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Saturday, September 03, 2005
What Kind of Mileage You Get on That?

A bus driver asked me that question this afternoon as I was riding my bike through the Union Square area. After we laughed about the question, he wished me well and said it was the most sensible way to get around.

Because of Hurricane Katrina, the nation is awakening to the fact that gasoline costs money. Not since 1980 has it consumed as big a part of the average household budget. Though they'd be willing to pay more if it came to it, people are up in arms over the record nominal high prices, and complaining to an anti-price-gouging hotline set up by the federal government. In Georgia, rather than encouraging people to drive less, the governor has decided that people ought to consume more gasoline right now. He has urged the state legislature to make gas cheaper by eliminating the state's gas tax, which pays for road construction. That means that some amount of future road construction will have to be funded by general tax revenues, paid for by drivers and non-drivers alike.

One reason that people are so interested in gasoline prices is that they're posted on huge signs outside of every filling station. You can't help but notice the price of gas because it's everywhere. Other prices for car owners are not so obvious: Depreciation, maintenance and insurance are as or more expensive on an annual basis, but we don't obsess over those costs. It's possible that all of those costs will go up because of the hurricane, but those increases would be far less as percentages, and wouldn't receive the same attention in any case.

At the age of 29, I've never purchased or leased a vehicle, so I don't worry about depreciation, maintenance, insurance or gasoline costs. For my entire adult life, all of the day-to-day mobility I've ever needed has come from an unending series of unlimited monthly MetroCards (good for travel on any New York City subway, bus or tram, 24/7), and that bicycle pictured above. I'm not trying to imply that I'm somehow morally superior to automobile owners. Indeed, drivers should be happy there are people like me who remove auto traffic from the roads and reduce gasoline demand, lowering its price.

I've had my bike a lot longer than my entire adult life. It's a 1985 Fuji Tahoe 21-speed mountain bike, state of the art at that time but now woefully simple. It cost $495, which my father paid because I was 10 years old. In terms of dollars-for-utility, that purchase was far-and-away the best investment I have ever encountered.

The bike's first heavy use came when I was in middle school. Each day during the summers of 1986, 1987 and 1988, I'd ride the bike to my day camp, a sailing school that Google maps reports is 1.2 miles from my boyhood house in suburban Fairfield County, Conn. This freed my mom up from chauffering duties so she could do other stuff. In the years just before I reached that magical moment in suburbia when I was old enough to drive a car, I rode around town with my friends as a means of transportation. When I was a freshman in high school, my friend and I were riding on the sidewalk, against traffic on a two-way street. A driver who was making a right-hand turn out of a driveway forgot to look both ways, and pulled her car into my path before I was able to swerve out of the way. I flipped over the hood of the car and landed on the pavement on the other side. The front wheel of my bike was all twisted up! The wheel was replaced, and other than scrapes on both elbows, I was not injured. But I learned always to ride in the direction of traffic.

More intense drama came, though, when my father convinced me and two friends of mine and my uncle to join him on the Des Moines Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa, more commonly known by its acronym, RAGBRAI. This is an annual seven-day tour that attracts 10,000 bicyclists who ride some 50 to 70 miles a day across the corn and soybean fields of Iowa, and through its picturesque small towns. At the age of 14 and 15, I was not in shape at all for these rides, nor of the mindset to get myself there. On Wednesday, July 25, 1990, in the midst of my first tour, RAGBRAI XVIII, I came into the nightly campground, a shaded park down by the river in Oelwein, Iowa, and propped my bike up with a bunch of other ones next to a tree. Apparently, I was so beaten down by the experience of riding so much that I forgot to lock the bike. It was stolen. The next morning, when I failed to find it, I was absolutely thrilled. Buying a new bike could come later. In the immediate short term future, the loss of the bike meant I'd have a free pass to ride the sag wagon to Cedar Rapids and on for the next two days. As, such sweet relief! We reported the bike stolen as a matter of course, and when my uncle tried to convince me to buy a new one for the remainder of the trip, I tearfully told him that no other bike could ever replace the one that had just been stolen.

