In Travel

Explaining Cycling To Americans

Pittsburgh Cycling Track - JoeBaur

Over years of travel (and well, living), I’ve come to find that Americans in general have a difficult time grasping bikes and bike travel. Why don’t they just drive a car? How did they ride so far? Seriously, why not a car?

As someone who rides regularly for both transportation and fitness, I thought I should attempt explaining cycling to my fellow Americans.

I hadn’t started cycling with any semblance of frequency until a rather late age. I was in my last year of college, working at the Miami University Recreational Center when I discovered the joys of rolling into work on my bike rather than a car.* The bike followed me to Chicago the next couple of years, serving as my primary mode of transport around the Windy City while I was working as an in-home personal trainer. It didn’t even occur to me to drive my car. It would’ve been far too great a hassle, driving me (pun unintended) to new levels of stress all the while not even reaching my destination faster. And this was all before bike lanes were a thing on American city streets. Those of us on two-wheels were left to swerve around parallel parkers, car doors swinging open, and the seemingly ubiquitous driver who prioritizes catching up with that fraction of a second while talking on the phone and sipping a cup of coffee over, y’know, human life.**

Cycling as a mode of transport and fitness has skyrocketed ever since, even in those four short years. Infrastructure demands to keep cyclists safe from inattentive Luddites somehow legally permitted to operate a moving 4,000-pound vehicle have largely failed to keep up with the demand.  This is especially the case in small to midsize cities, Minneapolis being one of the exceptions.

Regardless, there seems to be a lack of general understanding among the American populous with respect to how bikes operate on the most simplistic levels. That is, they cover longer distances in a shorter period of time and are incredibly popular in Europe and throughout parts of Asia. I feel this needs to be noted, because Americans seem to just straight up lose their shit when they hear about a bike ride traversing more than five miles.

“You got here how!? What!? But how will you get home?”

Recently I was in Bismarck, North Dakota where I was able to get out on a 20-minute bike ride. This was a mixture of fitness and touring a new area. It was a beautiful ride that reminded me of cycling the Cleveland Metroparks back home. However, Bismarck is without a doubt car country much like most of the United States. So when some locals found out about my 20-mile ride, I think I shattered their brain cells. When it was jokingly suggested that I ride to the conference I was speaking at 10 miles away and I responded with willingness to do it, their eyes performed a Rodney Dangerfield-esque bulge as if I had just claimed to be the reincarnation of Christ.

This is not at all meant to be an exercise of patting myself on the back nor to mock those inexperienced with cycling. Rather, this is a catch up. Or perhaps even a friendly reminder that cycling 10 miles or even 20 miles is not necessarily impressive. More specifically, cycling nine miles over flat roads for a work commute is not a Herculean task. (Though it is on the longer side of a bike commute.)

I don’t mean to undermine or belittle those who do cycle for their work commute. If you know a thing about me, you know I love being on a bike. Rather, there seems to be a misunderstanding in the States regarding just how far you can comfortably ride a bike for a commute. Google Maps puts the average rider at about 10 miles per hour. If you have clips or are in general improving your health, you’ll likely move faster, not to mention if you’re in a city that has actually invested in infrastructure that allows bikes to keep moving.

Doesn’t that sound like a great way to get to work? You’re energized, your heart is pumping, and you’ve gotten some fresh air. Compare that to being trapped in a machine that mimics the joys of your sedentary office and kills 30,000-plus Americans annually — on a good year. No surprise it’s been proven to be the happiest form of commuting. All the while you’re taking another gas-guzzling vehicle off the road, making it a little easier for pedestrian passersby to breathe.

*I think it’s fairly well understood at this point how much I detest automobiles, so I’ve spent a considerable amount of time editing out the longer rants about the death machines.

**Cyclists still have to do all of that.

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