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YES! Bikes to Work—All Month

May is national bike month. To celebrate, YES! staff members joined one of the biggest bike commuter events on the West Coast: the 2009 Group Health Commute Challenge. Here Team "YES! We Cycle" reports back from their green commute.

Yes, We Cycle
by Madeline Ostrander

How to Fit Bicycling into my Life
by Kim Eckart

Bike-Train
by Adam MacKinnon

The Mechanics of Self-Reliance
by Colette Cosner

First-Time Commuter
by Kim Eckart

Bicycle Superhero
by Madeline Ostrander

Celebrating Bike Month
by Fran Korten

Yes, We Cycle

Madeline Ostrander spacer Madeline Ostrander, Senior Editor

What kind of bike: Fuji Touring Bike
Length of your commute: 5.75 miles
Do you ride year round?: Mostly, though I ride more frequently in summer.
Your favorite bike gear/gadget: My high-beam bicycle headlight, which has the power to ward off oncoming cars, or at least get their attention.
Most interesting place you biked: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
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For years, bicycles have had an avid group of supporters within Congress—the 180-member Bicycle Caucus—led by Representative Earl Blumenauer, the guy who wears a bow tie and hails from bike-friendly Portland, Oregon, and James Oberstar, from Minnesota, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Blumenauer and his bike-partisan colleagues have lobbied successfully to get bike infrastructure funding into the economic stimulus package, and in January, they passed a new commuter law that allows cycling to qualify for reimbursement as a work-related transportation expense—so your employer can cover the costs not only of your bus or car commute or parking fees, but of your bike commute as well.

Blumenauer has a simple explanation for why cycling should be part of the national agenda: “We are working for ways to enhance the status of people who burn calories, not oil, people who take up less space on congested roadways, do not contribute to air pollution, and simplify the parking problems faced by more Americans.”

It’s the same set of reasons that YES! has spent the last month writing about bicycles. We’ve had fun riding our bikes to work, but we also know that this simple technology, which translates muscle power into speed, represents a big step toward sustainability.

We’re still tallying results, but so far YES! has biked more than 360 miles this month. If we had driven those miles, we would have dumped nearly 400 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We’re all a little healthier as a result of our cycling. Some of us have resolved to get more exercise through year-round bike commuting. Our associate editor, a first-time bike commuter, has decided to make a habit of biking to the office, even though she rides nearly twenty miles from the other side of Puget Sound, and has to work her ride around childcare.

The bicycle is a serious, powerful, and economical mode of sustainable transportation. In countries in Europe and the developing world, the bicycle is a primary means for getting around town and hauling supplies. Sightline Institute has called the bicycle one of the sustainable wonders of the world and notes that more than half of all trips made by car are three miles or less, and could easily be done by bicycle. “If Americans replaced just one in five of their average length car trips by bicycling,” Sightline says, “each driver would spare the atmosphere more than one ton of carbon dioxide emissions. Collectively, the effect would be comparable to taking 48 million vehicles off the road.”

In the U.S., through bike-to-work events like the one we participated in this month, and through the efforts of people like Blumenauer, the status of the bicycle is on the rise. As cities like Portland become more bike-friendly, more people are choosing the bike path over the traffic-congested highway. As we address climate change, we know the bike is one small but mighty solution.

Yes, we cycle!

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How to Fit Bicycling into my Life

Kim Eckart

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Kim Eckart, Associate Editor

What kind of bike: Nearly 10-year-old Specialized Allez road bike
Length of your commute: 17 miles one way (estimate); 1 hour, 20 minutes to Seattle ferry terminal; return commute is 4.5 miles, after putting bike on bus and riding from a park-and-ride lot
Do you ride year round?: Only occasionally. First bike commute.
Most interesting place you biked: The most challenging ride I’ve ever done: A three-day, 174-mile ride over three mountain passes in Washington— Snoqualmie, Blewett, and Stevens

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Since my first bike commute, I’ve been inspired to figure out ways to fit bicycling into my life.

With a young child, competing priorities, and nothing we need (including a bus stop) within easy walking distance of our home, I find it difficult to live without a car. Even my bike commute is a well-timed, well-planned venture that only occurred the same day each week, when I could work late, and my husband could pick up our daughter from school.

But last week, I decided to test my preconceived notion that I couldn’t possibly bike home in the middle of the afternoon and still manage to reach my car and the school on time.

I tried to find a backup plan—biking straight to school, taking the bus to within half a mile of our house—but alas, the bus doesn’t go everywhere we want it to, or when. So it was bike home first, risk being late to school.

