I bike for fitness and decreasing my carbon footprint, but really I do it because I am too lazy to walk, too cheap to take the bus, and finding parking is expensive and a pain. On a bike, I can get to my destination quickly and lock up my transportation right outside (or close by). I am also a creature of habit. I usually pick the shortest route possible and ride that same route every time I go to that destination. I have commuted the same route to work for the last nine years. My habitual route to work is very direct and has no bicycle infrastructure; my return route home is a little less direct and has bike lanes or sharrows at different intervals for about a third of the ride.
In the last few years as I have taught my kids to ride, I have been on my best road-user behavior: helmets, signaling, stopping at lights and signs, and riding in a visible and predictable way even when I am not riding with my kids.
However, in the last year, my ride experience has deteriorated. My visible and predictable riding is getting me noticed and the things yelled from car windows make me wish I was invisible. I have had to deal with some really aggressive drivers who want me out of their space. I am frequently told at high volume to get over and hug the cars [expletive for a lady’] or Ride on the sidewalk, [other expletive]! I made the mistake once of informing the driver that it is illegal to ride on the sidewalk and was then given a further barrage of expletives. Often, I stoop to the driver’s level and yell something back (when I am not with my kids). Add into this mix the people who try, either explicitly or through negligence, to shove me off the road with their multi-ton rolling steel cages, and cycling can often be a less than pleasant experience.
One morning, after a terrible ride, I sat at my work station shaking, trying not to cry, and questioning whether I ever wanted to get on my bike again. My bike commuting cube mate, Andrew, asked me what was up. I managed to get out my tale of cycling woe without crying. Andrew was sympathetic but did not rail against the drivers. Instead he challenged me to pick a new route. I kind of balked at this. How could one or two blocks this or that way make a difference? Why am I the one who has to change? Why can’t the drivers change? My cube mate’s response was, Pick your battles and find a way that you feel more comfortable even if it’s a little longer. You may be thinking, Duh, but really this was a new idea for me. I am stubborn, after all.
Over the next few weeks I tried other streets. Wow, what a difference! I decided on a route that is a little more circuitous, a little longer, but I get a couple of blocks of bike lane on my way into work. I realized that my new route had a very different feel. Drivers did not seem to be in as big a rush, so I didn’t need to rush either. There were less vans and construction trucks. It seemed like traffic overall was lighter, too. However, I did not see very many cyclists, either. Was this just my perception?
Safe at work selfie.
I work for a transportation engineering firm, so I decided to look at traffic counts* for intersections on my old and new route. The data confirms that (at least part) of my new route has 1500 fewer cars per year than my old route, and about 70 fewer cars travel that route during the hour when I ride into work. A bicycle count also showed that my old route was used by more cyclists, an average of 10 during the morning commute hour, whereas my new route had 0 during the same hour. This proved that my perceptions were correct: my new route has less car traffic but also fewer bikes.
I ride because I am a lazy creature of habit but I am willing to go a little further and take more time if the ride can be enjoyable and not dangerous. The very simple advice of pick your battles and pick a new route has changed how I find my way to work. It’s great when there is infrastructure for bikes, but it’s really a hundred little things that add up to a good or bad ride and you have to pick the ones you can live with. Once again I can look forward to my morning commute.