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Hop on a bike with your editors » Yale Climate Connections

As spring temperatures warm up, the Yale Climate Connections editors got together to talk about bicycling. Sara, who lives near Chapel Hill, North Carolina, has an electric bike she’s obsessed with. Sam is getting reacquainted with her bike from high school in Madison, Wisconsin. And Pearl, who lives on Aquidneck Island in Rhode Island, is trying to decide how bikes might fit into her family’s life after a childhood spent living on a boat in the Caribbean.

This roundtable discussion has been edited and condensed.

Sam: I am curious: What’s everybody’s experience with bicycles, generally, but also how do you think about them in terms of climate change, and in, you know, rethinking transportation?

Sara: For the record, I want everyone to know that Sam used her fancy voice when she said, “rethinking transportation.” 

Sam: I occasionally become a cartoon.

Sara: Pearl, do you want to go first?

Pearl: Well, mine will be quite short. 

Sam: There was no biking on the boat?

Pearl: There was no biking on the boat. In preparation for this meeting, I was thinking about how I learned how to ride a bike. I was six years old and it was Father’s Day. But since then, I have not done a lot of biking.

Sara: That felt like the beginning of the story. “I was six years old. It was Father’s Day.”

Pearl: No, that was it. That was the beginning, the peak, and somewhat the end of my biking career. But I mean, I would like to bike. I think the concept of it is great. But unfortunately, where we live — I mean, I got yelled at one day for just walking on my road with Kai [Pearl’s 2-year-old son] in the stroller. So I can’t even begin to imagine what would happen to me if I was on a bike. There are people that bike around here, but it’s more the sporty spandex crew, which is a very different scene.

Sam: Yeah, that’s kind of what it was like in the suburbs. When we were kids, there was a neighborhood group and we were biking everywhere, to each other’s houses, to the park. But as an adult, the only people I see biking out there are biking for sports.

Pearl: When I was living in New York City, when I was living in Paris, there were the bikes that you’d rent. I think that if I were still living in a city, I would totally use that. It’s such a great way to decompress at the end of the day. You know, like you’re in your office, and then you get on your bike and you get a little bit of fresh air, relatively speaking, and you ride home. That sounds much better than sitting in the stuffy subway. But yeah, being in suburbia here, unfortunately, that’s really not an option. 

But closer to the city of Newport, there are a lot of electric bikes, a lot of young kids on electric bikes. Ted [Pearl’s husband] wants to buy two. We’re just trying to figure out how Kai would fit into the electric bike scene. 

Sam: You gotta get one of those giant ones with the big bucket in the front and the kids sit in them. So cute.

Pearl: Yeah, I wouldn’t be able to see over his big head. [Everyone laughs.]

Sara: I see lots of folks in my town with attachments to their bikes that have kids’ seats on them.

Pearl: Yeah. And you have the little trailer. So you know, we could put him in there and the dogs maybe.

Sam: Cute!

Sara: One thing that I really have been appreciating about my electric bicycle is just how human it is. Instead of being encased in a metal exoskeleton, you’re actually in the world and can interact with people a little bit more.

Sam: It’s also a nice way to just be outside. I went on a bike ride that was not that long — it was probably like 15 minutes — for the first time since high school. And my butt was really sore for multiple days after. So I’ve set a goal to bike semi-regularly just to get my body reacclimated to it. Last night after work, I put my knitting in a backpack and biked down to the lake and sat there until the sun set, and it was really nice.

Now that I live in the city, biking sometimes takes the same amount of time or faster than driving to a place. And I live in a good biking city. To get to the park, I had to bike on a “bike boulevard” road, which meant my bike could take up the whole car lane until I got to the path, and then once I was on the pathway, I didn’t have to worry about cars at all.

Photos from an evening that Sam biked to Lake Mendota and spent some time knitting.

Pearl: You can do it, obviously, as a form of transport not thinking about the exercise part. But you are getting that. Especially when you have a hard time prioritizing exercise in your life, it’s a good way of you know, doing a two-for-one. 

Sara: That’s one of my favorite things about it. I have always really liked biking. I learned when I was seven. I just really have always enjoyed the feeling of going fast and feeling the wind around me, and I’ve always had a body that could bike. But then I got my electric bike last summer and I was surprised by how much I love it. It really makes you feel like a kid again, because you can go so fast and the hills aren’t arduous. I find that I use it almost every day now to run little errands, like down to the pharmacy or to book club. And one of my favorite things is you get that two-for-one. 

I really am not a fan of the term “life hack.” But it does feel like a life hack that I’m getting my exercise time and my transportation. And for those short trips, like two miles or less, it really is not substantially slower than taking a car.

Sam: You got a used e-bike, right? How did you decide that’s what you wanted to do? 

Sara: It had been on my mind. I had tried them before and really liked them. And then I was having lunch with someone who said, “I’m moving out of the country, and I need to sell my e-bike. Do you know anyone who might want it?” And I bought it the next day. 

