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Driving away from freedom
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Ask people to describe their childhood experiences with bicycles and they’ll almost always use the word, “fun.”

Indeed my first bicycle was foremost a device for having fun, for racing around neighborhood streets or along BMX tracks fashioned from firebreaks.

“Freedom” is also mentioned frequently when people remember youthful bicycling. That’s true for me, too. My bicycle extended my range, so that I could visit friends in other neighborhoods, ride to the Big Star or Kmart, or simply explore places too far away to walk.

I spent plenty of time in the backseat of my mother’s station wagon, to be sure, yet nowhere near as many hours as contemporary kids log onboard SUVs, minivans, crossovers and other vehicles used to shuttle them between their numerous appointments.

I’m grateful for the autonomy I had. I’m glad my parents allowed me to get on my bike and go where I wanted to go. In retrospect I’m also grateful to have survived the poor decisions I sometimes made and glad I had the chance to make most of them before I got behind the wheel of a car, where the stakes are much higher.

Last week, against the backdrop of fireworks, patriotic music and overheated political discussions, I was prompted to consider what bicycling meant to me as a kid and what it means to me as an adult.

Before an unexpected change in my professional life last fall, I often went weeks without driving. I was fortunate that I could ride my bike to work, to the store, to dinner with friends, and to just about everywhere else I needed or wanted to go.

This freed up the part of my household income that I would have spent on gas, vehicle maintenance, parking and the other incidentals that add up when you drive everywhere you go.

Purchasing gasoline only intermittently also saved a certain amount of mental energy, as I was freed from a preoccupation with gas prices that afflicts many of my fellow citizens. In fact, I was largely oblivious to the current cost of a gallon of gas and its trajectory over time.

“What about these gas prices?” someone would ask me. I was never sure how to respond. Where they going up? Down? I had no idea.

These days, I’m not so free. The glowing green or red digits on convenience store signs mean something to me again.

I worry that I should fill up now, lest I find the numbers are higher on the next sign down the road.

I worry, too, about the noises I hear under the hood. Do they sound expensive?

By contrast, when I hear something not quite right emanating from my bike, I’m confident the worst–case scenario won’t do critical damage to my bank account.

In fact, in many cases I can fix the problem myself. I can’t say that of most of the other machines I own.

Freedom from the financial burdens of frequent automobile use, while desirable, isn’t even the greatest benefit of leaving the car behind. Travelling under one’s own power is a pleasure that not everyone is physically able to enjoy.

And that’s why it’s such a shame that so many of us, who are capable of self–sufficient transportation, experience this freedom only fleetingly, when we are walking back and forth from the parking lot.

Compared to July 2011, this year I’m much more dependent on my car and the myriad support systems that make automobile travel possible. I know my current situation will change eventually. Until then, I’ll remember the freedom my bicycle allowed me to achieve.

I’ll grasp a bit of that freedom when and where I can. And when I get it back completely, I’ll appreciate my freedom all the more.

John Bennett is Vice Chairman of the Savannah Bicycle campaign.