Wednesday, April 4, 2012

April 4 & 5: Things they don't mention in Womens' Biking Forums

See that plastic duck? Alex has four of them. He got them as a birthday present over the weekend. He loves them, and everywhere he goes, they have to go with him. All four of them. You could get a lot of entertainment out of watching me attempt to descend four flights of steps with Alex, a laptop bag, my purse, an Elmo backpack, AND four plastic ducks every morning. Oh, and I'm carrying Alex too, as he can't do steps in his boots.

But before we even get to that point, we have to make it out the apartment's front door. On most work days, walking out the door with Alex is the single hardest thing I have to do all day. Half the time it involves carrying him, literally kicking and screaming, away from my husband, the dog, the cat, his toys, or whatever book he's suddenly decided he HAS to read. Another quarter of the time, there's a last-minute replacement of some soiled clothing item (fellow parents, YOU know what I mean) that adds more expensive minutes to our morning routine.

All this is to say that, for me as a "cycling woman" (whatever that means), one of the primary obstacles to riding my bike for transport isn't fear of cars, concerns about helmet hair, reluctance to break a sweat, or lack of experience: it's time.

When I use the car to drop Alex off at daycare and go to work, it's forty-five minutes for the full one-way trip. When I bike to daycare and take Metro to work, it's an hour and a half. And if I'm having one of those ambitious days where I decide to bike the full 8.5 mile trip to work? My commute starts nudging toward the two-hour mark. That's one way.

Now, obviously I love bike commuting. It helps me focus at work, it saves money and repairs on our ancient gas-guzzler, and with Alex along it's just crazy stupid fun. I think it even makes the drivers who share the road with us a little happier, seeing a mom and her kid on their big orange bike, having the time of their lives picking curbside dandelions and meowing at imaginary cats.

But I can't escape the fact that choosing the bike over the car sucks an extra 1.5 hours out of my day. As hard as I try to set a morning routine that lets us leave early enough, there are so many days when the routine goes to hell and it feels like a full day's labor just to get out the door with Alex fully clothed (even counting matched socks as optional). Every single week, I have one or two days when I have to change my transportation mode from bike to car when it becomes clear that doing otherwise would make me unacceptably late for work. And every time that happens, I feel like I've failed.

Then I go to forum after forum and listen to people asking questions about why more women aren't out on bikes, and I hear all the answers about clothing and hair and infrastructure and fear and clueless bike shops... and I think about how those would have been my answers, too, five years ago. But these days it mostly comes down to time.

Elly Blue and Marla Streb are my heroes when it comes to advocating for women's cycling: Elly because she crunched the numbers in a seminal article in Grist Magazine to point out that there are lots of reasons women stay off bikes besides "It's scary and I won't look as pretty!!1!"; Marla, because she (alone) spoke up for mothers at the recent National Women's Cycling Forum, quotably proclaiming that the fact that "Kids are an equipment sport" is an additional challenge for women who bike.

I think the bike advocacy community needs to ask itself what their newly-recruited cycling women are supposed to do in five or so years, when they start becoming mothers.

a.m. temperature: (April 4) 55
a.m. temperature: (April 5) 48

Alex wore (both days): Bogs boots, light cotton pants, short-sleeve shirt, heavy cotton sweater (so Nordic! So tweedy!), winter helmet. For the trip home, we left off the sweater and switched the boots to his regular shoes.

Clothing notes: PERFECT on 4/4. Seriously, a home run clothing-wise, both trips. A little underdressed on 4/5: Coldhands struck again, and I had to spend most of my ride warming his fingers up with my spare hand. Didn't know it was THAT cold when I was choosing his clothes! Maybe there are tiny, thin gloves somewhere that will keep his hands warm and let him ding the bike bells.


  1. I'm confused about the distances and times. Forty-five minutes to cover 8,5 miles by car seems like a very long time.

    The reason I mention this is that 50% of the working population commutes five miles or less to work. That takes half an hour by bike for an adult. Source:

    These short trips are what the advocacy is about. We don't want people bending over backwards just to ride a bike, come hell or high water. We want people to know that bikes are a great alternative for that half of the population who actually live quite close to work.

  2. @Erik Sandblom

    Crazy but true! I've timed the car trip and it's definitely 45 minutes. Some of this is doubtless due to toddler-wrangling (remember that there's a separate stop at the daycare center included), plus I'm mostly driving in Washington DC so traffic is usually heavy.

    As for your point about sub-5 mile trips being at the heart of advocacy: I agree. Alex's daycare is about 4 miles from our apartment, so when I do the multimodal commute (which is most typical for us), I'm definitely biking a reasonable distance.

    I'd argue, though, that 5 miles *can* take 30 minutes for an adult to bike, or it can take significantly longer (as it does for me) because of terrain, traffic lights or heavy cargo.

    1. Heck, my trip on public transit goes 9 miles and takes close to an hour. By bike, it's about the same no matter the route I take - because not everyone is fast on a bike. Some of us are old and fat and slow, and some of us have 30 extra pounds of kid + baby gear strapped on the bike, and all of use should be obeing traffic rules which means stopping for every light in the city.

      The only thing that makes people commute by bike is that they want to commute by bike. Some days, you might not want to r be able to. Don't go feeling guilty about it.

    2. :-) Thanks for the affirmation!

      Also: 9 miles?? Woman, you are officially a REAL CYCLIST. There. I just made it so.

  3. Bill Nye proposes cost-saving wind tunnels of sorts, protected circular wind tunnels, whereby the cyclist is propelled in the desired direction: And then there's this from a working mom re: cargo bikes via Liz Can:

    1. And I thought Bill Nye couldn't get any cooler! Thanks for sharing.