Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Rethinking "Normal"

I walked out of my classroom and into the hallway, wheeling my bicycle beside me as I headed out of school at the end of the day. A student looked at me, and then at my bike, and then with a screwed up expression said clearly, “THAT is not normal.”

Not “normal”?

Not typical, I thought. But not normal? I had to think about that one.
Unfortunately in America, our collective
attitudes about bikes were formed back
when this new.
Along my commute to the school where I teach, which is a rural/suburban school district, I notice students waiting at the ends of their driveways for the bus – kids waiting at one driveway after the next, for what is essentially “door to door” service. The bus picks up one child, drives maybe fifty yards to the next address, then picks up another child. Some of these kids wait inside idling cars with their parents who were kind enough to drive them from the house to the street, thereby saving them the walk down the driveway. Rain or shine, warm or cold, it’s always the same. After the bus pulls away, many of those parents then drive back to the house.
Apparently, that is normal.
I am frequently faced with disbelief from students (and even some teachers) when I answer affirmatively their question, “Did you ride that to school”?
       “Yes, I did.”
       “You’re joking, right”?
       “No. Really. I rode this to school.”
Then come more questions. “How far away do you live”?
       “About fourteen miles.”
       “Each way”?
Then come the weird looks. Sometimes jokes. Clearly, this is not normal.

A great way to get to work. 
I should make it clear that I’m not really concerned with appearing “normal,” or with what some fifteen-year-old kid thinks of me. But rather, I’d like to ponder the social/cultural significance that an offhand remark symbolizes.
We are a car-dependent culture. Or perhaps I should say car-crazed? Obsessed? In places like The Netherlands or Denmark, people are as likely to bike to school or work as drive. Car ownership is a burden many people don’t want or need. In Copenhagen, the notion of driving a car two or three (or five or ten) miles just to get a loaf of bread and some milk would be ludicrous. Driving kids to the end of a driveway to wait for a bus would mark a person as certifiable.
But that’s Europe, right? This is America. Wide open spaces, fierce independence, and all that. We need our cars, don’t we? But what is more independent than getting to work under our own power? Without the regular ritual of filling up a gas tank at prices that put us more and more into the pockets of big oil companies. 
Car full of girls and two guys on bikes. The conversation:
Guys: "Have you read Ralph Nader's book?"
Girls: "Get on the sidewalk!"

The thing is – we do need our cars. Nobody is denying that, least of all me. But are we really as dependent on them as we have allowed ourselves to believe? When we allow ourselves a moment to think about it, we might find that there are lots of trips that we might make by car that could just as easily be done by bike. We have options.

One thing about commuting by bike is that it is probably the best, most "pure" use of a bicycle. People tend to think of bicycles as "green" but that isn't necessarily true. Only when we use our bikes for commuting, shopping, or something else that would otherwise be done with a car -- only then is it truly a "green" vehicle. Don't think I'm getting preachy or smug about it -- I love bikes and riding, regardless of what the reason is. But if one is thinking that the simple act of riding a bicycle is somehow good for the environment, I'd say it really depends on what they're doing.

Last school year (August to June), I managed a "bike-to-work" average of 50% -- exactly. At the end of the year, I calculated that my bike commuting totaled over 2500 miles, and saved me approximately 75 gallons of fuel (I average about 33 mpg or so in mixed driving -- VW Jetta diesel, if anyone's wondering). And this, keep in mind, is in Northeast Ohio, which hardly has a riding-conducive climate. 

So far this year (at the end of October), I'm averaging over 70%, which is a good bit better than I was doing at the same time last year. I know my average will drop during the winter, but my goal is to increase my year-long average to 55% or more. 60% would be an awesome accomplishment.

In addition to the fuel savings, I also lost weight -- about 20 lbs in 12 months. The weight loss wasn't intentional -- just a fortunate side effect. I now weigh the same as I did when I graduated from college more than 20 years ago. The benefits have been fantastic.

Lastly, commuting by bike has made it possible for me to get a lot more riding time than I would otherwise be able to do. Between work, and my kids, and everything else that happens in life, it can be really difficult for me to find the time to get out for a ride. When I can combine my commuting time and my riding time, it becomes a win-win situation for me.

Back at work, I still get the weird looks, but I can deal with it. After all, what is "normal"?

1 comment:

  1. Normal is to be strange; or, perhaps, strange is to be normal.

    I live in Madrid, Spain, and it doesn't seem to be Europe, but after 25 years moving almost everywhere by bike I've got used to be strange.

    Keep the good work.