Wednesday, June 09, 2010

On Biking, Walking and the Sounds of the City

We have now reached the time of the year when commuting to work by bike is a lot more fun. I will take a little bit of warmth and sweat over that brutal winter north wind any day.

On the way home last Thursday I experienced a first since I started riding to work two years ago. I met another bike commuter! I had heard rumors that they exist, but had never actually seen one. I caught up with him and we started to chat. As you can imagine, we instantly had stuff to talk about. It was nice to know there is at least one other person who knows what it’s like. We talked about streets we avoid and times of day, how long we’ve been at it, etc.

I didn’t realize until I rode that familiar mile in the neighborhood with another person just how strangely isolating and lonely commuting can be.

Here’s why:
Riding a bike on this city’s streets requires a certain abandonment of regard for other people. It requires that you ultimately not care about people in cars who have the power to end it all for you in a split second. Not care about people stopped at intersections watching you go by, thinking you’re insane. I have found that consistently riding to work requires that I focus on me: myself and my safety. It requires that I control everything that is within my power to control and at the same time, abandon the rest to God and the good graces of the people with whom I share the road. (But doesn’t EVERYONE do this, even when they get behind the wheel? It’s just a little more critical for me because I don’t have tons of metal to protect me. I am vulnerable.) I would say that 95% of the time people driving in cars are very careful with me, which is actually a much better percentage than I expected when I started out.

Anyway, injecting a fellow traveler into this isolated mindset was refreshing.

I also spend time as a pedestrian on our city streets when going between buildings on our hospital campus a couple times a week and there are times when I really listen to the sounds of our city, the traffic.

I have come to the conclusion that, judging by the mere sounds of drivers, people in cars are angry. They drive their cars like people who are angry would drive their cars.

The thing they seem to hate most is to sit at a dead stop. They can’t get away from traffic lights and stop signs quickly enough. It sounds like they are trying to strangle their car’s engine or beat it into submission. You would think that people had a dying person in the back seat based on how quickly they set out to get to the next traffic light. The engines sound like they could blow at any moment.

I hear these sounds, (sounds I largely miss when I am in my own car and my own air conditioning amidst my own comforting music)- guys driving trucks that sound like school buses and souped-up muscle cars and shiny new status symbols as I’m walking around on lunch breaks, crossing a bridge that goes over a major highway, the constant, ceaseless whooshing sound of all of us going…somewhere…and it brings me a kind of feeling of empty sadness.

Where are we all going in such a hurry? Does modern life have to be this way? Mindlessly going from one place to the next? Always feeling late?

While I love my car and the convenience it provides, I also love the little challenge of life without it during my work week. While a lot of the folks in my office loathe the idea of being “stuck” without a car at work, I have found it to not be much of a sacrifice. Rather than rush home or run errands on my lunch break and rush back, I relax instead. Go over to the kitchen and eat something. Read. Take a nap. Listen to music. I have found that it helps to split my day this way.

Anyway, up with commuting by bike!


At 9:12 PM, Blogger Steven Stark said...

Yeah man! That is so cool.

I rely on my car for work, but in situations where I do not have a car, I actually find it very freeing. Relying on your own physical body for transportation really connect you to your surroundings. And you're right, when you don't have the option to go run that extra errand, then you don't have to worry about it!

At 8:44 AM, Blogger Mike said...

You are absolutely right about being connected to my surroundings. I have discussed being aware and intentional elsewhere on the blog and one big example of this is how, as a bike commuter, I deal with weather.

I was never so aware of what the weather was doing before I rode to work everyday! I find myself studying radar maps now more than ever to figure out if I will be able to ride or not and if so, what to wear.

And when you're driving a car you don't really have to steel yourself for 20mph winds, but on the bike 5 mph can be the difference between an average morning and a horrible morning!:-P Every day brings a slighly different challenge, which I like.
Just like you can't step into the same river twice, you can't ride on the same road to work twice.

And then there are the seasonal changes in the neighborhood--the lonesome, quiet, dark winter nights; people jogging around this time of year, the leaves on the road, the ozone smell right after a rain... It's an amazing life.

I miss all of this and more when I'm driving.

At 10:36 AM, Blogger Cara said...

I love this post. I NEED A BIKE!

At 10:42 AM, Blogger Mike said...

I will keep you in mind whenever I hear about bikes being available.

One thing you could do is get a cheap one at a pawn shop or on craigslist and have Chris Yates make sure it is functioning properly. He loves doing that kind of thing!

At 10:05 PM, Blogger Kelly said...

You HAVE to answer this very personal question!!! Do you take a shower somewhere when you get to work after biking?

At 7:50 AM, Blogger Mike said...

It's not a personal question at all. It's really more a question of practicality and was a big issue I had to resolve before I even tried to get to work by bike the first time.

My building doesn't have any kind of shower facilities. That would be ideal if it did.

Here's what I do:
I ride with a backpack that contains my work clothes and ride to work in something comfortable.

When I get to work I just towl off, apply some deodorant, change clothes and go about my day.

Problem solved!


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