After 3+ decades of bicycling, starting with biking to school, then mountain biking, and then regularly bike commuting in at least 6 cities, there are a lot of stories about why I love bikes (enough that my kids have asked, “Dad, do you love bikes most of all?” (Of course, I love the kids more and it isn’t so much that I love bikes as I love aspects of bicycling).
One of my favorite bicycling experiences took place almost 15 years ago when I was riding along the border between Cambridge and Somerville, MA. I had been working in Boston for a few weeks and riding from an apartment where I was staying in Somerville into downtown Boston for work as an environmental organizer. I’d never been to Boston before and was still pretty unclear about the geography, knowing just the limited areas around the apartment, the major squares where “T” (subway) stops were located, and around downtown Boston.
Then, one day I took a new route home from work, got a little lost, and then all at once, realized where I was. It was as if at that moment, the maps I had created in my head for different sections of the Cambridge/Somerville/Boston/Medford area, that had previously been isolated from each other, all snapped into place like pieces of a puzzle. The previously confusing mix of gridded streets and angling avenues and boulevards now made sense, and I could see how the areas that I knew all fit together and related to each other, and most excitingly, how I had discovered a new shortcut.
Bicycling provides the ability to fully see and experience the details of an area much like a pedestrian, but with nearly the speed and mobility of a car to cover a far wider area. This is just one of the amazing benefits of getting around by bike, but it is one that sometimes activists and commuters like myself lose sight of when we talk about the environmental, health, and economic benefits of human-powered transportation. I love that bikes can play a major role in solving the problems of climate change, oil dependence, obesity, declining urban areas, diminishing incomes, and more, but I started biking because it provided me with personal mobility and because there were moments of sheer joy when riding around.
Mastering the geography of the towns just north of Boston could have happened by car or on foot, but it happened easily because bicycling allowed me the flexibility to move quickly through new areas, to explore, and to be in close contact with the people and neighborhoods through which I travelled. When I’m on a bike I can hear the conversations around me, smell the dinner cooking in the houses along the street, and feel the shifts in the weather.
Patrick McMahon is a transportation planner in Baltimore, working for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) to improve policies for students to bike or walk to school throughout Maryland.