Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Consider the BICYCLE

I took my bicycle to the Post Office today. As I don't commute, my daily outing is usually to the Post Office or store, about a 5-mile round trip. Usually, I go by car. This is, of course, ridiculous.

I live on an island laced with bicycle paths. There really is no reason NOT to go by bicycle, if the weather permits. Unfortunately, in America, bicycles are viewed as children's toys, or worse - adult toys. As a mode of transportation, they are frowned upon.

If you go out to buy a sturdy bicycle as transportation, you will be frustrated. The reasonably priced bicycles at the big box stores are often little more than children's toys - poorly made and built more for styling than for practical daily use.

The "serious" bicycle stores are even worse - encouraging you to spend thousands of dollars on a carbon-fiber nightmare that is more suitable for the Tour de France than for going to the grocery to buy a loaf of bread.

We see these latter bicycles on the island all the time. Folks from neighboring Snooty Island drive their luxury SUVs to our island (a State Park), pull out their $4,000 carbon-fiber bicycles, don their matching jerseys and then pedal around our island in circles to "get their heart rate up". It is merely a more expensive version of the child's toy bicycle, scaled up in size and price for adults. These bicycles are not serious transportation.

In foreign countries where bicycles are used as transportation (Japan or China, for example) you'll notice their bikes are no-nonsense deals. Basic, inexpensive designs, with lots of storage and simple gearing and accessories. Styling (off road or racing) is totally non-existent.

But of course in those countries, you can at least ride to work - it is considered normal. In America, bicyclists are viewed as a nuisance on the road - blocking car traffic - and riding one in many areas is dangerous to your health. I have more than one friend who has been seriously injured in a bicycle/car collision, and by "seriously injured" I mean put in a coma. Others are not so fortunate - they end up dead.

If you live in an area where it is possible to use your bicycle as a real mode of transportation (as opposed to some designer toy) then do so, if you can. If not, think about moving to such an area when the opportunity arises.

Granted, there are places in this country where you should not consider riding a bicycle at all - busy streets and suburban highways are ill-suited to the bicycle (by design). You'll be honked at or worse - run over. If this describes where you live, ask yourself why you chose to live there - and why you choose to stay there. Living in a "community" that requires you to start your car to do ANYTHING is a really bad idea.

I am ashamed to admit that I lived in an area where I could have ridden my bicycle to the store (less than a half mile) or to my office (about 10 miles) on unused streets or on dedicated bicycle paths - but rarely did so. And on the island I live on, where we have bike paths everywhere, I do not do so as much as I should. I need to change this.

Using your bicycle as transportation has a number of advantages:

1. It is a forced exercise program, in that you need not make bicycling a separate part of the day for exercise alone. It is part of the daily commute or shopping experience. Taaking a half hour to drive to a place to bicycle is not only awkward, it is ridiculous.

2. It saves a lot of money. The average cost of running a car, per mile, can run from as little as 50 cents a mile to a dollar. If you are riding 10 miles a day, that's saving you $5 a day - enough to pay for lunch. Over a year, that could be as much as $1500 or more in savings.

3. It saves wear and tear on your car - the fewer miles you put on your car, the fewer repairs you will need, and the longer it will last. It also will enhance the resale value.

4. It is good for your health - my bicycling friends all have bodies of iron. If you bike on a regular basis, you will lose weight, improve your circulation, improve your hearth health, and generally be better off. Better health means fewer health expenses. You save more money here as well.

5. It's fun. Bicycling on an empty road or bike path is enjoyable exercise. You get the wind in your face and experience the real world first-hand. It is like being in a convertible, times 10.

It is hard, in America, to use the bicycle as transportation. Our car-based culture encourages us to drive, even just to cross the road (I kid you not). Breaking the car habit and getting on the bike takes some discipline and planning.

But if you can realistically ride your bike where you live, there is no excuse not to. My goal for 2010 is to increase my biking by at least 50%. I hope to use the bicycle as primary means of transportation at least once a week, if not more.

NOTE: Don't fall in to the all-too-common trap of spending money to save money, here. Many folks will read this and say "Gee, what a good idea. I'll go spend $1000 on a bicycle and save money!" In reality, you can buy a very serviceable bicycle for street use for a couple hundred dollars, tops. There may already be one in your garage. Used bicycles can be a bargain, but shop carefully - many folks are convinced that their 10-year-old clapped-out piece of junk is worth more than a new bike. Craigslist, in particular, seems to be full of such dreamers.