The Selfishness of the Winter Bike Commuter

It snowed all night last night in Flagstaff. It’s supposed to snow all day today, and tomorrow.

Local Weather on my Arrival at Work
Shorts and tank top weather for Shanna.

And it got me thinking about some of the reactions to Shanna Ladd, our guest blogger who is learning to bike commute in Alaska — 10 miles from her cabin in the boondocks into Wasilla.

Some readers have commented that she makes them feel inferior — like a wimp, a pussy, ashamed.

“Why,” asked mwmike, “would anyone tolerate such pain and suffering?”

Not so deep down, perhaps I’m thinking, Mission accomplished! But really, I think it misses the point if you view Shanna as some kind of heroic extreme commuter — or worse: a martyr.

A couple of years ago, I wrote “Repeat After Me: Winter Commuters Aren't Heroes” — and I would include Shanna in the Not Hero category — at least she’s not a hero for her commute.

I like to assert that, Owning and using a car is a pain in the ass — it’s just the pain in the ass that we are used to.

Furthermore: It’s the pain in the ass for which our culture has prepared us. And by “our culture,” I mean our governments, our schools, our parents (in most cases), our employers, our peers, and on and on.

So let me tell you about my commute today.

It began with internal combustion.

The Ladies Snowblower
Just call it the “Ladies” model, and be done with it.

I decided to bike to work — as opposed to walking. It didn’t even occur to me to ask my wife for a ride, and she didn’t offer.

But I fired up our pathetic little snow blower and cleared the driveway for her. That warmed me up.

I was wearing snowboarding pants, a coat, racquetball goggles, a balaclava, and my mismatched gloves — everything I wear for my commute, except the helmet.

I have all of that stuff ready to go when I need it, because bike commuting is the pain in the ass I’m used to.

I got on the bike to head for work. I have studded tires, and I chose the easy way to work — which is slightly longer, but less hilly, and more likely to be plowed.

These are normal decisions you make when bike commuting is the pain in the ass you’re used to.

I mingled with traffic. I claimed the center of the lane in places where the bike lane had been been buried by the plowed snow.

This is a normal and safe strategy you employ when bike commuting is the pain in the ass you’re used to.

When I reached the separated multi-use path that runs along Route 66, I noticed a lot of snow had been thrown upon it by plows. I thought, Stupid City. When will they get around to plowing this?

A couple of minutes later I got my answer.

Snow Plow on the Separated Bike Lane in Flagstaff
A welcome motorist on Route 66’s multi-use path in Flagstaff.

And this is the kind of thing that happens when you live in a city that gives you an alternative pain in the ass to get used to.

After less than two-and-a-half miles, I was at work. I was warm. I shed my snow pants and jacket, and sat on my ass in front of a computer. I was done with my transportation to work.

Now, if I were a typical American car commuter, I would have spent five fewer minutes getting dressed for the commute, and I would have arrived perhaps ten minutes sooner — but I would have spent up to the next hour-and-a-half paying for everything else associated with my car: payment, gas, maintenance, licensing, registration, insurance, etc.

(Hell, since I share the costs of the car that my wife uses, I spend a chunk of my day on her transportation even when I do commute by bike.)

People with car-dependent lifestyles spend up to 20 percent of their household income on transportation — in addition to the time spent at the pump, under the hood, at the mechanic, and the Department of Motor Vehicles.

If you add up the time that a typical American spends working to support a car as well as using a car, and compare that to the number of miles driven, the average speed is less than five miles per hour.

And that is the pain in the ass that you are used to if you commute by car.

Shanna, like many bike commuters, has merely had the epiphany that time at her desk at work is time taken from her life — time she’ll never get back. I think she enjoys her job, but would rather not spend one out of five hours supporting a car.

Shanna Ladd
Selfish, selfish, selfish…

For some of us it’s the differences between having to work 32 hours per week instead of 40.

For me it’s the difference in discretionary income that I wouldn’t otherwise have — for bass guitar strings, vacations, dinners out with my wife, duct tape for restraining the kids when I go out to dinner with my wife.

Plus we bike commuters get all of the benefits of being on a bike: being outside, and using our bodies as more than just a support structure for the body parts that operate motor vehicles and computers. (Let’s face it, many of us bike commuters don’t have very physically demanding jobs.)

I will grant you that Shanna has a steeper learning curve than most of us, what with the moose, meth labs, bears, many hours of darkness, high winds, blizzards, and sub-zero temperatures. My transition away from car-dependency was relatively easy — the gear and logistics parts were easy anyway. The mental part was more like abandoning a foundational belief system, like adjusting to a world where you no longer believe in Santa Claus.

Because of the social world that raised most of us — with it’s fanatical devotion to motor vehicles — it’s a deliberate choice when you reject the belief in the necessity of the automobile; it’s a choice that goes against what mainstream people think is normal — along with the false belief that automobiles save time and money.

But the goal behind making this choice is the same: to replace the pain in the ass of car ownership with a lesser pain in the ass; a more fulfilling way of spending the limited hours of your life.

It’s not heroism, or martyrdom — it’s selfishness.

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