I WOULD LIKE TO PUT IN A GOOD WORD for commuting — not commuting encased in the shell of a car or a train, but cutting the air under one’s own power on a bike. I have been commuting in this fashion for several years, through sun, wind, rain, cold, and darkness. On my way to the office amidst the rush of wind, I’ll catch the call of a jay or glimpse a solo scull, its oars spread like wings, slicing the glimmering river.
Becoming attached to anything outside the norm, you run the risk of being ostracized, labeled a flake, for not fitting the social mold. If you are a lawyer in his fifties, as I am, you are expected to commute by car — to be another polluter commuter, as I call them. Driving is considered the most efficient use of time (although not of energy) and if you tolerate wasted time, the general opinion is you are not committed to your career. You become the perfect target for a critical boss or ambitious colleague.
“My coworkers think I’m strange,” a fellow rider commented one morning. Another, pedaling a fine machine, explained that, when applying for a new job, he had to negotiate for use of the freight elevator since bikes are banned from office tower lobbies. Bikes are undignified and offensive, as are we Lycra-clad, helmeted pedal warriors.
Still, I wouldn’t exchange my commute for another.
I ride from my suburban home to Center City, Philadelphia. No matter the route I choose, I cross from one physiographic region to another, from Pennsylvania’s rolling piedmont to the narrow strip of coastal plain that cuts across the lower Delaware and Schuylkill River valleys. The local roads down to the Schuylkill, laid over old Indian trails and wagon routes, conform to the natural contours of the land. They follow streams or “runs,” as Pennsylvanians once called them, that descend steep valleys. You can glimpse one, now and then, still running over bedrock.
I usually descend to a rusty iron bridge over a hundred years old, which I use to cross the Schuylkill. It is part of a retired industrial complex, once the Pencoyd Iron Works, founded in 1852. The company name is embedded in the facade of the old brick office building and bolted to the bridge. Privately owned, the bridge is closed to traffic, but a pedestrian span remains accessible through a generous slit in the chainlink fence. Here the only sound is the spill of a run over rocks as it emerges from an old stone culvert to join the Schuylkill’s flow.
While crossing the bridge on my way home on a late spring evening, I notice a drifting whirlpool that seems unnatural, not part of an upwelling current. Perhaps it was formed by the mallards that nest nearby. But between the iron beams, I catch only interrupted glimpses of water. Then I hear a mu
A team of three riders in uniform, returning from early training, hauls ahead of me. I pick up speed with the idea of coasting in their slipstream. They slow for a red light, and I shorten the gap. As they resume pedaling, I work hard and close more space. My speedometer hits twenty-four, but this is a speed I cannot sustain. So I hunker down to forge ahead alone.
We cyclists crave the air we push against. Our bodies demand its oxygen. We are fuel cells, converting chemical energy to physical work. On a bike, we are incredibly efficient. On the calories of combustible energy packed into a gallon of gasoline, a cyclist pedaling 20 miles an hour could travel 1,350 miles. That’s 1,350 miles a gallon. What’s more, unlike a combustion engine, we do not run down. We run up, getting fitter with use.
A cyclist’s most hazardous obstacles are the polluter commuters fully armored in unwieldy craft. I observe them as I wait to cross the street at the Falls Creek Bridge. In a long row, one after another, they make a right turn onto the bridge. They are hurried and anxious. They are invariably alone, each sealed in a thermostatically, stereophonically controlled can. It would cost nothing for one to pause for me to cross; the lost ground would be regained at the traffic congestion visible ahead. But while most are probably decent enough — surely, they’d hold open an elevator door — they are entrapped by circumstance.
On another morning, I stop at a red light on Belmont Avenue beside a cyclist in his early twenties, maybe even in college, wearing sunglasses and a backpack and riding a rundown mountain bike. He is nervous on this new venture of riding into town. His name is Matt, and he asks whether I am headed for the path along the river. I explain something of the route. When the light changes, he follows. I caution him about crossing the entrance to the expressway, which he negotiates successfully. The next light, at the intersection that meets the Schuylkill River, turns yellow as I go through.
