Oct 212012
Personal Advantages and Bicycling: How I Really Started Riding

An updated version of this post appears on the Washington Bikes blog, Personal Privileges and Biking: It Takes More than a Bike Lane to Start Riding


A few weeks ago I had the wonderful opportunity to give the luncheon keynote address at a conference on Equity and Health in Transportation, put on by the Seattle-King County Public Health District and held in Tacoma. This came at a good time, as it let me express some ideas that have been crystallizing in my mind for some time now and that were reinforced when I went to the Alliance for Biking and Walking Leadership Retreat, Pro Walk/Bike/Place, and the National Women’s Bicycling Summit, all within one week.

The way I used to tell the story of how I started bike commuting, it was an infrastructure story: I started riding because the city put a bike lane in front of my house. Short, sweet, simple–and grossly oversimplified.

Granted, infrastructure and other visual cues are incredibly important tools to build bicycling, and more so for women than for men because of the greater attentiveness to possible risk that shows up in studies of women across many realms.

But when I started unpacking the invisible bag that I carry with me through life I found many other factors beyond infrastructure that made it possible for me to get on two wheels.

  • I already owned a working bike. Simple, right? But the reason people don’t ride a bike is that they don’t own one. In some cities a program like Pedals2People makes it possible for people to learn how to build and maintain their own bikes but that wouldn’t have interested me at that point.
  • I knew how to ride because my parents taught me when I was a little kid–when I also had bikes that they provided for me, moving me up to bigger bikes as I grew so I went from tricycle to banana bike to 10-speed.
  • Physically, I was completely capable of riding a bike, with no disabilities that would prevent me from riding or make it more difficult to find a special bike.
  • I already had a regular exercise habit (yoga); getting on a bike did not mean stepping very far outside my normal range of exertion, as I was already reasonably fit.
  • I was of average size so if I wanted to purchase any bike-specific clothing it would be easy to find it at a local bike shop.
  • I lived close enough to work (3.5 miles) that a ride was pretty simple, because I hadn’t purchased a house in the “drive until you qualify” outskirts and suburbs.
  • I had chosen that house specifically for its location on a transit line so I had a fallback transportation option available.
  • I also had the ultimate fallback: A partner with a motor vehicle who would come pick me up if anything went really wrong.
  • I worked in an executive-level position with enough flexibility that if I ended up 15 minutes late to work because I had to fix a flat, I wouldn’t get fired. Everyone would accept my apologies and take my explanation at face value, not question it as perhaps a lie or something indicative of a fundamental character flaw, like laziness.
  • In fact, my employer took part in Commute Trip Reduction, had a guaranteed ride home program, and would give me a reduction in the cost of my parking pass for every day that I rode my bike, took the bus, or walked to work (a funny incentive system when you think about it, but still).
  • If anything went wrong with the bike, thanks to that job I had the resources to pay for repairs, since at that time I lacked the ability to so much as fix a flat tire.
  • I had the money to acquire bike gear such as a headlight (required by law) and a better bike when I was ready for it.
  • I felt confident enough about my personal safety along the route between home and work that I wasn’t afraid to set off that first day.
  • Should anything happen along my route despite my sense of confidence, I could count on law enforcement to be reasonably accepting of my explanation of what happened since I am of the predominant skin color in my community and the predominant skin color of most (probably almost all) of the officers I might encounter.
  • I had personal motivations for riding like environmental concerns and personal health that are highly correlated with educational attainment, and I had two bachelor’s degrees, a master’s degree, and some doctoral-level coursework then under way.

Related Reading

Your Turn

  • Have you ever thought about the barriers–and lack of barriers–that made a difference in your decision to ride?
  • Can you do anything to decrease the barriers for someone else to make it possible for her or him to consider riding?
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Reader Comments

  1. I’m rather intrigued by Karen’s thought that riding a bicycle to work would undermine her professional image. So I guess that’s a type of “barrier”: one’s own self-perception and local attitudes.

    I never cared, simply because I gave up my driver’s license in my early 20’s: I had problems driving. All the homes I chose to live there on, was always close to public transit.

    I’ve worked for organizations, where women were expected to dress in full businesswear and didn’t think people thought of me less. In fact, in some business circles, cycling and jogging is the new golf! A way for business networking. For instance the Grand Fondo rides, include business owners who buddy up together and pay that entrance fee individually.

    Honest, I think nowadays people judge their organizational leaders on how they handle stress also and any regular physical activity is viewed as positive by other employees.

