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 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.
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!
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?