Suddenly, I hear a shout and a screech of brakes. Matt is on the ground when a high-strung driver thrusts his head out the window and asks if he is okay. I cannot hear the answer, but the guy drives away, almost hitting me, as well, on the escape. Matt gets up and starts to walk. On the grass beside the river, I do what I can to help. He is lucky — he has only a scraped knee.
I check his bike. One of the stays on the rear rack is bent. I use a Swiss Army knife to remove a screw so that it no longer rubs the tire. Cars race along the road beside us, and rowers pull steadily down the river.
An October ride home begins in the shade of the urban canyon but returns to bright sunlight on the river, a painter’s light of intense color and long shadows. The green grass glows. A splash of autumn auburn marks a tree.
Everyone is out to enjoy the end of a day and a season — joggers, bikers, walkers, moms with strollers. I weave in and out. To my left, on the western horizon, is the bright face of the sun. It is hard to imagine it will vanish in a matter of minutes and I will reach home only at dusk. The day lingers like an Indian summer, warm with remembrance but suddenly snapping cold.
Later, while climbing the hill rising from the Schuylkill, I think I hear an owl. I stop to listen. Just beyond the run beside the road is an inadvertent preserve — a graveyard, infrequently visited and thick with trees. Yes, there it is for sure, though faint and distant, a great horned owl: “Who are you? Whooo? Whooo?” A polluter commuter guns his Lexus up the hill. Then silence, finally broken again by the question, nearly lost: “Who are you? Whooo? Whooo?”
Overnight, the weather turns. Storms come out of season. After days of unrelenting rain, the Schuylkill is a brown, turbid, roiling mass, carrying trees and trash. It whirls around the bridges’ supporting piers, threatening to overtop their upstream prow. The path along the east bank is flooded. I ride the west side, which is on higher ground. But even so, the river has deposited a pond or two across the way.
This is one of the rare days I have a flat — a chip of glass in a tire, the remnant of yet another bottle casually tossed aside. As I sit in the wet grass replacing the tube, half a dozen bike commuters ask if I need anything. The offers are genuine. There is nothing condescending about them. But they are made in clear view of the fact that I am accomplishing the job myself. Their gesture, superfluous on one level, is meant to hold at bay what threatens to engulf us — the urban undercurrent of every man for himself.
In winter, after a cold spell, sudden warmth and dampness sometimes bring heavy fog. As I head home in the dark amidst the buildings, the morning fog seems to have dissipated. But on the river, its thick blanket remains. The air is palpable. The beam of my headlamp is visible in floating water droplets. The street lamps along the path glow in luminous moisture.
Lights outline the underside of the old stone railroad bridge. Under the influence of the lights and fog, the heavy arches seem to step across the water with a grace unnoticeable by day or even on a clear night. Water drips from my glasses. I am riding through a rain cloud.
But the fog-bearing warmth is merely an interlude. Within a week, arctic air freezes the world again. On my way home along the river, I stay alert to patches of ice. Only one or two cyclists brave the cold. Polluter commuters stream heedlessly around the hazardous curves determined by the course of the river.
Finally, my last hill rising away from the water, West Rock Hill Road, is solitary and quiet. On either side are open fields. Above, stars blink and flash in the darkened sky. It’s still cold. But by the end of the day, even the coldest day, I have warmed to a good pedaling rhythm.
Beautiful – I have begun commuting this year. The vibe you described is what I am experiencing out there as well. Thank You for sharing.
