How I ended up riding a bike as one of my primary ways of getting around town -- and how that's gone

cyclist silhouette

By Greg

So here's something I've been hearing lately: "You rode your bike here!?"

Because I did.

This past summer I made an effort to become a bike person. That is, not just a person who rides a bike for fun, but a person who uses a bike for transportation around town. (Though, really, it's still fun even if you use it that way.)

Here are a few thoughts on how that's gone...

How did I get here?

After experimenting with being a one-car household, my wife and I decided to finally make the change permanent about two years ago after our old Jetta wagon departed this life. We live in the city of Albany, a little more than two miles from my wife's office (and my office is wherever my laptop is at the moment). So we figured we could make it work by walking and using the bus. And we have, each of us switching off using our car or other various ways of getting around.

We like being a one-car household. It is much cheaper than having two cars. There's less of the maintenance and other administrative stuff that goes along with having a car. It takes up less space in our driveway. And it fits in with our goal to lessen our greenhouse gas impact.

That's the big part of the backstory. The other part is that my wife -- who got a bike a few years ago -- had been trying to convince me to get a bike of my own so we could ride together. You know, on the weekends or whenever. And this past summer I finally did. After getting the bike, I started to remember how much fun it is to ride, especially after I got my bike legs back.

And then I started thinking, well, why not just ride my bike on short trips around town on which I'd otherwise walk or ride the bus -- for errands, or interviews, or events, or meeting up with people?

It's an everyday thing

shoe on bike pedal
My super specialized bike clothing.

When you think of cyclists, maybe you think of the people in the spandex with all the gear and stuff, out for long rides on their road bikes. That's... not me.

While I'm happy to go for a longer ride on the rail trail or wherever on the weekend, the vast majority of my trips are just a few miles around town. In the event I have to go somewhere that's farther, I'll rack my bike on the front of a bus and ride some of the way. (The most well-spent $1.30 is sometimes the ride up a hill you really didn't feel like pedaling.)

And the spandex and special clothing? Yeah, no. I ride around town in totally regular, everyday clothes, in loafers even. Granted, I'm lucky that my workday uniform is pretty casual -- jeans or corduroys with a button-down shirt or something similar. But I've also ridden my bike to events while wearing a sport coat, my messenger bag strapped tight to my back. (I see other people riding bikes around town dressed like this, too. It's not unusual.)

Sure, sometimes riding a bike means getting sweaty, especially when it's hot out. But I haven't found that to be too much of a problem, usually because I'm not riding all that far. (How long will I keep riding as it gets cold? Good question.)

My one piece of specialty bike apparel: a helmet.

Here's a secret

OK, I'm going to tell you something that maybe I shouldn't: Riding a bike around town in this way can be pretty great. Like, it's so good that sometimes it feels like I'm getting away with something.

Riding a bike around town in this way can be pretty great. Like, it's so good that sometimes it feels like I'm getting away with something.

For example, there's the issue of parking. When you drive a car, you pretty much always have to worry about where to park. And in a place like downtown Albany, that can be a hassle. Finding a place to lock up a bike sometimes has it owns challenges, but usually, in my experience, it's a lot easier than parking a car -- and the "parking" spot is often right near the entrance. (That's not to say there shouldn't be more and better racks around town.)

And over distances of just a few miles in the city, riding a bike doesn't even take all that much longer than driving. I often ride along Western Ave and State Street when heading to downtown Albany, and because of traffic and signal timing the cars I'm riding with usually aren't covering the distance much faster than I am.

So the parking is easy. The time spent isn't much longer. It's cheaper than driving a car. And it's fun.

The fear factor

Madison Ave bike lane 2016-08-25

Of course, concerns about safety are going to be a big issue for a lot of people when it comes to riding a bike around town. I understand that. I feel that. Many streets haven't been designed with bikes in mind -- or, for that matter, pretty much anyone who's not driving a car.

There have been moments over the last few months in which I feared for my safety while riding on the streets. The too-close passes. That feeling of being surrounded by cars during rush hour. The driver who rolled through a red light on New Scotland Ave with apparently no regard for what was going on around him. There is a distinct vulnerability when you're on a bike in traffic with vehicles.

So, safety is totally a concern. Toward that end, I stop at traffic lights and pause at stop signs. I try to make my signals very clear. I try to stay alert to cars approaching behind me, or people opening the doors of parked cars. I have lights for riding at dusk and at night.

I also realize that to some extent all that doesn't matter because of the actions of others and the design of roads. There's always going to be risk in riding the streets.

