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Tucson Weekly Pedal-Pushing 40

Life has a fast lane...and a bike lane.

By Kay Sather

MARCH 9, 1998:  Just like in the movies, my memory plays back those few seconds of action in slow motion. The car turns slowly toward me, the wide hood with its luxury ornament moving steadily forward, past the point where it should have stopped. I have time to tell my legs to pedal faster, but they don't have time to respond.

The car hits me just below the knee. There's no pain connected with the moment of impact, and I'm completely conscious as I somersault through the air. I even have time to congratulate myself for wearing a helmet before my head hits the curb.

I roll to a sitting stop, still feeling nothing. Looking up, I wonder if I've died and gone to "Life in Hell"--a dozen befezzed Akhbars and Jeffs have gathered around me, heads bent, tassels dangling. but now the pain in my leg tells me I've still very much alive. I realize I'm sitting in the bike lane at the mouth of the Shriner Hall driveway, blocking the way to one of their dress-up functions. I suspect my leg is broken.

That's how one of my life's favorite chapters ended--the chapter I might call "Pedal-Pushing 40." The year and a half that I went carless, using my bicycle to get me where I needed to go, a time in my life when I seemed to have more time, miraculously, having given up the faster of my two vehicles.

I had toyed with the idea of kicking the air-fouling, money-sucking, smelly, risky auto habit for years. For a long time it was a nice but impossible dream. Every time I drove somewhere I found myself asking, Could I have done this without a car? The answer was usually no. I knew I couldn't possibly have hauled those groceries on a bike. I couldn't possibly have taken care of that dental appointment on my lunch hour, picked up my daughter, or carried that lumber home without my car.

So why was I thinking about getting rid of my steel-belted radial wheels?

I like to think the idea had its roots in my budding social conscience. We think idealism belongs to the young, but I suspect that more often than not, awareness of where we fit into the world and what we're doing with it--or to it--is a part of truly growing up. Some people never get there. In my case, conscience seemed to be creeping up on me slowly, like weight gain and wrinkles.

It was becoming increasingly hard to ignore the vast amount of information out there about the serious side effects of our driving habit. The death toll from accidents or the brown haze that's come between us and our once-beautiful mountain views are immediate and undeniably real. Other side effects, like the depletion of fossil fuels or the alteration of normal weather patterns, aren't quite so much in our face, and are easier not to think about. Still others are not usually talked about except in conjunction with other problems, such as overflowing landfills where giant piles of used tires now give us a whole new kind of "mountain" view.

But I wasn't motivated by some kind of neurotic "global guilt." I knew I hadn't caused this mess, and I had no illusions that my automotive abstinence was going to make a significant dent in Tucson's traffic problems or the state of the earth. I did want to find out what I could do, however. I wanted to see just how completely I could free myself from dependence on what I saw as a failing urban system: mobility based on the auto.

That sense of freedom and independence was important. It appealed to the you-can't-make-me attitude I probably picked up as a 2-year-old. Who said I had to spend this huge chunk of my money on car payments, gas, license fees, insurance, repairs, oil changes, security systems, seat covers, car washes and parking?

The idea offered that thrill of getting something (transportation) for nothing (well, almost nothing; I still needed a helmet and lights). And I had the genes of my great-grandmother, do-it-yourselfer Johanna Okerson Nelson, the woman who wove a wall-to-wall carpet out of swamp reeds so she wouldn't have to live with a dirt floor like the other peasants in her village. The woman who stood outside a rich man's walled orchard until a bird with a pear in its mouth flew overhead, so she could yell "Drop that!" and catch the fruit as it fell from the sky. Would such a woman have shelled out big bucks to ride around in a metal box that heated up its inner atmosphere to 80 degrees higher than the already sweltering desert air? I didn't think so.

Still, time is money. What would it cost me time-wise to trade in my car for a slower-moving vehicle?

Right off, you have to ask whether the bicycle actually is slower. I'd been noticing those bicyclists who would pull up on my right at the stoplights, fall behind after the green signal, then catch up with me again at the next light. They got to do things I couldn't, like scoot up on the sidewalk or make right-hand turns into a bike lane without having to wait for the line of cars to pass.

A couple trial runs told me that during rush hour my five-mile trip to the office actually did take me about 20 minutes longer by bike. But I planned to combine my daily exercise time with my commute time. The drive to the health club, along with the hour of exercise, was costing me more than an hour and a half each day, so I stood to gain almost an hour right there.

