Cycling sucks until it doesn't
How we got here
As I mentioned in my article about micromobility, I was a fairly early adopter of e-biking. This never really translated into non-electric (acoustic?) biking.
Every time I tried a manual bicycle, it just felt absurdly heavy and sluggish compared to what I was used to — e-biking had really warped my perceptions of what biking should feel like. I basically decided that cycling was not for me.
Eventually, my low-tier e-bike died and I switched to getting around on a Onewheel — an electric skateboard type thing.
The Onewheel is pretty slow compared to the e-bike. I probably average 12mph on it, compared to 20mph on the e-bike. Getting accustomed to this slower pace turned out to be good for future manual bicycle adoption.
Another major motivator was learning more about Dutch style bicycles (also known as cruisers, roadsters, omafiets, etc.). The basic idea is a bicycle that is optimized for comfort and convenience rather than speed.
In the Spring of 2022, I took the plunge and got a step-through Lekker Jordaan.
I must have gotten one of the last ones, because their website no longer has the exact model — only the e-bike variant.
It's pretty heavy — about 35lbs — and only has 3 speeds. This style of bike is great in flat places like Amsterdam, but takes some gumption in hilly Seattle. I live on a 500ft hill, descend and bike for 8 miles at sea level, then ascend a different 500ft hill to get to work.
Getting up those hills was hell for the first month or so owning the bike. I only managed it in lowest gear and by switching between a seated and standing riding position to alternate between different muscle groups. My lungs and legs burned.
The only reason I kept it up at this point was because I wasn't necessarily opposed to getting a painful workout.
I did stop by my local bike shop and put in an order for the 8-speed hub upgrade from my 3-speed hub — I wanted one or two lower gears! Unfortunately, due to the early 20's pandemic-induced supply chain issues, I am still on the 3-speed up and will be for the forseeable future. Shimano is back-ordered until early 2023 at least.
Light at the end of the bike lane
After a month of near-daily use, something magical happened. I rode up the big local hill entirely seated — no switching positions needed.
Then, a month later, I did it without breathing hard.
A month or two after that, I was able to do it in middle gear — doing it in low gear was nearly effortless.
An amusing but real downside to getting to a comfortable place with my cycling ability is that my dress pants no longer fit my thighs. This is obviously not the worst problem to have, but was a surprise when I had to rethink my planned outfit to a friend's wedding.
I still would like that 8-speed hub to come in, if only for enabling towing loads up hills. My bike home from the grocery store is about a mile uphill and the weight of the groceries and heavy bike make a little higher intensity than what I want during an errand. I also wouldn't mind a slightly higher max speed on long flats, but I suspect I'll hit an aerodynamic wall pretty quickly with the upright riding position.
View from the heights
Statistically, I'm probably now in the top 10% of American adults in terms of cycling ability. It's kind of absurd that one can get to the top 10% of anything with a few months of incidental effort, but it's a lot easier when only 14% of American adults bike at least twice weekly.
Among the people who actually bike, I'd guess I am only around the 30th percentile — and only that high because some people live in flat places and don't have to build up the kind of hill-climbing endurance you gain in a place like Seattle.
Once you're at this amateur-but-good-enough level, cycling becomes a really sustainable lifestyle change. For the first few months, I had to use a lot of self-control to not just ride the Onewheel, or — and I shudder at the words — drive a car.
But now, it's the first thing I reach for. Riding a bike, even up the fairly big hills in Seattle, is really no more strenuous than walking, and a lot faster. I get most places at an average speed of around 10mph.
10mph may seem really slow compared to what you think you'd get in a car, but for local trips, the math doesn't work out quite the same way. Getting to the local grocery store only takes about 1 minute longer by bike than by car. Even though the car has a faster max speed, we both wait at the same lights. The car also has to spend time navigating the parking lot — I park my bike right at the front door.
Nowadays, if it's within a 30 minute ride — about 5 miles — I almost exclusively bike. Within 10 miles, I'll still bike unless I'm traveling with people or otherwise in a major hurry. Beyond that, I combine the Onewheel with the bus or light rail.
Where is everyone?
At least half of the people in my social circle are similar to my baseline level of fitness. They could all get to my still-very-amateur level of cycling in a few months. Why don't they? There are three main factors, I think.
The most obvious impediment — riding a bike is much more dangerous than driving a car. This is a bit of a chicken and egg problem, because the thing that makes cycling so dangerous is the cars.
Seattle has been doing a good job by American standards of installing protected bike lanes. Most of the neighborhoods that surround downtown now have the bones of decent bike network, but lots of people live a bit further afield where the amenities are lacking. I have friends who live in neighborhoods without any sidewalks at all.
In Seattle, the weather also puts a wet blanket on many a would-be cyclist's dreams. It rains about 150 days per year here.
When I e-biked to work a few years ago, I had a full jacket, rain pants, etc. The problem with this is that it's too high-friction for quick trips like a grocery run to get a missing ingredient. In the 3 minutes you spend putting on your rain gear, you could have just driven a car to the store.
