Learning to Share
Even as our feckless leaders were driving this nation toward yet another fiscal and political cliff (for, what, the third or fourth time in recent memory?), your columnist was learning about the joys of using publicly shared bicycles.
The idea is simple: If you need a bicycle and don’t have one of your own (or it’s not convenient to use your own for some reason), you can purchase a pass for several days at a kiosk (or, better still, go online and get a membership). The kiosk is located right next to a rack of sturdy bicycles. Using a temporary code (or, with a membership, an electronic key), you unlock a selected bicycle and have half an hour to get where you are headed (or an acceptable way station), where you dock your bike to another rack -- there are lots of them scattered around Boston and nearby cities, which makes sense given how many colleges and universities (and therefore students) there are in the area.
My husband and I have long been members of "Zipcar," a similar idea for automobiles: There are lots of places where two or three Zipcars "live," and by going online you can easily check on availability and set up an hour or two of authorized usage. The advantage is summarized in the company’s tagline: "Wheels when you need them." Zipcar pays for insurance, gasoline, maintenance -- all you have to do is show up and shell out an hourly rate.
This is all a latter-day spin on an old idea, of course, the idea that we can all benefit from sharing public resources. Once upon a time it was the streetcar rather than Zipcar, for instance; then again, once upon a time, most people were pretty poor. It was only in the middle of the last century that the middle class really took off, and with this prosperity there grew an expectation that we could, and should, have our own private cars... and bicycles, and ideologies, and government.
I’m not just tossing off a joke there. I often wonder whether our fragmenting society got its roots in the rise of the automobile, which created the means for all sorts of self-separation and self-segregation to occur. The car made it easier to live in the suburbs (white flight) and, later, exurbs; the so-called "big sort," in which people of similar political leanings shook out into their own little pockets of community (or elected to live as far from anyone else as they could get) was soon in full swing. (Bill Bishop’s 2008 book by that title is fascinating, and more than a little depressing.) With four wheels and enough gasoline, it was no longer necessary to learn how to coexist. You could glide from home to work to mall and home again and never have to catch a whiff of a liberal (or a conservative, if you happened to live in, say, Multnomah County or, yes, in Cambridge).
The car also, I believe, gave rise to a virulent strain of individualism that knows no respect for thoughtfulness or compromise. And why should it? When you dwell in a half-ton of soundproofed, crumple-zoned, smooth-riding isolation, the world is your oyster. One look at any car ad on TV (a single car zooms with elegant, or smug, velocity through empty cityscapes and pristine natural settings) will give you a sense of what car companies think consumers want from their personal vehicles. Unfortunately, a glance at any major thoroughfare during rush hour will confirm it: Someone slowing down to turn left? HONK! Are there pedestrians crossing (with the light, mind you) so that the guy turning left can’t proceed quite yet? HONK! HONK!! HONK!!!