  2. You posted some very insightful points,especially the one about being in an executive level position. Positions at that level automatically give a person credibility that lesser positions do not. When we relocated to Flagstaff, I found myself regulated to positions far less than those I had previously held. Almost instantly, I found that I was assumed to be less educated, competent and prepared for advancement than what was reflected in my resume, which I began to assume must be used to line someone’s birdcage. It was in Flagstaff that I decided to begin bike commuting, a decision my husband and I made in order to reduce our expenses in a very high-cost of living town. One of my main worries in making that decision was that arriving on a bike to work would undermine my attempts to rebuild a professional image. I’m pretty sure bike commuting did not help in this area. It just seemed to be viewed as “cute” or something that I was doing for fun rather than a choice I made for economic reasons. Oddly, I don’t think men who chose to bike to work suffered the same marginalization, although, to be quite honest, I can’t think of a single upper management person at my previous organization who ever biked to work. I guess it just wasn’t viewed as professional, despite the fact that my org was supposedly committed to sustainability.

  3. I started bike commuting by dreaming of avoiding the crowded subway each day. I didn’t have a bike, hadn’t ridden a bike in about 15 years, and I was (am) very overweight but I loved riding as a kid and wanted to ride again.

    Luckily I received some money for my birthday and used it to buy an inexpensive bike, helmet, lights and began riding around my neighbourhood until I was comfortable on my bike to approach the local, quieter streets.

    The LBS wasn’t so sure about my nearly 300 lbs self on a bike but I was sure and the bike was seemed sure as well. Please, don’t let size limit your attempt on getting on a bike. Pretty much it was a daily refrain in my life “you are too big for that”. Please, don’t let complete strangers run your life. Cycling was easy when I was out of shape and has gotten better over the years.

    I’ve lost about 60 pounds since I took up cycling. It’s a constant battle of wits against myself but with daily cycling, my wits are comforted with a fresh breeze, burning muscles, and the satisfaction that I’m not stuck on an overcrowded subway or bus.

  4. Insightful post that may me think for a few minutes. I live 15 miles from work, have no work incentives to ditch the car, a challenging schedule and lack of safe infrastructure.

    That said, I do the bike commute with a lot of planning. It was terrifying the first time (even though I rode in group rides regularly) but also exhilarating. Being honest, my motivation probably sparked from other’s disbelief that I would “risk life and limb” when I had a perfectly good car.

    I do wish that I felt safer. Some of the roads on my best route are one lane each way, no shoulder or sidewalk. I have to leave work early to avoid the worst of rush hour on these roads. This isn’t always possible so those are days I don’t ride. I can’t ride on days I go to the gym after work because there is no safe route – cyclists have been killed on the road I have to take.

    But, it is getting better. I’m proud that our city finally has a bike coordinator and is converting rails to trails and striping roads. Whether you agree with striping or not, our city needs greater awareness of cyclists and bike lanes are helping that. I also see more people attempting to get on a bike as a result.

    In the beginning I also lacked gear. I had the bike, but toting my laptop and associated stuff on my back was mega uncomfortable – even with a good messenger bag. I was lucky that I could afford panniers, fenders, etc. That has made it so much better and enabled me to do trips to the grocery store 2 miles away and lots of other places.

    This experience and my challenges in finding gear I liked actually led me to start an online store focused on products that help women look and feel their best on the bike. I’m hoping it will help women to incorporate biking into their everyday lifestyle…

  5. Most all of those bullets also apply to me – they are the things we take for granted in life (when WE have them) and don’t realize that everyone doesn’t.
    However, I’m the same person who, not that long ago, rode my bike to work because my other choice was to walk or take the bus. I made the choice to live close to my jobs and in turn sought jobs that were close to where I lived because i didn’t have a car. I guess we all have our priorities in choosing a residence but I feel too few people identify “access to their community” of primary importance.

    I no longer live within 2 miles of my job – because my job moved from downtown to the suburbs. I still ride my bike to work occasionally and have an employer paid green incentive to do so. I wish I could do it more, I wish the 16 miles felt safer in the fall when it’s dark both ways. I guess I could move to the suburbs too to be closer to work, but I’m still happy that I chose a place to live that is in the community that I want to be part of. I can still ride my bike to the grocery stores, restaurants, the library, downtown, movies, schools & even a hardware store. Now if only Spokane weren’t so hilly.

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