Christopher Knapp, Collaboration Capital CEO, contributes essay to Monocle Magazine 07.10.2018
07.11.2018

Driving me crackers: Why forgoing a car in Houston, Texas is turning out to be the ride of this writer’s life – Monocle

By Christopher Knapp

Monocle July/August 2018 – I live in one of the most car-centric US cities yet a bicycle is my primary means of transport. What started out as an experiment when the car went in for repairs became a habit, a passion and then an obsession. And this in a place with a climate so inhospitable that, until 1972, the city was on the “unhealthy” list for UK diplomats being posted abroad. First, a bit of context. I grew up here. Air conditioning arrived in the classrooms when I was in third grade. This was 1970, just a year or so after the Apollo 11 lunar mission and Neil Armstrong’s famous (to us local folks, anyway) first word as he stepped onto the surface of the moon – “Houston”. The Apollo launches and their supervision were led from Nasa’s Houston base and this idea of seemingly infinite accomplishment – what I think of as a culture of possibility – permeated all aspects of Houston’s civic identity. Indeed, the city had recently opened the world’s first air-conditioned indoor stadium, the Astrodome, dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World”. This was the baked-in optimism of a place that many had heard little of at the time but that, years later, is the fourth-largest US city – and among its most diverse. Back to the bike. It was the only way we got around as kids. My brother, our friends, we all rode everywhere on our bicycles, climate and weather notwithstanding. It was a liberating sensation to get home after school and hop on your bicycle – a sense of freedom and mobility too often impaired or diluted as one “grows up” and switches to other forms of transport. It is a relief then to experience this sensation once again well into my fifties and to shed a few layers of object ownership and responsibility. As so often happens when we are touched tangibly by something previously unknown (like living in an automobile-obsessed city with no automobile), perceptions change. I find that daily patterns are more intentional than before. There’s a necessity to thinking through how I go about the day, a mindfulness of sorts that I do not recall from the days of simply jumping in the car and running an errand just because I could. There is a relief too of ridding oneself of the mind-numbingness of sitting idle in traffic and a coincident awareness of the toll this must surely take on the energies of those who endure it. I find my energy enhanced, not diluted, by the physical and mental effort of making my way through each day on my bicycle – a resourcefulness I have come to believe is a human craving and also a powerful source of inner contentment. My perception is sharper: I notice more. And I appreciate where I live and how I live in ways that surprise me almost daily. And there’s where I live. I find that without a car I spend more time at home. I invite others over more frequently; I garden; I cook. It is as if I have discovered a dimension of my life that has always been there, albeit unactivated. There is an odd pleasure in this that I feel compelled to share with others. A lifelong goal has been to meld my personal and professional lives so they are undifferentiated from one another. An area of particular passion has always been the way we approach our built environments and how we engage with them and one another. A window is opening in Houston and in cities across North America to redefine our urban landscapes and to change the too-often isolated patterns in which we experience the civic forum. I feel a sense of urgency to pry this window open wider. A guy on a bike won’t change a lot. Still, it’s a start, and I am sticking with it. — (m)