But I also realize that to some extent all that doesn't matter because of the actions of others and the design of roads. There's always going to be risk in riding the streets.

So, with that in mind, I don't begrudge adults for riding on the sidewalk. I'd rather they didn't -- sidewalk riding has its own set of safety concerns. And I'd like to see more cyclists on the road so that drivers are accustomed to interacting with people on bikes and we can build support for infrastructure improvements. But I get why people don't feel safe.

The safety issue speaks to why municipalities around here need to continue investing in building out street infrastructure for people who are not driving a car. The new "road diet" section of Madison Ave is good. A network of streets around the city just like it would be even better. It should not only feel safe to ride a bike -- it should be safe.

(I wrote all this before the fatal crash involving a bicyclist on Washington Ave Ext the morning of October 19. These sorts of crashes are always sobering. And while the details of what happened aren't out yet, it should be a goal for all of us to work toward a day when there are no fatal or serious crashes on our roads.)

How we move matters

Becoming a regular bike-for-everyday-transportation person has reinforced something I already believed: How we move through a place affects the way we perceive and interact with that place. It matters not just where you're going, but how you get there.

Your method of transportation helps shape the way your brain maps a space. The distances between places feel differently depending on whether you're driving, walking, bussing, or cycling -- sometimes in counterintuitive ways. Often I'll walk -- or bike -- between two places and end up realizing how much closer to each other they are than I previously perceived them to be.

Your method of transportation helps shape the way your brain maps a space. The distances between places feel differently depending on whether you're driving, walking, bussing, or cycling -- sometimes in counterintuitive ways.

One of the things I've really come to enjoy about walking, biking, and taking the bus versus driving is the opportunities for surprise and delight. Driving a car often feels like being in a tube, sealed off from the outside world.

But these other modes of getting around help expose us to the ongoing story around us -- and sometimes drop us into the plot in delightful ways. I still smile thinking about the time I took the #13 from downtown to meet my wife at Restaurant Navona on New Scotland Ave in the Helderberg neighborhood. The bus stopped, the doors opened, there was my wife sitting on the porch no more than 10 feet away, I hopped off, and sat right down. It was like magic.

I'm still of the opinion that the best way to get to know a place is to walk it. Doing so gives us the opportunity to look around, take in the details, feel the topography, and talk to people. But riding a bike might not be far off that. I can't count how many times I've been gliding through a neighborhood over the past few months and noticed how beautiful the block is or waved hello to someone I recognized.

Oh, and did I mention that it's fun?

Earlier

+ Walking Myrtle Ave, end to end

+ Checking out the new CDPHP Cycle bike share

+ Bike Albany Map

+ The Madison Ave Road Diet moves to phase two

+ A few things about riding the bus

+ The one-car household: a car junkie cuts back

Comments

Thanks AOA! A lot of bike infrastructure progress has been made in Albany but there is still a long way to go! People should reach out to their elected officials and lobby for the types of bike infrastructure that would make them feel safe. Also remember that people freak out at the mention of any loss of on street parking so bike voices need to be louder than car voices!

Great piece! And 2 great quotes that I couldn't agree more with:

"OK, I'm going to tell you something that maybe I shouldn't: Riding a bike around town in this way can be pretty great. Like, it's so good that sometimes it feels like I'm getting away with something."

and

"Becoming a regular bike-for-everyday-transportation person has reinforced something I already believed: How we move through a place affects the way we perceive and interact with that place. It matters not just where you're going, but how you get there."

You might find the Albany Bicycle Coalition (ABC) interactive cycling map useful, it shows bike friendly routes for getting around Albany and can be found on the ABC website. albanybicyclecoalition.com or bikealbanymap.com
Also, Troy Bike Rescue is having their monthly CommUnity Ride today (10/19), starting at 5:30 at Riverfront Park in Troy. Come join us!

Great piece, thanks. I enjoyed the honest balance between vulnerability and excitement (for a lack of a better term) that comes with biking around our fair city.

This is awesome. I especially like "How we move through a place affects the way we perceive and interact with that place. It matters not just where you're going, but how you get there." Yes yes yes yes yes yes.

Thank you for writing this Greg!

I'm afraid of riding a bike around Albany because I've had a bike stolen. Now I'm afraid to leave it locked up anywhere.

This is a great, piece, Greg -- thanks so much for sharing your experiences -- you really capture the great things about getting around on two wheels in a small city with relatively low traffic volume and lots of streets lots of times of day.

And, yes - I was one of the people who said to you recently, "You rode your bike here!?" It was so cool to see you holding your bike helmet!

