Guest Post: Bike Commuting as a New Challenge

This is the first post in a new “novice” guest series. The idea is to get fresh perspectives on riding a bike from people who are relatively new to transportation cycling.

As I noted last month, my stories on bike commuting now come from a somewhat more experienced/jaded perspective. If no drivers do anything too terrible, it’s a great commute for me. So now and then we will ask novice bike commuters to share their thoughts from their unique perspectives.

If you are new to cycling, maybe you could more easily relate to the guest posts. If you’re a battle ax like me and Trisha, you could reminisce on the olden days.

This first guest post comes from Stephanie, whom I met through my Women-Who-Bike group. She recently biked all the way into the Loop (center of downtown Chicago) for the first time to attend the Bike to Work Day rally and confessed that the experience was rather terrifying. Although she works in the Loop, typically she bikes only the first half of her commute and then take the L train into the Loop – not because of the distance, but to avoid the insane traffic and stressed drivers that can make biking in the Loop, well, terrifying. I love this! It’s a great reminder that bike commuting should be enjoyable.

Stephanie on Bike to Work Day

Stephanie discusses this and so much more in her smart and eloquent own words below. I hope you take the time to read through and continue the discussion in the comments.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
From Stephanie

I’m the kind of person who likes a new challenge, even if it’s scary or seems impossible at first. I have taken on all kinds of small adventures in the last five or six years, mostly physical challenges for myself. I don’t do things for competitive purposes, (I get too frustrated in competition!) but just to push my own physical ability and comfort levels and to keep myself busy. One year I took boxing classes, another year I took up olympic-style weightlifting (under the watchful supervision of a good coach), one year I took up yoga, and yet another year I trained for and ran a race for charity. I’ve learned a ton from all these things, and I have kept a lot of these activities in my exercise repertoire. This year, as it turns out, bike commuting was my new adventure!

The experience of learning to bike commute has made me think a lot about what keeps us from trying new things, and what the real and imagined barriers to new adventures can be. There were definitely barriers for me in commuting by bike; I learned to ride a bike like most of us do, as a kid in the driveway at home. Then, once again like many of us, I set my bike aside sometime in middle school and really didn’t look back. Until I was in my mid-20’s I didn’t touch a bike again, and when I did I started very, very small, just biking once in a blue moon for fun or short errands.

One of the barriers that kept me off a bike for so long was structural; until grad school I lived in a suburb, where biking was not really a practical transportation method, and there was no particular bike culture that I was exposed to at the time. When everything is massively spread out and the infrastructure is actively bike-unfriendly, it’s hard to start. Moving to a city (better environment) and getting rid of my car (removed temptation to drive) helped me with that. You can’t always change structural barriers like that, though.

But the mental barriers were actually much bigger. The reasons in my head for not biking (or not running a race, or not trying yoga) can grow way out of proportion to their real significance! For one thing, it felt strange to return to biking after somewhat internalizing the attitude that you find in many suburban environments that biking is for children. It’s not taken seriously as a transportation option, and the planning and design of suburban communities just exacerbates that by making biking uninviting and unsafe. It took a lot of time for me to think of biking as an option for a grown-up person.

Similarly, it was hard to feel safe and comfortable biking, even in the rather bike-friendly cities I’ve lived in for the past five years. I can relate to people who express fear about traffic, and accidents, and crashing- these are rational fears! But not even trying to bike is an overreacting response, I think. My solution to my own anxiety about safety was to start super slowly and get very familiar with my surroundings and routes. When I know all the potholes and sharp corners and badly timed lights in my way, I feel less nervous about bad things happening. I also stop at every red light and follow traffic rules as religiously as I can.

Intimidation is another mental barrier. It’s easy to be intimidated or overwhelmed by the culture of an activity. Do you see spandex and Lance Armstrong when you think of biking? Or do you see your neighbor or your mom or your first-grade teacher? Like with any activity, you don’t have to be super-intense or single-minded about biking or even bike commuting to do it and have fun. It’s something regular people with busy lives can do, and you can do it as much or as little as feels comfortable. I think people often look at new things and don’t try them because the commitment seems so huge; time, or money, or energy.