Six months later, in the cold nights of January or February of 1991, we received a call at 4 a.m. from an officer in the Oelwein Police Department. My parents woke me up and patched me through to the officer. Had I reported a bicycle stolen? Yes. Could I describe it to him? Yes. After ascertaining in minute detail the bike's idiosyncracies, he agreed to ship it to us. The punk who had stolen it had been riding around town and gone and gotten himself arrested, whereupon the origin of the bike came into question. In the years that have followed, to ensure that I never have to depend on remembering that there are two faint red strips on the right hand handlebar, I've registered the bike with the Washington, D.C., police, the NYPD, and with my college's security department. In July 2002, when I went on a third RAGBRAI that also passed through Oelwein, I stopped by the police headquarters and officially thanked them for finding and returning my bicycle. The thief had made some minor alterations to the bike that remain to this day: In particular, the gear shifters no longer match one another.

On Leap Day, 1992, I received my driver's license and the bike got a break for three years. From 1992 to 1994, it gathered dust in our garage. I probably never rode it once during that time. I thought I'd really never need it again for that matter. Bicycles in the part of suburbia I lived in are either pleasure craft or the second-class transportation for those too young to drive. I could kiss that thing goodbye!

But in 1994 I graduated from high school and moved to Washington, D.C., to begin attending Georgetown University. After one semester, I realized that I needed some form of transportation between campus and the bustling commercial strip down on M Street in Georgetown. So I brought the bike to campus, and stored it at the overfilled bike racks outside our dormitory. That was to be a pivotal moment. For the next three years, that bike carried me all over our nation's capital. In all the years since, I've never parted ways with it. During college I learned to navigate city traffic, and I learned that the bicycle is one of the most pleasurable and exhilirating ways to travel through a city. I also learned that it looks much more scary and dangerous from behind a car window that it actually is when you're riding.

I first brought my bike to New York City in the summer of 1996, when I had an internship on West 57th Street and a bed in Columbia University campus housing. In those crazy days I rode down West End Avenue to work and up Amsterdam Avenue to return home, rain or shine. I recall in particular a few very memorable downpours when I wished I'd taken the subway. I moved here for good on January 1, 1999, into a room I rented from a couple that lived in Murray Hill. For the following six years I worked in Times Square and lived in a succession of seven apartments in Hell's Kitchen, the Upper West Side, Chinatown, Sugar Hill, Morningside Heights and Harlem. Thankfully, the office where I worked had a little room set aside for bicycle parking. All throughout that period, I biked to work on days when I didn't feel like riding the subway, or when the feeling of spending too much time cooped up in a small apartment encouraged me to get out-of-doors for some exercize. These days, I work in Harlem and live in the canyons of Wall Street. The trip to work is a bit too long for my taste, so the bike is doing light duty as an evening and weekend diversion.

Here in New York there have been a few mishaps along the way. When I lived in Chinatown, a truck backed into the bike as it was attached overnight to a street sign. This caused the handlebars to be bent out of shape and in need of replacement. Also the kickstand was stolen, so now I don't have a kickstand. A few years ago, I bought a fancy, sleek new seat. It and one (but not both!) of the pedals were stolen two days later as I had the bike locked up outside. Resigned to reality, put the old scruffy original seat back on. It's a little worse for the wear now, as you can tell by the duct tape, but comfy. So now the bike has new handlebars, mismatching gear shift knobs and mismatching pedals. Paradoxically, the worse the bike looks, the move valuable I find it because it's less likely to be stolen. Beside these changes to the bike, I've also received a traffic ticket for running a red light at 41st Street and the Avenue of the Americas, and had a stern talking-to from two other officers for running a slew of red lights on upper Central Park West.

So for 20 years now, less a three-year motoring gap, I've ridden this bike around leafy Connecticut, the rolling cornfields of Iowa, our nation's capital city and up and down through the canyons of Manhattan. The rewards are far greater than gasoline savings, though that's what people focus on. I've never had to pay any money to park the bike, for example, but the most savings have been from vehicular capital not purchased. Many people who can afford it like to buy a new car every five years. Over the course of these 20 years, such a person would have bought four cars. Excluding interest in car loans, what does a new car cost? $25,000? So they would have spent $100,000 in the time that I've been riding a $495 bike. Then there's the exercize. That $495 is equivalent to, what?, six months of membership at a gym or health club? Many people spend a good deal of money riding stationary bikes or taking spin classes. I am not one of them.