The idea of driving somewhere to get on a stationary bicycle--or treadmill or stair machine--had always seemed silly to me. We've developed all kinds of labor-saving devices, only to realize our bodies actually need physical exertion. So we've developed labor-creating devices. And we use them both, paying double: car expenses and health club dues, driving time and exercise time.

I've heard that Humboldt State University's Center for Appropriate Technology in Arcata, California, is coming up with more energy-sensible ideas, such as a bicycle-powered washing machine. I like to think about what a bicycle-powered TV could do for this country--if we all had and used them. We'd watch less, get fit, and collectively save millions on our electrical bills. Without waiting for these devices to hit the market, though, I could at least put the principle of useful exercise into practice by using my bicycle to get around town.

AS IT TURNED out the decision to renounce my car wasn't scary, dramatic, or logically thought out. It wasn't even a decision--the thing renounced me first. Surely the name for this car, Ford Escort, was chosen because of its need for a more reliable companion vehicle to accompany it at all times. One day I faced a $400 repair, and I decided to put it off as long as possible.

Three months later, my "escort" was still sitting in my driveway, accumulating bird turds. I realized I didn't need it any more. By that time, I had worked out most of the logistical problems.

The first was transporting my daughter, Anna. At 10, she was too old for a bike seat, but not quite old enough to ride long distances safely and speedily on her own bike, even if I rode with her. I'd checked out tandems and found them too pricey. But one day we discovered a swell old classic Columbia tandem in mint condition at a secondhand shop on Fourth Avenue. The shop owner was asking only $225 for it, and would throw in a three-month, $200-back guarantee if it didn't suit our purposes.

"Our" turned out to be a key word. It took all I had in my bag of parenting tricks to convince Anna that if she wanted to go anywhere, she would ride this bike. With her mom.

As much as she hated getting on that bike, those rides contributed to our relationship in a unique way. We became part of the same organism, with me yelling commands ("Brakes!" "Signal right!") and Anna following through like one of my own limbs. I could feel the pumping of her legs like a heartbeat behind me, and her occasional bursts of intense energy gave me direct physical relief. Though I had twinges of guilt about forcing her into it, I know it was okay, because every once in a while she'll get that nostalgic look on her now-teenage face and say, "Mom, remember when we used to, like, ride the tandem around town? Wasn't that just so fun?"

It was fun, not just the rides with Anna but my rides to work, too. On my bike I was a couple thousand pounds lighter and a lot quieter--literally, of course, but also in spirit. Ah, endorphins! The morning ride woke me up and gave me energy for work, and the return trip burned off any residues of stress I had accumulated from the job. I no longer needed time to unwind once I got home.

There were times when facing the weather was not fun. Hot days were OK: I could jump on a breeze machine instead of crawling into a solar oven on wheels. But cold days were tough. I couldn't wear warm clothes because I'd only need to peel them off as soon as I got going. And sometimes the thought of leaving my warm bed to face the chill in my shirtsleeves was enough to make me hit the snooze button more than once. But the actual misery lasted only a couple minutes; after riding a few blocks I was warmed up and feeling virtuous.

That's "virtuous" as in "environmentally correct," I suppose, but also as in strong and tough--words I would never have used to describe myself before.

I once read a quote from an Indian tribal leader who had just welcomed a handful of young men home after they finished studying at the white man's college. The men were ruined, he said, no longer able to withstand cold temperatures or sleep on the ground. That's me, I thought then, pale and soft like Wonder Bread, always the kid who liked to sit right next to the heater and read.

That sense of myself changed. I wasn't a wimp anymore.

Co-workers offered me rides if it was raining at quitting time, but it was usually more trouble trying to load my bike into their car than to just take off in the rain. There was always that initial shock--like diving into a swimming pool, but after that the exuberant 2-year-old puddle splasher in me took over. Once I really did take a dive--the curb was so far under water that I didn't know it was there until I found myself lying next to it. I didn't get hurt (just very wet) but it was a near-tragedy nonetheless--for reasons that didn't become clear until Anna met me at our front door, phone in hand. "Mom!" she whispered, "This lady says she found your purse bobbing up and down on Speedway."

