At A Moment’s Notice

In the U.S., 40% of trips are 2 miles and under, and 90% of those trips are by car. I wonder how the numbers might change if we had to suit up to drive our cars. Imagine that every time you hopped in the car to run to the grocery store or the post office, you had to put on special shoes, a colorful shirt, tights, and padded gloves. Imagine that every time you picked up the kids from school you had to change your underwear and put on a helmet. If we had to do these things, I suspect we’d see a lot more walking and bus riding going on.

Cars are simply too easy and convenient. They’re comfortable and fast, with built-in carrying capacity for passengers and goods. They’re secure and provide an illusion of personal safety. Driving them doesn’t require a change of clothes or special safety gear. They provide a temperature controlled personal space that’s cool in the summer, and warm and dry in the winter. It’s no wonder they’ve been so stunningly successful. If we’re going to replace a portion of car trips with bike trips, we need bikes that are easy and convenient. They need to be as easy to hop onto, as cars are easy to hop into.

On a busy Saturday, we may get on the bikes a half dozen times. A typical day would start with a quick trip to the coffee shop, followed later by a soccer game, then lunch, maybe a trip to a friend’s house, and then dinner with relatives. If we had to change clothes every time we got on the bikes, there’s absolutely no way we’d use them for all of those trips.

Anything that is handy and convenient is likely to get more use. Artists, craftspeople, and musicians know that having their tools within arm’s reach can motivate them to practice their craft. Cooks know that having a well-stocked pantry and functional kitchen can motivate them to cook at home instead of going out. I believe bikes are no different. A bike that’s already set-up for immediate use—whether for riding to work, running an errand, or hauling something—is more likely to be used than one that requires an elaborate routine every time it’s ridden.

A bike used for everyday transportation should be ready to be ridden in street clothes and whatever shoes happen to be on your feet. It should be comfortable without the use of special gear such as padded shorts, padded gloves, and lycra. It should have guards that keep dirt, grease, and oil away from your clothes. It should have reliable lights that are available with the flick of a switch. It should be capable of hauling the day’s load of stuff. And it should be stored by a door for easy exit. A bike that’s this inviting will get ridden without a second thought, replacing many car trips and bringing that 90% number down to nearly zero.

22 Responses to “At A Moment’s Notice”

  • Duncan Watson says:

    I do agree. I have to admit though that I get frustrated when there are signs up at my grocery store parking lot forbidding bikes, coupled with a lack of bike racks. I read these signs surrounded by a sea of parking and despair.

  • Karl OnSea says:

    Sounds about perfect. Can I add one more requirement though? Even an everyday transport bike should still make you giggle like a six year-old, and your heart sing every time you use it. There’s no point pretending that cycling isn’t fun!

  • Darryl says:

    Amen

    The biggest problem I’ve got to lick is a chain guard for my bike. Until them I’ll be wearing fashionably black pants. Or a handy pair of cuff straps.

    Duncan – are there other grocery stores or quick marts nearby? My grocery store added another bike rack. Hardly a trip goes by when I don’t see other bikes there.

  • Duncan Watson says:

    In general the one (grocery store) I speak of is so close that I walk rather then ride in any case. It is only 1.5 blocks away. The fault is the town I live in, this town has odd ideas about bikes and their place in society. Changing the regulations is a better route. When I lived in the greater Portland (OR) area every grocery store had bike racks. I miss that.

    But I made a number of choices in my location, job location and lifestyle to live car-free. My wife and I were car-free from April 1999-Oct 2007. We now have a car for her. We lived in Munich, Beaverton (OR) and Kirkland (WA) though those years. It was easist to be car-free in Munich, though Beaverton and the greater Portland area was not difficult.

    Regarding utility bikes and ease of use, I love the idea of an Xtracycle style of bike. There were times in Oregon I was looking at kayaking but didn’t have a way to move the kayak around. Xtracycles provide a way to do that pretty handily. An Xtracycle style bike could easily carry my rock climbing gear (rack, rope, shoes, harness, water, food) without requiring me to put 40 lbs on my back while riding. Now though I concentrate on riding as my main form of exercise and fun as well as transportation.

  • Vik says:

    That’s why my Bike Friday Tikit sees so much action:

    – I don’t wear special clothes/shoes
    – I don’t need a lock or to think about how I’ll keep my bike safe as I take it in with me
    – it’s fast enough to really cover some ground
    – I leave lights and tool on the bike 24/7 so I don’t need to think about getting my bike ready
    – for the downtown area where I live riding a folding bike is much easier than driving when you start to think about traffic and parking issues

  • David Hembrow says:

    This sounds like very much the correct approach. Of course, bikes like this are available. You have them already.