But despite the enormous financial savings, the most tangible benefit to riding has been my vantage point on the city. When I was younger and single, riding a bicycle put me face-to-face with many of the most beautiful women in New York City — and that's a considerable number of people. I was usually too shy to say anything to people I didn't know, but while other men have been forced to peer through a glass windshield, honk and shout, I've been able to say "hello." Beyond that, I've seen the characters and the buildings and the intricate sidewalk ballet that makes up life in New York City up close and personal. I've seen the city in its most real, immediate and full view, not dulled down by tinted windows or narrowed by the scope of a windshield. I've heard the sounds of people living their lives, unmuffled by glass and metal. I've felt the city air, heavy with hot moisture or chilled in a windswept gray winter morning, unmediated by heating and air conditioning. On a bicycle, I've not experienced the city whizzing by at a blurred pace. I've experienced the city as it is. Here's hoping that I can manage another two decades on this $495 bike.

- Thousands complain to feds on gas gouging [MSNBC]
- New Yorkers, the Best Patriots [S&F]
- Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa
- RAGBRAI XXX Map [GeoBike]
- Oelwein, Iowa, Police Department
- New York City Subway Map [MTA]
- New York City Transit Bus Homepage [MTA]
- Roosevelt Island Tram [Wired New York]
- Posted at 8:56 PM | Permalink | Comments: 7 | Post a Comment |  

Right on! My $400 (in '94) Raleigh mountain bike is only about half the age of your bike; it hasn't seen quite as much excitement either. Nonetheless, it has been a sturdy recreational and commuter vehicle in Boston, Oakland, San Francisco and now New York. I wish more people would make a small investment in a bicycle and experience the streets of their city or town the same way you and countless other cyclists have. We need more cyclists on the streets and stories like yours make riding all the more appealing. Keep up the good work (and keep riding).

By jp, at 9/03/2005 9:28 PM  

Thanks JP. You've been all over the place.

By AD, at 9/04/2005 1:52 PM  

Ah, but you are morally superior for using that bike as your transportation. I really think so.

By Anonymous, at 9/04/2005 9:34 PM  

Great story about your bike! I got my first nice bike around 1980 - a 12 speed road bike which I rode through high school and college in addition to my car(s).

In NYC I could certainly see not having a car but in the midwest sprawl is so common. Our cities are just not dense enough to have all your daily needs. I grew up in Oklahoma City which in the early 70s was the largest city based on land area! Since 1990 I've lived in St. Louis. The City of St. Louis has a great street grid and is very bike friendly but much of the goods and services are still in the suburbs. We are working on increasing population and making life a bit more urban.

- Steve/www.urbanreviewstl.com

By Urban Review - St. Louis, at 9/05/2005 9:59 AM  

Steve, great website, both in terms of content and design! You are doing great and very needed work there in St. Louis. Hopefully every city has people who care about these issues. Not only does urban density make for a better sense of community, but it is the best way out of our energy problems.

Thanks for visiting us here in New York City. Everyone should go take a look at www.urbanreviewstl.com.

By AD, at 9/05/2005 5:13 PM  

You had a bike stolen, and you got it back? I'm impressed; my hat is off to the Oelwein, Iowa, police.

I've had my own bike-theft experience: a really classy Triumph 3-speed with a Dynohub on the front. It disappeared without a trace. I've moved on, but I'm still in mourning, after 20 years.

By Mitch, at 9/06/2005 11:54 AM  

I'm still puzzled why the public doesn't appreciate cyclists more. More bikers means less crowding on Mass Transit, Less Cars on the Road, Less Obese people filling hospitals...etc...etc. It's one of the few win, win, win things in this world.

By peakguy, at 9/07/2005 7:16 AM  

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