One logistical problem remained: carrying things. I could have installed baskets on my bike (those rattling metal things that separate the commuter nerd from the recreational cyclist, if the clothes haven't given it away already) or, like my friend Brad, rigged up a cart to haul the really big stuff. But what I already had on hand proved to be sufficient--a backpack, cardboard boxes, a rear-wheel clamp, and a bungee cord or two. Except for the purse I almost lost, I was managing pretty well, carrying up to $80 worth of groceries at a time. I transported gallons of paint and 8-foot pieces of molding from the hardware store, and more than once made trips to the vet with my cat, which meowed pathetically, earning me disapproving stares.

I'm sure I looked like an odd sort of bag lady at times. So? I was keeping in shape, saving money, and helping to save the world. When it comes to using bikes to carry things, though, the world may have the last laugh on us here in the U.S. In many other countries, bicycles are used widely as beasts of burden to great ecological, economic and even military advantage. During the Vietnam War, for example, the Viet Cong used bicycles to move supplies efficiently along narrow jungle paths.

There were a few things for which I absolutely had to have a car--though I can't remember now what they were. My friends were there for me at those times, along with their cars. I borrowed a car once or twice a month, planning my route carefully, starting my errand list days in advance. The bike trips as well as the car trips were best thought through ahead of time. Real commuter bikers don't go home from work, have dinner, and then decide to go to the drugstore. They stop at the drugstore on the way home. I found that, conveniently, there was one of almost everything on the way home from my office. Once again, since I was forced to manage my time better, I didn't seem to have any less of it in the long run.

Cars, on the other hand, tolerate forgetfulness and waste; it's relatively easy to zip back home for that item we forgot, or out to the store for that one thing we're craving. Gas is still cheap and our daily costs are minimal in terms of both time and money. But these costs are deceptively low, part of a pleasant dream we'll eventually have to wake up from. Already, surrealistically long waits at red lights and incidents of road rage are causing us to turn uneasily in our sleep. Our children and grandchildren, if they survive the future we're handing them, will have to pay off our environmental debt and suffer the consequences--which we are only beginning to fathom--of our wastefulness.

AND NOW I have to include myself once again in that sorry picture. Though it already looks like I'll have increasing knee pain as I get older, my run-in with the poor-sighted Shriner did not disable me, nor did it paralyze me with a fear of bicycling. But after the accident, with many months in a full-leg cast ahead of me, either I had to get a car or depend on others for my mobility. I bought the car.

And I'm still driving it. Like everyone else, I have good reasons. My job requires me to work nights, and to make the trip home during the wee hours through a questionable part of town. And I now have a teenager who, like all teenagers, is desperate to be "normal," to have a mom who can pick her up after a party.

We're caught in a car-based culture which gives us many reasons to drive each day. What if we were given more reasons not to drive? A complete network of lush, enticing bike paths away from the toxic stink of exhaust. Safe ways for bikes to cross arterials on residential through-streets, not just at stop lights (wide median "islands" or grade-separated intersections). Physical barriers, ideally "green" ones, wherever bikes have to share the road with cars. Bike racks in the choicest spots, like handicapped parking spaces.

Anyone who's going against the mainstream in matters of transportation--whether by bike, bus, on foot, or on a skateboard, for that matter--deserves to be encouraged in all possible ways, certainly not penalized. Currently, most auto insurance policies consider commuter cyclists "uninsured drivers," so that those who choose to return to driving find themselves paying doubled premiums for the first year back. And at the unemployment office, benefits can be terminated if the recipient turns down a job because it's too far--up to 20 miles--from home.

In my wildest moments I imagine a whole lane from each of our major thoroughfares designated for alternate modes only. The squeeze might just make that alternate lane the fast lane, and entice able-bodied commuters to cross the line.

In reality, of course, we have the opposite. Bond initiatives to build more roads seem always to get the green light. Without fail, I see these new or widened roadways fill to capacity like the others before them. I wonder where it stops.

ANNA IS NOW 16, and dying to have her own car. What do I say to her? What do I do? This much I know: She'll form her own values and opinions, in her own time. I hope I've influenced her, but I won't stand in the way of that process.

Neither will I buy her a car.

If she's determined to buy one with her own money, she may find that mine is suddenly for sale. We'd still be a one-car family. And I think if I reached way back in my memory I could remember how to ask, "Could I please have the car tonight? PLEASE?"


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