With a little research into additional bus routes and times, though, I was able to get closer to home and minimize cycling time on city streets with lots of traffic lights. The end result: a ferry/bus/bike commute, and a child picked up on time.

Obviously, a bike adds more travel time than a bus or car. I met a friend for lunch over the weekend and decided to bike the 50 minutes to her house (50 minutes home, too). But—on a sunny day, anyway—I’d rather do that than a) sit in traffic; b) spend money on gas and pollute the air; or c) have to look for and potentially pay to park. Practically speaking, could I ride my bike on every errand, every outing with a friend? Perhaps. But for my life, simply cycling more often works for now. The next challenge will be cycling to work in the fall, in the dark.

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The Longest Bike... for the Shortest Commute

Adam MacKinnon spacer

Adam MacKinnon, Online Editor

What kind of bike: Giant Lite electric bike with Mountain Train trail-a-bike and Burley solo on the back; individual bike is a 7-year-old Bianchi mountain bike.
Length of your commute: Just under a mile, including dropping son off at kindergarten.
Do you ride year round?: Yes, in all weather.
Favorite bike gadget: Rear-view mirror.
Most interesting place you biked: Amidst the crazy motorists of Rome on a 40-year-old clunker, trying to keep up with my Italian pen-pal, whilst also not getting killed.

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The MacKinnon family on their bike-train

We sold our car 5 years ago, and to celebrate, got ourselves an electric bike to help get around the West Seattle hills with our increasingly heavy toddler in tow. Now, another child later, and a couple of house moves on, I've exchanged a 9-mile commute for one of just a few blocks.

We've added a trail-a-bike to the burley, and made a contraption we call the "Bike Train." Our 5-year-old pedals gamely in the middle, our 11-month old rides behind, and there's even room for all the groceries in the back. One particular bike triumph was bringing home our Christmas tree in the burley.

We make quite a sight riding around town and exploring the island, turning heads everywhere, and hopefully inspiring a few others to try biking. The photo above was taken en route to the beach.

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The Mechanics of Self-Reliance

Kim Eckart spacer Colette Cosner, Media & Outreach Intern

What kind of bike: Vintage Bianchi
Length of your commute: 2 miles
Do you ride year round?: I will now
Your favorite bike gadget: tool-kit
Most interesting place you biked: Alki Beach
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I know next to nothing about bikes. Apparently, mine is very cool, and you’ll even hear me concur from time to time, “oh yes, she’s a beauty,” though in all honesty I have no idea why. I am new to the “bike person” identity. For years, I’ve been huffing behind my hard-core hipster bike friends in doubt of my skills—a doubt stemming mostly from my complex relationship with speed and hard right turns. As was true with my late great automobile, any sign of mechanical malfunction turns me into a regular Scarlett O’Hara: “I have always relied on the kindness of strangers.” My feminist inklings get lost somewhere between the metal thingy that doesn’t work right and the knob doodad that just fell off in my hand.

Despite my aforementioned incompetence, I have made the decision to participate in a two-day fundraising bike ride. The CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador) 2nd Annual bike trip raises money for grassroots organizations committed to promoting democracy and sovereignty in El Salvador. According to their website,

CISPES was founded in 1980 as civil war broke out in El Salvador. The goals of the organization were to stop U.S. government funding for the repressive Salvadoran dictatorship and to support those in El Salvador who were putting forward an alternative vision for the country based upon equality, social justice and democracy. Though the war ended in 1992, the majority of Salvadorans remain in poverty, while political repression, violence, U.S. intervention and other forms of injustice are still prevalent.

CISPES works with allies in El Salvador, including the new FMLN political party, to support efforts for social justice in El Salvador and here in the United States. The FMLN was a coalition of rebel guerillas who fought the US-backed military government during almost two decades in which more than 70,000 people died.

I learned of this history through my step-father, who fled El Salvador during the war and received amnesty here in the U.S. I see solidarity movements, and this bike ride, as a way to fight the historical amnesia of the US involvement in the civil wars of Central America, I just never thought my politics would entwine so deeply with my petty “bike person” identity crisis. Not unlike our recent presidential victory, the newly elected Salvadoran President, Mauricio Funes, has sent a wave of hope rippling through El Salvador that change is possible. Moreover, a declaration of neutrality on election outcomes from the Obama administration scored the U.S. major points in regard to respect for the sovereignty of nations. CISPES and other solidarity activists played a major role in lobbying for self-determination. And so my weekend began with a three-hour political discussion on the role of solidarity groups in the new political climate of El Salvador and ended in a 40-mile training ride. Needless to say, I am exhausted.

