Fulfilling a New Year’s resolution to do more community activism, in January I accepted an invitation to join the City of Oakland’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. I am the token pedestrian. So when Bike to Work Month came along, and the committee needed to recruit novice cyclists for 511.org’s Team Bike Challenge, I was an easy target.
The East Bay Bicycle Coalition kindly lent me a sturdy bike, provided me with training, and let me loose in Downtown Oakland. For a month, I pedaled almost every day; it was an experiment with the most-hyped commute, blending healthy and green living.
I met cyclists who sport body armor, high-tech helmets, and jarring fluorescent outfits. One friend rides through West Oakland protected only by two outstretched middle fingers and his foul mouth. I found the combination of a helmet and the willingness to yell at cars adequate. I never suffered a fall, perhaps due to the adrenaline that gripped me on every trip, whether from terror or exertion I don’t know.
Not that I challenged myself. As a freelance worker, most of my bicycle trips consisted of trans-downtown treks for banking, meetings, groceries and cocktails; no errand required more than a half-mile of pedaling. Nonetheless, I found myself white-knuckled and alert at every intersection, trying to deduce the motives of shielded drivers whose turn signals must be broken. Or I’d cruise smugly down Franklin for a block, only to realize that I’d gone the wrong way on a major regional arterial. More than once, rather than navigating three turns on one-way boulevards, I’d get off my bike and indulge in the pedestrian freedom to take a shortcut.
I had bicycled for three weeks by Bike to Work Day. I had once set downtown’s throngs to throbbing electro beats; as a cyclist, I missed my iPod. I did not miss the five pounds I quickly shed, transferring the stored energy of flab to carbon-free pedal power. At the day’s event, after helping with valet bike parking, I listened to promises from politicians, and picked up a handy canvas tote stuffed with goodies. The bicycle coalition said they hoped lending me a two-wheeler would be a learning experience for me. It was.
I learned that the sleek, stylish spinners favored by artists and musicians lack essential equipment, like gears, and brakes. I learned that I was more out of shape than I thought. I learned that downtown Oakland is far from flat. I learned that both wheels need to be locked to a parking meter. I learned that the city is removing all the parking meters. I learned that my lambskin loafers and Hollywood hair do not go well with a helmet or late-night safety vest. I learned that bicycles need bike lanes or cars become impatient—their horns of outrage trumped my indignant bell every time. Certainly the bike activists made me a convert.
Downtown Oakland embodies the sort of healthy living that urban planners try tirelessly to bring to neighborhoods—a high density of housing and employment, unparalleled access to parkland, excellent transportation, and a growing population of residents and retailers.
Primarily a pedestrian, I find that every month there’s something new to do within walking distance. But bicycling expanded my easy-access radius to include Koreatown, warehouse art galleries, and the forthcoming Whole Foods. Healthy eating due to healthy biking! And I don’t think I’ll miss the next five pounds I lose either.
OPEN CALL FOR ESSAYS
As part of an ongoing effort to print stories by East Bay residents, the Daily Planet invites readers to write about their experiences and perspectives on living healthy. Please e-mail your essays, no more than 800 words, to firstname.lastname@example.org. We will publish the best essays in upcoming issues.