As a college student in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada I would cycle on my little red racer to/from campus from the apartment I shared with a Kenyan, a Colombian and Burundian. I had bought the bike with some money earnied planting trees near Thunder Bay in northern Ontario. I loved the route along the river, the warmth and freshness of the spring and summer days, and marvelled at the changing colours on the drumlins in the fall. I admit that I couldn’t brave the winter cold and the icy/slushy streets on my bike. And then one sad day, a campus van saw it fit to run over my parked bike! I never replaced it. Now, I have a major hankering to commute the 934 metres from my home to my office in the heat, humidity and dust in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania! But the lack of guarantee of water in the office shower always makes me think twice about buying a new bike for the commute. I would hate to offend my colleagues and clients with a smelly office environment! Therefore, my chauffeur-driven, gas-guzzling, air-conditioned 4 wheel drive SUV retains a certain appeal. What environmental sins the erratic public service delivery can cause us mere mortals to commit!
I live on a very flat island south of Vancouver and started riding my youngest son in a bike trailer to his daycare 20 minutes away this fall. I’m 55 and he’s four. I’m badly out of shape and wondered if it was too much, but the beautiful fall beckoned. Now we look forward to our early morning trips together. He calls the trailer his space ship and even on a sickly cold day with the liquid sunshine of our temperate rain forest slanting onto my knuckles I like the ride. I am a life long driver and used to live for road trips, but I feel much more connected and involved on the bike. It barely snows here. Thank god!
Beautiful piece! Sounds like you have a wonderful route. Thanks for sharing your experiences.
Cycling is dangerous! What we should have is dedicated cycle paths. Also for me a rear view mirror is essential on a bicycle.
Bobby: cycling isn’t not intrinsically dangerous. Unlicke cars, bikes operate at relatively slow speeds with a clear view of the road in all directions. The main danger to cyclists comes from motorized vehicles running into them.
That should read “Cycling is not …”
I am proud of you. I also commute, amid the NASCAR crowd in South Carolina. I don’t ride in the rain, my 77 years tell me that it’s a bad thing to do. The cold and the heat do not bother me.
I have been buzzed a number of times, and was given the bird when i shook my head. Flipping me the bird does not hurt, but a 3000 pound car can.
My commute is only 10 miles each way, but the feeling of freedom is overpowering. I love it.
Besides, when I get there, I can shower and even take a swim in the schools pool.
I count myself lucky to have all this. Beautiful country, clean air (except when passed by a school bus), and mostly careful drivers.
KEEP TWO WHEELING
Our family went car-free in September and (re)invested in some good commuter bikes and a folding bike. I’ve commuted regularly to work and school – even through the deluge that soaked the Northwest a few days ago! You get wet, you get dry….
Thanks for continuing to get the word out about bike transportation. I think it’s an integral part of our future, in one form or another.
I frequently ride my bike to a bus stop, and then ride the bus 5 miles, and then ride my bike the last 2 miles to work. I do the reverse on the way home. I sometimes bike the whole way (8 miles). Your writing David, inspires me to bike the whole way more often. Living in Redwood Vally, Northern California, I do have one of the most beautiful commutes on the planet.
Bikes HAVE to be a BIG part of just about every able-bodied person’s present and future if we humans are to make it to the end of this century with a reasonably intact biosphere.
I just turned 57 this week. It is interesting to me that David and many of the folks responding to his writing are 50+. By the way, climbing trees is another good way to stay young and have a realistic perspective of what is important in life.
We have this interlude, this free space, between work and home to rediscover both the outside world and our selves. The experience of it is different for each of us depending on our locality, age, gender, perceptions, psyches. And yet, we share a common ground, getting out every day, bucking the trend, flying with the wind.
It dipped just below freezing this morning.
Great observations and scribing, I can identify with season changes and compassion of the flat tires probs. I tell you how many people I have helped because they don’t carry a pump (!!!!!) on 9W in NJ.
Having been a motorcyclist for many years, I am rediscovering the bicycle. My commute is only 3 miles and then only if the weather is perfect. You have encouraged me to ride more often. At 64 it takes some determination to get out there. Need all the help I can get. Thanks to all for the comments.