Regarding bike theft, I always recommend two locks - a short U-lock to secure the bike frame to a hitching post, and a cable lock to secure both wheels and maybe even the seat.

Important to park your bike only in a place where you can lock the frame to something sturdy like a road sign or parking meter, etc. Using the short U-lock makes it harder for a crowbar to gain leverage to break the lock. And using the cable makes it harder to steal a quick-release wheel, which has value on its own. Sometimes more value than a frame.

Thanks for sharing! I’m so happy for you and thankful for what you’re doing. Every person using clean transportation helps us all!

I gave up riding my own bike for a lot of around town trips and just use bike share now.

I ride around Albany for exercise and get around. I love the Madison road diet, although it seems to aggravate large pickup trucks and taxis to drive extra aggressively, especially when a bus stops and takes up the only travel lane. I'm frustrated the 2nd phase of the road diet has taken so long. I ride with my son to soccer and am terrified the entire time, how can people drive so aggressively near a kid on a bike!?! I ask him to ride on the sidewalk on the bigger streets. We take family rides on the rail trail and the river trail, and around the reflecting ponds at Empire Plaza is a nice spot as well. It's amazing for kids who usually sit in the back seat of the car and tune out to actually cover ground on their own and realize how small the city is and how close things are. Riding bikes does change your perspective of distance. We've ridden to school a few times, and to various landmarks and they're always amazed how little effort it takes on a bike. UCSD web page calculates 290 miles per gallon equivalent for riding a bike!

All this said, Albany is the worst city for biking that I've ever lived in, granted I've lived in some nice places for bikes (SEA, PDX, DEN). The roads are crap and demand fat tires or some very attentive pothole dodging, there is debris in the 'bike lanes' when there are any, as well as cars parked in them and pedestrians walking in them, drivers are ignorant/indifferent to bikes, there are no loop sensors for bikes at streetlights (ride to the sidewalk to push the pedestrian button?), bike lanes are piecemeal: you're in one then you're not (MADISON), and there's very little support for any improvements (ref: all comments about the Madison road diet slowing down the commute from Slingerlands). Lots of room for improvement! (I've seen plenty of folks on the new bikeshare bikes, a great thing).

I am glad to hear that you are still alive. I saw a middle schooler in Guilderland get hit on his bike yesterday and he did not appear to be doing anything wrong. Thankfully it was a low speed impact.

Great article - very well balanced.

I used to do all my commuting within the city on a bike. After getting hit too many times and after too many trips to the hospital, I gave up. It's too bad because this really is a very easy city to get around on a bike. But, I like being alive.

Greg, a question to you:
what are your plans for winter - do you plan to park your bike until warmer days, struggle with snow and ice - or something else?

This is brilliant. Thank you.

Greg, you totally nailed it. I tried this a couple years ago, and was only able to do it for a couple days. Coming in from Colonie, there aren't any bike lanes, and Everett Rd was just too much of a nightmare to try and turn left on at 9 am. It felt like two of my most unsafe days in recent memory. Now I only cycle in on certain holidays when the traffic isn't as crazy. Would love to get back to it, at least in the non-snowing months. Who needs a gym membership when you exercise on the way to and from work?

Isnt cdta fare 1.50. I call shenanigans.

Great post, Greg. I ride from center square to Montessori magnet school to ualbany everyday. My commute is a highlight of my day. This city is perfectly proportioned for cycling. If we build the infrastructure so first time urban cyclists can feel safer and more comfortable, I think cycling is poised to take off in Albany.

CDTA one-way bus fare is $1.30 if you're using one of the Navigator cards (as I do now).

Bus rides are also $1.30 when you use a 10-ride pass (or less if you use your Price Chopper gas miles to purchase the pass!), as well as on the Navigator cards.

Thank you everyone for such a positive response. I appreciate it.

@Andrea, Justin: I'm far from an expert, but I go with the U-lock and cable method. Some stores/brands now sell them as a set.

@Lauren: I've been pleasantly surprised to see how many people are using the bike share. I live a little too far from the nearest station to use it consistently.

@Mike: Short answer about winter: I don't know. I'd like to keep biking as long as I can, but I'm sure the weather will get the point where I'll just prefer walking or taking the bus. (One of the best feelings is hopping on a toasty-warm bus in winter.)

@Matt M.: I think your experience is probably indicative of a lot would-be cyclists. If the infrastructure -- and safety -- is there, they'd bike a lot more.

@S: Yep, as Paula mentioned, Navigator card. It's totally worth signing up for one, in my experience. It makes managing bus fare easier.

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