Congratulations! If you live in Copenhagen, Amsterdam or Portland, Oregon, you are in one of the world’s most bike-friendly cities. If you’re a bicycle commuter in one of these lovely towns, or others where bicycling is popular, you may glow with a little inner smugness. If you are one of many who drive to work or to run your errands, or who live where bicycling just doesn’t seem practical, you are not alone. Still, you may be feeling a little peer pressure. You may have a bicycling colleague who bounces into the office with healthy, rosy, rain-misted cheeks. You may see shoppers in the aisles of your local stores carrying handy bike baskets and dangling bike helmets conspicuously, buying healthy bananas and energy bars. Their presence makes you and your car in the parking lot, even if it’s a fuel-efficient hybrid, feel guilty, like every step you take is leaving a giant, sooty, carbon footprint. Maybe you should give up the car, get the bike out of the cellar and become One of Them. My advice? Resist.
I’m a bicycle commuter myself, but I’m the first to admit, it’s a tough transition. First, there’s the stuff. Maybe you already have a bike messenger-style bag in the closet somewhere, but if you normally have a briefcase or purse in hand, where are you going to put it? How professional is it to walk into a corporate meeting with a bike pannier slung over your shoulder? And it’s raining again. Do you have a weatherproof jacket?
Rain pants? Overshoes? Water-resistant gloves? I’ve seen people on bikes with umbrellas, but it doesn’t look easy, and then how are you going to answer your mobile phone? Or more relevantly, use the brakes?
No, if you want to be part of the new, green world of change and maybe drop a kilo or so, your task is not to step out of your solid, 4-wheels-on-the-pavement vehicle and throw your leg over a wobbly 10-speed that pitches your head forward and your ass in the air. Instead, your mission this: just walk. Many of the amenities that make a city a great place to bicycle, will work for pedestrians, too, like traffic-calming landscaping or the Rails to Trails paths that are for walkers or bicyclists. A 2007 survey in the United States found that when non-bicyclists were asked if they would like to bicycle more, 67% said no, there were too many cars or hills or it seemed generally unsafe. By contrast, people who walked at least 10 minutes a week were twice as likely as bikers to say it was very easy to walk where they lived. It’s true, as long as there’s a sidewalk, it’s pretty easy. If it is a wide, evenly paved, unobstructed sidewalk it’s very easy. Add some pedestrian-friendly trees to provide distance from the traffic and an attractive environment along the way with small views, inviting architecture, welcoming homes or storefronts and it is downright pleasant.
So start small. Pick an easy walking destination. If it’s raining, drive to work, but if its not, walk from your house to the bus stop and then from the bus stop to your workplace. If you have a few errands to run, park in one place and walk to the rest, starting with the store where you’ll have the smallest and lightest purchases. If you’re going to a dense area of a city, be part of the new frugality of 2009. Instead of driving directly into the parking garage of the museum, theatre or department store, find a free or inexpensive parking spot at the fringe of the downtown area, and walk to your destination. Above all, don’t make yourself miserable. If you have heavy packages or your kids don’t look like they’re going to cooperate, then drive this time and walk when you’re just picking up a few things or you find yourself kid-free for a few hours. After a while, destinations that are a bit farther away may seem attractive, but too time-consuming to walk to. These are the places to consider for a trial bike trip, but only on the next dry, sunny opportunity, and only if you think the traffic and hills will not be overwhelming. If it seems doable, try it out, maybe a few times, because while its true that you never forget how to ride a bike, you definitely forget the feeling. Getting on a bike after years with your feet on the ground or the gas pedal can be a freaky, unstable experience. If you don’t like it, don’t do it.
Walking is the entry drug for car-free transportation and there’s no need to step up to the cocaine of bicycling. Ever. Walking can be a life-long option and bicycling may not be. By walking, you can go just about anywhere; on bike, nearly everywhere; and in a car, only where there is a legal roadway. Although bicycling can deliver you at your destination awake and energized, you may also finish your journey soaking wet, lightly sprinkled with drops of mud, sweaty, and absolutely inappropriately attired. Walking means you can wear your normal clothes (although you may want to bring a change of shoes), carry your normal bag or briefcase, travel at your own pace, rather than that dictated by traffic and your gearing system, and look like a regular person when you arrive. There will be downsides. You’ll find out your shoes are too hard or your umbrella is too flimsy. As I said, don’t make yourself unhappy. Do it when it pleases you. Do it when you have time. But just do it. Just walk.
Chris Tachibana is a science writer at http://chris.tachibana.googlepages.com