The reasons for using a bicycle as one’s main form of transport for daily commutes and while seeing a new city are endless: It is definitely easier to finance a new bicycle than a new car; a bicycle has a tiny manufacturing footprint when compared to a car; bicycles produce no meaningful pollution when in operation; bikes save taxpayers money by reducing road wear; using a bike for transportation can assist in weight control and improves overall health; you can store a dozen bicycles in a single automobile-sized parking place; bicycles don’t burn gasoline; cycling may be faster and more efficient than taking a car; bicycles provide mobility for those who may not qualify or afford to drive; studies show that bicycle commuters are healthier, more productive … so many reasons I can continue forever. And yet, yes, if I have to be entirely honest, one of my worst things in the world is a steep hill. On a bike.
I have all the respect in the world for those who gracefully peddle up the hillsides of Cape Town in the Cape Epic in ONE go. I vaguely remember that my siblings and I used to climb hills with our bikes as children with ease, but now, on the other side of 30, that youthful sprint has somehow left my body and the only biking that I have since enjoyed was the flat plains of The Netherlands.
My recent visit to the city of San Francisco, infamous for its steep hills along the breathtaking Pacific coastline, showed me an entirely new way to take on hills and the “hills” we have to climb to make sounder choices of ecological lifestyles. I believe this will be the case still, even when I am on the other side of 70.
I was invited to cycle around the peninsula for a few hours, and when my new friend saw my face when I spoke about my fear of hills she just laughed. “You can take an electric bike!” An electric bike? What? I mean I have heard of them, but somehow it just didn’t feel right. We went down to the Fishermans Wharf, walked into one of the numerous rental houses and each got a bike.
I was impressed within the first 10 meters. Anyone who’s ever ridden a bicycle with a dynamo light should get an idea of how electric bikes work. With a dynamo light the kinetic energy of the spinning tyres turns the dynamo, transferring energy and ultimately powering the light. Electric bikes work oppositely. A ‘dynamo’ of sorts, in this case a battery, produces energy that transfers to kinetic energy in the tyres and moves them forwards.
A typical battery in an electric bike will have approximately a quarter of the power of a toaster, 350-500W. The batteries need to be able to store as much power as possible, and for this reason lithium-ion batteries (like the ones in your mobile phone and computer) are most commonly used. They can be taken out of the bike and recharged by being plugged into a standard mains plug socket, and most bikes will give upwards of 80km (50-miles) of battery-assisted riding. The battery powers the motor, which can increase the speed by about double what the rider is pedaling, up to a top speed of 32kph (although the legal limit for an electric powered bicycle is about 25kph, or 15mph). The motor can either assist the pedaling of the cyclist or provide separate power controlled by a throttle on the handlebars.
There were several hills approaching the infamous Golden Gate Bridge and as we approached the suspension bridge spanning the Golden Gate strait, the mile-wide, three-mile-long channel between San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean, I thought to myself: Why on earth do we need cars for daily commutes? This is amazing! Best of all I can plug this little battery into a solar powered panel and it will charge in 3hours!
We reached the bridge and stopped for a moment to take it all in: The structure links the U.S. city of San Francisco, on the northern tip of the San Francisco Peninsula, to Marin County, bridging both U.S. Route 101 and California State Route 1 across the strait. The bridge is one of the most internationally recognized symbols of San Francisco, California, and the United States. It has been declared one of the Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
The Frommers travel guide considers the Golden Gate Bridge “possibly the most beautiful, certainly the most photographed, bridge in the world”. It opened in 1937 and had until 1964 the longest suspension bridge main span in the world, at 4,200 feet (1,280 m).
Being one of the architectural marvels of the Twentieth Century it is a testament to human perseverance, as it was constructed during the years of the Great Depression.
As I cycled across the this national treasure, seeing the surging ocean currents at the mouth of the bay, the handsome Marin Headlands to the north, the San Francisco skyline to the south, and sailboats, ferries, and freighters (and a surprising number of daring kite-boarders) zooming across the bay, I enjoy a totally unique perspective of both San Francisco and the San Francisco Bay and I could not help but think that I crossed a even bigger bridge in my mind: we are always complaining that Shell is killing the Arctic or that BP ruined some pristine area with an oil spill, but are we, while driving our vehicles to those protests, not literally fueling their business? Is it not up to all of us to think of alternatives ourselves? To demand it?
If we could build such a bridge in a time where very little was possible, then surely we can now strive to imagine and implement alternative lifestyles not so dependent on fossil fuels?
No one is going to cross the bridge to a new way of life for us. And as Elisabet Sahtouris, a Ph.D. Evolutionary Biologist in USA implies, we have to do so ourselves …
This is like the last effort of a particular phase of civilization. It’s last gasp really. We often use the metaphor of the caterpillar becoming the butterfly. The caterpillar conjures its way through the ecosystem and is very destructive. It eats 300 times it own body weight in a day until it is so bloated that it hangs itself up and goes to sleep. Its skin turns into a hardened chrysalis. In its body you get these imginal cells, biologists actually call them that, forming with in the caterpillar’s body. The caterpillar actually becomes a nutritive soup for the cells. But what is important about that metaphor is that the old and the new co-exist for a while. It is the job of the caterpillar to preserve its live. It is a desperate government and organisations we have now wanting to control oil in the Middle East and wanting now to promote nuclear energy and all these things. They know better, but they have to play out the role of protecting themselves. It is their job! And if you love butterflies, you don’t go around stepping on caterpillars. So we cant hate them, its doesn’t do any good. If you want alternative energy you don’t ask an oil economy or it’s administration to produce it for you! We have to produce it! We imaginal cells have to show that it is cheaper and more efficient and more effective. Our job is to build the new world.
Words and Pictures: Daréll Lourens