Cycling through a pandemic

We are living in unprecedented times, when the state of emergency has become a sort of blindness. Just as José Saramago wrote in his acclaimed novel Blindness, where the world suffers from a sudden pandemic of a strange illness that renders us blind, we are now blinded by the immediacy of the present.

For many of us, our daily routines have been so drastically changed that even the shared spaces of the world are now reduced to the confines of our homes (if we are among those with a stable place to live, that is). The state of emergency becomes the totality of our experience, an event functioning as a lens that, instead of curing our myopia, worsens it. The only thing that is visible and evident is that which is in front of us. That thing is, always, the coronavirus. 

I’d like to propose a different reading of our state of emergency, a reading that goes beyond our present shortsightedness. To do this is to start analyzing the ways the coronavirus pandemic has already changed the fundamental practices of our lives. One of those practices is how we navigate public space, especially in specific urban settings.

I am not only thinking here about cities with high urban density (like New York of course, but also like Mexico City, Hong Kong, or Tokyo) but also about cities that seem infinite in their geography. The model of these kinds of cities is, for obvious reasons, American: heterogeneous regions that are unequally distributed all over the urban territory. Monterrey in Mexico (with multiple municipalities one next to the other), Los Angeles, Dallas-Forth Worth or Houston, from where I write, come to mind.

The author’s bicycle on the now-quiet streets of downtown Houston. Photo: Bruno Ríos.

These cities function as conglomerates of semi-autonomous cohabited spaces. Life here is dependent on urban infrastructure designed to create distance between the suburbs and the urban core. In the absence of robust public transit, cars are the only suitable mode of transportation to cover these immense distances. 

In these times of the pandemic, what we’ve seen in these urban settings is that cars have quickly become pretty useless. What has historically separated us in cities like Houston is our mode of transportation. Well before current social distancing measures, the streets we supposedly share were experienced through a constant separation of our bodies. A car is like a metal box that isolates us from the outside, and that takes us, one-by-one, towards the same destination as everyone else: there is absurdity in being united by the same thing that separates us, stalled together in traffic on a freeway. 

These days, for the most part, our cars stay parked. This doesn’t mean that cars have lost the power to provide immediate opportunity to go wherever we want. Rather, the problem lies elsewhere. The current emergency hasn’t eliminated privileged forms of transportation like the car. Nevertheless, at least in Houston, it has transformed public transportation into a death trap. But maybe, above all else, what the emergence of the coronavirus has changed even more profoundly are our common destinations. Who needs so much mobility, so much “freedom,” if we have nowhere to go?

In light of our new circumstances, the resurgence of the bicycle as an alternative mode of transportation is one of the unforeseen phenomena happening in places where nothing seems to be moving. Today, the megacity is, as Rebecca Solnit has argued, “a paradise built in hell.”

Now more than ever our parks and trails are full of casual cyclists that didn’t even bother to check their tire pressure before venturing out. Some ride bikes were just dusted off after sitting in a garage for years. Families pedal off in the middle of an empty street or along a somewhat busy trail, feeling what they haven’t felt in a long time: rediscovering a joy long forgotten. 

It was just over 100 years ago that the car overtook the bicycle as the most common mode of transportation. But the current resurgence of the bicycle as a form of mass transport is not something exclusive to the United States. An article published recently in Forbes, found the same phenomenon in London and other cities, where bicycle use is up at least 50 per cent. 

Here in Houston, the cycling industry and shops have been declared an essential service, as public transportation becomes scarce and the city has come to a sometimes incomprehensible halt. By way of purely anecdotal evidence, I asked one of the managers of one of the most beloved bike shops in Houston about sales during the pandemic, which he said have skyrocketed. “It’s hard to quantify a percentage increased, because the spring time is our busiest season and corona hit at the same time, but sales have doubled if not tripled,” he said. “Not only sales but repairs on bikes too.” 

Those who are rescuing bikes long locked up in sheds or storage lockers need a hand with flat tires, loose chains, dirty cassettes or a creaking hub. All small fixes that are necessary in order to ride outside for the first time in a long time. Bike shops in Houston are responding to distancing guidelines by erecting tents outside their stores to avoid overcrowding.

As a consequence of some of the most stringent measures to stop the spread of coronavirus, like closing parks or barring any type of gathering, the once hostile city has become a sort of amusement park for cyclists. The emptiness of the streets suggests a future reality that remains difficult to grasp. If we go back to “normal,” cars would once again dominate public space, those hulking extensions of our exoskeletons becoming again the most common way of experiencing the place where we live.

What this pandemic has shown seasoned cyclists and those who may be a little unsteadier on two wheels is the uncanny feeling of a megacity without so much traffic, without so much air pollution, with enough space for everyone to walk and ride on and off the roads. 

And so just like that, bicycles became essential. They are not only useful, like the things that matter most, in order to travel from one place to another. Bicycles also allow us to indulge in going for a ride because it makes us happy, pedalling for pleasure and with no particular destination.

A version of this article appeared in Spanish on Proyecto Puente.

Author bio:

Bruno Ríos is a Houston-based writer, translator, academic, and cycling advocate. He holds a PhD in Latin American Literature and teaches Spanish and Latin American Literature and Culture at the University of Houston.