Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Choice to Ride a Bicycle

Standing with my back to the street and bent over my bicycle, a woman approached on the sidewalk. "Excuse me," she began. I had been lost in my own little world, nearly tardy to an appointment and attempting to lock my bike to the only rack close to my destination, so my face likely read (unintentionally) a bit cranky as I turned around. "Do you happen to know where the other used book store is in the area?" Used book store? I searched my brain because I was aware we were standing in front of one of them, just as I knew there was another not far away... but which direction was it? North or south?

Our downtown area has about 5 blocks that have remarkably similar storefronts, so it can be a bit disorienting when trying to point someone in the right direction, especially when caught off guard or when standing in the middle of this section of streets. I myself, even after living here for many years, sometimes pace the blocks trying to find an establishment. "I believe it is 1-2 blocks south of here," I finally said, "On the same side of the street."

The woman thanked me and then said, "You have a nice bike there. Do you bike to your destinations often? You must live close by." I smiled, "Yes, I do ride often. I live a couple of miles from this spot, but it's not too bad to get anywhere in the city. It's often a lot easier to find parking too." She smiled and then continued, "I wish I could choose to bike to the places I go." Before I could inquire further, she had about-faced and was gone... and, I was now officially late, so I couldn't ask follow up questions.
The brief incident had me thinking for hours afterward though. Whether her reasons were time-centered, equipment based, due to personal job duties/requirements for travel, or something else, I have no way of truly knowing, but from past experiences of this sort, I would guess that it's one (or possibly more) of two reasons. The first is likely that she believes it will take longer to ride than to drive. This reasoning may or may not be justifiable. The second possibility based on previous encounters of this sort is that this woman, and others, believe riding is unsafe.

Despite the reality of seeing more people on bicycles, it's still considered an activity of leisure or sport by many, and viewed by far fewer as a realistic means of transportation. My city is just under 22 square miles with the majority of destinations in a radius much smaller than that number would indicate. Living pretty well at the center of the city means that getting anywhere within this distance is bikeable. Most destinations are within a few miles of home, and even if I lived on one side of town or the other, it would add only a couple of miles for most trips - and actually make some destinations even shorter.

When people tell me it "must be nice" to be able to ride, my response is generally that it is and that really most people can bike to many locations they frequent. With proper planning and time management (which I admit, the latter is not my strength), even biking into colder seasons is not impossible, and often is more enjoyable than being cooped up in a car. I'm not attempting to force riding upon anyone, but I do want people to understand that it's not a difficult decision or activity.

As the weather cools, I see fewer people on bikes on the roads, but it's still possible to enjoy riding. There are many choices for clothing layers from natural fibers to man-made, so finding suitable attire is not much of a challenge, and I have found that layers really are my friend as I frequently find I heat up quickly once on the move.

There are studded bicycle tires, internal hubs, and disc brakes - all of which make riding in wetter and colder weather a bit less stressful. But, even riding with derailleurs and caliper brakes doesn't make traveling by bike impossible in the coming months.
*Image found here
The most likely reason I've heard for individuals not to ride at any point in the year comes back to time. When I tell people that it really doesn't take any longer to ride than to drive, they often laugh or think that I must be some sort of speedster on a bike, which is definitely not the case. This reasoning comes up more often than any other though. For destinations within a few miles of home, the travel time is often quite comparable whether in a car or on a bike, and for those locations a bit farther out, planning a bit for the small time differential makes riding a much easier choice.

While it is understood that time is a commodity for everyone, I think that using time as reasoning for not riding is often flawed. For most of us, we base our lives on time. There is never enough of it. One of my favorite quotes from Henry David Thoreau states in summary that the cost of anything is the amount of life we exchange for it. So, virtually everything we do in a day costs us some amount of our life, and if a person believes there is not enough time already to do the things s/he must do in a day, it's no wonder so many think they do not have the time to ride to destinations.

However, when we re-work our minds a bit and realize that we are often saving ourselves a trip to a gym by riding or saving the costs of gasoline and repair to a car, maybe that few extra moments it may take to ride seem a little less costly in life? It may even mean that we're a bit less cranky when we arrive home to the people we likely want to be around for a greater portion of our time in life.
*Image found here
Another reason that has been relayed to me in regard to not wanting or being able to ride surrounds safety. The brief interaction I had with the woman discussed at the start was timely for me personally because I have been struggling some days with the idea of safety on a bicycle. Not the bicycle itself, but the reality of riding on the roads with very large, potentially lethal machines.

Among people I know who ride, there have been a higher number of - to put it politely I'll call them interactions - with motorists as of late. On top of these more personally-connected incidents, I've read entirely too many stories about cyclists who have been severely injured or killed due to motorist negligence. Then, to top it off, I read this article yesterday regarding vulnerable road users and was reminded just how little my life means if taken by a motorist driving carelessly.

I don't share that link to scare anyone away from riding at all, but simply to point out that we are fed information all the time that, if we allow it to, can take over our lives and control the decisions we make. I am absolutely not immune to this thinking either.

