Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Voice of the People

I wonder how many newspapers have gripe lines like the Savannah Morning News feature called "Vox Populi." There's the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's "The Vent," which has been around for at least 10 years now. Most Vox contributions sound to me like recycled sound bites originally hatched on talk radio, but sometimes they are wonderfully random. For evidence, I submit these to shining examples from the last couple days:

"Does anyone remember the old peanut man who had a house on Skidaway with a peanut field right behind it? He sold peanuts on his front porch."

"I went to the hospital recently with acute diverticulitis and the doctor accused me of being a drug seeking person. Fortunately he named a pill I had at home so I went home and took that. I'm glad I didn't have something more serious. Doctors, don't assume everyone is a drug addict."

Still, if we filter out wistful nostalgia for peanut men and accounts of digestive ailments and pill naming, we can sometimes catch a glimpse of the bees residing in Savannah's collective bonnet. An installment last week featured two sentences that tell us pretty much all we need to know about how locals view the increased cost of motorcar operation and the viability of bicycling and walking as possible alternatives. Here it is:

"When are we going to get sidewalks and bike trails for when we can no longer afford to drive cars? How else are we to get to work, church and the grocery store?"

This comment conveys two central ideas. First, it represents the view that bicycles belong on trails and not on city streets. I'll give the author the benefit of the doubt by assuming that he or she is advocating sidewalks for pedestrians. However, comments screamed from passing cars at many of my cycling friends (but never at me, for some reason), suggest there's very good chance he or she expects cyclists to use these sidewalks. Second, it's a classic example of the kind of hyperbolic statement frequently deployed by Vox Populators, who figure things have gone too darn far. Here's one I just made up:

"I had to wait so long in my doctor's waiting room, next time I'm bringing a tent and a sleeping bag."

Of course, my impatient patient isn't really going to take camping gear to his next checkup. Nor is the Vox Populi contributor actually suggesting that people will walk or ride bicycles as gas prices rise. Clearly something must be done before the situation declines to such a grim point. The idea of walking to work is preposterous. Riding a bike to a grocery store? Don't be ridiculous. There must be an intermediate solution that's less crazy. Like driving around in golf carts!

Despite an endless parade of newspaper and television stories about high gas prices, I detect few changes in the behavior of my fellow citizens. Large SUVs are still left idling curbside for indefinite periods. Fuel-wasting aggressive driving remains popular among motorists of all demographic groups. Clearly gas prices are failing to cramp our styles.

On the other hand, yesterday I was a part of miniature bicycle traffic jam. Our convoy was led by an older gentleman on a cruiser with twin wire baskets on the back. Next was the rarest of all cyclist species: a commuter, dressed in office attire with a messenger bag slung across his back. And me. We were all in a pack, heading north on Lincoln Street, just a couple bike-lengths separating each of us. At Gwinnett Street we were joined by another cyclist who veered onto Lincoln and headed south against traffic. He was riding a creaky mountain bike that looked like it had spent about twelve parsecs in the cargo hold of a Jawa Sand Crawler (they guy sort of looked like he'd been in there, too). He weaved in and out of parked and oncoming cars as we cruised by.

For that one block, cyclists outnumbered motorists by a factor of four to one! I figure gas prices will have to get a whole lot higher before this becomes the norm.

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