This month the annual Commuter Challenge asks those who work in downtown Ann Arbor to find some way into work that doesn’t involve driving by oneself in a car. For me the month is a communal affirmation of what I already try to do as much as possible, bike to work.
I’ve been a bike commuter since I was in college at the University of Illinois. I couldn’t afford a car back then, so for $20 I got a sweet, brown, Sears 3-speed with a basket on the front that got me to and from class and out to Country Market to pick up groceries on the weekend. After graduation, I was finally able to buy a car, but even so when I moved to Ann Arbor for graduate school, one of the first things I did was round up a new 3-speed (the Illinois bike didn’t fit in my Toyota Tercel, so it was sold to another undergraduate in need of a ride). My Ann Arbor bike was a blue Rollfast, a real classic. I even rebuilt the Sturmy Archer 3-speed internal hub in the kitchen of an old house on Thayer St. (the floor was uneven so I was forever chasing down bearing balls under the refrigerator). Sadly, when I temporarily moved to South Bend, IN, the bike was stolen out of my garage there, a pain that I still feel to this day. I had an emotional attachment to that hub. I cheer just a little bit harder for Michigan now when they play Notre Dame.
But by that time I was primarily commuting on a Schwinn mountain bike that was better able to cope with the dips and rises of the winter-ravaged Washtenaw County roads. Just last year, at long last I was able to upgrade to a smart new urban-commuter bike with disk brakes that should allow me to stop with a little more confidence on wet roads.
Despite my devotion to bike commuting, I’m be no means an uber-cyclist. I’m slow and cranky and all to happy to stop at red lights so I can catch my breath. A lot of days I grumble about having to expend physical effort to get to work. But then I remember that if I drive I have to deal with parking, and biking seems like the easier choice. There’s a rack right outside my work door that’s usually available. And the ride to work is mostly downhill.
I’m also motivated by the logistical challenge of it. In our car-based society, I feel a gleam of conspiratorial delight at getting around the system, of proving to Michiganders, or Americans, that if you just try a little, put some effort into it, you can get to work in what seems to be generally considered a kids’ mode of transportation. (Along those lines, I’ve considered scooting in to work on my son’s Razor scooter, but he won’t let me borrow it.) When my kids were tiny, it was particularly challenging to figure out a schedule and route that would allow me to continue biking to work. I got a two-child Chariot trailer and would huff and puff over to the daycare with them before heading to the office. When we climbed up the hills in our neighborhood I’d call back to them to push, and they’d clench their teeth and really believe they were helping out with the effort. They’re big enough now to ride their own bikes, so we all bike to school together, and then I go on into the office, and reverse the route when school lets out. Sometimes they complain about not getting a ride to school in the car like so many of their friends. I smile and nod and then ignore them. One day I hope they’ll appreciate my efforts.
I hope I’m still biking to work when I retire. Maybe then, when I have more time on my hands, I can bike around the country and visit my grandkids.
P.S. I actually love my car, and I like driving. But it’s for the highway, not city streets.