We have always needed to work to get what we want, that isn’t new. From time long past, the work we required to do involved a certain amount of physical activity, we traded abilities for goods, goods for other goods or daughters for land, all of them required hard work. Even after currency was implemented as a medium of exchange, after Plato’s Akademia came into being (the birth of the geek who sat on chairs and thought for a living), after the industrial revolution and after the invention of many other commodities, we still had to perform physical exertion, if not for anything else, to physically transport ourselves.

Our bodies are meant to perform physical exertion, even at a chemical and physical level, and psychologically as well there is no denying that what we now call exercise, which used to be part of what we called life, is not only healthy, but even necessary. Yet, we drive on huge moving cars, trains or buses, we ride on elevators, escalators, even doors are automatic nowadays… and it turns out that all this is not healthy for us, it’s damaging our well being and costing us thousands on medical bills, health magazines, sports equipment and yes, on gyms. What is a gym? For most of us, a gym is where you go compensate for your everyday lack of activity -unless you’re a top athlete, or under physical rehab in which case there is no substitute-.

It’s a wonderful irony: We avoid manual means of locomotion at all costs, we ride on toll freeways or high speed trains to “save” time yet, come the afternoon we flock to the gym, running on treadmills staring at “sports” on a TV or taking a detailed look at the seams of the shorts on our partners arse while riding on a static bike. We drive on a car to get to a gym, where we ride on a bike that doesn’t move. Wouldn’t it be better to just ride a bike to the gym? In fact, wouldn’t it be better to skip the gym altogether and ride to work/school? – But I live way too far to ride to work, plus it’s dangerous, plus it’ll ruin my hair, the more sofisticated reader might ponder. But he could still do part of it on a bike, mixing it with whichever public transport he wishes or with small walks or he could avoid elevators, take the stairs and all the while work on his Gluteus Maximus. Life is full of possibilities indeed, and I maintain that the greatest, cheapest and most accessible exercise apparatus is the omnipresent floor, the common stairs a solid second.

However, there is a bigger problem, because if you take a closer look, it turns out a lot of these activities (cars and transport) are harmful for the environment as well… and now I must note, hoping I’m not coming across as a total luddite, hippie or both: I love technology -I’m a mechatronic engineer- big on programming and high tech stuff. The problem is I was recently introduced to the concept of a Progress Trap and frankly it seems we’ve fallen on a few of such traps, I’m rather sure of it:

A progress trap is the condition human societies experience when, in pursuing progress through human ingenuity, they inadvertently introduce problems they do not have the resources or political will to solve.

I’m worried, after familiarizing myself with the subject, a fear for our own contriving collective intelligence and diminishing future has begun to grow on me. The clearest and most typical example of a progress trap is the invention of the beloved automobile. It’s no wonder to me that even Aldos Huxley’s god in his dystopian classic A Brave New World is named after Henry Ford. The automobile has been a status of progress and indeed an advantageous addition to our lives, it truly has changed the world. However, in the big scheme of things, it has contributed as much to our wellbeing as a cheesecake to a weight watchers meeting.

Don’t get me wrong, I like cars, I own two of them, they are great examples of human ingenuity and most of the times, they make our lives better, but nowadays, in a society that strives to eradicate atomic power, reduce CO2 emission to zero, become self sustainable and healthier, cars as we know them, well, they don’t really fit in, do they? But that’s the part of the progress trap concept that’s really scary, we designed all this amazing boats, trains and cars to transport all kinds of things half way around the world at a reasonable cost. We created a society sustained by a global economy dependent on all these transported goods -this is relatively new- and as it happens, it is precisely these things that are causing global warming, over cropping, pollution and non-sustainable commerce, yet we are too far along to turn around, to hooked on the stuff to stop, we can’t go back.

We can’t take cows back to Europe, we can’t take oranges away from New Yorkers -as little as 50 years ago it was not uncommon for New Yorkers to receive oranges from California as a Christmas present- or apples (electronic or otherwise) out of international markets. We are proverbially “fucked”, the plane has crashed into the mountain and we continue to collectively pull on the throttle, ignoring all of the solutions that we already have, mostly because they are not to our -and I mean our society’s- short-term economical advantage. Emphasis on solutions we already have, because we do, consider the following:

Bicycles are not only for sporting, they are also a good way to move from A to B, substitute kids for a few cases of beer to appeal to a younger audience.

I must confess I can think of many reasons for not using bicycles in Mexico City, one of them very important: it’s suicide, in a city with 28 million? It has to be. Everyday bicycle commuting in a city as big and chaotic as this one must be scary at best, or plain life threatening, depending. The utopian image shown in the picture above is probably not found in the bulk of this city, right? Perhaps on cherry picked areas and situations, which brings me to my next, seemingly contradictory point: You can cherry pick your situation and safely ride your bike to your job or school, and for that I will provide you, my avid reader, with a list:

  1. Use common sense, which is surprisingly uncommon
  2. Polish your bike skills, ride with your eyes open and no headphones, attention is paramount. Your life depends on it
  3. Invest some time into finding a viable (read: safe) route
  4. Get some lights that are really visible
  5. Ride defensively and always expect the worst; parked cars will open their doors, crossing cars haven’t seen you, pedestrians will jaywalk, assume massive potholes are everywhere, motorbikes will try to shove you off the road and trucks/peseros/camiones will go out of their way to block your safe passage and murder you
  6. Admit that cars are killing machines and avoid them like the plague; better to do a few extra kilometres on an empty street, than to save 20 minutes. Exercise, good. Risk, bad
  7. Use a bicycle lock that is at least 10% of the cost of your bicycle, otherwise you might get there, but your bike won’t last long

Find a nice, safe, enjoyable route. Do whatever it takes. Use Google street view, drive around, ride your bicycle, scooter or skateboard and find streets without cars, try small pedestrian streets, side streets which you would normally avoid. You can ride on the sidewalk (carefully). In this city, bicycles are not respected by cars, trucks or anyone. Public transport will try to run you over and there is almost no specific infrastructure -apart from a few upper class neighbourhoods, there are few usable bike lanes- but this can all be turned to your advantage. The city is yours; cyclists are above the law, or maybe just under it but it doesn’t matter. If you strive to reduce your carbon footprint, be healthier, thinner, look better and save money on transport, gasoline and gyms, you can do it. Think about this next time you complain about traffic, polluting trucks or the ridiculously unintelligent doble no circula policy.

If he can do it, so can you. Photograph by Luis Arcadio de Jesús.

Everardo J. Barojas