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Why I Ride A Bike (Not That You Asked)

2011 May 20
by dan bertolet

No, it’s not because I’m trying to save the planet. It’s because I’m selfish.

I bike commute between the Central District and downtown five days a week, all year long, and I also ride occasionally to do errands or go out. And I do it because biking is, for a whole pile of reasons, simply the best way for me to make those trips.

My top six, selfishly practical reasons:

  • Bikes are cheap to buy, cheap to operate, and cheap to park. And I’m cheap.
  • Riding is exercise, and like many of us I find it incredibly hard to make time for exercise if it’s not integrated into my daily routine.
  • Biking is much faster than walking, and for my commute it’s also faster than the bus, even though the bus stop is only three blocks from my house.
  • I avoid the frustration of not being in control: I never have to wait for a late bus, I can go around cars stuck in traffic, I can stop and take a picture whenever I want.
  • It’s exhilarating—I always feel more alive after a ride, even when the weather’s miserable.
  • It’s just plain fun to zip around on the city streets—sometimes I practice riding wheelies like a 12-year old on my way in to work.

As you see, it’s all about me. To me, biking is such a perfect choice for urban mobility that the real question is: why do so many people not ride? Which is a far more interesting question than why I do.

Yes, there are those who cannot ride for good reasons, such as being physically incapable, or because they have lots of stuff to take with them, or because of challenging logistics. But there’s no way that adds up to 97 percent of commuters in Seattle.

Is it because people are too out of shape? I’m no superjock—I’m a middle-aged guy who sits in front of a computer screen all day and does a little yard work occasionally. It’s really not that physically hard to ride a bike a few miles, is it? And anyway, aren’t we Seattleites supposed to be all wholesome and fit like the people in the REI catalog?

Is it the hills? It’s true, biking up hills can be a drag. But on the other hand, as a biker who thinks it’s a good thing to get some exercise from my ride, I’m actually thankful for the hills. And hills are also fun to roll down. And hills give you nice views. Why is everyone so wimpy when it comes to biking the hills in Seattle? Don’t tons of people move here because they see themselves as tough outdoorsy mountain climber types? Doesn’t everyone want a convenient way to keep their legs in shape for next snowboarding season? Apparently not.

Is it the weather? For sure, Seattle’s winter weather is soul-sucking. But hey, at least it’s not Chicago, or dozens of other cities where gets so cold it hurts to be outside. And at least it’s not Houston, or dozens of other cities where you step outdoors in summer and you’re instantly drenched in sweat and can barely breathe. Seattle’s climate is temperate. That means it’s fairly comfortable to be outside on a bike all year long.

And the rain? Based on my observations, if I didn’t know better I’d assume that there’s a city ordinance requiring every Seattle resident to own a full Gore-Tex suit. And the thing is, it’s actually pretty easy to slip those on and ride a bike and stay dry. And even if you get a little wet once in a while, well you know, it’s only water.

Is it a case of people being unfamiliar with an option they haven’t tried? Could be—recall the stories of people who rode the bus for the first time when gas prices were high, only to discover that it’s a pretty nice way to get to work. But jeez, are there really that many people out there who are not willing to try something new? Sad, if true. Most of us grew up riding bikes (and you never forget how once you learn).

Culture? Sure. We are a society with a deeply rooted love of cars, and let’s face it, bikes are pretty unmanly in comparison. But culture is malleable, and my sense is that the car’s grip on our collective psyche is loosening, and that shift is going to happen in the cities first. Peruse this for a preview.

What about time? Not everyone lives two miles from work like I do, and as the distance increases, the time advantage of biking dwindles and eventually goes negative. Time is money: I get it. However, that equation probably doesn’t flip as quickly as many people think, once you account for the time it takes to get to and from the bus stop, or time spent finding parking and getting to and from the parking lot. And then there’s time saved not going to the gym. And also the interesting twist that when you consider the health benefits, the extra time it takes to bike is likely repaid several times over in increased life expectancy.

The last reason standing is safety. It’s the most legitimate, rational reason not to bike, hands down. Unlike the other reasons discussed above, there’s little a rider can do about it, because the majority of the risk is posed by cars. And changing that is going to take serious investment in cycling infrastructure, along with driver education and stricter laws. You know, like they have in Europe. Where they bike a lot.

And finally, it’s important to remember that we don’t need to make those changes just to please bikers like me. Because it just so happens that things that are good for people are quite often also good for the planet.

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Note: This piece was originally published on PubliCola last Fall. I’m reposting it here in recognition of Bike To Work Day.

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