Flourishing on Two Wheels

It’s almost fall, and I’m especially excited about that because the change in temperature should mean that I won’t break out in a disgusting sweat on my way to work everyday. Was that too much information? Whatever – it’s true. Biking to and from the office is a consistently pleasant experience – something I look forward to twice a day – but it’s taken a toll on my general appearance these past few months. So I’m excited to resume looking like a normal/clean person after my commute.

Now is a great time to be a biker in Philly. To be sure, it’s always been a pretty good time – Philly is naturally a bike-friendly city. It’s flat, compact, and since the downtown was laid out before cars were invented, many of the roads are too narrow for cars to go too fast. But it’s getting even better. Next spring, Philly will be joining the rest of the modern cities by getting its own bike share program (and it’s rumored to be a good one). Bike racks and lanes are always being added, and there’s even talk of car-free streets. Also, the city’s laws are pretty bike-friendly: bikes are recognized as legitimate vehicles, and are allowed to be ridden in the middle of the road. When Philly was recently named the 6th best biking city in America, I wasn’t too surprised.

Plus, I’ve noticed that biking, like all other habits, is forming me in certain ways. I’ve thought about it during my last few commutes, and I’ve come to the conclusion that urban biking encourages urban citizenship, in all the right ways. Here’s how:

1. Biking is less wasteful. We all know that bikes have little/no negative environmental impact, which is awesome. Furthermore, in dense places that are strapped for space, bikes consume less land, both on the road and when parked.

2. Biking is more economically productive. In a city, it’s much easier for a biker to randomly stop in a coffee shop/restaurant/store/whatever than it is for a driver, since parking is such a hassle. Also, I’ve found that it’s easier to notice and become curious about hole-in-the-wall places when on a bike. Of course, bikers do have a harder time accessing big-box chain stores, but maybe that’s okay.

3. Biking is humanizing. Bikers don’t have windows separating them from other commuters, and during rush hour, they get pretty close to everyone – drivers, pedestrians, other bikers. This invites that basic stuff – eye contact, brief conversation – that keeps us from going barbaric and killing each other. And, bikers don’t have horns to communicate – we have to use our voices.

4. Biking requires present-ness. It’s really easy to zone out when driving, especially when you’re just going straight at 20mph. But it’s really dangerous to zone out while biking. My ride to work is a little over two miles long. In that distance, there are dozens of small physical obstacles. Because they pose a daily threat to my safety, I can name and accommodate each one of them. I kind of like that, by necessity, I’ve developed such an intimate knowledge of the space that makes up my neighborhood.

5. Biking improves driving. When I’m biking, I notice all of those annoying little laws that drivers break all the time, because my safety depends on drivers following those annoying little laws. Things like actually stopping at stop signs, always using a turn signal, and not changing lanes in an intersection, might not seem like a big deal – until you’re on a bike. Biking has made me appreciate why those laws exist more than ever before, so obviously I follow them much more faithfully when I’m driving.

6. Biking improves walking. That probably sounds ridiculous, but in city centers bad pedestrians are kind of problematic. By that I mean, people who jaywalk even if there are cars/bikes coming toward them, because they assume the cars will stop and they don’t notice the bikes. It’s annoying and it’s dangerous and I probably used to do it. Now I don’t.

7. Biking makes good small talk. Something funny I’ve noticed in the past year is that people who bike in cities love to talk about biking in cities (Exhibit A: I’ve written 700 words about it). We like to talk about the little tricks we have, share stories, etc. It’s a convenient bonding point for strangers, and it’s more interesting than talking about the weather (though sometimes the weather is part of bike-talk. Exhibit B: The first sentence of this blog post).

All of that to say – happy September/go ride a bike.

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