My year without a car

I'm an unlikely biker, but when I finally broke my driving habit, I discovered the joys (and pain) of cycling

Published December 9, 2013 1:00AM (EST)

    (<a href=''>Sabphoto</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Sabphoto via Shutterstock)

Last year, after three months in a book group focused on sustainability, I made a New Year’s resolution: to retire my car and bike everywhere. It was a good time to begin new habits. Having started a new job in a different part of town, three miles from home, I didn’t have a parking space. No car-bound routine had yet evolved.

But I am an unlikely cyclist. I am not a jock. I don’t read magazines like Bike Monkey or blogs like Bicycle Fixation. I don’t have a cyclocomputer, or mudguards, or toe clips. I don’t tear down the asphalt in spandex, shaved calf muscles shiny with sweat, spewing pebbles in the eyes of the slowpokes who choke on my dust.

To tell the truth, I don’t even know what kind of bike I have. It’s gray. It’s sturdy.  There’s always something off about it: a sagging tire, a balding brake, the seat sinking over time until pedaling becomes exhausting. Because I am forever putting off taking the class in basic bicycle repair, I don’t know how to fix anything. I can pump air into the tires, but not much else.

Add to this the fact that I live in Portland, Ore. The rainy season, when puddles obscure the bike lanes, lasts half a year. Then add in the fact that I am uncommonly vain and I have a job that requires me on most days to get up in front of groups of people, to lecture and to run meetings. Vain people hate to be soggy when they stand in front of crowds, and I’ve never been so punctual that I could fit in a shower before work.

After my first few days of winter biking, I develop the mad, early-morning scramble that becomes my everyday routine. Iron dress shirt and khakis, roll them, stuff them in the black, rain-proof panniers, attached to my bicycle’s back rack. Don protective rain gear — jacket and pants, both still spattered with mud from the day before — and fasten my ill-fitting helmet and resolve to leave more time — tomorrow — to tighten the straps. In the last minutes tear up and down the stairs of the house, ranting and cursing, searching for keys.

Glance at the clock. Oh shit. Wonder if my co-workers will judge me for being late or if my boss will notice when I arrive. Think: Cyclists deserve a 15-minute grace period to get anywhere in a work world dominated by fast-paced car drivers. Realize: You’re wasting time. Panic. Resolve to be a more organized person. Starting tomorrow.

Lift my bike — 40 pounds of grey metal, chain and tires, caked in dried mud — and drag it up the basement steps. Open the door and notice children’s bikes and scooters and soccer balls tossed on the grass, left out all night, blocking my exit path. Imagine punishments for the kids. Observe the gray frigidity of the day. Wait for the familiar rush of rationalizations, a Siren-like chorus lulling me back into old, car-bound patterns.

It’s too cold.

It’s raining hard.

I have to lead a meeting today.

Just this one time I’ll drive. Only once a week is still better than driving every day.

Boy, I could turn the heater on in the car. I could stop and get hot coffee.

The windshield would keep gravel from smacking me in the face.

I could listen to NPR. I would be a more informed citizen.

If I drove the car, I would make courtesy stops for every cyclist I saw. I would be a model driver, smiling and waving.

Every day I have to fight through my resistance.

Once I made an informal sociological observation of the cyclists who share the cavernous bike cage in the back of the parking garage where I work. On sunny days it’s stuffed. I have to scramble to find an alternative place to store mine. On rainy cold days, the number dwindles to three or four. Zealots, jocks and ideologues. Most people, even in green-crazy Portland, are fair-weather cyclists. Most people, I assume, struggle with the same psychological and environmental barriers that I do.

I don’t want to be a fair-weather biker. Thus evolves my curious obsession, not with biking and its accouterments, but with understanding a particular form of suffering, unique to the Pacific Northwest. Maybe "suffering" is a grandiose word. Biking in rainy Portland is not starvation in Mumbai or languishing with AIDS in Johannesburg. For me regular bike commuting is suffering in a more Buddhist sense of the word, with a disavowal of comfortable, car-bound attachments.

The poet Rilke writes “that something is difficult must be a reason the more for us to do it.” Pursue the uncomfortable thing, he cajoles, the stuff of our own resistances, because that’s where self-knowledge — the elusive epiphanies — resides. While I couldn’t desert my family to write poetry in a castle, like Rilke, or build a cabin on a lake and live as a hermit, like Thoreau, I could commit to bike commuting for a year: a Northwest brand of ascetic discipline.

Though a great part of the problem of global warming is the release of toxins into the atmosphere, an even greater underlying force is the rigidity of our car-bound routines and ways of thinking, preventing us from seeing another way of doing things. I know that stubbornness in myself. It comes up daily. Yet I am also curious about my own — our own — ability to surmount it; to become bigger than ourselves, or at least the people we so narrowly think we are.

In spite of the cold and rain and the rationalizations invading my brain, I dash out the basement door and bike like a madman. This routine — however ambivalent, in spite of any kind of weather — gives me an intimate familiarity with many hardships cyclists face. Is this suffering real? I wonder. Sharp pellets of rain, wind that robs me of my breath, grit flying up into my face. Or is bikers’ suffering, when it occurs, caused by a refusal to accept what simply is, a reality that carries no real weight or evaluation outside my pampered, sissified head? Can I lessen the suffering by having a different relationship to the hardships, a different way of thinking?

