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!!!
("I had to stop for pedestrians while turning one time and when the car behind me started honking and I turned to look, it was being driven by a nun," one acquaintance, a former Bostonian, told me a few months ago. "She gave me the finger. That's when I knew I'd had it with Boston.")
I only use the communal bikes a couple of times a week, when I'm not going to be getting home until late and don't want to bike home after dark, but still want a ride to start off the day. But I can't help feeling I'm now exercising a muscle that many in our society have forgotten they have: The muscle of community. The muscle you build when you have to use (and take care of) communal property, for instance, or take responsibility for the integrity of an environment larger than your own four walls (or wheels).
Our government has so little regard for people living paycheck to paycheck (which is, let's face it, most of We the People) that they seem to think nothing of shutting down the government for weeks at a time and impacting the ability of close to a million people to earn their wages. Indeed, once you peer past the empty rhetoric, the only "people" the government seems to care about in any real-world sense are corporations.
Nor do certain of our elected officials seem very worried about trashing the economy in even more serious ways, with some congressional morons relishing the idea of the United States defaulting on its fiscal obligations -- a bad idea in general, unless you actually like the idea of demolishing the last five years' worth of economic recovery and plunging us right back into another Great Recession, or worse.
And let's not be so foolish as to think that the officials who'd clap their hands in glee to see it happen would be willing, as the Obama administration was, to use the might of the federal government to mitigate the worst repercussions: Next time, even as banks and corporations suck up federal dollars, the common joe is going to be on his own -- at least, if the Tea Party vandals who most lately brought us to the brink have their way.
But hey! It might not be so bad. People who can't afford to keep their homes might learn a thing or two about cooperation in order to survive living on the streets. And those who have to pool their scraps and shreds to put together something resembling a meal might gain a little appreciation for what is, and what isn't, actually "socialism." (God knows the Tea Party ain't gonna distribute scones or, cough, cough, cake -- no more than the Tea Party congressmen who are so opposed to "government spending" put their ideals to the test by publicly relinquishing their paychecks during the two weeks they put other federal employees out of work.)
It's a comfortable little fantasy to think that shared bikes are simply a convenience for college kids and Zipcars a financially sound alternative for post-college early 20somethings. It's the sort of comfy fantasy thinking that tells us Starbucks baristas are all students, or homeless people all "choose" to live on the streets. What it is, really, is the next great lesson for our young, and a goodly number of our not-so-young; a lesson in Learning to Share. Only, in the quickly emerging America were now facing, "sharing" doesn't mean giving away some portion of what is yours by rights. It means no one has anything to begin with, because there simply isn't anything left... and sharing isn't what you do to be nice, it's what you do to survive.