Still, many readers — riding readers, perhaps — will find the most meaning in Rosen’s carefully curbed but unmistakable personal passion for the bike. “Bike riding is the best way I know to reach an altered consciousness,” he writes, “better than yoga, or wine, or weed. It runs neck and neck with sex and coffee.” All enthusiasms are slightly daffy, and at moments Rosen reaches a kind of embarrassed nirvana as he contemplates his subject, lovingly describing a trick rider’s stunts, traversing Dhaka by rickshaw or his own encounters with snow, car doors and, of course, drivers, too many obnoxious, unfeeling drivers to number.
Four wheels bad — that is the logical second half of the quote the book’s title invites us to finish, after all. Should we as a species be riding bicycles instead of driving cars? Probably. “The automotive age is an age of carnage,” Rosen writes. “Some 1.25 million people die in car crashes each year.” Not just that, either: “Motor vehicles are the largest net contributor to climate change.”
The ineluctable trouble is that cars have their own romance. “Two Wheels Good” does admirable battle with that fact without ever quite subduing it. Even China, which at its peak in 1996 had some 523 million bicycles distributed among its citizens, has submitted to a new “automobile frenzy,” sending bike usage into a “precipitous decline.” For all the charm, usefulness and elegance of the bike, we as a species seem to be drawn to its calamitously problematic successor.
I live in Los Angeles, where cyclists shoot down the curves of Griffith Park so swiftly that it sometimes seems a marvel that a single one of them makes it home alive. It’s a driving city, and thus I am at present a driving person — despite wholly believing Rosen’s contention that cities built around bikes would be “safer, saner, healthier, more habitable.” Alas, we live in a different world from the one we want. “Ice is melting at the top and bottom of the planet,” the author writes, “forests are aflame, political systems are fracturing, a pandemic has shaken daily life at its foundations, and amid the tumult, a new global bicycle culture is emerging.”
The question is whether it’s in time. Would it be surprising if, however it comes, we all met up after the apocalypse on bikes, humble, easy, indestructible? After reading Rosen’s impassioned history, I was convinced of it. And there’s a bike store nearby, too. I keep meaning to drive over there.