According to Bicycling Magazine, I live in the fifth best bicycling city in the United States. It’s true, Eugene boasts bike lanes on nearly every major street, an extensive network of off-street bike paths, and bike traffic signal-changers at most intersections. It’s rare not to see someone out cycling even on the darkest, rainiest days, and on sunny days the bike racks in front of the library, restaurants, and grocery stores overflow. This blog and the artsy video below celebrate some of the funky bike culture in these parts:
Maybe that’s why I sometimes imagine that bicycling predominates across the country. That everyone’s doing it. Then I am reminded of the statistics. Nationwide only one percent of urban trips are made by bike, and only .55 percent of people commute by bike. Even in Eugene only about 10.5 percent of people regularly get to work on their bikes. Obviously there are some significant obstacles to bicycling out there. In the eight months since we ditched our car, we’ve faced and overcome a number of them:
I work at home, so I can’t boast much about my bike-commuting prowess. But I did commute on bike or foot to work or school for most of my life, and my husband currently rides his bike about 12 miles a day. In How to Live Well Without Owning a Car, Chris Balish insists that if you can get to work without a car, you can live car-free. The average American spends 46 minutes a day commuting, so it’s understandable that the daily commute could be a deal-breaker – especially in the suburbs or cities without bike infrastructure or adequate public transportation.
But if you live within cycling distance of work, here are a few things my husband has learned (the hard way) as a rain-or-shine bike commuter.
- Bring a patch kit, pump, and tools with you everyday.
- Tighten all of the nuts and bolts on your bike once a week.
- Learn about bike maintenance. Many cities have bike-repair coops that offer affordable classes, tools, and repair areas.
- Invest in water-proof panniers or some other way to carry cargo on board instead of on your back.
- Choose the safest route, not the fastest one.
Okay, I hate to admit this, but my husband deserves the credit in this category as well. He and my son usually do our once-a-week grocery runs – probably the second biggest challenge of car-free living. Since we have a Burley trailer to carry our most precious cargo, we use that to haul our groceries. But there are all kinds of cool ways to carry cargo on bikes. Check out this site for some of the commercial and more cobbled-together options out there.
The single biggest thing we’ve learned about shopping on two wheels is: plan, plan, plan. Trust me, you don’t want to have to make four trips to the hardware store in the pouring rain.
With these long spring days, it’s easy for me to forget when those stormy, pitch-black January nights made staying in sound sublime. I opted out of evenings out and writers’ group meetings on a few particularly dreary nights. But maybe that’s not entirely a bad thing. Negotiating the world without two tons of metal between you and the elements demands that you become more in tune with the weather, nature, and the seasons. Now that the days are warmer and longer, we’re making up for all of those cozy evenings at home by getting out every chance we get.
You may have noticed that I’ve mentioned rain about four times already. Oh yes, we do face one minor challenge here in the fifth best bicycling city in the U.S – about 141 days of rain a year. I can’t complain. When I lived in Colorado, my bike was parked for much of the winter, because of snow or ice. Rain is entirely manageable and probably one of the major reasons the Northwest is a cycling mecca.
In our household we all own decent rain gear, none of it new or fancy. It’s the difference between getting to our destination feeling like wet cats and peeling off a quick layer and strolling in dry. I probably don’t have to say this, but in rainy terrain, fenders are a huge plus, as are lights, reflectors, neon vests, and anything else that keeps you visible on gray days. My son or I walk or ride every day, rain or sun.
You can find tips on winter riding in chillier climes here.
Honestly bicycling can be scary. This website puts some of the fear and safety concerns into perspective, but pedaling on roadways with cars, some whose drivers are invariably distracted, tired, or impaired, has inherent dangers. Here are a few ways we’ve learned to mitigate them:
- Stay off the sidewalks. The major cause of bicycle-car collisions is when a bike comes out of a driveway or off a sidewalk.
- Avoid dangerous intersections.
- Embrace slow. (Leave plenty of time to get places. Don’t try to beat orange lights. Enjoy the journey.)
- Be visible and follow all of the rules of the road.
- Use hand signals, make eye contact with drivers, smile, be friendly.
I’ve been fortunate to live in pedestrian and bike-friendly locales my entire life, and to be able to choose neighborhoods and places of employment that facilitate a human-powered life. But there’s a reason the U.S. does not boast the high ridership of many European countries. Fifty percent of Americans live in the suburbs, and many simply do not have the option to walk or ride a bike. Many American cities are also far from bike-friendly.
Is there anything we can do about poor city planning? Yes, although it’s not a quick fix. We can get involved in the planning process, support bike advocacy groups, write our congressmen and city council people, tell Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood we favor more livable communities, and otherwise campaign for a more bike-friendly country.
For all of the obstacles of biking, it comes with huge rewards. Most of all, in a world rife with problems, I often feel like part of the solution. And that’s an awesome feeling.
What obstacles keep you from riding a bike? What obstacles have you overcome?