|cred: Nathan Dumlao via unsplash.com|
Now, I'm no super rider today. I still take the sidewalk some days when I'm feeling tired or not totally confident. Even though that's technically less safe, because cars are less likely to see bikes coming down a sidewalk which commonly results in riders being "right-hooked" by turning cars, some days it feels safer. In fact, on some four lane roads in my town I almost always take the sidewalk because it takes so much energy and confidence to insist on my right to a full lane in that kind of traffic. Anyway, I'm no super rider today but I'm so much more comfortable than I used to be, and I'm generally someone who is okay with riding streets with moderate traffic flow and spotty bike lanes (if any) like Chicago Street or Highland Avenue.
Yet, when I first realized that people can actually use bikes for transportation, I never dreamed I would turn out to be one of them. It was Parker who bought a little red modified mountain bike when we lived in Berkeley, California. The shop that sold it to us wanted both of us to try it out--on the street! Like with the cars! Are you crazy? Talk about panic-inducing. But Parker did it. In fact, because I'm so prideful and stubborn, I tried it too. Like for one block. Nope. No thank you.
Parker ended up riding that red bike all over the Berkeley hills. We lived at the top of Le Conte Ave on what was called "holy hill," while we attended Pacific School of Religion. If you happen to know that terrain and the terrain of my current city (these people do exist!) than you know that climbing Le Conte by bike makes climbing Highland Avenue look pitifully easy and that's what Parker did every time he traveled to and from a gig as an adult swimming instructor over at the university (show off!). I marveled at his growing strength and his growing madness. He was actually getting comfortable out there.
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We found a cute Huffy in the store window of a downtown Richmond antique shop that was so old it was still made of US steel. The folks who were selling it (at the right price!) intended it to be a cute accent piece somewhere but we did our best to make it road-worthy, and I was off, well, sort of.
It turned out that at the Richmond Church of the Brethren (Our chosen denomination has a funny name. That's a story for another day but we like Jesus, peace, community, simple living, and at least in some places bicycles too!) the front lawn was littered on Sunday mornings with bicycles. The pastor and his wife had only one car between them, and he mainly biked to work and on his visits all over town. By the time we left town his wife, Becky, did the same thing. Other people rode to church on nice days and medium nice days.
But there was always one bike I could count on showing up and that was the big hulking bakfiet that belonged to the Stosberg family. Mark has written about his family's bike adventures on his bikes as transportation shared blog. He's currently working on a book called Let's Go Family Bike Camping in fact. The Stosbergs were doing the cargo bike thing before the cargo bike thing was a thing in the US. They had to order their bakfiet from Europe and pay to find a spot for it on a shipping container traveling west. The Stosbergs had one kid and then two when we lived in Richmond. At the time, I didn't yet experientially understand the whole parenting thing but I was still pretty intrigued that children sat in that box in the front of his bike. It looked genius and crazy (probably the best kind of genius).
Peer pressure is a funny thing. The first time Pastor Matt invited Parker and I to lunch in downtown Richmond he invited us to come with him on our bikes. I had actually never done this before but I said yes anyway (Remember that whole proud and stubborn thing?). I mean I had loved riding a bike as a child and these roads were much less densely populated than Berkeley. What could go wrong? It was a mess. Matt was way out ahead, traveling easily over the changes in terrain that count as hills in Indiana. Parker followed not far behind. I was soaked in sweat, struggling to keep sight of them on my old steel Huffy (Did I say steel? I meant lead). After that I came to grips with my total novice status and worked my way up to making the six minute door-to-door commute from where we lived to the school. I made my peace with the intimidating noise of pick-up trucks and rarely remember feeling threatened on the quiet back streets I took to class. Parker (ever the show off) learned to bike to classes while eating a bowl of cereal (I'm not suggesting you try this at home).
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Yet, when we moved to Iowa being part of a bike culture was not on my list of priorities. Despite Iowa being the home of RAGBRAI, a week-long Des Moines Register organized ride across the state from the Missouri to the Mississippi river, our part of Iowa in the middle of the corn and bean fields did not present itself as ideal for bike commuting. I found the understated beauty of a flat, snow-drifted prairie awe-inspiring, but I did not find the long highways or gravel roads lining that prairie to be enticing real estate to consider biking across.
In Elgin, we discovered a different opportunity. I got my bike (a welcome upgrade from the three-speed, steel huffy) out of storage and tried out my city commuting legs. University of Zurich economists Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer claim in their 2002 World Economics piece, "The Economics of Happiness," that shifting from a long driving commute to a short walking commute has the same effect on a person's rates of reported happiness as falling in love. There are many factors that go into that, including increased social interaction and more time engaging in incidental exercise. But if you don't believe them, take my anecdotal evidence for it. A bike commute beats a car commute for happiness levels almost any day of the week almost any day of the year. I never regret choosing my bike over my car.
I'm in love, and I have the zeal of a convert (I promise to hold your hair while you gag from my overwhelming gushing about bikes. That's if you haven't already stopped reading of course). Seriously, I'd think it was a problem, if I didn't think it was a problem.
That day I paused over the butterfly on the Elgin church bike rack, I nodded in recognition. A transformation had taken place and another one was in the works. I was exactly where I was supposed to be or at least traveling there--on two wheels.
|cred: Justin Bland via unsplash.com|