I was in the San Francisco Bay area last week for work. The first
day, I had to commute from Oakland to Mountain View by car. The
approximately 45-mile trip took me almost two hours: two hours of stop-and-go traffic and frustration, with only the radio for company.
That afternoon, after work, I drove to Palo Alto and rented a bicycle.
In the remaining hour of daylight I went for a joyride in the
foothills. The dry earthy smell of the chaparral gave way to the
fragrance of eucalyptus and redwoods as I climbed in the woods above
the Portola Valley. On my way home, speeding down Sand Hill Road in
near-darkness, I looked up to see the moon shimmering above the dark
bulk of the hills behind me. I felt very alive.
The next day I decided to leave the rental car parked until my return
trip to the airport. The commute to my morning meeting was only 14
miles round-trip, and I wouldn't have to worry about rush hour
traffic. I got on the road just as the sun was rising, a bright red
ball veiled by the morning haze. I reached the client's offices with
time to spare, energetic and in a good mood. My average speed had
been only a little lower than on the previous morning's car commute.
This little story explains, as concisely as anything else, why I am
"car-free." Bicycles are practical and efficient, they are fun to
ride, and they make me happy.
CAR-FREE? AND WHY?
But really, what does it mean to be car-free? In my case, neither my
wife nor I have a car. We use bicycles to commute to work, buy
groceries, go to the theater, and so on. I have an 8-foot bicycle
trailer to handle large grocery store runs or oversize loads, such as
furniture. But we're not completely car-free. Both of us have
driver's licenses, and occasionally (a few times per year) we rent a
car to go somewhere for the weekend. I also typically rent a car at
my destination when I fly for business. It might be fairer to say
that we are "car-minimal" rather than completely car-free.
I grew up riding a bicycle, so it was the natural (and inexpensive)
transportation choice when I went to college in the Boston area. Over
the years, I have come to appreciate other advantages of bicycles as a
means of transport. Time and again, my bicycle has proved to be the
fastest means of transport for distances under 5 miles in the city.
It is faster than a car, faster than the subway (when you factor in
the time to get to the station and wait for a train), and faster even
than Boston's famously reckless cabbies.
Bicycles have negligible environmental impact. They don't increase
our dependence on questionable foreign regimes. They ease traffic
congestion, and contribute to making the city a more pleasant place to
live. Whereas cars foster expressways, suburban malls, and giant
parking facilities, bicycles encourage a higher-density and more
vibrant urban environment. When you ride a bike, you can stop to take
a look at a shop window or talk to a friend going the other way; no
such luck if you're barreling past the mall on the freeway.
Cycling every day allows me to eat almost anything I want and to stay
fit without ever going to the gym. I don't need to sit in traffic for
30 minutes to go work out at the gym for an hour. Instead, I simply
use my bicycle for transport, completing my errands more quickly and
getting a workout to boot.
Bicycles are also attractively simple. They are one of the few
devices left in my life that I understand completely and can fix
myself. Try saying that about a cell phone or a car.
But, above all, I use a bike every day for the same reason that I did
when I was five: because it's fun and exhilarating. Cycling clears my
head and relaxes me after a day at work. Where a bad car commute puts
me in a foul mood for much of the day, a good ride makes me smile even
days later. Sand Hill Road last week, downhill at 40 miles an hour in
the dark with the moon overhead, I felt that I was flying very fast,
very close to the ground. The bicycle almost disappeared in the rush
of air, speed and freedom. Maybe that's how swallows feel when
they swoop close to the ground in their big graceful arcs.
Of course, not every day is a joyride in the moonlight, especially in
Boston. You might get driving rain in November and deep snow in
December. But while some commutes can be unpleasant, most are not.
The harsh winter climate is just another cycling challenge, not much
different from a steep climb or a long ride. Improving my snow-riding
technique or my clothing strategies becomes part of the game, and
simply increases my appreciation for the beauty and flexibility of the
bicycle. And as an added bonus, I never have to dig my car out of the
snow. The neighbors are jealous.
HOW TO START
There are situations in which cycling is not a practical choice. It
probably won't work in very remote or sparsely populated areas, and it
may be a bad choice for someone with certain kinds of health problems.
That said, though, I am convinced that cycling for transportation,
even only occasionally, can improve most people's lives.
The key thing to realize is that the changes can be incremental, and
that using a bicycle is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Every time
you replace a car trip with a bicycle trip, you get good exercise,
decrease your environmental impact, and have an opportunity to see
your neighborhood from a different, more intimate perspective.
The hardest part, I think, is just deciding to try. Once you make
that decision, everything else is a simple matter of logistics.
- Do you live too far to commute to work by bike every day? Start out
by cycling just one or two days a week.
- Is work just too far away? Drive part of the way and cycle part of
the way: in dense urban areas, this may well decrease your overall
- Do you need formal clothes at work? Transport them to work (maybe
by car) once a week, and change at work on the other days.
- Do you need your car at work? Drive to work, then ride your bike
home and back to work the next day.
- Unconvinced by the commuting options? Use a bicycle for your
neighborhood errands. Ride to the grocery store, to the video
store, to the gym. (Eventually, you won't need to spend much time
in the gym.)
- Can't handle all those groceries on your bike? There are many
options to make a bicycle cargo-worthy: racks, panniers, trailers,
and more. Not ready for all that gear? Start out by limiting the
bicycle to those trips where you won't need to carry much.
- Afraid of rain or cold winter weather? Google "winter cycling" or
"winter riding tips" provides a wealth of useful information. If
you don't feel quite up to it, start by riding only when the
- Worried that it will cost a lot? You don't need (or want) Lance's
latest Tour de France rig to commute to work. All you need is a
bicycle that fits you comfortably and has lights (for when it's
dark) and fenders (for when it rains). You can buy a perfect
bicycle for this purpose for $400, or find something workable for as
little as $100. (Under $100 is difficult, because lights are
important, fairly expensive, and hard to find used.) If you think
$100 is too much, you probably don't own a car.
If you give yourself the chance to try, you might just find yourself
becoming addicted. One of my co-workers started cycling to work as an
"experiment" in the summer of 2003. He fell in love with the
simplicity of the bicycle, the freedom from rush hour traffic, and the
head-clearing effect of exercise before and after work. He began
commuting five days a week, 8 miles each way, for a total of 80 miles
a week. He rode daily through the Boston winter, and continues to do
so today. Sometimes he takes his daughter to childcare on his bike.
Occasionally he mumbles something about maybe
selling his car.