The weekend’s intense combination of sovereignty ponderings and near asthma attacks inspired an unlikely turn of events in the bike saga of yours truly. I bought some tools. I’m ready to take bike maintenance into my own hands, strange as it may be that it took a small country in Central America to convince me to do so. I am in no way trying to compare my buying a wrench to the incredible social movements of El Salvador but, in the vast landscape of what it means to act locally and think globally, you’ve got to start somewhere. For me, it starts with a question: What are the tools of self-reliance? Sometimes it takes a nation to inspire an individual answer.

For more information about CISPES and the solidarity bike ride please visit www.cispes.org.

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First-Time Commuter

Kim Eckart spacer Kim Eckart, Associate Editor

What kind of bike: Nearly 10-year-old Specialized Allez road bike
Length of your commute: 17 miles one way (estimate); 1 hour, 20 minutes to Seattle ferry terminal; return commute is 4.5 miles, after putting bike on bus and riding from a park-and-ride lot
Do you ride year round?: Only occasionally. First bike commute.
Most interesting place you biked: The most challenging ride I’ve ever done: A three-day, 174-mile ride over three mountain passes in Washington— Snoqualmie, Blewett, and Stevens
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I spent more time stressing about my first bike commute than I spent on the commute itself.

Incurable planner that I am, I researched routes, estimated distances, looked up commuting advice on the Cascade Bicycle Club’s Web site and talked to my husband—an occasional bike commuter himself—and experienced colleagues. Should I ride the ferry at Edmonds and bike from Kingston to Bainbridge, or ride to downtown Seattle and ride the ferry from there? Which was better: ride first, then relax on the ferry; or get the ferry crossing out of the way first, then ride? I was nervous about navigating downtown Seattle, and about riding up and down the steep hills. And then there was the dreaded, but required, task of putting my bike on the bus for the trip home: What if I was so flummoxed and took so long that I delayed all the passengers? Or, much worse: What if I didn’t mount it securely, and it fell off and caused an accident, or the bus ran over it? Couldn’t I just carry it on and stand with it? (No.) These were the thoughts that, quite literally, kept me up at night.

Before I had a family, I used to ride more regularly, often with a friend who is an avid cyclist. Today, running fits more easily into my routine, which means I have, if not cycling-specific attire, clothing for the weather: tights, jacket, gloves and the like. I’d taken street clothes to work, along with a few clean-up items, ahead of time so that I would minimize how much I’d need to carry on The Big Day.

It was a rainy Big Day. Light rain, nothing blinding or downright dangerous, but it was not the sunny, dry morning I’d imagined when I signed up for this. I asked myself: Would a typical bike commuter avoid riding in this? I noticed some reflective yellow stickers with my husband’s bike gear and, remembering Madeline’s advice to stay visible, slapped them on my helmet.

A happy and tired Kim returns home after completing her first commute to YES!
A happy and tired Kim returns home after completing her first commute to YES!

I rode away from my house at 5:30 a.m. There were few cyclists on the Burke- Gilman Trail, and relatively low traffic on the streets of Seattle. I made sure to stay in the lane, like a car, as other cyclists recommended. I walked my bike down one particularly steep block (there’s no shame in that, I reasoned). And within a few more blocks, I was waiting in line at the ferry, doing as other cyclists did when it was time to board.

Admittedly, as I sat on the ferry back to Seattle, it was hard to muster the energy for the trip home, even though it would only be a fraction of the distance. But once off the boat, I again braved the ride through a few blocks of downtown Seattle, walked the final block to my bus stop and—thanks to the help of a fellow passenger—successfully placed my bike on the bus rack. Much easier than I thought it would be, both getting on and off the bus. My ride home from the park-and-ride—4 ? miles—was a low-traffic, quiet end to the day.

On my list to buy: a better bag. The only reason the contents of my all-purpose cloth backpack didn’t get wet was because, on a whim, I’d wrapped each item in a plastic bag. A red reflector for the back of my bike. Possibly better tires (I haven’t even mentioned my fear of flat tires).

What I’m glad I did: Used the aforementioned plastic bags. Brought a pair of slip-on shoes (wrapped in those same plastic bags in my backpack) for the ferry, and a change of socks for the ride home. Had the ferry card/bike fee/bus money in my pocket and ready to hand over. Brought my work clothes and some food the day before.

Now that I’ve done it once, I am relieved and ready to it again.

