I bought a bike in Chengdu, China in October and it got me thinking about modes of city-seeing. And here’s my pitch:
A perennial topic of discussion among the books, blogs, and conversations of travelers is the best way to see a city, or the best way to experience both familiar and unfamiliar urban environments. Although ‘walk cities,’ seems to be an article of faith, taken as gospel, and despite the fact that per-ambulatory strolls are high on my list of enjoyable activities, I’d like to put forward an argument that the bicycle represents the method par excellence for taking in a city, whether new or familiar.
As the argument goes, walking permits the traveler to really soak in the nuances of a city, to discover by virtue of meandering pace the dives and shops, tiny eateries and curios from which ‘real’ character emerges. Walking paints a detailed portrait while other, faster, forms of transportation render abstract blurs punctuated by random detail. This argument is true to a certain extent: walking does offer the most intimate way to understand small parts of cities, to take in individual neighborhoods, but the methodology breaks down if you want to understand larger swaths of a city, its environs, and how larger structures interact with each other.
Bicycles provide an optimal mix of speed, control, access, and most importantly, independence. Put simply, bicycles provide a great deal of freedom and the ability to traverse long distances while simultaneously observing surroundings. On a bicycle one can understand far better the rhythms of a city, how major avenues interact with discrete neighborhoods, the spatial and temporal relationships between exurban, suburban, and interurban regions. To bike around and outside of a city is to develop an understanding of its almost organismic nature. Armed with a bicycle, the range of potential activities for any given period of time is also increased without serious loss of interaction between yourself and the surrounding city. Proximity is a function of time, not of space.
So, have I settled the debate? Nope, both forms have obvious merits, as buses, camels, rickshaws, elephants, running, and hot-air ballooning most likely do as well, but I do hope I’ve at minimum made a believable case for the bike.