Sunday, August 24, 2014

Quads of Steel: Biking to Work

Since moving to Turlock, I've noticed a distinct difference in culture compared to what you see on the coast. It's probably always that way. Coasts have traditionally been the first to encounter new products, industries, people, and ideas. It's just surprising what a noticeable difference a 2-hour drive still makes today.

For example, in Monterey, there's no styrofoam or plastic bags (with some exceptions). Here, almost every single restaurant we've tried uses styrofoam for their to-go boxes, and we've had to specify multiple times to cashiers not to use plastic bags (we bring our own bags, but they're trigger-happy).

I was beginning to think that I was going to have to lead a one-woman charge into 21st century environmentalism in this town, but since I've started work, I've found some like-minded folks and feel better. I learned, for example, that the head librarian doesn't own a car and bikes everywhere, and two other faculty members I've met are bike enthusiasts. When I heard all of this, I felt validated because I too wanted to bike to work or at least give it a good try. 

I've biked twice so far (classes started Thursday last week), and I think it's something I can keep up at least until I start losing daylight and warmth in the mornings. However, it hasn't been a totally smooth ride.

First, my biggest concern beforehand was the sweat and bad hair factor. Remember the episode of The Office where Jim rides his bike to work? That was a very real concern for me. I bring a change of shirt, and I get to work at least 25 minutes before I have to see anybody, so I can cool down, catch my breath, and freshen up. People overestimate how much they sweat, how stinky they are, and how much other people notice. A few feet of distance usually makes a little body odor go unnoticed, but I really haven't felt gross or unclean. My hair gets a little disheveled from the helmet, but I'm not the first faculty member to be slightly disheveled; at least I have a good reason for it. 

My bigger concern has turned out to be my route. Here's a Google map of the area I'm traveling in with the bike routes highlighted in green (the solid lines are dedicated bike lanes and the dotted green lines are "recommended" roads for cyclists even if they don't have lanes).

There's a lot of green here, which looks promising, but let's look a little closer:

In trying to figure out a safe, smooth, and efficient ride for myself, I've had to get creative. Would I rather travel on a low-traffic but bumpy road with no bike lane or a smoother, wide road that takes me out of my way? Should I risk riding on a high-traffic main street with a gap in the bike lane or snake my way through residential streets with lots of turns, traffic lights, and four-way stops? I'm going to try a new route next time, one that includes fewer turns than my residential route but busier streets with fragmented bike lanes. 

The easier answer? Drive.

Of course I'm choosing to ride my bike. It's not a necessity. But having my car just sit in a parking lot all day isn't a good exercise in utility. If I drive it to work, my husband goes without a car for the day. If he drops me off and picks me up, then it ends up being more driving, and it's less convenient for both of us.

If I choose to bike, it gives us more freedom. There are very real inconveniences and safety concerns, but the tradeoff for my creative planning is that I never have to worry about parking, I don't feel like I need additional exercise for the day, I arrive feeling energized, I get fresh air, and I have some me time while riding.* 

We've been talking about getting a second car so that we both can come and go, but obviously buying, insuring, and maintaining two vehicles is a big expense. Even if we can afford it, there's a freedom in saying no to that and a unity in discussing our schedules and options. By refusing to believe that every person who can drive needs to drive, I'm exercising a powerful component to living my life on my terms. That's freedom.

All right, so cycling to work is pretty great. But here's a little secret: I don't actually enjoy riding my bike very much. I'm not a very competent cyclist, and bike riding makes me nervous. If given the choice, I'd rather walk. But my commute is a little far to walk considering how early my classes start. I say this because I want others to know that it's normal to be scared, especially if you're riding with traffic and relying on humans to not run you over or abruptly open their car door while parked on the street. 

In the end, though, I do it despite my fear because it's something I believe in. If I want to see more solid green lines on that Google map, I have to use the lanes that are there. I have to support other cyclists and future cyclists. I have to be a good role model to my students and not only tell them to push past their own boundaries but also show them what that looks like. I have to not only dream of a greener community but also participate in making that happen. It's not a one-woman charge, but one woman can certainly do her part. 

*The Energy Project has researched the effects of having a transitional activity after work. For example, someone coming home from a stressful day of work benefits from a walk around the neighborhood before jumping into family duties at home. I find that transitions are good before work as well, and having a walking or biking commute helps me transition between work and personal life.