This special blog entry comes courtesy of recent PhD graduate Gretchen Goldman, who was a critical component of both StarterBikes and BIIC during her time at Georgia Tech. In this entry, she describes what it’s like to live without a car in Atlanta, something many consider impossible, but as Gretchen proved time and again, is entirely feasible, and often a lot more fun.
Car-free in the ATL: Lessons from the Bike Lane
I didn’t intend to be a bike commuting advocate. In fact, I didn’t even intend to bike. But when I moved to Atlanta 5 years ago I did intend to explore my new city. I arrived in Atlanta with 2 suitcases spent all the money I had accumulated during my undergraduate years (aside from student loans) on furnishing my new place. Needless to say, no one would be sending a car my direction anytime soon. At first, I was perfectly content to explore the city via buses, trains and my tennis shoes. But after a few years it dawned on me: why don’t I get a bike? When I brought my new-to-me commuter bike home, a strange new feeling came over me. I could get places faster! And I could go farther! My world had been instantly expanded by my new set of wheels and it was a new found freedom I never thought could be achieved through something other than a car. And so I biked. And I biked and I biked. And the more I biked, the less I wanted to go by anything other than my bike. And like they say “if you give a mouse a cookie, he’ll want a glass of milk” and if you give a girl a Trek she’s going to want a pannier, a BOB trailer, a Sealine commuter backpack and coffee mug handlebar mount. New several years seasoned as an all-weather bike commuter, I’ve learned a thing or two about how to get around on two wheels in this so called car-centric city. Here’s my list of lessons I’ve learned through my pedaling travels that surprised me, trying to steer clear of information you can get on any introduction to bike commuting page.
- Almost anything can be transported by bike with good securing and some creativity. One of the bigger excuses we have for not biking to a destination is our relentless need for “stuff”. It is often as if we need to be prepared with all appropriate gear for the possibilities of disco dancing, horseback riding or SCUBA diving all in one night. While our need for stuff may be overkill, there are many ways to carry lots of this “stuff” by bike, if we truly feel that we need it. I have been known to successfully transport liquids, laundry, tables, cakes, and even a pony keg. Often the biggest challenge is just dealing with the added weight and accompanying speed decrease, and routes can be easily adjusted to accommodate slower riding and minimize hills. Many times, I’ve found that transporting large or awkward things can actually be more convenient by bike since you can roll right up to your destination with a bike or trailer and avoid worrying about carrying things from a parking lot to the building.
- There is no bad weather just bad clothing. This is what I was taught going to college in a wintery tundra but it also applies to bike commuting. Cold weather can be dealt with. Its all about taking care of extremities. A good pair of gloves, socks and scarf will do the trick for most cases. Snow and ice are, of course, a different beast, but luckily in Atlanta these are rare events. A warm jacket is a good idea, although having removable layers is perhaps a better one, especially for longer rides where you will work up a sweat. For rain situations, I would recommend investing in waterproof everything – jacket, pants, shoes, bag. At the very least, a waterproof bag is key to protection of any valuables. You can always change clothes when you arrive at your destination (although for some a hair dryer at your destination might be helpful, too). Lights and bright colors are particularly important for rain situations since driver visibility will be reduced. As for hot weather, luckily cyclists have a built in cooling system called wind. This allows for a comfortable ride, but then one stops and the onset of full body sweating ensues. I have found that having a change of shirt and allowing yourself some cool down time before you have to walk into a formal meeting is enough to make you presentable. Again, for those with hairstyles, sweat impact on hair can be of particular concern. I have chosen a haircut on the basis of my hair looking decent post-helmet wearing, but assuming you are not willing to make this kind of commitment to bike commuting, there is also the option of wearing a hat after you get off of your bike or having shower/blow dryer options available at your destination.
- It’s less of a production than you think. I found that one of the initial challenges is simply building up the inertia to convert to biking as your primary transportation. Have a biking bag (or pannier) that is ready to go with everything you will need including spare tube and tools (tire levers at least, multi-tool at most) and lights. Once you have everything set up for easy take-off, it is often quicker to bike than drive for many intown locations that have bike parking right outside the door. The more often you ride the less time it takes to prepare, since your bike will be tuned, tires pumped, and you will have increased familiarity with routes and parking options. Over time, you will get good at recognizing routes, where to look for bike parking, and how to secure your bike in the absence of an official rack.
- Theft prevention is simple. I used to get anxiety over the potential anguish of having a bike stolen but I’ve learned that this risk can be minimized and your mind put to ease. I can sum this up in one word: U-lock. One U-lock to secure a frame and one wheel is more than sufficient for many locations. Two U-locks can secure both wheels and frame. If you are parking in locations where you are worried about component theft, it might be a good idea to get rid of all quick release components, such as for wheels and seat. Although U-locks are heavy and comparatively expensive, they are worthwhile to avoid the physical and emotional impact of a stolen bike.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Today we live in a culture where we are expected to be completely self-sufficient in completing our daily routines but back in the day, folks would carpool and ask each other favors frequently. It was not uncommon for two grown men to ride together to work, a sight relatively rare today. Certainly there are times that you will need a vehicle. As much as I would love to say that I exclusively rely on bike sometimes there is no way around it. However, I have found these times to be rarer than you would think. When they arise, don’t be afraid to ask for help. I am confident that you will be pleasantly surprised at how much friends and even strangers are willing to help. Between friends and Zipcar as a last resort, you will never be stranded.
- Don’t worry about the attitudes. You will encounter people with strong opinions about how you should bike on the road but I’ve learned not to take it to heart. Your day and your life is better if you don’t need to yell at a stranger out of a car window to get your voice heard in this world. You can be resolved in knowing are following the rules of the road, and they are the ones who are out of line. Costing someone five minutes of time as they wait to safely pass you won’t change the course of their life. Take pride in the fact that are educating others and being a good law-abiding cyclist. You can help enhance the image of cyclists and expel any negative impressions people have of cyclists being sidewalk riding, wrong way up one way street riding, unpredictable and reckless riding, etc.
- Appreciation for space. Although subtle, I’ve found that one of the greatest rewards from bike commuting is seeing the city from another perspective. While driving, passing through neighborhoods is fast and limited, but on a bike you can be going just the right pace to really see people, places, and signs. You can easily stop at a sidewalk sale, child’s lemonade stand, or stop to chat with a friend—side trips that would be logistically more difficult in a car, assuming you even noticed the opportunities from a moving car. Some of my fondest memories of experiencing the city of Atlanta occurred while exploring the city by bike. In the fast-paced world we live in, I hope that you too will take the time to pedal to your next adventure.
“Atlanta is a car city” and “MARTA doesn’t go anywhere”. We’ve all heard Atlantans repeatedly spout these ignorant blanket statements but I’ve learned not to buy into them. It’s all in how you plan and manage your travels and taking the time to do your homework. I had two friends from out-of-town visit who had no preconceived notion of Atlanta and wanted to get a feel for the city. I put a lot of thought into our itinerary, optimizing proximity of locations while allowing my friends to be exposed to many different neighborhoods and activities around the city. After 3 days of proudly showing them my city using only our feet, MARTA and the occasional Zipcar, one of my friends declared, “Wow, Atlanta is a really compact city!” While an ATL native is not likely to be convinced of this and probably laughed at the thought, I think the fact that my friend walked away with the impression goes to shows that car-freedom is possible and easy in Atlanta, it just takes a little extra planning.