driving away in our new car, I realized that I don’t have the same sort of relationship with my bike. I find that when I think of memories, I associate them with the act of biking rather than my particular bicycle. There’s something intimate about the privacy of a car that makes the individual feel attached to it in a way that the public nature of riding a bike in the open air does not. People see their car as an extension of their house, where they can close the shutters, a metaphor that lacks validity with a bicycle.

Despite this challenge, I think it’s possible and good to have a “relationship” with your bicycle. People often purchase cars for a number of emotional reasons that have little to do with traditional economic logic, including how “sleek” the car looks, the perception of safety (as opposed to the reality), or even the number of cupholders. Although it’s hard to change some of these, the more that bicycles can reflect individuals’ personalities, the more owners can create a connection. Certainly, the “bicycling with style” crowd, whether at BicycleSpace, the Tweed Ride or a number of blogs, illustrates this principle perfectly. Personally, I know I’ve become more fond of my bicycle since adding accessories to it, including practical ones like a horn and lights. Similarly, I’ve come to “bond” with my bicycle more after doing the Climate Ride and other rides where I needed it to function or I would have a major problem. I think the more we see people relying on bicycles over cars for transportation, the more beloved they will become.

So will I love our new car like I did my old one? Probably not, which is most likely for the best. For one, it’s no longer “my” car – it definitively belongs to both Chris and I and always will. Second, it’s not going to have the intimate personal history that a first car inevitably does. Thirdly, it’s not unique. There weren’t that many people who also had Saturn coupes, especially once it got older. In contrast, we got a Prius (to no one’s surprise), which aren’t exactly unique in our area – the other day, I parked between two others at the climbing gym. And perhaps most importantly, I rely on it far less than I used to. I suspect I’ll have more of a relationship with the Metro in general (shakes fist) and my bicycle than it. But despite all that, a similarly weather-inspired name has come to mind – Rain, for its silvery gray color.

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3 Responses to A Cyclist’s Vehicular Confession

  1. Shannon, I really like your writings.

  2. bicyclebug says:

    I’ve totally been there too! When I sold of my car of was very particular i who I sold it too. This was my baby. I changed its oil promptly, waxed it monthly, made sure the tire pressure was good, and forbid anyone to eat in it.

    Although I never did before, now that I bike commute by bikes have begun to grow on me. Each with its own personality. If I ride one too much I feel bad about neglecting the other :).

    The one majors difference of course is that my bikes are good for me and the world. Cars just make me fat (and without any of the satisfaction of chocolate).

    • I wasn’t nearly so particular about keeping up my car, which is why it was so surprising when it came time to sell it. Perhaps it would have stuck around a little longer if we did a better job taking care of it!

      I too have grown “closer” to my bicycle since going on long rides with it. Although maybe it would be happier if it had some friends…

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