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How I Became a Bicycle Superhero
(And How You Can Become One, Too)

Madeline Ostrander spacer Madeline Ostrander, Senior Editor

What kind of bike: Fuji Touring Bike
Length of your commute: 5.75 miles
Do you ride year round?: Mostly, though I ride more frequently in summer.
Your favorite bike gear/gadget: My high-beam bicycle headlight, which has the power to ward off oncoming cars, or at least get their attention.
Most interesting place you biked: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
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I married into a cycling family. In 1973, David, the man who is now my father-in-law, began commuting by bicycle, and he’s kept up the habit almost daily, even as the distance grew from a round-trip of two miles in Oberlin, Ohio, to 15 miles when he started teaching in Washington, DC. He’s now 66, and will finish his last ride to work this summer, but only because he’s retiring.

Madeline's father in law David on his daily commute.
Madeline's father in law David on his daily commute.

David inspired his sons to the same bicycle devotion. In the 1980s, his teenage son, Joel, who is now my husband, often biked the length of the W&OD pedestrian trail, a converted former rail line that runs for 45 miles from Arlington, Virginia to almost the West Virginia border. At 16, he got his license and started driving to school, but the bicycle was already the more powerful symbol of independence and freedom for him—it was muscle-driven, liberated from gasoline, with nothing between him and the air and the experience. By the time he had finished high school, he had spent two summer vacations on his bicycle—a pedal-powered trip through Cape Cod, and another following the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California. The summer before he began college, Joel, his father, and his younger brother, then 15 years old, embarked on an epic ride across the country from Arlington, Virginia to Portland, Oregon. They traveled in 90 to 100-mile-a-day segments, bought food along the way, and hauled their shelter (a pair of tents) with them. The take-away lesson for the younger brother was that cars are superfluous. Joel’s brother refused to get his license the next year, or share the costs of car insurance, a household requirement for anyone using the family car. Now 35 years old, my brother-in-law has lived in three states and traveled to nearly all 50, along with the Philippines, Paraguay, Vietnam, Spain, Morocco, and host of other countries. But he’s never driven a car.

Joel and his younger brother, on their epic summer ride across the country from Arlington, Virginia to Portland, Oregon.
Joel and his younger brother, on their epic summer ride across the country from Arlington, Virginia to Portland, Oregon.

When I met Joel, I was by comparison a cycling neophyte. Sure, I had done several long day-rides and commuted between my graduate school campus and my house—a mile—but nothing that measured up to his cycling feats. I finished my degree and moved to Arlington, Virginia. We’d been dating less than a year. His parents offered me a room in their house for a month while I worked a temporary administrative job in Alexandria, 12 miles away, and searched for an apartment and a more permanent source of income.

Joel pulled out the bicycle maps and looked at my commute. “I think you could ride to work,” he said. I was both petrified and thrilled by the idea. The route was 11 miles. I was certain I would get lost, be struck by a car, or at least be late to work. “We’ll ride it together,” he said.

That Saturday we wound our bicycles through residential neighborhoods to the Potomac River, past Reagan National Airport, through the swamps and parkways to my office door and back home again. The route was twisty and circuitous. I said I would never find it again, but that Monday I loaded up a bag with maps, a change of clothes, and water, and ventured into the morning sunlight. The muscle memory carried me through turns and twists to the river. I never once unfolded the map. The ride was far more pleasant than the stifling, body-packed trip on the DC Metro train. There were bird calls. There was light on the river. Some of the cherries were still shedding blooms.

The job was one of the dullest I’ve ever held—hour after hour of monotonous data entry and filing. But high on endorphins and fresh air, I glowed all day. I beamed at my boss and announced I was going to lunch. “Still jazzed from the bike commute, huh?” she said. She looked amused. I simply nodded.

I’ve been biking to work, on and off, for about eight years. Now I live in Seattle and pedal five and half miles across a bridge, along a road, and onto a ferry boat that takes me to the YES! offices on Bainbridge Island. I could probably name a hundred environmental and health reasons to commute by bicycle. It’s carbon-free and cardiovascular. It can burn fat, clear your skin, and tone your muscles. But the real reason I bike to work is pure enjoyment. I’m happier when I’m riding. My neighbors wave to me. On a clear day, I take in long gazes of Mount Rainier as I cross the bridge. I notice the change of seasons more—the trees leafing out in March and April and turning golden in October; geese, gulls, and the occasional bald eagle crossing Puget Sound; the plums, rhododendrons, and lilacs in bloom. I don’t even mind the rain so much.

I ride in a neon yellow jacket and black cycling pants. My husband calls it my “superhero outfit.” Several summers ago, he and I biked the coast of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. I’ve never felt more powerful than when I loaded my bike with food, clothing, and a sleeping bag and pumped my way to the top of a mountain from sea level. Tourists on the side of the road paused to applaud and cheer.

