And why you should, too.
Do you remember that feeling from childhood? A cool breeze through your hair. Sunshine bouncing off your back. The soft familiar hum of rubber on the road below. Cruising under the power you created! An unbridled joy, forging bravely into the unknown. For a moment, the rest of the world melts away.
Unfortunately, many of us lose this feeling as we get older and we make life more complicated. What happened?
Riding a bicycle generates one of the purest forms of freedom humans can experience in this world. Forget batteries, hydrogen, or petrochemicals. We’re talking you-power!
Bikes can take us to new places, physically, mentally, and spiritually. Transcending the monotony of our everyday lives, time in the saddle offers a rare opportunity to slow down and see the world with a fresh perspective.
Had we invented the bicycle before the American Revolution, I imagine you’d find a full bicycle rack outside of Independence Hall. Relying on 100% American-made energy to propel ourselves across town, riding a bike provides one of the best opportunities to practice patriotism.
Where bicycles abound, there’s less need to import expensive, dirty oil from across the globe. Imagine the global implications if Middle Eastern oil market stabilization no longer took geopolitical center stage. Perhaps we could funnel some of the funds we no longer need for wars as a tax write-off, encouraging Americans to buy more bikes!
But in America, we don’t only have a bicycle ownership problem. We have an infrastructure problem.
Cruisin’ on a Sunday Afternoon
Urban and suburban design is a huge factor for Americans choosing the driver’s seat over a bike seat. Many feel the roads in our communities are unsafe for cyclists. And they’re not wrong. Strong corporate interests have ensured we built our cities to prioritize cars.
For example, in the 1930s GM envisioned futuristic cities incorporating vast concrete mega-highways. These works of modern engineering transported hundreds of thousands of people huge distances right through our city centers. Sound familiar? Starting in the 1950s, that vision eventually became a reality across the US.
American’s fear of cycling is rooted in poorly designed and inadequate pedestrian corridors. We find few places and spaces where non-automobile occupants can feel safe. Statistics support this fear.
While deaths among cyclists under the age of twenty have declined 90 percent since 1975, deaths among bicyclists 20 and older have tripled as of 2019. While children experience fewer injuries, we’re harming more adults on bikes than ever. Until that’s reversed the US has a long way to go before the average commuter feels comfortable trading the steering wheel for a handlebar.
When we design our communities with a sole preference for the automobile, everyone loses. Our physical and mental health suffers, and so does our wallet.
Last month, I was filling up my family’s 3,000 lb dinosaur-fueled human transport machine (also called a sedan), when a man pulled up to the other side of the pump. He dismounted from his ginormous spaceship transport (SUV) to reach for the pump and muttered to me, “Looks like Shell’s having a record year…”
As he began fueling, he continued. “$4 a gallon is ridiculous!” I responded with a shallow laugh and shot a smile, acknowledging his remark. But inside, I was screaming!
I wasn’t upset with him. I felt enraged by the reminder of how stupid I looked. Handing over my hard-earned money to an oil conglomerate so I can move my sorry butt around town. Unless I’m on a road trip or finished hauling furniture across town, I’m a sucker every time I fill-up the tank. That’s like storming inside a burglar’s home pleading, “Alright, time for you to take my money! Wallet’s in the back right pocket. Here I’ll get it for you.”
None of us are at our best selves when pumping gas. The pump ritual we all know is one of the most un-American activities we can undertake.
Any negative emotions directed towards the man at the pump were unfair. He was a friendly guy making small talk. I felt the way I did because I knew the truth – he caught me being a big sucker!
Automobiles are one of the most incredible human inventions ever devised. Achieving and maintaining a prolonged speed of 60 miles per hour in mere seconds; a thought unimaginable by 90+% of humans who have ever lived! Automobiles are nothing short of a gift from the gods. But our meek dependence on this convenient technology in everyday life is single-handedly destroying our cities, health, and the planet.
According to a 2014 AAA study, the average American now drives 29.2 miles per day. That’s an average of 46 minutes in a car. Every. Day. Most of us acknowledge this fact with a nonplussed nod. Please take a step back and consider the ramifications.
But what if I mentioned I bike five miles to work each day? You can almost hear the brain of an average American adult stall. “What?! That’s crazy!” I often hear. Is it though?
Wait a minute, I thought this was America? The home of innovators. Leaders of the free world. The brave! What happened?
What’s so brave about driving a two-ton dinosaur-fueled assemblage of metal and rubber one mile down the road to buy a $4 cup of coffee. The grocery store, or a restaurant, or movie theater, or the beach, or park?
Most Americans see more sense in driving a $65,000 F-150 to the store over a $250 bicycle. Is this normal?
Most of us fail to consider the infrastructure and societal costs of our auto-addictions. We’re paying for way more than gas. Exploration, mining, refining, pavement, street signage, gas stations, and hefty government investment are all prerequisites for the privilege of the gas pedal. Driving is expensive for cities as well as automobile owners.
This Is A Stick-Up!
Car ownership is mind-numbingly expensive. Next to owning a house, purchasing and maintaining an automobile is most of our largest annual expenses. Americans racked up over $1.3 trillion in auto loan debt in 2019, an average of $19k per loan.
According to AAA, Americans pay $9,122 on average each year to own and operate a single car. That’s nearly $7k for a small sedan or over $10k for a pick-up truck. Every. Year.
Dear America, aren’t we better than this?
Compared to the exorbitant cost of owning and operating a vehicle, riding a bicycle is close to free.
For example, in 2014, I purchased a bicycle for $1,100. The price tag included all accessories, including a nifty Topeak pannier bag to haul groceries, library books, beach towels, etc.
I ride about 5,000 miles each year. Commuting, running errands, joyriding around my local boardwalk, or heading to the gym. All with the same piece of people-powered equipment! Of course, bicycles need maintenance to replace tires, brake cables, and worn chains. Bicycle maintenance sets me back about $200 per year (including labor from the local bike shop).
Without accounting for the time value of money, my normalized cost of cycling came out to $0.20/mile over the first year. After 5 years, my levelized cost of cycling dropped to $0.06/mile. During that time, I estimate I’ve propelled myself about 30,000 miles. That’s an annualized cost of ownership of $350 per year.
In this case, riding a bicycle is 26 times less expensive than driving an automobile on a dollar-per-mile basis. And that doesn’t account for all the benefits I discussed earlier. Improved health, outdoor time, time to myself, the thrill of riding, mental health, avoiding traffic, and badassity. The list goes on and on.
Make America Bike Again
I posit we Americans can do better. Looking to lose a few pounds? Ride a bike! Tired of forking over your hard-earned money to big oil? Ride a bike! Sick of sitting in traffic? Ride a bike! Need some fresh air? Go for a hike. (Gotcha!)
Start small. Select your bike for short trips around the neighborhood. Save your fancy car for those herculean trips across town or road trips. The more you ride your bike, the fancier your car feels when you drive it.
And if riding a bike isn’t possible due to safety concerns, then work towards creating that reality. Tell your elected officials you want bicycle-friendly infrastructure in your community.
Cycling can improve our health, strengthen our community, and save us from a soul-destroying dependency on fossil fuels. Achieving Nirvana isn’t easy, but buzzing our bodies across town under our power can get us pretty close. If you don’t believe me, take a close look a the next two-wheeled tot you see rolling down the street. That joy could be yours.