Sometimes 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.
This 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.
I’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.