YouTube videoYouTube video

Which design looks safer? The bicycle infrastructure on W. Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, uses bollards and parked cars to protect cyclists in the bike lane from moving traffic. But the design has not been implemented on the adjoining E. Main Street in Carrboro.

Sam: That’s amazing. Yeah, I think I had in my head that when I moved into the city, I was going to buy an e-bike. But then I was like, “I first I need to make sure I like biking still.” I think that sometimes the price tag is intimidating. I mean, when you think about it as a car substitute, then it’s a lot cheaper. 

Sara: Well, and then the other thing to think about is what the parking prices are like. I’m working from an office now where you have to pay $195 a month for a parking space. And so the e-bike pays for itself pretty quickly. 

Sam: That makes a lot of sense. Yeah, I’m lucky that this is a pretty flat town. So far I’ve been fine with my — what do they call them? Acoustic bikes? My non-e-bike.

Sara: I know what you mean. Not agnostic. What is the word? I’m too old.

Sam: My bike does not have a religion. [Everyone laughs.]

Sara: My dad calls his not-e-bike his mechanical child.

Sam: Sara, if you want to talk about it, I thought it’d be funny to relive your story of you pushing the limits of how far you can go on your e-bike.

Sara: OK, so one of the ways that my love for my e-bike has been manifesting is that it becomes a game about which errands I can do by e-bike that I used to do by car. So I wanted to get something from the big box hardware store that’s on the other side of town. And there are certain roads that I refuse to go on because I think they’re too dangerous. I did figure out a back-roads way of getting there, but in the end it was 13 miles round trip. Even on an e-bike that was a lot for me. So I’m very proud of it, but I was just totally wiped the next day. And it makes me look at the town in a different way. Because it’s very frustrating to feel like I can’t get somewhere directly just because it’s too dangerous.

Sam: I don’t really remember, what’s the bike infrastructure like where you are? Are you doing a lot of biking on roads?

Sara: I do bike on roads a lot. Some roads are really good. My favorite is on West Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. There is a stretch where they have it set up so that cars park and the cars themselves become the barrier between the bike and the traffic. That feels very safe. There are some bike paths in town. There’s a really nice one by the creek that goes for a few miles. But then there are some places with — are you familiar with a “sharrow?”

Sam: I don’t think so. 

Left: The 2.5-mile Bolin Creek trail in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is a car-free path through town. Right: A sharrow in Carrboro.

Sara: So you’re riding along, you’re in a bike lane, you’re feeling safe and good. And then suddenly, the bike lane just ends and you’re mixing in with traffic and there’s a little painted symbol on the road that indicates that the cars are supposed to share the road with the bike. That does not feel good. 

Sam: That sounds sort of like the bike boulevards here, but they are on low-traffic roads, like just neighborhood roads, which yesterday felt fine. We’ll see. 

Pearl: What is a bike boulevard? 

Sam: It is just like, the bike can take up the whole lane of the road.

Pearl: And there are no cars? 

Sam: No, there are cars

Bike Paths of Madison, WI – a subway style map that I made!
byu/VibrantGoo inmadisonwi

Pearl: Is there an app or something about bike-friendly roads and bike paths?

Sara: Analog! Sorry, I just realized the word for non-e-bike bikes.

Sam: Analog! Not acoustic, not agnostic. 

But back to Pearl’s question, I have been mostly just using Google Maps.

Sara: I will say it’s not very good in my town. It will suggest routes, and I know there’s a better way to do it. It doesn’t know the bike routes as well as it knows the car routes, which is something that I hope they fix at some point.

Sam: Sara, how do you decide when a road is not safe? 

Sara: I know from being a driver which roads feel safe. It’s not even about the amount of cars, it’s about the speed that they’re going and also how much room the bikes get allocated. So there are some roads where there is a bike lane, but I know that people go 45 miles an hour on that road, and it’s kind of narrow, and there’s a lot of curves, and my answer is absolutely not. But if it’s a road where people tend to go 25 miles an hour, and there’s a bike lane, that’s OK. And then there’s some places where people go very quickly, but there’s a sidewalk and sometimes I’ll just ride on the sidewalk.

Sam: That makes sense. I was driving through campus last week and they have a protected bike lane. It has a very low concrete curb between the road and the bike path, and there was a car parked in the bike path.

Sara: Yeah, there’s a lot of disrespect of bike lanes. People put their garbage cans and their leaves in them. 

Sam: When I took my first bike ride in a long time, on Saturday, I went on the bike path and it was a beautiful, 70-degree Sunday. And the bike path was crowded. There were people walking, little kids running around on their little balance bikes, a man passed by unicycling, of course, and dogs. But that sort of traffic was less annoying than car traffic. And also, I wasn’t trying to get anywhere, I was just out for a ride. Well, except I had bribed myself to go out and stop at the ice cream place that has an entrance along the bike path. So I was trying to get to the ice cream place. 

