Humanizing effects of transit

I spent the weekend in Iowa.  When planning the trip, I had good intentions of finally trying the bus between St. Louis and my hometown in Iowa, but there’s a small airline that flies 8-seater planes between the two locations, and the plane is much faster (more on bus vs. plane in another post).  Not the greenest option, but I made it a bit better by taking transit to and from the airport in StL.

My return trip could not have gone better, transit-wise: I boarded the MetroLink (light rail) at the airport just a minute before it departed, and I only had to wait a minute at my bus stop before my bus rounded the corner.  Smooth travels!

On the bus ride, I couldn’t help reflecting on the differences between using transit and driving a motor vehicle.

Public transit is so much more personal.  You see faces and hear voices.  You start to imagine stories of peoples lives: the mother with her teenage daughter boarding together, the woman chatting with the bus driver.  You’re connected by, if nothing else, your shared humanity with the other bus passengers.

This just doesn’t happen when we isolate ourselves in individual metal and glass cages.  We are inside and insulated from our surroundings, and others — whether pedestrians, other m or cyclists, are out.  We create an environment and conditions that make it very difficult to realize that these other road users are also people just like us, as highlighted in this video clip (WARNING: language not suitable for workplace, young children, etc.).  The audience is laughing, but when you think about the implications and consequences of this mindset, it’s not funny.

Studies have looked at, and named, what I experienced yesterday as a bus passenger: the windshield effect / perspective, described here:

Observing the world from behind the wheel, it turns out, has a powerful influence on our judgments about places and even people.

Researchers found that people driving a car tend to view unfamiliar, less-affluent neighborhoods more negatively than people who were walking, biking or taking transit.

The windshield effect also contributes to the myth that other completely legitimate road users, including pedestrians and cyclists, and, yes, that bus that delays you for all of 10 seconds while you wait to change lanes, are “in the way.”

In the way of what???  That person walking across the street is just going about his business, getting from point A to point B, just like you are.

Even being aware of the windshield effect, and often being one of the “other” road users myself, I am still susceptible.  Just hours after stepping off that bus, I drove our car to our garden.  I was on an arterial road, with relatively light traffic, and I saw a man walking across the street in front of me (mid-block, no crosswalk).

My very first thought was, “What is that guy doing crossing the street like that?”

His presence may have necessitated my slowing for half a second, but he finished crossing well before I arrived at that point in the road.  And the answer to my question, once I settled down and thought beyond windshield perspective, was that there was a very long stretch between stoplights and “official” crosswalks on this stretch of suburban arterial, and, in his place, I probably would have (and have, in similar situations) done exactly what he did.

Was my slowing down ever so slightly, and being aware of this fellow human’s place on the road, really that big of a deal?

NO.

Is it hard to work beyond, or fight back against, this windshield perspective?

Yes.  But not impossible, and something we all must do if we want civility and compassion on our roads.

Bus and bike errands

We started our week with a visit to Safety Stop, a neat service offered by St. Louis Children’s Hospital, providing nearly at-cost pricing on a variety of safety equipment for infants and children, including bike helmets and car seats.

Over the past year, someone outgrew his first bicycle helmet (also purchased at Safety Stop).  We’ve been squeezing into that helmet for the past couple of months — definitely time for an upgrade.

Given the option of bus or bike, I chose bus in the heat.  We walked to the bus stop down the street and waited for our bus (Sir likes to sit on the bus stop bench even when we’re not waiting for a bus).

Twenty minutes later (wait plus transit time), we arrived within a couple of blocks of our destination with plenty of time to spare.  I chose the walking route that took us by the pond and rain garden feature on the WashU medical campus, not knowing that a treat was in store.

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Against all odds, a mother duck picked this very public location to nest and hatch six adorable fuzzy ducklings.  The lily pads were in bloom, adding to the lovely scenery.  We never would have seen this if we drove our car.

Sir enjoyed seeing the ducks (and the incoming helicopter) before we continued on to the appointment.  This location of Safety Stop is housed in a parking garage, so walking there felt a bit weird (but fun!).

They outfitted Sir in a youth size small helmet.  It seems ridiculously huge, but it fits him dialed down to the smallest setting, which also means it has room for him to grow.

Monday night I biked to the nearest Red Box location to grab a movie.  It was our first time using the service, and we’ll definitely be repeat customers (though perhaps not as frequently as if there were one just a bit closer, say within a two or three block walk, as opposed to a mile bike ride).

