Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Modern Myth

Ben suggested I add the disclaimer 'I'm not really mental' to the following essays... I feel that would probably be a waste of time but do hasten to explain that I was trying to compose a 'Mythologie' in the style of Roland Barthes. (Baby Josh's Christmas present has now been named Roland.)

In 'Mythologies', Barthes deconstructs what he sees as modern myths: in brief, these are socially constructed signs where an object or phenomenon has had a new meaning, one that may differ from or even be opposite to its literal meaning, added to it to perform a specific purpose. In the book this purpose tends to be to shore up the psychological and cultural reign of the bourgeoisie. It's very fun. You should read it.

But yes, in throwing myself wholeheartedly into this fun new game, I may have strayed somewhat away from my own beliefs and opinions. Still, see how it goes as can't be bothered to edit...

Next essay to follow shortly.

Urban Cycling
Since the election of the first mayor of London in 2000, encouraging cycling has aimed as much to reduce pressure on the overcrowded roads and railways of the capital as to aid a more global carbon conscious eco-friendly drive. The role of the mayor in London has been to create a new, smaller political world where citizens feel loyalty to their city, not to the ever more confusingly globalised national government.
Over the last nine years, cycling has been touted to us as healthy, good for our hearts, great for our carbon footprint, marvellous for our pockets, and on the whole, a fantastic way for an individual to contribute to the well-being of the city in general, while materially benefitting him/herself.
New cycle lanes, cycle networks, special traffic lights and thousands of locking devices have sprung up across the capital, complemented by reams of information for cyclists, maps, signs and even clubs to cycle safely en masse around town. A mini-industry in locks, helmets, reflective jackets and on-the-spot repairs is visible even in those parts of town formerly seen as the provinces of ‘yuppies’- the West End, the City and the Canary Wharf area. Of course, to get the cycle maps you have to write to Transport for London, which seems to rather contradict the rebranding of cycling as a mass form of transport in competition with the tube or the motor-car.
So why this sudden interest in a mode of transport that was first designed in the 1860s and for years seen as used only by those too poor to afford a car?
This skeleton of metal resembles a joke of a man-made machine, one that has not undergone any major changes for the last 150 years, never having been improved into any revolutionarily new shape or form. The multi-passenger bicycle rickshaws used in Asia seem very unlikely to catch on as anything other than a novelty in London. When compared with the car, the one-person bike seems feeble. But it is key to the urban bicycle that it is a feeble machine, one that is perfectly counter-balanced to the amount of human leg-power put into it. Calling chiefly on man’s greatest, and oldest, invention - the wheel - its spindly frame is often the same size and weight as the human riding it. Human and mechanised power are thus in perfect tandem.
So the bicycle, unlike any other form of transport, is perfectly streamlined to remain paralysed in history at a time when man and machine represented the perfect dialectic, when one had not yet shown sign of precedence, of greater strength or efficiency over the other, when a machine was something that made work easier rather than doing it for the individual. Now that society separates us from machines, from industry and the source of our wealth, the bicycle still stands for a two-way connection between man and machine while other forms of transport enclose us to emphasise our alienation from the source of power, the means of mobility, and thus from the entire outside world.
Most new cyclists will cite London’s eco-friendly transportation drive as being behind the thousands getting on their bikes. But while the new eco-mythology fools people into thinking they are doing their bit for the planet completely independently, the cycle revolution is not merely a direct reaction to problems with the environment. When you use one of the forms of larger, fully mechanised transport, you are voluntarily giving away power over yourself and your life to an engine. By choosing less environmentally damaging public transport, such as buses or trains, you are investing this same security in the hands of a public-private institution. Suddenly – and this coincided with the bicycle revolution – we do not hold the same confidence that we used to in such government-designed, business-powered institutions. As belief in self-controlling institutions that act in the public’s best interest becomes a thing of the past following the wobble of the 'credit crunch' and the country’s national politicians desperately slamming on the brakes to try and stop the City going into free-fall, a new autonomy of action is being marketed to us by the ruling bourgeoisie, an autonomy that has about as much power as a free-wheeling bike on a very small incline.
The first two mayors of London have invested a lot of time and money in getting cyclists on the streets. Now the ruling powers in the form of local authorities are taking this power back off all but the most dedicated cyclists, the cyclists who always cycled for simple reasons of poverty and efficiency. Now the myth that London authorities are cycle-friendly has been completely established, the counter-attack begins. New arguments are arising about sky-high accident rates, easily broken when one thinks that increases in cycling accidents are only in line with increases in cyclists, cyclists cause less than 1% of injuries to pedestrians and that in the past 8 years in London a cyclist has not killed a single person.
Westminster’s scrutiny committee recently claimed that “We’re always getting little old ladies who are knocked down and abused by a cyclist, who leaves them on the ground as they ride away.” Councils and the Metropolitan police have united to fine cyclists who jump red lights, who ride without lights at night, or who ride on the pavement. Not only is this new policy of on-the-spot-fines scaring naive new cyclists back onto public transport, but it is negating the myth that urban cycling is the transport of the future. Bicycles are getting in the way of the all-important tax-paying motorists who buy the country’s petrol, and must therefore be discouraged privately though encouraged publicly.
The myth of urban cycling is that it represents a form of progress in human relations with each other and the world while in reality, despite its numerous personal benefits in a city whose public transport is as erratic as it is expensive, it marks a regression in terms of effective transport systems that serve the people of London.


B.E.Klein (CPGB) said...

This is very good. Who is your editor and how much do you pay him? But yes, a bit mental...

Jay said...

I think that the last paragraph is a little confusing. While cycling may be officially promoted or disincentivised according to the needs (whims) of the ruling class ... is it not, nevertheless, an unequivocally empowering and positive mode of transport?