It’s true—there’s something heroic about conquering miles of road on muscle power alone.

Discover Your Bike Superpowers
May is National Bicycle Month, and the perfect time to connect with your own hidden inner cyclist. Here are some tips for getting started on your bicycle commute:

  1. Plan your route. Many cities and counties publish free bicycle maps showing bike lanes or low-traffic streets that are easy to ride. Consider doing a test run of the route on the weekend with a friend. It’s much easier to try out the ride when there’s no pressure to arrive on time.
  2. Be visible. The easiest way to stay safe is to make sure that drivers can see you. Wear bright clothing. Make sure your bike has reflectors.
  3. Wear a helmet. A good helmet dramatically reduces the risk of fatal injuries.
  4. Depending on the dress code at your office, you may want a change of clothes. I like to bring clothes that are wrinkle-proof, or keep an extra change of clothes and shoes at the office.
  5. Stay safe. Be familiar with the cycling rules of the road, and learn basic tips for bicycle safety. Follow a straight and predictable path instead of weaving in and out of parked cars. Ride a few feet left of the edge of the road, so drivers will see you and won’t cut you off.

You can find more tips in Bicycling Street Smarts by John S. Allen, published by Rodale and Bicycling Magazine. Cautious, commonsense cycling practices can keep you safe on the road. In fact, cycling may actually be safer than walking down the street, according to at least one study.

For more commuting tips and information, visit these websites:
Commute by Bike (commutebybike.com), featuring commuting articles for beginners, including The Slacker’s Guide to Bike Commuting.
http://commutebybike.com/2008/04/10/the-slackers-guide-to-bike-commuting/

Paul Dorn’s Bike Commuting Tips.
http://www.runmuki.com/commute/

The Pennsylvania Bicycle Driver’s Manual (from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation), useful to riders in any state.
http://www.dot.state.pa.us/Internet/Bureaus/pdBikePed.nsf/infoIntroduction?OpenForm

The Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, a national clearinghouse of information about cycling and walking, funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration: Learn how to promote cycling infrastructure, prevent bike crashes, and promote bike-friendly policies in your city.
http://www.bicyclinginfo.org/index.cfm

Sightline Institute’s “Bicycle Neglect Series”—a collection of articles, both personal and political, on bicycles, bike infrastructure, bike safety, and bike culture. http://daily.sightline.org/daily_score/series/bicycle-neglect

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May is National Bike Month

Fran Korten spacer Fran Korten, Executive Director

What kind of bike: 11 year old Trek bike
Length of your commute: 3.4 miles
Do you ride year round?: Yes
Your favorite bike gear/gadget: My two panniers—to lug all my stuff.
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Fran’s rain-or-shine commute gives her 3.4 carbon-free miles and an intrepid outlook. Photo by Paul Dunn
Fran’s rain-or-shine commute gives her 3.4 carbon-free miles and an intrepid outlook.
Oh, and fun helmet hair.
Photo by Paul Dunn

When I arrive at work, rain dripping from my helmet and coat, my colleagues greet me in wonder. "Wow, great job, Fran—biking even the in the rain." But it's actually no hardship. Oddly enough, one of my favorite times to bike is when it's raining. Well, not if there's a torrential downpour, but light rain like we had this morning.

I suit up in my rainpants and raincoat, gloves, boots, and helmet, so I'm warm and dry. Then I head off to enjoy the freshness of the air and the feeling of rain on my face. I love the way all the trees and plants (and even cars and buildings) glisten from their bath. And today, birds were out in the park, darting about in amorous chase, and daffodils were bobbing perkily on the sides of the path as I rode past.

Every once in a while I drive to work, usually because I'm hauling a lot of stuff. And when I do I'm struck all over again with how the car cuts me off from the space I'm in. I'm enclosed in a box, with a slightly smudged windshield between me and the world. I feel like I'm in a hazmat suit. On my bike, I'm in the elements—seeing, and feeling, and smelling the place I'm in. What a treat.

I know not everyone can ride a bike to work nor has such a pleasant route as mine. I recognize my privilege and just hope we can build a world where biking to work is an option for everyone.

In celebration of National Bike Month, YES! staffers are joining one of the biggest bike commuter events on the west coast: the 2009 Group Health Commute Challenge. Check back soon, as we will share bicycle experience, stories, and helpful tips from our commutes with you.

You can join us. Get on your bike for a day, a week, or even all month. Email us with your questions, comments, and suggestions and they could appear on the blog.

 

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YES! staff members who bike to work are writing this blog for YES! Magazine.

 

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