12 Weeks Of Cycling In A City Made For Cars

All was quiet, save the echo of ice scrapers on frozen windshields from the nearby parking lot.  A woman walked by, bundled to the hilt, breath like white smoke as she headed for her white-capped SUV.  I gave one last tug on my thermal hat, kicked my right leg over my seat and began to pedal through the new fallen snow.  It was March 14th  after a typical late winter snow storm in Upstate New York. I climbed on my bike and headed for my 4.5 mile commute to work.

Me after riding in a nasty snow storm
Flash forward to early May and I haven’t driven my car for 3 months.  I have chosen to bicycle through the winter, driving my car only a hundred or so miles since the New Year.  In fact, my car won’t start, not sure what’s wrong with it and frankly, at least for now, I don’t really care.

So, I’ve really done it.  I’ve chosen the lifestyle of the urban cyclist, which is no small feat in my home city of Rochester, which is about as car-dependent as a city can be.  And I couldn’t be happier about it.

Before I go any further, I’d like to lay out a few conveniences I have access to that have allowed me make this choice.

  1. I do own a car.  While I need to get it fixed, I do have the option to drive.  Something to remember as you read through my account of what it’s been like to live car free for over three months is that this is a choice… so many in our communities don’t have the luxury of making a decision about how to get from point A to point B.  We take this for granted CONSTANTLY.
  2. My fiance is very much a fan of driving, and when we travel together, we take her car.  Though there are VERY few (if any) situations where I have NEEDED her to drive me in this span of time, it is another convenience I have access to.
  3. I live close to… well, everything.  I am a 12 minute bike ride to downtown Rochester, a 24 minute bike ride to Henrietta and even a brisk 40 minute ride down the lovely Erie Canal into downtown Pittsford.  My fiance and I enjoy living centrally, where we have convenient access to a majority of Rochester’s resources.
  4. I have 3 bikes for various conditions/situations.  I have a fixed-gear bike built for speed, but my ability to carry even light cargo is very limited.  My two other bikes are better for making large grocery runs… one is a classic-style Linus bike with fenders, the other is a Dahon folding bike, which can fit in a car or even a train for easy transpo.

These conveniences aside, it’s still a mindset.  It’s still a grind some days.  When the temperature was 6 degrees this winter, when it will be 95 this summer, when the sky is throbbing with intense rains… there are so many days when the idea of getting on the bike isn’t as attractive.  When you hear someone say that cycling opens your mind, gives you a sense of freedom and euphoria, they have never ridden through a torrential downpour on the way to work or a formal event.  They have never had a driver pull out in front of you causing you to spill over their hood, or clip you with their mirror only to tell you to “get on the sidewalk.”

Yeah, I’ve been there.  I have the scars to prove it.

Cycling, like a relationship, is a commitment.  The positives of solid exercise, being outdoors, enjoying your city and your commute at the street level must be weighed against those difficult days when you are forced to navigate through the fury of mother nature, or the infuriating carelessness of the American driver.  It is taking the bad with the enormous good, knowing that what you’re doing is for the greater good of your community, your planet, and while it might be hard to see sometimes, yourself.  You know you’re better for doing it, for coupling yourself with the lifestyle, but it doesn’t mean it’s always a blissful experience… some days, it just takes a lot of work.

With all of this considered, here are some things I’ve learned from being car-free for 3 months in a city built almost exclusively for automobile convenience and speed.

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Eventually, It Becomes Habit

After cycling exclusively, I don’t really think about driving anymore.  It’s true, when you do something for long enough, even if it’s often difficult, you just become accustomed to it.

It Forces You To Think With Discipline And Creativity

You have to plan ahead.  When you drive, you can stop at the store for something, or drive miles out of your way to pick up something you forgot to bring to work with you, no sweat.  You can stop and buy $100 of groceries with no worry… after all, you have plenty of room!

I play men’s baseball, and am routinely the only player to show up to practices on bike
My Dahon folding bike isn’t just convenient, it can fit a lot of stuff!
On a bike, cargo space is extremely limited, even if you have saddle bags and baskets like me.  And if you have to “run out and grab something quickly,” it’s gonna take a lot longer than it would if you were to drive.  Basically, you lose a level of “spontaneous convenience,” or the ability to quickly “change gears” during your day.  When you ride your bike, you really have to know where you’re going, how long it’s going to take and where you need to be next, and you need to know this before you even get started.

At first this was difficult, but what I found is it forced me to be disciplined about my activities during a day.  It forces me to be prepared at all times, as I have bags of rain gear, food, even wipes and deodorant for those inevitable “stanky” moments.  It makes you think creatively about how to carry everything you need, or how to do things like strap a suit coat to the back of your bike without it getting wrinkled.

I Ride The Sidewalk More Than I Would Like To Admit

When I first started this adventure, I was determined to be one of those cyclists who traveled exclusively in the road, as that is where all cyclists are legally supposed to be.  After a couple minor accidents and countless near misses from careless drivers in rush-hour traffic, I now pick my spots when riding in the road.  Rochester has an average-sized network of unprotected bike lanes, but many of those are on wide roads where traffic exceeds 45mph, which is not a safe environment for any cyclist.  There are honestly very few places left where I feel comfortable riding in the road.  Any cyclist will tell you, it’s not paint on the road that keeps cyclists safe, it’s safer roads and slower speeds.