To illustrate this further, my trepidation has gone so far that I recently started penning my own epitaph. I know it sounds extreme (and morbid), and I don't normally live my life believing that I'm going to die at any given moment, but it's very difficult to read about so many severe injuries and deaths and not - at least on some level - think that I am going to be next. All it takes is one person doing something they shouldn't be doing and it could mean the end of all riding, and perhaps life, for me.

There comes a point though when I and anyone who is basing his/her decision on fear have to realize that not every driver is on the hunt to harm or scare people on bikes. If I allow the few to rule my life I will never be able to enjoy the mode of transportation - and sometimes form of sport - that I enjoy. If I allow the few to scare me off the roads because of their behavior, then they have won and I have most definitely lost. And, I don't like to lose (ask anyone who's ever played any sort of game with me).

Fear is a powerful thing. It can take hold of us and can be challenging to escape. Once the seeds are planted, keeping them from growing into something completely overwhelming can be challenging. If life is lived in fear, we would never leave our homes. In fact, we might never get out of bed. There are statistics and stories all around us to scare us into believing that almost anything we do could result in injury or death, and I for one do not wish to live a life in such a manner.

Not only did I stop writing my epitaph, but I completely deleted it. I took a moment and realized how ludicrous this activity really is/was. Yes, there is a possibility that someone could hit me today or tomorrow or next week while I'm riding, but as with any activity from getting in the shower to crossing the street, we take a certain level of risk every day just by living.

The odds show that driving a car is still far more likely to result in death than riding a bicycle and yet people continue to drive every day (according to the linked chart, 1 in 242 vs 1 in 4,838 lifetime odds), just as we continue to bathe and cross the street.

I refuse to live my life in fear, and part of not living in fear means that I will ride my bicycle as I always have and support legislators and legislation that promote additional bike infrastructure and education for both motorists and cyclists.

I am not likely to convince anyone that riding a bicycle is entirely possible if they haven't experienced it for themselves. To these folks I would say, give it a try. There's no harm in going for a short ride to meet up with a friend or to the grocery store to pick up that one item forgotten to make an evening meal. It may even be that you start out on a short local bike path or somewhere that feels a bit more protected. With bike lanes and multi-use paths growing nationally, I hope that it won't be long before anyone will be able to ride just about anywhere without even hitting a major street artery, if desired.

There's truly nothing superhero about riding a bicycle for transportation. It doesn't take any special skill (other than learning how to ride initially) and it is just a decision that is made to choose to ride rather than drive to a destination.

A person can ride faster if s/he desires and has the capability, or a rider can travel at slower speeds. Ultimately, both riders will reach their destination. There is no requirement for a special bike or anything out of the ordinary to make riding possible. All anyone has to do is make the choice and start turning the crank.

What reasons have you encountered with those who wish they could "choose to ride" a bicycle? Do you encourage others to try riding when they ask you about your bicycle or when asking how long it took you to arrive at a destination? Maybe you've helped someone start on his/her path to commuting or riding more regularly. Feel free to share in the comments.


  1. I used to ride to work regularly. Well, drive partway (through very dangerous interstate areas), then park and ride. It was about 7 miles each way of biking. I would leave roughly 45 minutes earlier than all-driving days, but that's slightly mis-leading, because instead of spending 15-20 minutes at home putting on my work clothes prior to leaving, I would spend about the same 15-20 minutes at work, after my ride, freshening up and dressing for work.
    My ride home would be, arguably, faster than just driving. The section I would bike through would be so congested (for cars) in the evenings that I could just zip right past sitting traffic and get to my parked car and get home much quicker. Never mind having much less road-rage!


    1. I think that is one of my favorite things on a bike... being able to ride past cars that are sitting at a dead stand still. I also agree that being on a bike is a fantastic cure for road rage. :)

  2. Bravo! Some people who love me think I'm crazy for riding as much as I do, and especially when done in cold weather. I try to be a safe cyclist. Riding has helped me lose weight and get healthier, so even if it's risky, it's also very rewarding. I feel alive when I ride, and always feel better afterwards if I started out in a bad mood. My mantra on this: start living (riding) or start dying (not riding out of fear).

    1. The odd looks do seem to come with the cold weather. I think once we're riding regularly though, it's tough to stop.

  3. I've been struggling with safety and cycling, too. In my state, shortly after the sentencing of the drunk bishop who took an experienced cyclists life, another drunk driver killed two experienced cyclists on a tandem. I agree with you that we cannot let fear hold us back, and I keep telling myself that life is not as dangerous as it seems.

    However, as a trained epidemiologist, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out the limitations in the odds you cited. While technically correct in estimating the odds of death by activity for Americans, this is only useful in estimating the national mortality burden of those activities.

    One can't compare the mortality risk of driving versus cycling without good exposure data -- preferably time or miles spent cycling vs driving, but at the very least, limiting the exposed to those who rode a bike in the past year. We have this "denominator" data for driving, but we don't really have excellent data on cycling exposure. The National Household Travel Survey provides an estimate I believe, but even though I actually work on a similar large national survey, I have concerns about their ability to accurately estimate data on small groups such as cyclists (we are a small group on the national level). You'd have to oversample cyclists to really improve precision, and no national survey is willing to spend that kind of money on studying cycling.

