Well actually, America…

crescentmoonSometimes we don’t know why we make a particular choice, what it means to us — how it fits in with who we are or will shape who we become — until later, often years later. I became a born-again bicyclist (as my friend Kimberly puts it) in New York City, at this time of year, in 2001. I’ve written about what that was like, about why I had to leave when I did, and about my search for a place where I could simply ride my bike in peace. Just be able to go about my business with a reasonable expectation of both being and feeling safe doing so.

But it’s only recently that I’ve been able to see the last few years — and maybe even the last fifteen — in context, as a trajectory that means something to me, and that has a pattern.

I’ve said before that I dislike the notion (popular in transportation research and planning, and even among bicycle advocacy groups) of categorizing people who ride bicycles (or don’t) according to their attitudes about it, e.g. “strong & fearless” <eyeroll>, “enthusiastic & confident,” “interested but concerned.” I know people are fond of using labels as a shorthand so they can talk about how to meet various people’s needs, but my experience in this and every other form of human experience is that labels are harmful. They’re reductive, and they’re a slippery slope to stereotyping.

And one thing they miss entirely in this particular case is that people’s feelings about bicycling, their preferences, their “style,” change over time. As with all other aspects of our lives, how we experience life on the bike evolves. Because we get older, because we try new things, because what used to be fun or comfortable for us no longer feels the same, but we might enjoy some other way of being on the bike.

lotuspadsThis is natural. This is normal. Were we a cycling culture, we would understand this in our bones. But we are not. We are a driving culture, and as such we can barely recognize that people on bikes are human, much less that their cycling needs and preferences will develop and transmute over time.

I don’t enjoy riding my bicycles any less than I did when I lived in NYC, but I definitely ride differently now than I did then. And that’s neither good nor bad; it just is. It’s part of being a human on a bike. I have evolved. I will continue to.

The trouble is, the U.S. has no room for me to evolve. Say what you will about your own experiences, for me there is only one type of riding I can do here: high-alert riding.

And I was ready to be done with that style when I left NY almost five years ago. It was why I moved to Portland.

purples2I’ve written in detail about how Portland changed in the time I lived there, and about why it fails to fulfill its substantial promise as a haven for people who choose to bicycle for transportation. You can read that here, and here. Things haven’t improved since I left; more people walking and bicycling have been killed or seriously injured by drivers this year than last year, in Portland and in the U.S. as a whole.

When I moved to the D.C. metro area, I experienced significant culture shock. It was the first time I’d lived in such a deeply car-centric region since I became a dedicated bicyclist. This summer, I visited Minneapolis to see whether it might work as an alternative. The people I met there were wonderful, and the Greenways ranged from minimally serviceable to downright delightful, but the moment you exited them you were shoulder to shoulder with aggressive drivers zooming past your elbow at 50+mph, on the largest stroads I’ve seen outside of Los Angeles. Not to mention that everyone warned me about riding the Greenways at night (in a word, “Don’t”).

My experiences in all these cities have made it increasingly clear that the answer to my simple plea, “I just want to ride my bike where I’m going in peace” is, in this country, “No.”

I’m not the first person to face this hard truth, and I won’t be the last. The surge of interest in “gravel bikes” and bikepacking is due in no small part to people getting discouraged by the constant stream of aggression and near-misses they experience riding on roads.

But as fun as gravel and snow and singletrack are, I still have grocery shopping to do. Like everyone, I have places to go and people to see, and I’m not willing to give up my commitment to doing these things by bicycle. At the same time, I’ve had about as much of this as I can stand. Looking at the rest of my life stretched out before me as an endless stream of abuse, trauma, and threat avoidance, I’ve concluded that I deserve better than an endless pitched battle to stay alive. We don’t require war vets to live their entire lives on the front lines, and I shouldn’t have to, either.

So I’m leaving. I have a roundtrip plane ticket to the Netherlands for the winter, and if it seems like the place for me, I’ll transfer my freelance business there, come back, grab my bikes, and relocate permanently.

Looking back, I’m glad now that I started my bike life in NYC, because it’s the one place in the U.S., perhaps, where the car does not rule, and where one can feel most clearly the way the bicycle unlocks a city. As I always said to the bike-curious when they asked why I rode, the bicycle puts back the freedom the city takes away. It gives you autonomy. It gives you freedom of movement. Those two wheels are a pair of wings.