So when traveling through Rochester outside of Center City, I often utilize the sidewalk, which is usually pretty empty anyway.  I find that my experience is much more relaxed and enjoyable… I don’t get as hot, and I don’t feel like I have to bike as fast.  I can take my time, knowing there is plenty of space between me and the fast-moving cars.

I’m Tired More Often

I’m 36, and I can say with all certainty I don’t have anywhere near the energy I used to.  I also know that since I began biking to work and anywhere I need to go, I need more sleep.  I go to bed earlier, I take more naps, and in general, while I don’t ever feel sore from biking, I am always a bit more fatigued.  Cycling, especially in challenging conditions, does force you to be a little more efficient with your energy!

I Truly Believe Our Dependence On Cars Is Ridiculous And Laughable

The route to and from my work is predominantly 45mph, 4 lane roads.  To see it all unfold, like an aggressive, awkward and often dangerous dance from just outside the automotive battleground is a truly interesting perspective.  You can feel the tension as cars accelerate quickly, cut people off, try to sneak through the oncoming traffic while making a left turn and speed up to beat that red light.  I can sense the tension, the mass of 2000-3000 pound vehicles that make up between 25-30 percent of the average household income, most carrying one person, as they battle for position in a never ending melee of speed, fumes and impatience.

Think I’m being dramatic?  Sit outside a busy 4 lane highway sometime.  You can actually feel your blood pressure rise as the deafening road noise and the endless desire for people to get to where they are going 30 seconds earlier overtakes all reason.

People try to tell me “but I love to drive,” and maybe they do, but I guarantee you, if you said this on my commute, you’d be kidding yourself.  The fact is, I leave a few minutes earlier, and make my 5 mile commute in a slower, lighter, more sustainable way.  My bike and I make up about 200 pounds and take up an extremely small space, while the average SUV weighs over 2,500 pounds and the average sedan takes up 106 square feet of road.  My commute saves money by having nearly zero impact on America’s aging automobile infrastructure and is 100% energy independent… my only fuel is the good food our dedicated farmers produce!

More than anything, it is astounding to talk to Rochesterians who can’t imagine any other way to move people around the city.  The notion that anyone would “make the choice” to use a form of transit other than the car is beyond these folks.

Of course, the trick here is that for so many, not driving is far from a choice.

For me it is, and it’s a choice I’ve made gladly because I truly feel I am doing my part to help the sustainability of my community.  That being said, the people that question why I do what I do, or why anyone would think of creating a Rochester that might be less car dependent with a healthy array of good transit options, are simply a product of decades of investment in a “driven” America… one that we are quickly realizing is completely unsustainable.  Our Federal Budget to repair aging transit infrastructure is about half of what it needs to be for the next 20 years to bring our roads up to code.  This is an investment that this country simply cannot afford.

I See More Of My City

Something you often hear from advocates of a less car-dependent lifestyle is that getting out of your automobile and taking to the streets on bike and on foot gives you the opportunity to know your city better.

They’re right.  Trying to understanding the intricacies of a living, breathing city as you navigate its streets by car is like experiencing an area by plane as you fly over it.

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The only way to get in touch with what’s really going on in your urban center is to get out of your vehicle and connect with it on a more intimate level.  This might sound like some sort of weird urban Zen, but it could not be more practical and understandable. The absolute best way to start or strengthen a relationship with an area is to remove the boundaries between us and inject yourself into the environment at the street level.
When I ride, I see, feel and hear my city for what it really is. I see the good things happening, and I know where we need to work to improve. I feel the heartbeat of it all and it empowers how I purposefully move through my surroundings.

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Parking Is Never An Issue

Urbanists like myself always roll the eyes when the subject of parking arises.  I despise the notion that one might ignore the wonders of downtown because they simply couldn’t find a place to park their vehicle.  There’s always a spot… you just might have to, God forbid, park a little further away and walk.

Biking into the city is simply the best way to circumvent this issue. I ride into downtown and park my bike anywhere that’s convenient. It alleviates that struggle to find a space, and can save a few bucks as well!

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Dahon folding bike parked out front of Ocean Blue Restaurant in Utica, NY

Wanna Drink? No Problem.

I like to head out with friends on a weekend evening, and when I do, I always travel by bike. If I have too much to drink, I have no problems with leaving my bike locked to a rack and coming back for it the next day.  Often, we feel we can’t leave our car behind for fear it will be towed, ticketed or broken into when we make the positive decision not to drive home after a night of drinking.  But leaving a bike behind is far less of a worry.

In Conclusion

I’m not going to tell anyone to adopt a car free lifestyle.  I’m not gonna say we should all do away with cars and ride bikes and buses and trains everywhere.  What I will promise you is every time I choose riding over driving, I feel a little better about how I interact with my city.  I also see and understand how driving rules our lives and dictates everything about how we live.  This might sound extreme, but it’s true.

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I’m not a “tree hugger,” a snowflake, a hippie or any one of those ridiculous stereotypes.  I do, however, believe we have to find a better balance with regard to how we move about, especially in our cities.  Not driving for the last several months hasn’t been easy, but it has shown me that it can be done.  When it is, it’s fulfilling at a deeper level, a feeling of intense commitment to what is right and what is good for my community and beyond.  We can make it about time, effort and weather but when we get down to it, nothing is more practical than making better choices about how we travel, whether it be down the street or across town.  Try it… even if it’s just occasionally at first.  Take your bike to pick up a few groceries, or when you only need to travel a mile to meet you friends for dinner.  You might be surprised how you feel, and better yet, you might find yourself doing it more and more.

Cycle safe, have fun, and I’ll see you out there!

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