I got past this barrier by giving myself permission to take small steps. One thing that really helped me learn to bike commute was not trying to do everything all at once. By that I mean that I biked part of my commute at first, and took the train for part of it. It may sound super simple and obvious, but it took me a little while to realize that you don’t have to bike the entire way to work to try it and have fun! It’s not cheating, because there are no rules about how you have to do this. The ability to gradually work on my confidence in this way was really important for me- I think I needed to learn how to bike to work in steps, just like you have to learn in steps how to do a complicated yoga pose, for example.

I also think lacking role models is a mental barrier for lots of people. If you don’t know anyone who does something, it’s a lot harder to envision yourself doing it. I firmly believe that having friends and advisors who know more than you and are happy to help you makes a huge difference in adopting any new activity. When I first got the idea to start biking, I scraped together some money and some courage and headed out to the Community Cycling Center on Alberta Street in Portland (http://www.communitycyclingcenter.org/), where the most friendly people helped me get set up with my refurbished Specialized Crossroads. I asked them all the stupid questions I had, I got them to teach me to do basic maintenance on my bike and fix a flat and all that stuff. I was lucky, they were great and unpretentious- but a bad experience with bike repair or sales people can intimidate and discourage someone out of the idea of biking altogether. This really does make a difference.

Connected to the role model issue is the problem of not having social ties to an activity. If you can make something social, and make friends while doing it, you’ll have more fun! The friendships you make in a weight room at a good gym are a great example- when someone else is cheering you on or complimenting your lifting, it feels awesome and is very encouraging. In Chicago with biking, I have had the great luck of meeting other women my age who bike, and who are excited about biking, and are also just really nice people. It makes a huge difference to find people who seem basically just like you, except they participate in this activity- it’s fun and you see that you can do it too. Dottie is definitely one of these people- without her encouragement I would have been much less likely to try biking to work (all the way to the South Loop from Roscoe Village!) this year for the first time.

So, I overcame these barriers and did my full commute by bike on June 17, and it was great. But I am not going to be out bike commuting every single day now; some days I’m tired, or it’s raining (or snowing!), or I just feel like taking the train and reading a book on my way to work. And even when I do bike, the partway ride is often more manageable for me- it takes less preparation, and doesn’t involve riding in the loop. And that’s okay! I am having a lot of fun biking, I am getting another kind of physical movement into my day, which is great, and I accomplished something new. I hope that this little story helps someone else overcome their own barriers to trying biking or some other new activity!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Thanks, Stephanie!

I love the idea of learning how to bike commute in steps. This kind of thinking could help so many people start riding because it makes the whole idea less overwhelming. Even though I have been bike commuting for three years, I’m always trying to think of new ways to make it less stressful.

Is anyone else just starting out with bike commuting? Have you tried learning how to bike commute in steps? Does this remind anyone of how they felt in the olden days? :)

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16 thoughts on “Guest Post: Bike Commuting as a New Challenge

  1. Jesse says:

    Actually, yes I did just recently start riding again. I’ve owned bikes on and off throughout my adult life, starting with mountain bikes that were a hold over from high school and college…then on to a touring rig, and finally to a couple of city bikes most recently landing a $100 Craigslist special on a banged up Kona Dew.

    Then I decided at my advanced age (mid-30’s) to go back to school, so for the next year my commute is 2.7 miles each way straight up Capital Hill here in Seattle. I’m no stranger to city riding, and at least my ride is not in prime commute time so there are less cars…but it can still be a bit hair raising.

    Would love to regail everyone with more tales and tips, etc…but this was only meant to be a comment – not a full post!

    Love the site, and from a recent returnee to transportational cycling, thanks!

  2. jesse.anne.o says:

    This is inspiring. I am the same way with learning specific routes, where potholes are, etc. Biking on a road where I know the way lets me practice moving around double-parked cars, looking behind me, watching for people in the driver’s seat of parked cars, not being too hesitant to take the road if need be and where I should line up at the red light.

