The travails of a novice bike commuter
“Alright, wish me luck,” I said to my coworkers. “If you don’t hear from me tonight, send out a search party.”
It was my first day biking to and from work in downtown Seattle, and I was dreading the 15 uphill blocks home. And for good reason, it turned out. Just six blocks from the office, I took a right turn and, BAM! I rode straight into the path of an oncoming bus.
Don’t worry, I didn’t get flattened. The adrenaline and I were off that bike and up on the sidewalk so fast nobody even saw me. At least, that’s what I tell myself. It was my first (but not last) epic mistake as a novice bike commuter trying to navigate the streets of a city I had only lived in for two months: I had turned the wrong way down a one-way street.
Bikes have been a part of my life since I was 3 years old (yeah, I rocked a bike trailer), but riding in the city scared the shit out of me. I’d moved to Seattle from the small town of Goshen, Ind., and was convinced there was no way I could brave this biking culture. There streets were spinning with hipsters whizzing down some of the steepest roads I’d ever seen and Hardcore Bike Men with gear worth more than my entire wardrobe.
Oh, right, and then there was the traffic — including armadas of massive double-long buses that require like six lanes to make a turn. I was convinced I’d be pummeled if I biked anywhere near them.
It wasn’t until a friend took me for a spin on his tandem that I was reminded how I love riding a bike. I decided I had to do it. It would be scary, but I had to make friends with city biking.
First, my bike-savvy friend helped me acquire an affordable vintage road bike off Craigslist. I got a U-lock and a bike light, and hung a biking map of Seattle in my living room. I spent a week or so carefully watching morning commuters’ routes — how they handled intersections and when they used hand signals. I found the bike storage room at work and I tweeted about my new bike map. The only thing left was to actually get on my bike and ride it to work.
Oh Dear God.
That first ride to the office turned out to be glorious — the rush of wind in my face was refreshing, cars stayed in their lanes and behaved themselves, and no Hardcore Bike Men made fun of my retro 5th-grade-style helmet. Then there was the ride home, and you know how that went.
Since my Close Encounter of the Blue Bird Kind, however, I’ve learned how to cycle the streets more confidently. I now bike to work two to three times a week, and cycle around my neighborhood to run errands or visit friends. My current goal is to bike 25 miles along a local bike trail to visit the Red Hook Brewery.
Along the way, I’ve gleaned a few tips, so here’s some humble advice for you would-be bikers out there who’d rather skip the “almost-biking-into-a-bus” part.
Watch experienced bikers and don’t be embarrassed to imitate them. Watching a guy I call Blue Helmet Dude, a fellow bike commuter I see most mornings if I leave my house on time, I learned to use hand signals and check behind me before changing lanes.
Following a woman one morning, I took note of her cute dress and leggings, which helped me feel better about my lack of actual bike clothes. She also coasted through a four-way stop after scanning for oncoming cars and pedestrians — kind of a varsity move, called an “Idaho-stop,” that is actually illegal in my state, but even Randy Cohen, The Ethicist, thinks it’s OK.
Don’t be scared of asking questions or making mistakes. The first time I tried to load my bike onto the rack on the front of a bus, the driver had to actually get out of the bus and come help me. (Hey, it’s more complicated than it looks!) He seemed amused though, and I realized I was kind of proud to be forging ahead through new territory.
In order to get more people on bikes, I think we have to be kind to ourselves. My progress has been gradual, over the course of an entire year. Do a little prep work beforehand, but there will always be unforeseen challenges or surprises when you actually start riding. Don’t be afraid to give yourself a little grace.
Remember, bike commuting doesn’t have to be a binding contract. Ride as often as you want. On sunny days I’ll often walk to work to soak up some extra sunlight and I still take the bus when it’s pouring. Hardcore Bike Men might scoff at me, and perhaps city biking doesn’t faze you as much as it phased me, but I’ve decided that it’s OK to be a fair-weather cyclist.
Biking to work: simple, right? Sure, but it clearly comes with risks, especially when there are buses lurking around the corner. Be vigilant out there. Obey traffic laws (within the bounds of ethics and reason) and be respectful of others on the road — be it biker, car, bus, or pedestrian. Try it sometime! Remember: If I can do this, you can too.