Tuesday morning I ran a bunch of errands by bike (Sir was with Baba — I generally avoid multi-stop bike errands with him, since getting him in and out of the bike seat and helmet is a bit of a pain in the rear), including picking up some drugs for Matthew and joining a new gym (more on that in a future post).

Wednesday afternoon I lucked out when the bed railings I’d been looking at on Craigslist were located less than a mile from us.  I hitched up the trailer and headed over.

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I used a few bungee cords to secure (I use the word loosely) the railings in the trailer.  It worked well enough for a short distance, low speed ride.

The railings are one more item on the list of things we need before transitioning Sir to a “big boy bed,” an event which is now imminent.

We bought a mattress for him back in January, and I’ve been stalling ever since.  I mean, once you let them out of the cage crib, there’s no going back, right?  Why rush it?

He hasn’t done anything crazy, like launch himself out of his Pack ‘n Play yet, but he’s definitely tall enough for that to be a risk.  He’s now officially over both the recommended height and weight limits, so it’s probably not the most comfortable place anymore.

We’re just waiting on the foundation and frame (which I will not be picking up by bike), and then it’s go time.

My rides this week were all fairly short, and, except for the bed railing pick-up, all before ten in the morning or after seven at night, but definitely hot, humid, and sweaty for all of that.  So goes summer biking — I’d still rather do it than not!

Bicycle beginnings — Part 2, in The Lou

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.

Bicycle beginnings — Part 1

We start every session of “Truth and Techniques,” the classroom portion of CyclingSavvy, with brief introductions that include participants’ history with bikes.*  As part of my effort to get back to more bike-related posts here, I thought I would share a bit of my own story.

While I probably had some kind of tricycle in my early years, I remember the pink banana seat bicycle my parents gave me for my fifth birthday as my first bike.  It looked something like this:

Image from another bicycle beginnings type post, click for link
Image from another bicycle beginnings type post, click for link

It was probably a bit big for me, but I had long legs, and, most importantly, determination to ride my beautiful new bike!  I remember my dad doing the classic running-and-holding-on-to-the-back, then letting go, as I learned to ride without training wheels.

My other main memory of that bike is riding down our alley one day, and noticing my shoelace getting caught in the pedal.  Instead of stopping to untangle it, I chose to continue riding, with the shoelace getting wound ever more tightly, until finally there was no more lace, the pedal wouldn’t turn, and I went down.  It was a slow-motion crash, reminiscent of a couple of falls that I would take years down the road, as I adjusted to clipless pedals.

I didn’t ride a bike to school since we lived only three houses from my elementary school, easily walkable.

I don’t know if my first ten-speed was a new, discount-store bike or a nice garage-sale find, but, at some point, probably when I was around ten or eleven, I graduated to a “grown up” bike, something with gears that made that cool whirring sound while coasting like my parents’ bikes did.

I should note that while my parents rode some recreationally, they didn’t really use bikes for transportation (to my knowledge).  I should also note that, while we had to wear helmets, my parents did not wear helmets, so I looked forward to the day when I would be grown up enough to not have to wear a helmet.  I believe this occurred sometime in middle school, when my parents finally gave up the battle.  Not judging or trying to turn this into a helmet manifesto, but I always shake my head now when I see a helmetless parent riding with his/her helmeted child.

My new bike and advanced age brought new freedoms.  I have fond memories of summers spent riding downtown to the library (ah, being able to go to the library anytime I wanted!) and to Mosquito Park, a small park on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi, where my friends and I would sit for hours, eating snacks we bought from the gas station and talking of all that is of import to middle school girls.

For whatever reason, I didn’t ride my bike to middle school.  At just under a mile away, and in an area that I rode regularly anyway, it would have been convenient, but instead I walked (uphill both ways, in the snow, of course).  My load of a heavy backpack and a violin may have served as the main deterrents to biking.

Once high school hit, the bike began to lose its shine, especially when I reached the magical age of sixteen and got a drivers’ license.  While they didn’t officially buy me a car, my parents very generously bought a car for me to use (and later share with my younger sister).  The bike rarely saw the outside of the garage.

And then came college.  Though I hadn’t done much biking in the past few years, I decided that having a bicycle would be a convenient way to get around campus.  I remember going to Wal-Mart with my dad and picking out a pretty purple and bright blue ten-speed, along with a basic cable lock.

