College degree in hand, with my parents’ minivan and my compact car both bursting at the seams, my left-out-in-the-elements-for-four-years bicycle did not make the cut come moving day. I removed my lock and left it at the bicycle rack outside my dorm for some lucky user. In retrospect, I should have made a bit of an effort to find it a new home, but that didn’t happen.
I arrived in my hometown with five weeks to figure out my move to St. Louis (the biggest city by far that I’d ever lived in), including where the heck I was going to live. For some reason, living close to school/work appealed to me even at that time, perhaps primarily for the savings on gas money. At any rate, knowing relatively little about the St. Louis area, I discarded any apartments that were in the suburbs, and focused my hunt for housing within a mile or two of the Salus Center (which houses Saint Louis University’s School of Public Health), which served as the hub of my life for the next two years as a full-time grad student and part-time research assistant.
I settled on a room in a house (shared with three med students) almost exactly a mile east of Salus. Prior to the move, my dad found a nice, sturdy 80s or 90s era Schwinn mountain bike for fifteen dollars at a garage sale. My initial plan was that I would walk to school most days, but over two those two years, I can count the number of times I walked on one hand. Biking was faster, and, while I felt relatively safe in my neighborhood, there were places and times where being able to move at speeds greater than those I could attain on foot enhanced my perceived safety.
I’m really not sure of my ratio of biking to driving in those early days, but it was certainly skewed in favor of biking. I absolutely refused to pay for a parking pass, and, while there was some [free] street parking available, that served as a disincentive to driving. I was mostly a fair weather biker, and I certainly didn’t have any fancy gear. No fenders, cargo racks, or lights, I rode with my books and lunch in a simple backpack, often with the addition of a small duffle slung across my body on the days I hit the gym (fortunately, there was a small, but completely functional fitness center in the basement of the Salus Center).
Seven months after the move, I met a fellow student and bike commuter. Hearing that he had three miles to ride after class on a chilly, rainy night in January, I offered him a ride home (bike and all, since I’d purchased a truck rack for my car). He declined, but that was not that last I’d see of the man who I’d later marry.
Matthew’s longer commute encouraged me to push the limits as far as where I could travel on my bike, and, in addition to school/work, I was soon making many of my weekly Soulard Farmers’ Market trips by bike, returning home on Saturday morning with my backpack full to overflowing, with the overflow hanging in bags from my handlebars (classy, I know). Eventually, I followed Matthew’s lead and upgraded to an internal frame backpack, which eliminated the need for me to carry two bags on “gym days,” and, with the hip belt, helped take some of the weight off of my shoulders and back.
Fast forward a bit (May 2007), and, with a Master of Public Health degree in hand, I was planning my next move. My housing had served me well for two years, but I was ready for a change. With job status uncertain, I hedged my bets on finding employment in St. Louis (and ideally near SLU), and found a new rental house (this time with only one roommate). My new digs in the Tower Grove South neighborhood were closer to Matthew, but a bit farther from the Salus Center (where I did end up taking a full-time position two months after graduation).
Shortly after graduating, I won a bicycle in Trailnet’s Bike Month commuting promotion, so I had a new ride to go with my new, longer commute (around two miles instead of the previous one mile), the hybrid Schwinn Voyager. By this time, I had added front and rear lights to my set-up (Matthew insisted when I was biking to and from a night class), and, after seeing the benefits of fenders for wet-weather riding, I added those to my set-up as well. We continued to push each other to “go by bike” rather than car.
Summer of 2008 – another year, another move, or, rather, two moves, back to back. First, I moved to yet another rental house, a move that changed my commute route, but only slightly increased the distance, to about 2.5 miles one-way. However, immediately on the heels of that move, my employer moved from Saint Louis University to Washington University (specifically, WashU’s North Campus near Skinker and Delmar).
This made my commute nearly six miles each way. I adjusted to the new distance rather quickly, and I felt a sense of pride every afternoon when I made it up the never-ending hill that, for local readers, is southbound Macklind coming from Manchester. It only took me one day of my new route to realize why they called my then-neighborhood The Hill.
However, if you’d suggested two years prior that I use a bike to cover that distance and those hills, I probably would have looked at you like you were crazy. But with over three years of bike commuting experience under my belt, I was up for the challenge.
Justifying the purchase by looking at what I was saving in gas and parking by biking instead of driving, I upgraded to a lighter, faster bike (Baby Jake) after five months of the new commute. With this upgrade, I also ditched the backpack for a rear cargo rack and panniers (milk crate added later).
I rode that route for almost a year-and-a-half, until I traded my bike commute for a car commute and a job encouraging other people to ride bikes more. This was a tough transition. Over the two-and-a-half years that I worked in Jefferson County and commuted by car, I continued to use my bike as much as possible for other trips – grocery, library, events in Forest Park, music at the Botanical Garden, and, on a couple occasions, to our commuter garden. In the meantime, I became a much more educated cyclist, increasing my already-substantial comfort and knowledge operating my bicycle on the road.
That more or less brings us up to the present, minus the whole “adding a tiny, loud, fussy human-ish thing” to the picture, and figuring out how to transport said thing by bike. You can read more about that here.
The point is, I didn’t just wake up one morning and start biking instead of driving. Whether you’re in a dense urban core, a less dense urban area (like St. Louis), a suburb, or a smaller city/town, there’s a good chance that you can turn at least one car trip into a bike trip.
Sit down and make a map with your home as the center. Now map destinations you visit on a weekly basis – how many are within two to three miles? That’s a relatively easy distance to cover on bike. At a moderate pace, you can bike three miles in twenty minutes (or less). You’ll have saved money on gas, enjoyed the health benefits of physical activity, and helped to lessen your impact on the planet. Just like that.