    They used to be made in the US as well. When we visited the velorama bicycle museum a few years ago we saw this bike, made in the USA in 1904, which looks like the architypal “Dutch” utility bike:

    http://hembrow.eu/personal/velorama.html#whitebike

  • andy parmentier says:

    i like the comment about folding bikes..and now alluding to temperature controlled car interiors,
    motorcyclists wear electrically heated vests (i’ve got a down vest, and wrap my midsection with a crazy long wool scarf)
    i’ve never been a fan of motorcycles, because they lack the dynamic tension of pedaling. it’s a static, passive position, unless you’re racing motocross.
    that said, i’m a fan of hybrid assist bicycles..and a fan of electric heated vests. maybe this could boost riding-i would keep my tour easy on the road all winter with one.
    otherwise, the guy in florida will end up buying my bent

  • David Hembrow says:

    Andy, velomobiles offer increased warmth in the winter too. They reduce (or eliminate) the wind passing over your body, which greatly decreases the cooling effect.

  • brett says:

    I agree: we’re so spoiled by that kind of low-maintenance convenience in a car that manufacturers need to make our bikes and accessories as quick and easy to jump on as possible.

    I’d add low maintenance to the list. My Dutch bike has an enclosed hub gearing system, which coupled with the chain guard, means that there’s a lot less need for cleaning and tinkering. Of course it also came with lights, bell, chain guard, fenders (essential in the rainy US Pacific Northwest), back rack and strap, removable basket, pump, U-lock, kickstand, wheel lock and the rest, so I just jump on and go. (The price of commuter bikes looks less steep when you consider that you have to add a lot of that stuff to most other bikes.)

    I don’t wear special bike wear or bike shoes. I have a waterproof pannier that contains a light, thin, breathable rain jacket and rain pants, bike map, gloves, and a patch kit that I hope I’ll never have to use (like the jacks and spare in a car trunk), since I mostly ride in the city. If I’m in a hurry, I can just grab the pannier and not have to worry about what I’m forgetting. It’s almost as easy as jumping in the car.

  • Christina says:

    What a good post! I live in Taiwan where biking is very popular. Most bikes are comfy and have fenders, chain guard, and a basket. But no one thinks about repairing tires. As for rain gear- most people drive a scooter or a car in the rain. This is an option for most Americans- have a comfy bike to ride on those 2-3 mile trips in nice weather. It’ll at least reduce car trips, and it doesn’t seem so threatening- how many Americans can change a car tire, much less a bike tire?

  • andy parmentier says:

    david,

    i agree about velomobiles-as for the 2 wheeled easy racers bike that i ride, there’s the option of the body sock. having read reviews of this accessory, i would be quick to add it on to my bike.

    -andy

  • Red says:

    In some ways cars are more convenient and in some ways less. I have found that as I started using my bike for all those short trips that I have now gotten used to it and find it more convenient in a urban area. Here is why:
    Though there may not be bike parking it is still generally easier to find a place to lock a bike then to find a parking place.
    In the city I find that cycling is just as fast if not faster than the car.
    It is also less frustrating.

  • LJ says:

    In the last 30 years, I’ve only lived in one place where I had errand destinations of any kind within a 2 mile radius. And that is in spite of the fact that I’ve always valued living and working within close proximity.

    That being said, I still own a “hop on and ride” type bike because sometimes I just want to hop on and ride, and because I plan on living someplace close, someday.

    The other large looming problem with quick bike trips is the weather. <20F requires suiting up for simple survival.

  • 2whls3spds says:

    I am a hop on the bike and ride type of person. My main vehicle is a diesel pickup truck used primarily for work and on the farm. It is much easier to grab the bike out from under the shed and head to the store than it is to crank the beast.

    Unfortunately in the US much money has been spent making things convenient for the automobile and not much else. If we start raising the cost of driving to more realistically reflect the true costs involved, while increasing spending on bicycle infrastructure as well as properly scaled cities and towns, I would wager we will see more people using bikes and walking. It is a matter of making one thing more convenient that the other.

    Aaron

  • sean says:

    we have recently setup a “bike garage” at our home, complete with bike rack and space for bikes, locks, helmets, shoping bags, etc. it is right at the back door making it very easy to hop-on-and-go. my xtracycle “tank” is there, as well as the fixie, my dad’s bike and the ‘lil guy’s machine too.

    you know, i think i need to echo part of the comment above – specifically – the need to more cycling-specific infrastructure.

    think about it…a big part of the “ease” of driving is there are roads leading right from (almost) everyone’s front door that are labelled (street names) and they link to other roads that can take you wherever you want to go.

    cycling, as a mode of transport, does not have that kind of infrastructure in place (yet!) and i think that that is the single, biggest issue – not bike design. “the great unwashed masses” dont think cycling is safe and that is what is keeping people from hopping on a bike “at a moment’s notice” to do those little errands, ride to work, etc.

    great comments all!