    Right now I’m still biking in my neighborhood since I work in midtown Manhattan (no thank you!) but I’m using my bike and baskets for the grocery store now, which was a goal of mine since I used to take the bus. It’s only 1.5 mile each way but I’m pleased that I am riding with traffic and building up my skills. (And learning how to start at red lights with 50 lbs of groceries on my bike!)

    I really like the idea of half-way bike commuting. I am thinking about this and whether it makes sense for me Bklyn to Manhattan.

    I think this is a great feature and I look forward to the series!

  3. Maureen says:

    Kudos Stephanie!

  4. Steve from Sydney says:

    Hi – great post. I like the idea of riding part of the way and taking the train part of the way. How did Stephanie manage the train? Here in Sydney, morning commuter trains are crowded, and while I’d love to take the train with my bike, I fear I’d be a nuisance to other commuters.

    • Stephanie says:

      Well, I can tell you! (Yes, it’s me!) I work at a university with two campuses, DePaul, and I bike to the campus nearer to my house, which has a super bike corral and security patrols and whatnot for university personnel. It’s right beside the train station so I park my bike at the corral, and hop my train. It’s a very park-and-ride arrangement. :)

      I would look for something like this maybe, i.e. a place with secure bike parking, perhaps parking you could rent (Millennium Park here has a place like that as well), and use that as your halfway point. Maybe a bike shop would help you find options? Otherwise, there’s always big chains and U-locks, just learn good locking technique so everything is secured!

      • Steve from Sydney says:

        Thanks Stephanie! I’ve found out there are some stations offering secure sheds for bikes, so I’m definitely going to try one out!

  5. David says:

    Great post Stephanie. I’ve been commuting for a few years, and definitely had to overcome some mental barriers when starting out.
    One thing you said that I thought was interesting: “somewhat internalizing the attitude that you find in many suburban environments that biking is for children”.
    It’s a real attitude out there for sure, but to me it’s so silly that I keep forgetting it. I never felt that way about biking. I realize some (materialistic) people out there also think biking is for “losers”, or for “poorer” people. Which is also so silly.
    I’ve always felt biking was very cool, and very cool people do it. But I think it takes a certain personality to be a bike commuter. Some people will never do it.

    The big worry for me when starting out was that I have to ride on bike lanes (unprotected) with car traffic. I also ride in streets with no bike lane.
    So when I started commuting a few years ago, I used the dedicated bike paths that took me way out of the way, and made my commute very long, but I felt “safe”.

    I’ve since abadoned those paths, and am comfortable riding with cars, but try to ride smart at all times.
    I don’t think it’s dangerous. Like I always say, what’s dangerous is sitting on your butt doing nothing.

  6. Angelo says:

    I’ve actually never stopped bicycle commuting, but I would agree that your approach depends on why you are bicycle commuting. A former co worker would occasionally comment that my reply answered all his issues – You don’t have to bike every day. I don’t care for driving and find bicycling cheap and easy (parking is free), but for people that don’t want to bicycle in rain or snow, my question is why does bicycling in good weather imply you have to do it every day? You can drive in once per week to carry in clothes for the other 4 days – you don’t have to sell your car (you can just keep it longer if you don’t drive every day). This may be enough adventure for now. Of course, if you are bicycling for religious reasons or lost your license, your situation may be different.

    It sounds like Chicago may have secure bike parking at the train stations; in my situation, I bike so I am not dependent on buses that run every 50-90 minutes, and parking at the bus/train station is not as safe as at my destinations.

  7. Rick says:

    I also take public transit for part of my commute and bike the last few miles. I mainly do it because the distance is a bit much to do all by bike every day. I picked up a folding bike so it’s a lot easier to take on the train or throw in a car trunk and it’s made my commute options a lot more versatile.

  8. Helen says:

    I’ve also recently starting biking my commute, but only one way so far. I’m lucky that I currently live in the reasonably bike friendly city of Vancouver, Canada where buses are fitted with bike racks. I can bike to the bus stop in the morning and put my bike on the bus. Then bike all the way home at the end of the day. I look forward to it all afternoon.

