I pass by my bicycle every day, but this is the first time I’ve stopped to touch it in months — maybe even a year. Muted grey with multiple gears, it stands off to the side in my garage. This bike has seen open roads and afternoon adventures. Now it collects dust and sinks towards the ground as air seeps from the tires. My musician husband recently moved some equipment into the garage. Now a keyboard stand rests against my bike and an amp has been wedged next to the rear tire. My bicycle is a sad bicycle.
I had such high aspirations. I wanted to be like the bicyclists who ride around the city – darting through traffic, coasting down hills, cutting across designated pathways. I too wanted that mélange of childhood discovery with metropolitan know-how. I wanted to be a city rider, just like my friend, fellow writer Matt Terrell, who bikes to and from work every day.
But then I tried it.
Ah. That’s what happened.
I thought I was in shape. I thought I knew Atlanta streets. But I would show up to destinations dripping in sweat, physically and mentally exhausted from calculating car proximity and pedaling uphill. Just about everyone I know likes the idea of bicycle commuting. But I know almost no one who has flipped the switch. I wondered how one moved decisively from one group to the other.
Matt made a definitive shift into the biking world. He was once a person who never considered the activity, and now, weather-permitting, he racks up about five hours each week traveling between home near Little Five Points, and graduate school and work at the SCAD Atlanta. He averages about 15-20 miles each day. But his change of heart wasn’t born out of a need to save the world. It was just the logical thing to do.
“I’m not some hippy-dippy person picking up trash on the side of the highway or protesting with Greenpeace,” he says. “There are all sorts of little things a person can do to help the environment that just take a little more effort.”
He references shutting the water off while brushing your teeth, recycling paper and plastic, and even using cloth napkins instead of paper towels. “That’s the way I view bicycle commuting,” he goes on. “It’s just not incredibly inconvenient.”
I was surprised by his casual point of view. Was this not sustainability sacrilege? How could a person who has seemingly made all kinds of sacrifices to maintain a cycling lifestyle not be a die-hard Protector of Mother Earth? Maybe that was why I couldn’t make bicycling a consistent part of my life. I kept waiting for The Cause to swoop me up, defying the comforts of reclined seating and power windows. Maybe The Cause never comes for some people. Maybe I’ve been using the environmental approach as an excuse just because we’re not gung-ho. I mean, isn’t it enough that I use reusable shoppers? Drive a Honda? The way Matt sees it, apparently not. On the list of Earth-friendly actions to take, bike-riding is right up there on the simplicity scale. This has nothing to do with beliefs or politics. It’s basic circumstance.
Matt started using a bicycle as his main transportation when he lived in Savannah, Georgia. An undergraduate at the main campus of the Savannah College of Art and Design, he found that biking was just an easier way to get around.
“Everybody was doing it. I biked to work, to school – everywhere I went.” He experienced some cosmetic shifts, too. “Oh, I was much, much fatter before. I lost 25 pounds really quickly. Then I started to see there might be something to this.”
Bike riding is fine and dandy in historic Savannah, a busy but small part of town. Compared to Metro Atlanta, biking is a whole new beast. After Matt moved here, his interest in biking shrank under the looming pace and sprawl of this urban city. Several years in, he laughs off his early reluctance to ride.
“I lived here for almost a year before realizing I could totally bike here. So I started doing small rides here and there. Granted I do live in a live/work/play area that’s easy to bike around.”
And perhaps this is where most people get to play the opt-out card. Biking becomes a lot more accessible if your destinations are relatively close together. For many Atlantans that kind of lifestyle is not a reality. Metro Atlanta drivers are known throughout the nation as having some of the nation’s worst traffic. But still. That does not account for people who – like me – live in neighborhoods similar to Matt’s and prefer to get behind the wheel instead of on top of one. What gives?
It might not be the people. Maybe we should blame the government.
Well, some kind citizens sure are trying. Atlanta’s small improvements aren’t always a result of government officials making strides to develop their own doggone city. It’s because citizens launched organizations like the PATH Foundation, which prides itself on building off-road trails in and around the city. There’s also the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, whose mission includes advocating that transportation revenue be partly used for bicycle projects. The Coalition is a strong supporter of the Complete Streets initiative, too, a national program focused on making all streets accessible to everyone: cars, bicyclists, and pedestrians alike, with attention paid to those who use walkers or wheelchairs.
In a report that the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy completed for the Feds, they found that 25 percent of all trips people take in the U.S. are within one mile (that’s a 20-minute walk). Fifty percent of all trips taken are within three miles, or a 20-minute bike ride. And Bob’s your uncle, right? Well, the RTC report goes on to say that 78 percent of these incredibly short trips involve people using their cars. Clearly, I’m in good company. Statistically speaking, so are you.
I’m incredibly impressed with Matt even if he’s not with himself. He saves hundreds of dollars each month by riding his bike, overcome Atlanta traffic, sketchy weather, roads that don’t always welcome bicyclists and a pervasive cultural stubbornness. Still, there is one obstacle Matt hasn’t quite found his way around — the Atlanta Police Department. In a city where legally, bikes are considered moving vehicles just like cars, bicyclists are held to similar rules. This, in spite of the fact that most city roads sport no bike lanes, nor signs reminding drivers to remain aware of their two-wheeled peers. The other night, Matt received two citations from an officer in Inman Park, blue lights flashing and all. His errors: failure to stop at a stop sign and cycling at night without a bike light. (Matt says his light was stolen). Total damages: $350. So much for that cost saving.
I don’t know. The reports all say biking is better for the environment, better for personal health. I totally agree. I want to take the plunge. But it’s spring now. Too much pollen and rain to venture out with my helmet.
Maybe this summer. Until then, I pass my bike everyday and make sure it’s clear of clutter. Just in case.
For more information about biking in Atlanta, visit atlantabike.org.