When heading to on-campus destinations with friends, I often walked, but when traveling solo, especially to more distant destinations like the bookstore, the bike was quite helpful.

Senior year I moved off campus and bought a car.  The parking lot I used was a good distance from the heart of campus, so I took to leaving my bike locked in the parking lot at the end of the day, and using it as a shuttle of sorts.

One night, I locked my bike up, perhaps in a slightly different location than previous times, and headed home as usual.  When I returned in the morning, the bike was nowhere to be found.  I scratched my head as I looked at the empty post where I’d locked my bike, and then realized that my lock-up of choice was a free-standing waist high post, that, while quite sturdy and nicely cemented, could quite easily be overcome simply by lifting the bike, lock and all, up over the top of the post.  Not my most brilliant moment.

I didn’t bother with a new bike, but a couple of months later, as I was walking by a campus bike rack, I spotted my bike.  Ever since it disappeared, I couldn’t pass a bike on campus without scrutinizing it closely.  Given that it was a basic model from a local discount store, there were actually several of “my bikes” on campus, but this one actually was MY bike.

The lock was still hanging on the frame, and my key fit.  Since the new “owner” had not bothered to secure the bicycle in any way, I glanced around, shrugged, and reclaimed my bike.  I did a better job of locking it up after that!

Well, this is obviously a much longer spiel than I give during class, and we’re only halfway there.  Stay tuned for Part Two, which starts after college graduation, when I moved to St. Louis for grad school, and rediscovered bicycles as a a means of transportation (as they had been for me in middle school).

Until then, do you have any vivid memories from your own bicycle history?  First bike?  Places you liked to ride?

*For all you local folks, there’s a “Truth & Techniques” session tomorrow, March 9th, at Cafe Ventana in Midtown.  Through continued support from Great Rivers Greenway, we’re offering the class at no cost to you, but please click here to register.

Gearing up and getting out

A post about biking with the trailer is in the works, but the truth is, even before last week’s snow and the resulting icy roads, Gabriel and I have been sticking closer to home, with more outings by foot.  That, and quite a lot of car outings for family time over the holidays.

Last Friday, we walked through a pretty snowfall for a family pizza dinner outing.  Not amazing pizza, but good, with a nice atmosphere, and the whole being able to walk there makes it taste better thing going.

Thus far, we’ve been pretty minimalist with Gabriel’s footwear — barefoot or socks (no shoes) exclusively for the first year.  While we were mired in indecision (and Gabriel got closer to walking), trying to find a balance between good shoes that would actually be foot shaped and healthy for his feet and not spending an unreasonable amount of money for shoes that he would outgrow in a few months, my MIL bought a pair of Skidders (I’ve also seen them called Rubberoos).

Foot-shaped, flexible, easy to wear, they’re a kind of hybrid sock-shoe: sock-like fabric top with a thin, flexible, grippy rubber bottom.  They’ve been great for the past few months, and Sir logged some serious miles in them, between walks with me and with his grandpa (up to a half mile!), but they’re not so good for walking outside in wet/cold/snowy conditions.

Though I liked the design of some of the Keen infant/toddler boots, I couldn’t bring myself to drop eighty dollars or more on a pair, so last week (just in time for the snow), I compromised on an okay-for-not-to-frequent-wear pair of snow boots at a kids’ consignment store.  Gabriel had to relearn walking with the new kicks, but he picked it up fairly quickly.

On NewYear’s day, we hit the slopes.  Luckily, the park at the end of our street has a decent little hill.  Walkable sledding hill equals not having to navigate iffy streets in the car, a definite win.

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Yes, there may have been as much grass as snow on some parts of the hill, but we take what we can get.

It’s been chilly (by StL standards) since the snow, and I’ve been in hibernation mode, but time outside is unarguably good for Gabriel (and probably good for me too), so we bundled up yesterday morning and ran some errands on foot, picking up a shoe repair and ducking into Home Eco.  We stuck to the sunny, non-icy side of the street, and Gabriel covered some serious distance before accepting a lift in the stroller.

Even in our not-super-cold temps (high teens, low twenties, may feel colder with wind), the right gear — warm footwear, good mittens, and, yes, balaclavas — make outside time much nicer.  An added bonus of the balaclavas — we’re ready to rob banks at the drop of a hat . . .

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. . . or ready to encounter slightly sinister looking snowmen.  Happy winter!