Important Commuter Lessons learned by a flabby-thighed suburban greenmom.
I think I'm finally ready. The weather is improved, my husband has taken my bike down from the garage rafters and filled its tires, I'm realizing I work only 5 miles from home, and it's just Time.
This is the year I'm going to start bicycling to work. Not every day, but some days. As many as I can manage. And if it turns out to not be realistic or is too scary or too dangerous, I'll abandon the plan, but at least I'll know I've tried. No matter that I haven't ridden my bike seriously in about 20 years, or honestly at all in more than ten. That's why that old cliche "It's like riding a bike!" is a cliche, right? (Lesson 1: cliches are not always bad.)
My bike is a fairly unsexy, non-glam thing. I bought it at Kmart for $100 about 15 years ago. (It was one of Kmart's more expensive models, that's the most I can say for it.) But it has pathetically few miles on it from all that time, and it's in quite rideable shape.
So first I go to Google Maps. Did you know that they now give bicycling directions, as well as public transit and walking? It's still in "beta" mode, but it's very usable. My own commute, though not particularly far, is a case study for why the suburbs are generally awful for anything but car commuting: over those 5 miles (okay, actually 5.4) I have to cross two expressways, which means at least two major roads will have to be ridden on, since there are very limited options for crossing them. Google gives me what seems to be a very reasonable set of options, taking smaller back roads whenever possible and snaking me up to the busier ones only where those two expressways rear their ugly heads. (Lesson 2: Google Rocks)
So I print out the Google Maps directions. Today on my way home from work I did a drive-run, taking my car along the actual route I'd be biking, to see how biker-friendly the trip might be. Answer: well, sort of. Or, more truthfully, delightfully biker friendly for about 3.5 miles, horribly unfriendly for maybe 2. (Lesson 3: The internet is wonderful, but always do your own research and verification where possible.) One of the expressways is not much of a problem, but the other has awful narrow roads and congestion for long stretches on either side. So I go back to Google Maps, to look at what's there and if there are any alternatives, and using the satellite view I discover that there's another way under one of the expressways that takes you through a park and parking lot, thereby avoiding the absolute worst stretch of the drive and adding some really lovely and peaceful stretches. A six mile trek now, but not bad. (See Lesson 2. Google absolutely rocks.) And there's a box where one can report one's specific findings about specific routes, which of course I filled in, because it's the neighborly thing to do.
I also, me being me, am doing some research on the web to see if other cyclists have posted tips for their fledgling brethren and sistren. Found a few good ones: Paul Dorn's Bike Commuting Tips has some good info, and Commute By Bike also has some good stuff. Leo at ZenHabits also has good commonsense advice as well as a bunch of other links. Sierra Trading Post celebrates National Bike To Work Day (May 15) with even more advice. And a Google search for "rules of the road MyState" will probably give you links to your specific area's traffic and safety rules, something we all should memorize before trying any of this. I'll pore over these for a while. (See Lesson 3.)
Then there's the bike helmet thing. Having not ridden in so long, I don't have one. I shall probably suck it up, offer prayers of penance, and head over to Target. Another side effect of the suburbs--to find anything besides Big Boxes, you need to look hard and travel far, something I don't have time to do while schlepping myself and my kids around this only-way-to-get-there-is-drive suburban environment. I'm beginning to feel trepidatious about my plan...at least I have my stainless steel water bottle that'll clip to my bike. I'll probably need one of those portable pumps, too...I hate thinking that starting to bike to work will involve more consumerism, but I can't really think of anything else, and my folks drilled into me as a kid to never bike anywhere far enough from your destination that you wouldn't want to walk it, unless you have a bicycle pump. (Lesson 4: Do what you can, no plan is perfect.) Then there's also the reality that most bike helmets are made of polystyrene, which is evil. So I guess I just should give up on all of this and go back to driving...wait, no. That's not right. What's right is that, despite the depressing lack of an eco-friendly alternative, bike riding is much more carbonically responsible than driving, and helmets are a necessary part of bike safety, so it's a fairly small trade-off. At least, that's what Umbra, the "Dear Abby" of all things green, says. (I guess that's Lesson 4 too.)
The next part of the plan, which almost makes me feel a little silly, will be training. There's a nice 1-mile walking loop around our neighborhood that we've clocked, and I'll try tomorrow riding my bike around it as many times as I can manage, and hope that it equals at least 5, or pretty close to it. If not, I'll have to keep doing that for a while before I try to bike to work. (Update: I actually had a little time this afternoon and did 2 miles in just under 10 minutes, and I'm only a little tired. Could easily have gone for 3. I am pleased. Of course, they were very easy local miles, but it's a good start.) (Lesson 5: Believing one can't do something is the greatest barrier to doing it; just giving it a shot is the best first step.) (Oof...Lesson 6: even if you feel great 2 minutes off the bike, your thighs might start shaking twenty minutes later or so...training might be a good idea.)
I post every other Friday here at the Booth, so I'm asking all of you to hold me accountable for this! In two weeks when I post again, I want to be able to update you to how this is going.
So...anyone else want to join me in the Great Bike To Work Challenge? Or how about the Bike to the Grocery Store Challenge? (Er...don't buy ice cream if you're doing this one, okay?) the Bike to a Friend's House Challenge? Post office? Anywhere?