  • Alan says:

    @Sean

    Your “bike garage” sounds a lot like ours. Very cool.

    I think you’re right-on about the lack of infrastructure here in the U.S. being the underlying issue.

    Alan

  • David Hembrow says:

    Sean, I think it’s a bit of both. It’s certainly true that over here where the infrastructure exists (including a legal requirement for homes to be built with bicycle storage), people do cycle.

    However, it also helps that the bike shops are full of proper utility bikes suited to those journeys. Uncomfortable bikes which aren’t reliable and make you dirty are not really that great for everyday cycling. They lead to the idea that cycling is something for special clothing, and that you need to change when you get to your destination.

  • LJ says:

    Cycling infrastructure is an important difference between European and American biking environments, but so is:
    1. Normal distances between work, school, and shops
    2. Weather: for January average temps (F) – Amsterdam high-41 Low-32 July high-69 low-55 (which seems very hospitable to me)
    3. Dis-incentives to driving; including fuel cost, travel time, and parking availability/cost.

    While these things might not matter to those of us who simply enjoy bike commuting, I expect they matter to the vast majority of people who chose to drive instead of ride.

  • David Hembrow says:

    LJ, I live just 190 km north-east of Amsterdam, but we had several days last winter when it was -6 C or 21 F. I took video at -4 C of the city centre full of bikes, and at -2 C of primary school children cycling to school (in exactly the same way as they do every day):

    http://nl.youtube.com/watch?v=gw3XSHygRpk
    http://nl.youtube.com/watch?v=2n_znwWroGM

    If you look into trip distances, you’ll find that while there are longer journeys in the US, the averages aren’t all that much different between the US and Europe.

    Car parking is not as expensive as you might think here. For instance, it’s free of charge at the railway station and at the hospital, and just a couple of Euros per day at the centre of the city. Much cheaper than in the UK, for instance. Talking of which, Britain is another country which shares much the same climate as the Netherlands, and which is relatively compact compared with the US, but where the cycling rate is about the same as the US.

    It’s all too easy to make excuses for people. If you take out those journeys where distance really is long, or those times of the year when the temperature really is low, you’re still actually left with an awful lot of journeys that people in English speaking countries could make by bicycle, but don’t.

    That’s why I believe it’s not really any of these physical things, but the quality of the environment for cycling and how attractive cycling has been made. Do it right and you get a large number of journeys made by bike – even a large number of families choosing not to bother with owning a car. Not because they’re told not to, but because it makes sense for them:

    http://hembrow.blogspot.com/2008/10/car-free-living.html

  • LJ says:

    David,

    Thanks for the videos. While thinking about my own commute, the one facet that I find most discouraging is riding the rural portion of my route (with 3-6′ shoulder/bike lane), in the dark, with cars passing me at 55MPH only a few feet away. So good facilities are probably more important than I have been crediting.

    I’m always envious to see street scenes from the Netherlands with so many bikes and so few cars.

  • David Hembrow says:

    LJ, I used to live in the UK, where roads are designed very much like in the US. It took years for me to really notice the unpleasantness of riding on roads with high speed limits and inconsiderate drivers to really get to me.

    We never ride on roads with speed limits anything like that high. In fact, as you’ll see from my blog post today we rarely ride on roads even if we travel quite long distances. We have segregated paths on some roads which have 18 mph (30 km/h) speed limits. Generally in those cases in order to provide more direct routes for cyclists than for drivers.

    People with a completely different mindset designed this stuff, as demonstrated by this story on carbon trace vs. this one on my blog.

    What you get here is what really suits cyclists, because cyclists are not a minority here. Having the best infrastructure has resulted in the highest rate of cycling.

  • andy parmentier says:

    when they said “the information superhighway is coming” i had a hard time picturing it. now it’s a cyberpaved reality. it’s the same with cycling infrastructure-being american, i have a hard time picturing it, the netherlands is changing that (i’ve got a good imagination, but plan to augment the imagination with an actual visit).
    ok speaking of flying over oceans..commercial floatplanes used to be commonplace, but now air travel is very greedily reduced to jumbo jets. an example of infrastructure going the way of the almighty dollar. floatplanes complement nature’s already existing infrastructure of water water everywhere, instant airport.

 
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