When I grew up in Brooklyn, the only people I remember riding bikes were delivery people, teenage boys, and grown men who messed around on two-wheelers a third of their size. My parents restricted me to the pavements of our block and park paths, and I was not allowed to ride in the street, even with a helmet on.
New York isn't the most accommodating place for cyclists and, by and large, neither is the country as a whole. According to The Washington Post, a recent study reported approximately 3.8 million non-fatal adult bicycle injuries and 9,839 deaths from 1997 to 2013, costing some $24 billion in medical care in 2013.
But when I moved to Washington, D.C. several years ago, biking became my favourite way to commute (despite so many people telling me I had to have a car). I lived within five minutes of several bus stops, near-enough to a Metro station on two train lines and, delightfully, about two blocks from a Capital Bikeshare stop that always had an available set of wheels. I signed up for a monthly bikeshare membership for a while, before eventually claiming (and fixing up) an old bike that a former housemate left behind when she moved away. My bike became my main way of getting to and from work.
I’ve since moved back to New York, and although I itched to get back on my bike, I was pretty nervous to do so in a city where bike lanes are treated like meaningless street decals by both drivers and pedestrians. But then the weather warmed up, and the MTA became an often untenable transit option in the morning. I live close enough to work, and had both the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges as possible connectors, to at least make an attempt.
My D.C. bike was in sad shape; it was covered in dust, the wheels were flat, and the gears needed work. I was trying to decide whether or not to spend money fixing it up when the good folks at Electra Bicycle Co. leant me one of theirs to use for a few weeks, on the one condition that I wear a helmet (done). I wanted to figure out whether commuting by bike was really for me, and if so, what kind of bike would be best (a fixed gear or a commuter with solid gears?). I also wanted to know if I could do this without feeling like a complete mess when I got to work.
I began dividing my day into thirds over the course of the two weeks — getting to work, working at work, and going home from work — which all presented unique challenges I hadn’t expected.
I knew how to get to work on foot and by train, but I realized that I had no idea how to get there on a bike. My routes were restricted, redirected, or became wholly dependent on how aggressive the traffic might be, whether there was a bike path (at all, or ideally going in the right direction). And I got lost. A lot.
There were other challenges as well: Once I was held up behind an aggro pedestrian who literally dared a car that stopped short of hitting him (he was at fault) to "Get at me, bro," in the middle of Broadway. I ate flies and exhaust more often than I thought would be possible — but it was kind of glorious. "Relaxing" is the absolute last word I would use for the experience of biking to work, but being forced into early-morning alertness turned out to be a surprisingly wonderful thing for me.
On the very first day I rode in, the spell of concentration I was under only lifted when people started moving around to get their lunch. It was addictive.
The equipment helped, too. Electra's Townie Go! is a battery-powered beast that helped me get up and down the hills I couldn't fully handle on my own at the speed I needed to reach. The Townie has eight gears like my old bike, and the assisted electric boost tops out at 20 MPH, so the actual sensation of riding was still there. (I broke out in enough of a sweat to know.)
As for getting office ready after my bike ride, I knew enough about my sweat glands to pack an extra shirt (and an extra bra, just in case), and make use of my most wrinkle-free tops. I was fine on the pants question because the Townie didn't need oiling, so there was no risk of a stain on the jeans or trousers I wore. I already had a carabiner for my keys and a North Face backpack for everything else. (Deodorant, perfume if I felt fancy, hair ties, a water bottle, and my laptop.)
The highlights of my day were the hour after I arrived at work, and the last half hour of my ride before I got back home. People who exercise before they work are probably already living their adrenalized best lives, but the euphoric feeling of settling into my assignments for the day after already maintaining a certain degree of focus was awesome. Even after the nuttiest ride, it was a joy. My brain on foot was like Google Maps standard view; biking, it shifted into that amplified, 3-D POV. I was already so focused from avoiding jaywalkers and trying not to get hit by cars that after I changed into my clothes for the day, I could easily turn my attention to the tasks I had to get done that day. On the very first day I rode in, the spell of concentration I was under only lifted when people started moving around to get their lunch. The morning had passed without me realizing it, and so did the afternoon. It was addictive.
Heading home in the evening, the traffic consisted of joggers, strollers, police vehicles, skateboarders, and rubber-necking tourists all battle it out on the Brooklyn Bridge. I rang my bike bell aggressively (and even shouted at a few people). But the last 20 minutes were a lovely twilight cruise. After I got home and showered, I was able to unwind from the day much more easily than usual.
The main financial perk of biking would be reducing the pre-tax contribution that I put aside for my MetroCard ($121/month for an unlimited card). But an unexpected perk was that I ate dinner at home more, and bought takeout less. I didn't spend as much money on coffee or snacks either. The reason was purely logistics: I wasn't strolling past bodegas or restaurants, and even though I had a backpack, I wasn't going to stop, park my bike, and get back on it again just to pick up a Twix. At the end of my first week of riding, I had $20 to $50 more in my bank account than I normally did, which was a fringe, but totally welcome benefit.
I returned the Townie at the end of my two-week test ride and resolved to fix up my old bike and see how that goes instead of getting a new one in the short-term. A high-end ride might be awesome, and I'll keep that in mind for the future — especially when I’m deciding what to do with the extra money in my bank account.