I was a junior in college when I learned to ride a bicycle. I asked a friend to teach me how, and it took about a half hour to mostly get the hang of the basics. After that, I practiced on my own and was riding to class every day by the end of the semester. Now, over ten years later, I still bike to work every day.
When I first started riding, I often ended up on the ground, with scraped up knees and calves. I stuck with it in large part because of a thought that I remember clearly hitting me from almost the very first time I pedaled myself without falling over: This simple little machine gives me super-human powers! All I have to do is put in roughly the same (or less) effort as I would to walk somewhere, and I can move myself three or four times as fast! I remember thinking “why isn’t everyone doing this??”
I’ve talked with others about this the delirious feeling of propelling oneself through space on two wheels, and it seems like most people experience something similar when they learn to ride a bike. The crucial difference, however, is that most people experience it as younger children and not fully grown adults. Sure, riding a bike is cool when you’re a kid, and it allows you to access parts of the neighborhood too far afield for walking, meanwhile letting you make a quick getaway if you need to. As you get older, I think this allure must wear off as the excitement of an even faster, even more powerful mode of transportation comes into view: driving a car. After waiting for years to finally earn your license, the fun and freedom of driving easily overshadows the humble old two-wheeler.
In my case, I had already been driving for a few years, and since I lived on campus it’s not like I had to drive to class or the dining hall or anything like that. So for me, riding a bike seemed fresh and exciting. It was a whole new way to get around that carried the bonuses of being quicker, easier, and way more fun than walking. Ever since then, bicycling has been my preferred way to get around. That is one of the reasons why I loved living in China and Taiwan. In the Chinese-speaking world, getting around by bike is something just about everyone appreciates, and traditionally it has been regarded as an affordable, accessible, efficient way for all kinds of people to get where they are going. I loved living in a culture like that, where someone like me fit right in–where pretty much everyone seemed to have the same intuition that pedaling is far more efficient and fun than walking. Not everyone bikes to work in Beijing anymore, of course (the pollution wouldn’t be nearly so bad if they did), but pretty much everyone recognizes the utility–and therefore the appropriateness–of the bicycle.
My bike in Beijing was an ancient “Iron Pigeon,” borrowed from my landlord. It had a single gear, weighed about 40 pounds, with basically nonexistant brakes. It was similar to about 90% of the bikes on the street. And guess what? They all worked the same way, and they all got their riders (plus a passenger sitting on the rack, or standing on pegs from the rear axle) where they needed to go. You could buy one for less than the equivalent of $20 US. There were also little bike repair kiosks all over the place, where you could pull in and get a flat tire patched, or brakes adjusted, or any other small repair done for usually less than a couple bucks US. Since I was living on a college campus, they also usually had free air compressors out for students and faculty to fill up their tires. The point is that in a culture that looks at the bicycle as an eminently sensible, efficient, and reliable way to get around, the space is set up to make doing so much easier for everyone (including separate traffic lights for bicycles).
My trusty steed: the ol’ “Iron Pigeon.”
Unfortunately, we don’t have such a culture here in the US, so using a bike to get around requires considerably more planning and foresight, but for those willing to fall in love with the fun and freedom of the bicycle all over again, there are enormous benefits. Here are just a few of the reasons why I will bike to work through rain and snow, until I’m too old to push the pedals:
- It’s good exercise. I ride about a mile round trip every day, which isn’t much, but it’s more than I would get behind the wheel of a car.
- Bicycle maintenance is far, far cheaper than automobile maintenance. Even if you keep your bike in peak operating condition by putting in a lot of maintenance, parts and equipment are still far cheaper than what you need for a car.
- Zero cost for insurance
- Zero cost for gasoline
- It guarantees time spent outdoors every day. Granted, this is not so much fun in the cold and rain, but the warm summer sun easily makes up for it!
- Makes it possible to have only one car for our household.
- As I said, it’s just plain fun!
There are definitely some drawbacks to getting around by bicycle, and owning and operating a bike safely and reliably is not without its own costs. But, as my Chinese friends showed me, getting around by bike does not have to cost a fraction of what most cyclists in America assume–and far, far less than what the guy at the bike shop will tell you! There’ll be more to come on that topic later, but for now: the next time you’re stuck in traffic or paying your car insurance bill, think of how much fun you could be having on a bike instead!