A few years ago I returned to college after a long career as a photojournalist. Times were tough, as was finding work in the news industry. I decided to get a bike that I could ride across town to the school where I was studying. Parking there was a nightmare, and it seemed like a bad idea to lock up my expensive bike on campus (not to mention the unnecessary wear and tear on my fancy ride). So I made the trip to a local bike shop near Boston, where I lived at the time. After riding a bunch of different models, I decided on a single speed cyclocross bike. That was the first day of the rest, no wait, too corny. The rest as they say, mmm, nope. This began a long ride down, no not that either. Well, let’s just say this, the decision changed everything. No other outdoor activity makes me happier than cranking through the city, bag on my back.
My first trip as a “commuter” was to my favorite falafel joint for lunch. It was a nasty Boston winter afternoon. The snow was still piled from the curb into the driving lanes. I was cold, a little bit scared of the traffic, and completely thrilled to be riding my bike. It was as if I had conquered the world’s problems on the way to lunch. I’m sure you can imagine why, I mean the restaurant was at least a mile from my home. I share this memory because I think my thoughts were as silly as most people’s reasons (including my own) for not commuting by bike. Bad weather, your appearance during the work day, sweat, safety, lack of energy during work, need to carry work stuff – I’ve heard them all, and know they aren’t problems. Bad weather is easily tamed with quality rain gear. Leaving early, riding casually, and bringing a change of clothes will keep you looking good. No worries if you can’t shower at work. If you leave home clean, baby wipes will get you back to feeling fresh. The first few days might leave you a little exhausted at your desk, but before long you’ll be raring to go, even daydreaming about your ride home. Lugging your gear is a cinch with a shoulder bag, backpack, pannier case, or pull-along cart. As for safety, take your time, and be mindful of your surroundings. It’s no more dangerous than being in a car. The one exception can be distance. You actually can live too far away. I however ride a single speed bike seventeen miles a day. You just have to figure out what distance is actually too far for you.
Hopefully everyone can get past the idea that bike commuting is a big deal, because that’s just not true. In fact, it’s a total blast. Biking gets me into friendly conversations, has me in tune with the city, and offers an opportunity to smell everyone’s delicious dinner ideas. You get all of this, plus a great sense of accomplishment. That is to say, I feel like I’m doing something generally good when I leave my car at home. We could get into the tired discussion of high gas prices, low fitness levels and driving-induced stress. The problem here is if you have avoided hearing about these things, you must not have a long trip from the cave where you live to the one where you work. Instead we should reflect on the positive aspects of getting to your workplace on a bike. It basically comes down to revisiting the joy of your first rides as a kid. I’m sure you remember the first time you rode a bike. Mine was a day in 1977, when my dad ran beside me on the way down our driveway. It was about 100 yards long, and he held the bar off the back of the banana seat. About half way through, he let go and I was free. FREE! I couldn’t believe I was doing it. I kept right on doing it right until I crashed into the back of my mom’s car. That’s when I learned my first big lesson in cycling – you need to use the brakes. Then I learned my second, if you fall, stand up, clean off, and start over; obviously a metaphor that reaches way beyond cycling. Everyone who has ridden a bike has a similar memory. We hang on to these recollections because riding a bike is one of the most important things we ever learn. It gives us our first feeling of independence. Cycling to get around can be as fun (and meaningful) as it was when you were seven. There are definitely different logistics we have to deal with as adults, but the riding aspect is still fun and liberating. Try it, and you will likely agree. If not the first time, then likely by the fifth. If you are at all like me, it will carry over into many parts of yours life. My wife and I agree that our date nights are much more fun, and romantic when we ride there.
If you are planning to set out on your first bike commute, there are some things you should know. First, ask an experienced rider to teach you how fix a flat and lock your bike. You could also learn these things by taking a beginners workshop at your favorite bike shop. Secondly, find the safest route to work. This will assure you can get there quickly and safely, by concentrating on the right stuff. There are endless resources on safe routes and safety tips. A great place to start would be the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia website at www.bicyclecoalition.org. Finally, you will need some things for safe travel such as blinky lights and gear for lugging your work stuff.
The more I pay attention, the more impressed I get. The streets of Philadelphia have never been so filled with bike commuters. Intersections are often jammed, sometimes you have to wait your turn in a line of six or seven cyclists. What a beautiful problem to have. I’m happy to be spinning around this great city as it makes huge strides in the name of cycling.
Laurence Kelly has over 15 years of experience in photojournalism, video, and design. Seven of those years were spent as a staff photographer for The Intelligencer in Doylestown, PA. He was also Senior Editor and Photo Editor for Liberty Sports Magazine, and has held many clients in his freelance career, including Harvard School of Design, Tufts University, The Boston Globe, and Brown University.