The Jack Kerouac of this generation would write a very different version of On the Road. Stalled freeways and clogged cities don’t provide the adventure he went in search of. Today’s seeker might find the freedom of the road in a different mode: on a bicycle. As I glide past stuck cars on city streets or match the speed of the freeway on the bike path that parallels I-80, I feel liberated and exhilarated—a little bit of a modern-day Kerouac.
I started riding again as adult about 10 years ago. I woke up one day to the absurdity of driving to the swimming pool to exercise. If I wanted movement, it seemed logical to start at my front door. Two years ago Thanksgiving, I sold my truck and went car free. I haven’t looked back. My bicycle is my main mode of transit and life on two wheels gets better all the time.
I do my grocery shopping, run errands, and pick up heavy loads with my 30-pound bike and a bit of physical effort and the occasional assistance of my bike trailer. I am not a jock—I’m a 45-year-old woman with asthma, and I am, according to Kaiser, carrying around enough extra pounds to put my health in jeopardy (feh!). If I can do it, you probably can too. The bike is a wonderful invention that allows me to travel three times as fast as I would on foot with one-third the energy expenditure, so I don’t have to be superwoman to get myself where I need to go. Sixty percent of car trips are five miles or less—a distance easily traveled by bike, especially for those of us who live in the flats of the East Bay.
I won’t tell you that being car free is without its challenges. There were some cold, rainy days the first winter when I felt heartily sorry for myself. Over time I have built better riding muscles, gotten more confidence on the road, and found better routes to my destinations. At the beginning, I thought I would need to borrow cars often and that I wouldn’t be able to go to certain places by bike because they seemed much too far away. REI is a good example: it’s a 15-minute drive from my house by freeway. I thought I would never get there by bike. It turns out that REI is a 20-minute bike ride on a lovely flat bike boulevard. As a bonus, I spend the journey to and from smelling the aromas wafting from bread bakeries, cafes, and whatever is in bloom, rather than cursing the freeway traffic.
When one of my neighbors went out of town this summer, she gave us the keys to her car. I thought the keys would sit unused, but several vet emergencies led us to take it out. Soon my wife and I fell back into the habit of leaning on the car. One evening, I needed to go over to Piedmont Avenue, which is slightly uphill from my Emeryville home. I was tired. I was tempted to take the car, but the difficulty of parking on Piedmont and the $60 I had just spent to fill the tank gave me pause. I decided to ride my bike. The ride took me 10 minutes—about the time it would have taken me to drive and find a place to park. When I got to my destination, my mood had turned around and I felt energized. On the way, I reflected on my impulse to use a 3,000-pound machine to transport myself a couple of miles. Nature designed me to be able to move myself from place to place under my own power. The bike gives me a little mechanical boost—just enough to get around our no longer walkable cities.
A bike ride is part of my commute to work each day. I arrive at the office with my blood pumping (but not sweaty), and I ride off the stress of the day on my way home. I ride to the farmer’s market each weekend, sometimes taking my neighbors with me. Bike riding keeps my spirits up and my health good. The journey has become half the fun of any trip.
The most common reaction I get when I tell people about my rolling life is concern for safety. While it’s true that bicyclists are at a disadvantage in collisions with cars, I don’t believe the solution is to drive a bigger and bigger tank-like vehicle to protect myself from all the other tanklike vehicles on the road. What if car drivers were asked to share the road responsibly? What if roads were designed to safely accommodate both cars and cyclists? In Berkeley both are true: drivers are mostly considerate to cyclists, often stopping to let me pass even when the right-of-way belongs to them. And Berkeley’s bicycle boulevards create car-lite streets where bicyclists of all ages can safely use the road.
The main thing that makes me feel safer on the city streets is other bike riders. The more of us on the road, the more car drivers are looking for the next bike. One of the best parts of my two years of car freedom has been watching the number of cyclists on Bay Area streets grow. Even on the coldest, darkest days of the year, my way is lit by the blinky lights of my fellow bikers. We chat with each other when we’re stopped at lights; we ride together for a few blocks until our paths diverge.
I hope to see you out there, on the streets of Berkeley or Oakland or Emeryville, loving the ride!