A Rainbow of Bicycles: The Irony of Movement in DC

There has been a bike invasion in Washington, DC. It is hard to miss. The bikes are many colored and are what is termed “dockless” or “rack-less.” They appear anywhere and everywhere, without being anchored in fixed sidewalk stands like the popular Capital Bike Shares. They stand or lean on sidewalks or against flower grates or trees or at bus stops. Some are more stably stationed than others. They are orange and red and yellow and lime green. They literally decorate the city’s streets, sometimes in ways that trip up pedestrians and block cars. And, like installation art, one minute they are there and then they are gone.

The first time I saw this rainbow of bikes, two things came to mind: the presence of life-sized fiberglass painted moose, cows, catamount or horses that appear in some communities as a fundraiser. They are stunning and for years, people come from near and far to see the painted creatures enlivening the landscape. There are also books showcasing and memorializing these magnificent pieces of art.

We had a gorgeous moose, painted by college art professor Greg Winterhalter and his students, on our campus in Southern Vermont until the baseball team decided to ride it during a midnight prank. The moose was never the same. And, don’t get me started on the inebriated student, caught on video, body slamming the moose that sat on the lawn outside the Chamber of Commerce in downtown Bennington, VT.

The second thought that came to mind was the work of Christo and his now deceased wife and partner, Jeanne-Claude. Together, they literally wrapped places with vinyl or fabric. You may remember the orange “flags” swaying across Central Park – gates (literally and figuratively) across and through the public space. Not surprisingly, there are books memorializing this and other of their installation art.

There is something uplifting about these dockless, colorful bikes. People can use them at will; they can literally take a bike and get from place to place easily; they can exercise when getting to the gym is tough; they can help the environment by decreasing car congestion and gas emissions. They can decrease travel time and increase productivity.

For me, these colorful human-powered vehicles are more than just bikes. They give me hope – hope that we can move forward like the wheels of a bike, peddling our way out of the worsening swamp that DC is. They remind me of art in action as if DC was being painted and the art moves – literally.

Standing in contrast to these bikes, as if the juxtaposition were intended, is the effort to march talented men and women out of our government’s federal agencies – the State Department and the Department of Education being two agencies that are offering buy-outs. And out the doors goes talent and experience and knowledge and know-how. And, these diplomats and educators and civil servants will not be replaced or they will be replaced with folks with considerably less talent and experience. Their work might even be outsourced. (How do you outsource diplomacy? Just asking.)

As these experienced and dedicated folks (ok, there are exceptions to be sure) are paraded out of their respective agencies, they are left to pedal their way out of the swamp to another position in the private sector or as a lobbyist or within the non-profit sector or association sector. Or they could retire, I suppose.

They are like the rack-less bikes in a sense but their story is the inverse. They are not colorful. They are not now saving us from what ails our city or nation. They may be symbols of the future but they are hardly art; they are art’s antithesis. Their being unleashed on DC is not a positive.

So, here’s the ultimate irony of all this. One can use these new colorful, artful bikes in DC without a helmet or a bell or horn. Just ponder the danger in that. How many bikes, pedestrians and cars will be in accidents large and small, perhaps some with serious injuries to both people and vehicles?

Conversely, the federal employees exiting the government do have some protections, some bells and horns (although their very departure is a danger). They have their payout; they have retirement income; they have their voices and their experience, all captured in their minds. They can ring bells and honk horns as well they should, to signal the danger we are confronting as a government when our talent literally walks out the door, dockless and rackless.

And if the worst happens, both the dockless bikes and people will litter our streets, damaging and impeding the progress they were intended to provide. How sad is that? What a twist of design and fate. What a sad, non-artistic outcome for us all.

Note: This piece – as is much of my writing in the past year – was inspired by MW. He and I share ideas, often off-the-wall ones, and see the world through a shared lens that enables us to navigate life’s exigencies with increasing grace and equilibrium.

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