There is a solution, though. It's called a poncho, or — a little fancier — a rain cape. I learned about these from the excellent bike commute-themed YouTube channel, Shifter.
The brilliance of the poncho is that it is zero friction. You don't even have to find the sleeve holes for your arms — you just throw it over yourself and you're off. It turns your whole body into a kind of umbrella over your legs.
I really have nothing but good things to say about the poncho. It's lightweight, super reflective for night riding, and keeps you dry.
Besides safety and weather, probably the biggest factor keeping people from cycling is that getting started cycling sucks. It takes a few months of dedicated effort before you're comfortable with it and have built up the requisite level of fitness. And the car is just waiting right there. It's so easy to tell yourself "next time".
I think the biggest advantage of a cycling nation like the Netherlands isn't that it's flat, but that people grow up cycling. If everyone just grew up cycling, there would be no miserable breaking-in period. You'd have built up to it over the course of your entire life.
Aside: walking also somewhat sucks until it doesn't
To a certain extent, building up a walking habit also happened to me in Seattle. Coming from Arkansas, the farthest I would regularly walk was around a 500 yards (1/3 mile) from my college apartment to the grocery store.
Here's what the midpoint on that main road crossing looks like. My college apartment is to the right, and the grocery store is to the left.
Looking at the surrounding area, you can see why nobody walks — there is nothing to walk to and the environment itself is not enjoyable to be in. It's a sea of highways, stroads, suburb housing, and business parks. The things you pass on the on the 1/3 mile walk are a gas station, a chain diner, a chain Chinese buffet, and another gas station.
Compare this to my grocery store walk when I moved to Seattle. The grocery store is in the foreground, and my apartment is circled in red a quarter mile down the street.
Look at all the people! In the 3 blocks from my apartment to the grocery store, you will walk by a Vietnamese restaurant, a tea store, a cafe, a small park, a cosmetics store, a deli, a boutique, a culinary training restaurant, and then — in the bottom floor of my old apartment — an Italian restaurant and a Jordanian restaurant. And all of these things are just on one side of the street — there's an equal amount if you cross. The only chain store on this journey is the grocery store itself (Whole Foods) and the cosmetics store (Sephora) — everything else is unique and locally owned.
In the parlance of Strong Towns, this area of Seattle is a place — a destination that humans enjoy existing in for no other reason than to be.
The area around my college apartment in Arkansas is not a place — nobody would just hang out here. You drive to the grocery store or the diner, do your errand, then drive home.
This place versus non-place distinction has a huge effect on people's propensity to walk and bike. While Arkansas does have some actual places — downtown Bentonville and the Rivermarket area of Little Rock, for example — the vast majority of the state is much more like the photos above. When people come visit Seattle from car-dominated regions full of non-places, I'm always reminded of this.
I say "let's go to so-and-so restaurant for lunch" and they say "ok!". We walk out the front door of the house, down the steps, and, with the car parked by the curb right in front of us, turn to begin walking down the sidewalk. My guest says "that is your car, right?" and I say "Oh yeah, but it's only a 15 minute walk". My guest shows a facial expression that ranges between confusion, horror, disgust, and bewilderment.
And it's not like I intentionally do this to mess with people — it's just how I've been living for nearly a decade now. It's easy to forget that walking, like cycling, is a practiced behavior that requires some acclimatization.
Even a relatively short 15 minute walk in hilly Seattle is strenuous if the longest walk you do is across a large box store parking lot and roaming the climate-controlled aisles. This may sound like hyperbole, but this is literally the longest continuous walk that many, many people take in states like Arkansas. According to data from Fitbit, Arkansas is second only to Florida for states that walk the least.
Walkability and bikeability are both highly correlated, and they can both be a part of a bidirectional feedback loop.
In places where walking and biking are common and easy, people use cars less. Less car use results in safer streets, less space wasted on giant parking lots, less space wasted on more road lanes, etc. Not wasting this space on car infrastructure means things are closer together, which makes walking and biking even easier.
In places where walking and biking are uncommon and difficult, people use cars more. More car use results in more dangerous streets and more car infrastructure. Those giant parking lots and 6 lane stroads spread everything out such that even if someone wanted to walk, the burden is just too high.
Organizations such as Strong Towns have posited that the infrastructure costs alone from this car-dependent sprawl will cripple many American cities in the coming decades as the upkeep bill comes due. Walkability is typically associated with left-wing politics, but Strong Towns is run by conservatives who support some level of density and walkability for reasons of fiscal responsibility.
Unfortunately, Strong Towns does not have a great solution to the feedback loop — and I don't either. Problems have solutions, but predicaments have outcomes. Most American cities are in a predicament.
I got a bike. It was hard at first, but now it's not.
If you live in a place you could bike, you should probably get a bike too. It will be hard at first, because cycling sucks until it doesn't.
If you live in a place where it's not safe or feasible to bike, that's really unfortunate — I don't have any great answers for you. Maybe move if you can.
There is a lot more to say here about urban design, Strong Towns, social attitudes, and much more. I'll save that for a future article.