Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Two Wheels, No A/C

I am trying to become a bicycle commuter.

This is what is known as a win-win-win situation. I will
pollute less, pay way less for gas, and lose weight at the same time. Meanwhile I figure I'm doing my neighbors a good service by helping keep gas prices low by reducing demand by 1, and I'm figuring my insurance company will have to drop my rates when I tell them I only drive to the grocery store these days. That's the idea, anyway.

The reality, as any urban bicyclist knows, is a bit more complex. Peoria is unlike the last place I lived, where there were hardly any sidewalks, lots of
hills, and automobilers routinely pitched cans and bottles at bicyclists. (And no, it wasn't fear of bottle-pitching car drivers that kept me off my bike - it was a moral objection to the concept of "hills.") Even so, Peoria is not an idyllic biking wonderland. Traffic is too fast on major roads for a bicyclist to keep up, so I stick to the sidewalks on big roads. (I haven't ridden since I was a kid, so I'd prefer not to be in the stream of traffic just yet.) Peoria has all these signs heralding its "bike routes" but it's entirely unclear what they indicate - random roads? sidewalks? scenic routes? So far, I remain mystified.

There are also the traditional limitations of bicycling - it's a little scary
after dark, and one imagines getting mugged on a bike is a lot easier than getting carjacked. Of course, I've never been mugged or carjacked, and I figure if I were looking for someone to rob or mug, I'd probably pick the guy in the Mercedes, or at least the guy in the Chevy, rather than the chick on the beater bike from Target. If I'm a mugger, I'm thinking, "If a grown woman had money in her wallet, would she really be on a bike?"

And oh, the
helmets. We musn't forget the helmets. There's just nothing sexier than bright blue molded plastic on your head (this may have to do with the fact that it makes you at least vaguely resemble certain parts of the male genetalia). Plus there's always the resultant helmet-head, which makes clerks and salespeople and bank tellers take you very seriously. If you think normal humidity wreaks havoc with your hair, try helmet-head with humidity and sweat from self-propelled transit. I didn't grow up at a time when kids wore bike helmets, so I had a bit of a struggle over whether or not I was going to wear one. But my husband pointed out that I've paid about a quarter million dollars to accessorize my brain with higher education, so I probably should attempt to keep that brain from becoming road decor. (And note that when I say "I've paid", I really mean "my parents, various foundations, and the taxpayers of the United States have paid".)

One thing bicycling makes very clear to you is who, exactly, the sidewalks are intended for. In Peoria, they are obviously intended for children too young to drive, the elderly, and the really poor - the marginal, in other words. They are poorly-kept, bumpy, lump, cracked, and frequently disturbingly inaccessible to someone in a wheelchair. There's this one random foot high "hill" in the middle of the sidewalk. It's supposed to be part of a wheel-chair ramp up from the road, and then goes right back down to the parkinglot on the other side. It's like a foot-high, six-inch-wide hump. I can't even imagine how a wheelchair goes over it - let alone a short person or
elderly person with poor balance. (I go over it with my eyes closed, fearing death.)

But bicycling is nice. It's a much more leisurely way to travel. I've become very nosy about people's yards, since I pass them so slowly, and I feel that childhood sense of wonderment: "Ooh - that looks like a
castle garden!" "Hey, I bet that guy has gnomes!" I get waved at a lot more often, by drivers and small children. Kids in strollers like to shout "hewwo!" at me as I go by. I notice when the soccer fields have last been mowed, and how many people are out playing. I get to feel the weather - warm or muggy, cool or breezy - and smell the rainstorm blowing in hours before it gets here.

So if I can manage to survive the traffic, you may catch a glimpse of me riding around town on my bike, the only grown woman in all of Peoria with
two wheels and no A/C. On purpose.

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