When I was a kid, riding a bike was simply how we got around. Everyone biked everywhere: to the playground, to school, to visit friends, or just for fun. It was our first vehicle. It was our first taste of independent transportation. And we dropped it like a hot potato the moment we turned sixteen and gained access to a car.
How I Found my way back to Biking
For about a decade between the ages of 16 and 26, I can count on one hand the number of times I rode my bike. It wasn’t until I moved back to Tulsa, Oklahoma and found myself living about two miles south of downtown that I started riding again. A friend had given me her old Cannondale road bike and suddenly I had a reason to use it: work was 12 minutes away and bike parking was free.
Pretty soon, I was biking everywhere. When my car died of old age, I didn’t replace it. I lived in a walkable part of town and could get everywhere I needed to go by bike. My workplace, my favorite restaurants, the gym, and the grocery store were all within a couple miles of my apartment. On the rare occasions when I needed to go somewhere outside of cycling range, I could always catch a ride or borrow a car from a friend. When it snowed, I’d take the bus, but I rode in the rain.
It was almost a game. I didn’t have panniers or a bike trailer, so it became a challenge to see just how many grocery bags I could fit in (and tie onto) my backpack.
When I finally bought a car, it didn’t change my daily habits. I kept right on cycling. The car was for road trips and weekend travel to the family farm. I drove it so little, the warranty expired due to time, not mileage. I couldn’t tell you the price of gas because I bought it so rarely. 99% of the time, I rode my bike.
But when I moved from a streetcar suburb to a 1950's neighborhood, my biking habits changed. Places built for walking work great for cyclists. Places built for cars only work for cars. As a result, biking is no longer the fastest, most convenient transportation option for every trip I make. Sadly, it’s no longer my standard default — but it’s still an option.
So I compromise and I bike when I can. I still bike to work, but it takes me longer, and I no longer do it every day. I travel the 7 miles in a leisurely 40 minutes, which makes for a nice workout and allows me to skip the gym. In a perfect week, I bike to work every other day. On alternate days, I share a ride with my partner, take the bus, or — on rare occasions — drive.
Within a 1.5-mile radius of my home, there are an impressive number of destinations: three grocery stores, two drugstores, a movie theater, a university campus, a shopping mall, two schools, two parks, two liquor stores, a library, a bank, a bookstore, a handful of restaurants, and dozens of small businesses.
Unfortunately, not all of these are particularly desirable places to walk or bike to because of car-centric street design. My beautiful, bucolic neighborhood is bracketed by arterial streets that have been widened to the point that they function as urban highways, with auto traffic routinely travelling 45-50 mph. Just walking on the sidewalks can be a hair-raising experience. Overly wide and complex intersections further discourage walking and biking. Instead of helping connect people to places, these streets effectively act as barriers to anyone attempting to travel without a car.
So I pick and choose. I’ve found routes that allow me to cut through quiet residential streets and cross arterials at reasonably safe places. In other cases, I support businesses on one side of the street, but not the other. (Which is pretty ironic, since street-widening projects are often sold as an economic development package by politicians.)
After eliminating the dangerous and completely unpleasant routes, I still have a decent assortment of bikeable destinations near my home. The grocery store is an easy one. So are the drug store, the liquor store and the library. The bookstore is doable. And the bank tellers are amused when I use the drive-thru lane on my bike.
My Challenge to You
So here’s my challenge to you: Ask yourself, what are the trips you could be making by bike? Where do you go that’s within a mile or two of your house? Can you figure out a safe route to get there? Do you always buy in bulk, or do you sometimes pick up just a few items at a time? If so, grab an old backpack and try running the occasional errand by bike.
You may just discover the joy of biking for transportation — and the satisfaction you feel when you use your body’s power to achieve something useful, instead of expending it on a treadmill at the gym. When you drive, you’re sheltered and passive; you’re essentially cargo. When you bike, you’re a badass. You’re alive in the world. You become a verb.
Maybe you don’t live in a cycling paradise. Neither do I! I’m a middle-aged lady living in Tulsa, OK, and I bike for transportation. What’s your next excuse? As the old Nike ads used to say: "Just do it!"
You're more likely to use your bike if it's always ready to go. A few simple things can make a big difference:
- Invest in a basket or a pannier to enable you to carry items on your bicycle.
- Store your bike in a place where it’s quick and easy to grab it and go. (Pro tip: If you have to move things around in the garage to excavate your bike every time you want to go for a ride, you probably won’t.)
- Get your bike tuned up and keep the tires inflated so it’s always ready to ride.
As creatures of habit, we spend a good portion of our day operating on auto-pilot. When someone says “go,” we grab our keys and hop in the car.
So take a moment to stop and think: Do I really need to drive? Could I bike there instead? Would I feel better if I got a little exercise? Can I afford an extra 10 minutes to do something good for my body, my psyche, my wallet and the planet?
When the answer is yes, it’s time to ride!