In a political climate veering farther right, as federal Tories slash longstanding support to artists, writers, filmmakers and other cultural industry workers, the bicycle paths of Montreal give me consolation: an enlightened mind still lives behind the social contract, cognizant of the dignity of the soul. As I write this at Café La Maison des Cyclistes, where the Rue Brebeuf bike route meets Montreal’s Parc Lafontaine on its way downtown, the cyclists who ride past are not career athletes. They ride with guitars slung on their backs; children in chairs or wagons; baskets of bread or boxes of tomatoes or library books. I am not the only one who loves this. American feminist Susan B. Anthony in the 1890s called the bicycle "the freedom machine". In that same decade, Temperance fighter Frances Willard named her own bicycle Gladys, since it gave her a glad and hopeful view not just of her own freedom of transport, but of the political and social future.
The cyclists riding past this café are dressed not in athletic gear but in striped trousers and house dresses and work clothes and high heeled boots. They ride every day on their ordinary travels because the city includes them in its planning; last week Montreal papers announced over 100 km of new bike paths for St. Catherine Street and routes throughout the city. Montreal consistently ranks high on lists of the world’s most liveable cities precisely because its planners take individual freedom into serious consideration.
"Let me tell you what I think of bicycling," Susan B. Anthony wrote. "I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance." In her time, the bicycle got women out of restrictive Victorian clothing and into the first bloomers, or trousers, simply because you couldn’t cycle if you were done up like a trussed turkey. A hundred years later, my daughter, studying women’s studies at Concordia’s Simone de Beauvoir Institute, tells me she feels safe riding on her bike in the city at any hour, because of the bicycle’s speed.
"Velo," is the bicycle’s French masculine name, "bicyclette" the feminine: the bicycle gives men and women freedom. It represents gentle autonomy of the individual. It allows speed, finesse of direction, and improvisation: things we value in an enlightened society. A bicycle gives its rider independence that is economical in more than one sense; nothing is more affordable than a second-hand bike, and no form of mechanical transport offers as much efficiency with as little waste.
But more than that, the bike is part of an enlightened culture’s ideological life: that same life the federal government is systematically suffocating. The freedom of bodily movement on a bike; fast, quiet, elegant; mirrors the movement of ideas in the cultural sector of our socioeconomic life in Canada. This is an enlightened country, or it has been, precisely because we have built into our social and economic contract support for the intelligence and freedom of the individual, whether freedom of mobility or freedom of the mind. A controlling, regressive government removes freedom of speech and ideas one spoke in the wheel at a time. It is always a struggle to place these slender supports in the first place. To a government imposing its own repressive ideology, every form of enlightenment appears as a dangerous thing.