I’m retired now, but commuted by bike for nearly 10 years in the ’70s & 80’s, first in Albany, NY (well, I took a break from Dec. to spring), & San Diego, CA. If it seems crazy now, it was crazier then. I was–& still am–a bit nutty about bikes. Twenty-30 years ago almost no women rode bikes; I was the only one in the several State agencies that shared bike lockers. If anything, drivers were less pleasant & accepting then they are now–& there were no bike lanes. The problem now seems derived from a) a lot more vehicles; b) vehicles moving at higher speeds; c) driver patience less. There have been several nasty incidents involving altercations between drivers & cyclists this year. Tempers need to cool on both sides; cyclists need to ride responsibly. Perhaps most of all, cities–perhaps state governments, too–need to make a larger effort to become bike-friendly, incorporating bikes into their urban transportation system, promoting their use through public education & active encouragement. As Europeans learned, bicycles are a natural form of transportation for urban areas.
Now that the streets are getting narrow because of leaves, slush and salt I’ve started walking for a few months again. I take just about the same mile-and-a-half route, cross over two of Ithaca’s gorges and below the spectacular Ithaca Falls.
I am a 53 y/o who has been biking to work on the East coast for 30 years. In upstate NY I was only one of a handful of IBM’ers who biked. For the past 2 decades I have biked all year in Delaware, except for when its real icy. I have fallen on ice several times in the past few years, and never gotten hurt. Each time I think I should be more careful, who needs a broken collarbone at my age? I work on a campus where few people commute even in perfect weather. Most people don’t realise I can cover 2-3 miles around town or around campus far quicker on a bike then they do in their car. Now we have a bike path around the edge of campus. I consider myself so lucky to be able to bike in 90 degree heat or 20 degree frost. BTW, I often visit Philadelphia and am impressed with hardcore bike commuters like this author. One warning: beware of the streetcar tracks esp in West Philly.
Great descriptions, thanks for sharing them. After many years of flying to work as a consultant, I finally got a job 17 miles from home last year. This last summer was the first that I have been able to commute by bike. It was wonderful. Way more sociable than driving – even my colleagues seemed intrigued (or at least polite). I lost weight, got fit enough to wrap the season with a century in under 6 hours. Saved LOTS of gas in the summer of the $4 gallon. Pity about the rough winter in Chicago, can’t wait to start commuting by bike again in the spring.
Thanks for your article. I, too, am an attorney who commutes downtown from a nearby suburb by bicycle. I work in Chicago. I cannot commute as often as you as my work often takes me out of town where I must use what you describe as a polluter to get to another city. Don’t despair for us in Chicago. We ride year round. However, when the streets are very icy I will opt for the train.
Love your article! Its exactly what I have been experiencing over the past year of commuting by bike. I’ve taken notice of the seasons a lot more, I appreciate little changes in nearby neighborhoods that I would not have in a car. Yesterday was my first day in 30 degree weather (I dont know how you east coasters do it!). Even though my fingers felt like they were going to fall off, I noticed myself enjoying the soft crunch/crackle that my bike tires made when I biked down the path and how the hills were covered with frost. I’ve also lost 10 pounds, have more energy during the day and only fill up on gas once a month!
In response to Sandy Turner in Comment 10.
Sandy – I think that this space attracts folks that are in the afternoon of life. Quoting Dr Wayne Dyer ” We can not live the afternoon of life according to life’s morning, what was great in the morning will be little in the evening and what was True in the morning by evening will have become a Lie” … As you move into the meaning phase of Life, it is not as though you lose your ambition, you begin to have ambition about other things” hence Orion is attractive to folks who are in either chronologically or Spiritually in the afternoon of Life. See http://www.drwaynedyer.com/ for “Ambition to meaning” I’ll see you at the silomar some time ; )
I ride almost the exact commute you describe in this article. I haven’t witnessed the Schuylkill flood the eastern bank along, Kelly Drive, but have ridden daily in all weather for the past two years.
We must’ve met along the trail at some point.