Nov 052011
The "impossible" quantity of groceries I can haul on my bike.

The media jumped all over recent findings about how easily the nation could lose a few pounds, save billions of dollars, live longer, and clean the air, by . . . wait for it . . . riding a bike. NPR, Huffington Post and more all covered this.

Benefits come not just from the light exercise achieved by biking but also from the reduction in air emissions, since your car dirties the air the most in the first few minutes of driving.

The kinds of short urban trips of 2.5 miles or less that they studied include the typical quick run to the grocery store for just a couple of things you forgot on your last trip. These are the very types of trips that a professional engineer pooh-poohed a year or so ago on a National Journal piece about transportation funding for bike and pedestrian infrastructure (which also included the laughably wrong statement that drivers primarily self-fund their infrastructure):

“Commuter bike trips are not realistic for people with kids in day care, who have a 10-15+ minute drive at 40-50 mph average speed, or who have to take things such as a laptop and files to/from work.  Bad weather also prevents commuter bike trips even for the most avid bicyclists.  People also cannot accomplish essential tasks such as grocery shopping via bikes.” — D.J. Hughes, a professional engineer from Delaware

Bad weather “prevents” trips? “. . . not realistic for people . . . who have to take things such as a laptop and files to/from work”? “Cannot accomplish” grocery shopping?

The idea that you can’t carry a laptop and some files in a pannier or messenger bag is so laughable I won’t even bother to address that point. Well, maybe just a little bit: If that were impossible we’d have no business air travel, because how could those poor little professionals haul their laptops and files all the way through the big old airport? That’s more work than letting my bike carry the load, I can tell you for sure.

As for his other barriers, I’m done with those daycare days, thank heavens, and chose a house close to work specifically so I could bike and take transit. (“Location, location, location.”) His distance barrier is pretty subjective–10 minutes at 40 mph is about 6-2/3 miles, which is a lovely ride of about 20-25 minutes without breaking a sweat.

So let’s go grocery shopping, which I particularly like as an example because you can plan your trip for times when traffic is quieter and you don’t have time pressure–a perfect starter trip for trying out bike transportation.

I keep a well-stocked pantry and feed anywhere from 3-5 or more people 7 days a week. We like fresh fruit and veggies, which generally means multiple trips a week.

I live 1.6 miles from Rosauers on 29th Avenue. Much of it is straight uphill so it’s not going to be everyone’s favorite ride. Since Spokane Transit‘s #45 and #46 run up the hill I could choose that option (did you know that we were the first city in Washington to have bike racks on every bus in the transit system?).

But there’s a bike lane on a new road surface for the majority of the ride and that uphill climb turns into a downhill “wheeeeee!” with my Donkey Boxx and pannier full of bananas, English muffins, and milk. Oh, and a Lindt orange/dark chocolate bar…. I earned it with that climb.

Another biking bonus: When you bike, as I’ve pointed out before, there’s no time wasted wondering where you parked the car—it’s always in the rack or hitched to a sign post in front of the building.

Believe me, at Rosauers (which has a bike rack near the front door) or any other grocery store I can be in and out much more quickly than someone who circles the parking lot for 10 minutes trying to find the spot closest to the door to minimize that exhausting walk.

Other easy options: I can stop by the URM Cash and Carry on Hamilton—less than half a mile from the Riverpoint Campus where I work and accessible via the Centennial Trail (some of that infrastructure that could get funding if transportation priorities explicitly included active transportation).

There’s the Main Market CoOp on Main—less than half a mile the other direction from work and with a bike rack out front, an awesome deli for lunch, and the amazing Pain de Levain from Bouzie’s Bakery, to which I am currently addicted.

On Thursdays I can stop at the South Perry Farmers’ Market on my way home; Saturday mornings I can ran down to the Spokane Farmers’ Market, load up, and ride home; and Thursday-Friday-Saturday I can easily hit the Spokane Public Market on my way home.

As a bonus, if you chose to ride to the grocery store for that gallon of milk, loaf of bread, and a dozen eggs you’d be getting your recommended 30-60 minutes of activity with no gym fees.

Mr. Professional Engineer’s assumption that we have to be cocooned safely away from a little bit of cold air or dampness doesn’t make sense when you think about all the people who pay good money to go out into recreational settings like ski resorts and outdoor ice rinks. Why we should be willing to bundle up to have fun but not to get ourselves to work I don’t know. And driving doesn’t protect you from wet and cold in any case–remember, you have that long walk from the parking lot while I take my bike to the rack near the door, or even inside. (Since I’m not the Wicked Witch of the West I don’t melt when I get wet, either.)

While you’re thinking about his sweeping generalizations, think about the mindset in public policy–and engineering–that created a world in which it seems “impossible” to someone that you could ride your bike to the grocery store.

Perhaps Mr. Professional Engineer didn’t mean “impossible.” Perhaps he really meant, “Inconceivable!” and it’s like what Inigo Montoya told the Sicilian: “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

Or perhaps Mr. Professional Engineer needs to be more like the White Queen and believe six impossible things before breakfast every day.

Wait—out of eggs for breakfast? I’ll just hop on my bike. 

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Reader Comments

  1. Love this rebuttal to the alternative transportation naysayers. I’m doing a full year (2012) to demonstrate that grocery shopping by bike and foot is possible, even for families.

  2. Plus you have to stand out there and scrape your windows and maybe clean snow off the car.

    People often say that it must be cold to ride my bike in this weather … but honestly, I keep warmer than if I were driving because I’m being active! I have to wear thicker clothes when I’m driving.

  3. Thanks, Lisa!

    I just have to describe this morning’s ride because it fits so well.

    It was around 37 degrees when I rode to the workshop I’m in right now. I’m hauling a laptop, notebook, light windbreaker in case I need it, Po Campo wristlet w/my wallet stuff, and 5 cans of Cougar Gold cheese to deliver to a friend. For those not familiar with the best cheese in the world (, it comes in cans that weigh over 1-1/2 lbs. apiece.

    I’m wearing no bike-specific gear except helmet and gloves; I’m in wool tights, skirt, boots, wool turtleneck, and a little fleece cape thing that I couldn’t resist at the Nordstrom’s half-yearly sale. I did wear a ski half-mask on my face for extra warmth–as you say, skiing and snowboarding are popular around here and I owned the mask before I started riding to work.

    I rode 3 miles from my house to the meeting place. It will be around 2 miles back to my office; a 2-mile round trip to a lunch meeting, and 2.5 miles home, for a total of just under 10 miles in the day. No big deal, no extra planning or hassle required.

    I had to laugh when I got to the workshop and a woman who came in after me was fretting because she wasn’t sure she had plugged her meter for enough time and thought she might get a ticket. Not something I ever have to worry about on a bike!

  4. Barb – thank you so much for dispelling all of the myths about why regular biking won’t work. My favorite is about the weather. I am still commuting to work as much as possible, even as the weather gets colder and not a day goes by when one of my co-workers doesn’t mention the cold and damp weather and how I’m crazy to be out there. The ironic thing is that every one of these co-workers is very much into skiing and/or snowboarding – why does one winter outdoor sport make sense, but mine does not? I just chuckle and bask in my “crazy-ness”.

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