    With those limitations in mind, one of the best discussions I've seen is here: http://www.mrmoneymustache.com/2013/06/13/bicycling-the-safest-form-of-transportation/. Basically, cycling is much more dangerous than driving on a per-mile basis, roughly equal on a per-hour basis, and safer once you take into account the chronic diseases we are preventing when we bike.

    I wrote about this myself too here: http://www.mindfulriot.com/fear-part-one/

    1. Absolutely! I think statistics - just generally speaking - are a tough thing because there are always variables involved (and frequently funds provided by an organization attempting to prove something). This particular statistic points to the average person, not specifically those who ride a bicycle; so yes, definitely you are correct in stating that the odds will be different for someone who rides regularly. I think depending on where a person lives there can be a decent change in those numbers as well - but there are definitely flaws in the statistical info linked in the post. There are other factors that would have to come in to play to be more accurate for any particular rider. Thank you for pointing this out. It is important to note such things and I actually meant to do make an asterisk at the end regarding this and failed to do so.

      Thank you also for the Mr. Money Mustache link as well (who, by the way, resides in my city - or at least I believe his family still does reside here). I've actually read this particular post in the past, but I appreciate the reminder and the link for others as well. It's an excellent website just in general, I think.

      In regard to your blog post, it is fascinating the way the human mind works and how we sense things. I know that I can get caught up in fear when I believe something could, or is about to happen. Sometimes the intuition is correct, but other times it is simply allowing random thoughts to get the best of me (or, as in your instance, when there is a close call that helps add fuel to the fire). I'm glad you were able to conquer that day and that everyone made it home safely.

  4. Our roads are over-crowded here, not meant to take on a growing population, commuters from outside the area, students and legislators. There is hostility toward cyclists here and FL has a bad reputation for cycling deaths per capita nationally. There is no prosecution of people killing cyclists, like in many places, and I've personally experienced hostility from motorists, while in a bike lane or 1.5' from the right of the road. I claim that space to force motorists over the line to pass on narrow roads. I've been cut off, had dust kicked in my face, almost hit by a semi going too close to the bike lane and whooshed by a pickup truck while cycling in rural areas. But I ride. I choose my areas and time more carefully now that I ride alone and am retired, but the city is too dangerous for motorists, much less cyclists. I see students and poorer people getting about by bike as best they can, however. They seem to do pretty well. Once in a while you'll hear of a tragedy. Same everywhere, I guess.

    1. I have read that Florida can be a challenging state to ride in - safety wise - but I'm glad you've been able to find your paths and still continue to ride.

      It is unfortunate that tragedy seems to strike, regardless of location. I always wish that driver's license renewals included a mandatory bicycle ride so that motorists could understand and empathize a bit better with the dangers faced by those vulnerable road users. I think until riding a bike becomes much more mainstream transportation, that will never happen. Which is sad.

  5. This is a really thoughtful post. I would say that time and safety are also the two most common reasons I hear people provide for why they don't ride. In the south, though, I also hear a lot of questions about how to handle being sweaty in the summer. Seriously, when it's mid-90s and humid, that's a real issue! What is interesting to me is that people think they need to give me a reason why they don't ride. I never ask for one.

    Before I began riding for transportation, I had all of those same concerns. I don't really have a theory for how to get past them. You just start riding and see how it goes. For a long time I thought the lack of a single safe route was what held me back. Now that I've been riding for a while, I've found at least half a dozen safe routes to work, including some that I dismissed as "unsafe" in the first year of bike commuting. It's just a question of building up a better sense of what your abilities are. When I thought those routes were unsafe for me, they were. Now they aren't.

    Whenever I talk to someone who wants to try out biking for transportation, I always keep that in mind. If it feels unsafe to them, it doesn't matter what I think. Heck, I remember when taking the lane felt terrifying. Now it's just a routine part of my everyday life.

    1. I can see that the heat/humidity combination would be a challenge. When it's 95F degrees here, it is fairly dry, so it's not nearly the same as adding in the higher humidity. I try, on these days, to avoid mid-day riding because it's usually quite unpleasant, but occasionally it happens and I just have to deal with it. My body doesn't handle heat very well to begin with, but I think I adapt better if I'm out early and it just transitions into the hotter parts of the day.

      It's interesting that people feel the need to provide reasons why they don't ride. I've never asked for an explanation from anyone either (well, maybe if they've emailed me or chatted here, but I wouldn't do it to someone simply asking me a question on a local road/path). I'm happy to share my experience, but it definitely doesn't mean it would be the same for someone else. I agree completely with you that just because I've experienced something doesn't mean that someone else would have the same outcome (this is true of both equipment and experiences riding on roads). I have tried with a few local friends to encourage them to ride when they've shown interest, but I'm really not a pushy person, so if they don't continue to have interest I tend to back off because I know I don't like things shoved down my throat. Sometimes, we just need time to figure out what works for us as an individual.


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