    Plus going home is almost all downhill!

    I’m moving to London, England at the end of this year and I would love to cycle there but right now even the notion is daunting, I tend to stick to pretty quiet roads at present even if this makes my ride slightly longer. Now I just need to learn how to avoid some of the steeper hills.

    • Lindsay says:

      I cycle to work in London! And I have to cross the whole city centre because I live and work on opposite sides of it. It can be a little hairy sometimes, but if you put a bit of effort into planning your route you can avoid most of the big roads and scary junctions. My commute involves Camden Town, Regent’s Park, Marylebone, Mayfair, Hyde Park, and Belgravia, and I go past some of the most famous sights and most beautiful bits of London every day. You should definitely give it a try.

      I did work my way up to this long-ish journey in stages, but not deliberately. I used to live a 15 minute ride away from work, but my jobs kept moving further south and I moved house further north, and before I knew it I was cycling sixteen miles a day. Sometimes I bike to work in the morning and bike home the next day, but I’m lucky to have quite secure bike parking at work. If it’s snowing or a massive storm is due I leave my bike at home. I’m not a martyr.

  9. Debbie says:

    I turned 59 on January 2nd of this year. I decided then that this would be the year of me. One of my “me” activities is to commute by bike to work more often this summer. I began commuting to work last summer, but on a limited bases. My commute is 8.5 miles one way, but the challenge was to find a route with low traffic streets. It took several practice runs to put together just the right route. Although I still have a very short distance where I have to ride on a heavy traffic street, most of the ride is on quite, suburban streets. It’s amazing how impressed people are that I actually ride my bicycle to work a couple times a week. I’ve notice a few more people getting their bicycles out of the basement or garage and dusting them off since I’ve begun my commutes. Whoever thought that I would inspire people. It’s a great feeling.

  10. Hilary says:

    I am just starting to bike commute in a rather smallish city where all the other adults on bikes are either athletic men in spandex or sketchy guys riding their bikes on the sidewalks. I am starting out very slowly and only started the actual riding a few weeks ago. Not knowing anything about bike commuting I spent a lot of time on the internet looking for information to start out and I have to say this blog has been one of the most helpful sites I’ve found. I feel like this blog addresses any questions or concerns I might have about being a woman on a bike and you make taking the first steps seem exciting rather than intimidating.

  11. Anne says:

    I just started bike commuting the 5-6 miles to work. When I started, I would load the bike in the car, drive to where the bike path started and then ride to work. After 2 weeks of this, I was able to feel a lot more confident about being on my bike, being able to bike that far without my legs falling off, and being more comfortable in traffic. When my car tire got a nail in it at the end of the second week, I started riding the entire distance from home to work. It was only then that I realized it took the same amount of time to bike the entire way vs. driving, unloading, and then biking!

  12. […] need to also check out LGRAB’s new series of guest posts on commuting by novice cyclists, the first of which was just posted – they’ll be talking about their barriers and how they surmounted them, […]

  13. Ta says:

    After having watched others doing it for years, at the age of 60 I have decided that it’s high time I get over my fears and onto a bike… Like jesse.anne.o, I’m starting out in my neighborhood and at a slow pace, but I hope to eventually commute to my job and do local errands on two wheels. Having practiced riding for a few weeks now, I can say I’m pleased and excited with my progress. I’ve finally grown ~somewhat~ less wobbly and can turn corners a little closer, but am far from being ready to take on traffic or the bigger streets . So…

    You’ve given me an idea: In order to conquer the entire distance (but not require it all at once of myself), I’ll figure out a series of parking stops along the way, places where I can park and continue on foot until I feel able to do the whole distance. Because they’ll have to be at friends’ houses, it’ll serve a dual purpose, in giving me the opportunity to visit with folks I don’t see often enough as I retrieve my bike on my way home (I’ll just have to be careful about that glass of wine…)!

    Thanks, Stephanie, for contributing to the beginning of what I hope will be an ongoing series.

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