10 thoughts on “Well actually, America…

  1. Whoa, your ears must have been burning because I was just talking to Lindsey about you and various cities during our bike ride yesterday! I’m really really happy about your upcoming trip and I hope you find a strong connection with the Netherlands. Not that you asked for advice on specific cities, but I can’t myself…
    I bet you’ll like Amsterdam, having lived in New York. I find it a bit too big and crowded, but most of my relatives live in and right around Amsterdam and do just fine. I’m partial to The Hague, but I’m probably biased since my mother was born there (Scheveningen, specifically, which is my all-time favorite city). You’ve probably seen lots of film from Groningen so I hope you’ll go up there and visit. Lots of my family lived there at various points and it’s great, too, but kinda far north and some people consider it a little college town (which I think is a great thing, but is apparently meant as an insult). Can’t wait to see what you think!

  2. Good luck. I will be vicariously travelling with you. As you probably know, it’s just human to get homesick and lonely, which is a big downside of emigrating. But there’s plenty of expats in NL, including A Flamingo in Utrecht and Chad in Amsterdam (an acquired taste!) if you want to talk American.
    Bon voyage.

  3. I’ve never heard anyone that used those labels to describe different bicyclists in any way implying that once you’re pegged, you’re stuck in that category. I think the only people who don’t understand that bicyclists learn, grow, change and evolve over time is people who don’t bicycle.

    Although I occasionally have to ride in “high alert” mode, more often than not I don’t. Maybe I’m just naive to the dangers around me. But I don’t think that’s it. We do have our motor-jerks here as anywhere, but for the most part, the folks in Fort Collins are pretty respectful of bicyclists.

    That said, we do have pedestrian, bicyclist, and motorist crashes here. We have a long way to go. But we have a plan, we have a City department that’s made huge strides in just the past few years, and we have an active body of residents that’s pushing for continual change and improvements.

    I know there are other parts of these United States that are absolutely craptastic when it comes to being bike friendly. Even Fort Collins is still pretty car-centric. But we’re heading quickly towards the tipping point. And I’m excited to stick around and watch it happen — and hopefully even be a part of it.

  4. If my short experience riding in The Netherlands is indicative, you’ll not be back permanently anytime soon. That said, I’ll be curious how your identification as a bicycle advocate will change without the daily struggles and fights that define cycling in America.

  5. Your description of Ft. Collins sounds somewhat like Portland in what I think of as its golden age of cycling, which I caught the tail-end of for about my first year & a half there. The drivers used to be primarily courteous, the streets were low-traffic enough that the weak infrastructure (sharrows and speed bumps) was somewhat okay. Then it simultaneously lost a supportive mayor and experienced a large and rapid population growth – read: lots of influx from car-centric places – and the environment devolved rapidly. I hope for your and everyone’s sake that Ft. Collins doesn’t take the same path. Support for safer streets initiatives can be very precarious.

  6. Interesting. I know folks in the “vehicular cycling” movement who have long said what you do: that these greenways and dedicated bicycle facilities may be nice, but they are separate and unequal: the minute you need to use a regular road, its a terrifying experience. In part that is because the bicycle on sidepath movement doesn’t address calming the rest of the transportation system. I’m not sure a cycletrack next to a high speed stroad is a good solution. You still need to cross the street.

    Good luck in the Netherlands. Was there about thirty years ago when I was in grad school. Flew over with my bicycle to interview for a job. I didn’t get the job, but I got a lot of enjoyment riding through the countryside and the city of Amsterdam.

  7. I’m oddly happy with my daily commute (one way 6-miles-fast/7.5-miles-scenic) through Belmont/Cambridge/Somerville outside Boston, but I’m pretty sure it’s a lucky niche. Earlier commutes to the west and northwest were too long+hilly+nasty, and just over the Charles River, Boston feels unwelcoming and uncomfortable. I’ve biked in NYC, it makes me nervous when the protected bike lane isn’t there.

    This is nothing like where I started. I started in Florida, biking to a job in a bike shop (at age 13, can you believe it?) and later training to race. All of this, on squirrelly 2-lane roads with 45-55mph speed limits. I’ve been on roads like that in recent years, and didn’t like it much at all.

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