Aug 182023
Setting My Own Pace

Tessa the folding bike at the Tukwila light rail station, on our way to the airport to catch a plane to Boise for the Idaho Bike Summit where I was speaking. Trip consisted of ride-ride-fly-ride.

Bicycling offers a unique combination of attributes in the array of transportation modes: The ability to choose your pace while getting places efficiently. This came to mind as I pedaled slowly home from an appointment that I had pedaled toward quickly an hour before to make sure I wouldn’t be late.

I was on my beloved e-bike Zelda, so the range of speeds available to me was a bit more than what my unassisted legs might provide. Very helpful when you don’t want to be late to pop all the way up to Turbo. 19 miles an hour, woohoo! (Zelda is a Class 1 and the e-assist cuts off at 20mph, so anything over that speed depends on my personal wattage.) But having an e-assist isn’t essential to this comparison.

What I was thinking about as I rode:

  • How fast or slow can I go?
  • How much of that is my own decision or otherwise within my control?
  • To what extent is my pace a captive of the speed set by those around me?
  • How hard is it to slow down if I want to look at something or speed up to get there a bit faster?
  • How flexible is this mode if I just want to stop for a minute?

Walking, or rolling with a mobility assistive device: My running days are past. My walking speed can only go so high before I wear myself out and have to slow down or stop. As the title of Jonathon Stall’s book tells us, I can Walk: Slow Down, Wake Up, and Connect at 1-3 Miles Per Hour. I can’t wish myself faster, but I can choose my pace within my capabilities. Someone walking slower or faster than me really doesn’t affect either of us; we’re each free to make our own choices. I can slow down or stop to look at things without hindering those around me. In my experience rear-end collisions are pretty rare on a sidewalk and no one is injured or killed. If I want to stop and reverse direction, or turn the corner just to see what’s there, I can decide and execute in a flash, or stop and think for a minute to reach my decision. Overall walking provides great flexibility, although it doesn’t have much of an upper range for speed.

But note that all of these attributes do rely on having someplace I can walk, which isn’t the case on every street. The pedestrian system is full of gaps, barriers, and outright hazards created when the development of car infrastructure interrupted existing pathways for walking.

Transit: I’ll go at the speed the driver operates the vehicle, which depends on whether they have a dedicated transit lane (and whether drivers respect that). I can get off the bus at the next stop if I want to look at something. Proceeding on my way depends on the frequency and reliability of the transit service, which depends on a lot of factors including voter support for local transit measures and appropriations of state and federal funding. Vote for transit!

Trains: Dedicated right-of-way means a fast pace is the norm, which I clearly don’t control. Love so many things about train travel (the ease of boarding, the wide aisles, big comfortable seats, space in the bathroom, being able to bring or buy food and drink, the view from the windows, checking my bike as baggage and then riding away from the station at the other end), but I’m bound to the route, the stops, and the ticket.

Airplanes: You can probably guess the answers here. Super fast, totally out of my control. No going off the scheduled route unless something is terribly, terribly wrong. Checking my bike works if I take my folding bike.

Ferries: A pleasant pace and I’m on the water. Washington State Ferries are awesome. No stopping once it leaves the landing, or at least there shouldn’t be. Rolling on with my bike? Super simple and so delightful, with the bonus of camaraderie among all of us tying our bikes up on the deck.

Driving: You knew I was going to get to this. I can’t just slow down whenever I want to. The law lets me drive for conditions so I can go slower when it’s icy or foggy, but under normal conditions there are laws against holding other drivers back. Other drivers around me exert pressure to keep up the pace even above the posted speed. On the relatively rare occasions that I drive, I go at the speed limit (it’s a ceiling, not a floor) and feel the impatience of speeding drivers, who crowd me aggressively.

And stopping? I have to find a spot large enough for the geometry of the box that contains me, which may or may not be near the beautiful tree that just caught my eye. Imagine trying to drive slowly enough to take a look in a store window and decide whether you want to stop for the sale they’re advertising. Or imagine pausing at a corner before you decide to turn. The honking! The flipping off! The angry shouts! I know because I get these if I wait to turn right while someone uses the crosswalk, or if I decide I don’t want to turn right until the light changes.

Yes, I have facilities designed specifically for this mode connecting all my everyday destinations, but they constrain many choices about speed, direction, pausing, and stopping. And if I’m driving I shouldn’t be looking around at pretty trees or store windows. I can kill someone if I hit them with my big steel box.

Bicycling: Ah, this has it all. I can pedal along at an easy pace and look around, pedal harder to go faster. Sure, I top out, but enough faster than walking that I have a range of speeds available to me. If I have to, even on a traditional bike I can cover 3 miles in about 15-20 minutes. Calorie for calorie bicycling is the most efficient form of transportation on the planet (and it’s good for the planet), and even when I go at an easy pace I’m getting somewhere. I can pass or be passed and it doesn’t affect either of us since bicycling is so space efficient. I can stop in the bike lane or move to the side of the trail or shoulder and I’m not clogging up all the riders behind me as long as I’m courteous about signaling my intention. Again, space efficient. Imagine a driver stopping at the side of a vehicular travel lane just to look at something.

I noted that my choices as a walker can be constrained by lack of facilities. This can also be true of cycling, although it provides the ultimate flexibility of using either the vehicular travel lane or the walking space if there’s no bike lane. This carries different levels of exposure to unwanted outcomes and that “share the lane” setup isn’t ideal, but it’s available to me as a confident rider.

I can already anticipate the response of someone who needs to point out that I can’t go as fast on a bike as I could in a car. Thanks, Obvious Man, never could have figured that out for myself. My points here are about the convenience and the delights to be found in slowing down. If your mode of transportation forces you to do something, does it really set you free?

A postscript on the ride that prompted these musings: As I pedaled in leisurely fashion up a hill coming back from that appointment, I saw a woman ahead of me working hard on her traditional bike, a blue one with two big box panniers. It was a warm and sweaty kind of day and it looked like she was hauling a load. I went as slowly as I could, not wanting to overtake her because I was genuinely in no hurry and didn’t need to.

But eventually my not-slow-enough-to-fall-over pace brought me alongside. This was a Mary Poppins kind of moment, both of us wearing dresses and not at all kitted out or clipped in.

I said “Afternoon!”

She smiled and happily replied “Hi!”, her face glowing from exertion.

I eased past. Then within about a block she overtook me and pulled away into the lead, pedaling harder than she had been. I smiled and thought, “I just gave her a moment of delight. She can tell people she passed someone on an e-bike.” Setting my own pace gives me many happy moments. This was one of them.

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Reader Comments

  1. « I can’t go as fast on a bike as I could in a car »… not that obvious when you take into account the time that you need to work to pay for that car, and then add that time to your travels…

    Ivan Illich described that concept of « Vitesse généralisée » (Generalised Speed ?) in his 1973 book «Energy and Equity», and calculated that car drivers have a mean generalised speed of 6km/h… just faster than a pedestrian, and much slower than a bike rider.

    His calculations have been studied, remade, then adapted to the modern era, by various authors with various conclusions, but one conclusion stands in almost all cases: due to speed limits, congestion, and car prices, bikes are still much faster than cars in town.

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