Here’s one theory: My ambivalence about biking is rooted in the shapes of our car-accommodating roads. Even in what is supposedly the most bike-friendly city in the United States, biking is challenging. The road can be unfriendly. The reality of the Portland biker can be summarized in one typical image: the disappearing bike lane. Often, as I pedal, safe within a margin defined by a white line, cars zipping along my side, I cross an intersection and the road narrows. Suddenly, the bike lane disappears. It’s just me and the cars. Shit! Should I have known the bike lane would end? Should I go up on the sidewalk? Am I, like the bike lane, supposed to vanish? And what were the traffic engineers thinking when they had those incomplete bike lanes painted? “Here’s where the damn cyclists will die,” they must have said, cackled, and sped away in their cars.

Other obstacles are seasonal. My first spring and summer biking to work — glorious weather! — pass quickly. In autumn, the leaves start to fall. In the early morning as I pedal to work, city leaf-blowers line the streets, sifting dust into the air. They’re doing someone a public service, but it’s not me. Even when I shield my eyes, debris invades my nose and mouth. If I don’t keep at least one squinted eye on the road, I’ll run into the curb.

In a few weeks, the rain comes down in torrents. In spite of the leaf-blowers’ persistence, in the neighborhoods where I travel, mounds of soggy leaves clog the gutters. Puddles grow into ponds that obscure the bike route. The only choice is to slash through them — wheels spitting rancid water into my face — or to swerve around them, putting me precariously in the cars’ lane.

In Portland there’s never more than a few days of snow, and it’s usually only a few inches. Only one day did I try biking in the snow, and that clearly wasn’t meant to be. Coming down a ramp, I slipped, and slid, and ultimately crashed, and walked my bike to work, skinned and limping. There’s suffering and then there’s self-destruction. For the rest of the snowy weather, I walked to work.

After the snow comes the residual gravel. The city helps car drivers by throwing gravel into the snowy streets. Once the snow melts and disappears, though, for months gravel remains on the roads. The whiz of cars sweeps it into the bike lane. On wet days gravel adheres to my tires and pelts me. I cover my eyes and steal glances at the road. Later, when I look in the bathroom mirror at work, my face is pock-marked with black soot. Even after I vigorously rub the marks with a wet paper towel, the spots remain. Faded tattoos. Or bruises.

I look like the city streets beat the shit out of me.

Can I call in sick?

Will my co-workers think I’m homeless?

Nevertheless, I stand in front of a roomful of people, about to lead a meeting. They are dry and I am wet, like the day is wet. Here’s another theory about my biking ambivalence: Like many people, I am afraid of being wet and disheveled, even though I live in one of the rainiest climates in the country. Even though we all have to walk through it and we all eventually dry off, we humans need to separate ourselves from the harsher aspects of the environment. Dry clothes, we tell ourselves, are civilized. They’re certainly more comfortable.

Curiously, as I catalog more and more obstacles, more and more shapes of cyclist suffering, I become more determined. I don’t want the environmental obstacles to become my own excuse. I don’t want to see the seasons as the enemy. My obsession grows. Not only do I bike to and from work every day, but I start biking to meetings in different buildings during the day, instead of reserving a company car or carpooling. At first, hopping on my bike to pedal two miles to my next meeting, I feel guilty, as if I shouldn’t bike while on paid time. But this is Portland, I think to myself. The Green Mecca. When I arrive, bike helmet under my arm, hair damp and mashed, it will be a badge of honor.

No one complains. My appearance, it seems, is perennially rumpled, my hair sweaty and disheveled.

I look like it’s raining outside.

Because it is raining outside.

Why pretend otherwise? When I moved to Portland 16 years ago, a native told me, “You get to call yourself an Oregonian when you stop using an umbrella.”

As I head into the new year, I have kept my resolution to bike every day, in spite of the hurdles. I don’t plan to stop. There are the predictable pleasures, of course. I lose weight. I sleep soundly. The stresses of the workplace glide over me. Even my appetite improves, as I eat because I need energy for my biking lifestyle, not because I’m bored or sleep-deprived. Although there are stories of cyclists being killed or injured by unaware car drivers, more often I experience drivers’ deference, especially at intersections, where it’s not uncommon for a driver to slow down for me, even when they don’t have a stop sign.

When I can’t bike to meetings in the middle of the day, I miss the fresh air, the bit of exercise, the way natural light plays on the urban landscape. Each day is framed with a robust awareness of what it feels like to be truly outdoors, in the wind or rain or sun or hail or sleet.

Winter days are still difficult. Rationalizations still lurk on the periphery of my mind, but whispery, more easily ignored. As I lug my bike up the basement stairs, open the door for the first time, and inhale the cold morning, I have a different mantra I repeat in my head:

Accept rain.

Accept puddles.

Accept wind resistance.

Accept disappearing bike lanes.

Accept cars that cut me off.

I climb onto my bike and feel the muscles in my legs come awake as I pedal down the wet, black street. On my customary route I reach a high point before I descend a zigzagging path down to the esplanade that runs along the Willamette River. There, I can take in the downtown vista: the succession of bridges transporting cars, towers filled with workers, boats docked in the industrial port, and swimming geese oblivious to the cold.

Even on a rainy day, it is not a gloomy city.  I see pearly luminosity, ochre and sepia tones in the fauna, a shiny, salmon-colored tower.

Pedaling along the esplanade, so low it runs nearly level with the river, I lose any sense of a separation between myself and the day, slashing through puddles and drizzle and wind. My lungs fill with frigid air. In the fluid rush of morning I am just another whizzing particle.

By Wayne Scott

Wayne Scott writes every once in a while for The Oregonian, has work forthcoming from Third Coast, and recently spoke at Ignite Portland 12 about the travails of being a social worker.

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