Photos from Sam’s bike trip to get ice cream.

Pearl: What kind of ice cream did you get?

Sam: I got a strawberry cheesecake because it felt like I needed something fruity for it to be sort of spring-summer weather.

Sara: I agree, Sam, that when you can see people well like you can on a bike, it’s less annoying than the traffic of cars. I think part of it is that you can just talk to them — like have a quick little conversation.

Sam: We should talk about bike accessories. I’ve been thinking about what I want my bike to do, and I’m not commuting anywhere. But I would like to ride my bike to my knitting group because we meet close to a bike path. But knitting group is on Tuesdays in the early evenings, and so is the farmers market where I take my food scraps to drop off to be composted. So I’m trying to figure out a system for how to take my food scraps on the bike and also my knitting. I think I want a cute front basket for my knitting. And I think I’m going to get a back rack and then put some sort of crate or something on the back that I can put the compost bucket in. 

But then multiple people were like, “You need some panniers [pronounced PAH-neers],” and I was like, “Cheese?” But it’s not cheese. It’s side bags that you can use as grocery bags. There’s a whole world of possibilities. I once bought my friend Christmas lights that went around the tires on her cargo bike. So yeah, now I’m like, well, how do I make my bike look fun?

Sara: I have opinions. I have so many opinions. Pardon us, Pearl, while we geek out. 

The person who sold me her bike did an amazing job adding accessories to it, things I would never have thought of. So let’s just go from the front to the back. It came with a really bright headlight that was built in. Then she added something on the handlebars that can hold a phone.

Sam: So if you need directions or something?

Sara: Yes, I have biked around with my Google Maps pulled up, which feels really cool. Then there is a bell, which I use all the time on the bike path to let joggers know that I’m coming, and there is an air horn. 

Sam: Incredible.

Sara: That’s for cars, because a driver of a car can’t hear my little bell, but they can hear an air horn. And there’s two … my people call them panniers [pronounced PAN-yers].

Pearl: Does it come from the French word? 

Sam: Yeah, it’s a French word. 

Pearl: That makes sense. 

Sam: In Wisconsin, we are famous for really butchering French pronunciations. Like Prairie du Sac [pronounced sack].

Pearl: Oh, God.

Sara: So yeah, there’s a rack with two panniers for all my stuff. It also comes off really easily, so if I want to use them as shopping bags, I can walk into a store and then just Velcro them right back onto the bike. And then I added nice, bright LED lights for the wheels so that I would feel safer riding at night. And the bike also has a built-in taillight.

Sam: Nice, I have like a USB headlight and taillight that I strap on.

Sara: I also purchased a reflective safety vest.

Sam: Oh, nice. Nice. Also, I’m super pro-helmet.

Sara: Oh, yes.

Pearl: Do you do a lot of night riding?

Sara: I did in the winter just because it was getting dark so early.

Pearl: Yeah, I can imagine that’s a bit scary. But good to have the lights.

Sam: What kind of weather do you bike in, Sara? What kind of weather won’t you bike in?

Sara: I moved to a new office in January and I decided I really need to set a habit of going to the office instead of staying at home in my pajamas. There was a cold snap right then, so I did make myself go in the bitter cold. I bought a little headband to go over my ears to keep them from freezing. And then just like put layers on and wore gloves of course. So biking in the cold is OK. I did have some times when my eyes were tearing up. And I asked myself, “Are these tears of joy because I love the bike so much or are they watering because I’m so cold?” [Everyone laughs.]

Sam: You need some goggles.

Sara: Then a little bit of rain I can deal with. I don’t love riding when it’s pouring. An officemate suggested a poncho, but I haven’t invested in that yet. Fortunately, in my town, because our infrastructure at least is somewhat there, there is a bus that goes on the same route that I ride into work on my bike. It’s just slower. So when it’s really raining out I do end up staying home in my pajamas.

Sam: Sometimes that’s what you need on a rainy day.

Pearl: Yeah, definitely.

Sam: I don’t really foresee myself becoming a hard-core winter biker. But talk about accessories: I think that the mittens that stay on your handlebars are so funny looking. 

Sara: What are those? Tell us about that!

Sam: Let me find their name. 

Pearl: They have them for strollers too. They’re not a bad idea. I know they look really silly. But yeah, to just be able to put your hands into something warm is very nice.

Sam: They’re called bar mitts. They’re big, and they don’t really look like mittens. They just look like big pockets that stick out of your handlebars that you put your hands in. 

Sara: Oh, whoa. That’s definitely a northern thing. Northern people know about this.

Sam, you’ve talked about being a little nervous about biking on the road. How are you adjusting? Because it sounds like you forced yourself to get on the road

Sam: Yeah, I mean, that road was fine. The first time, I did not bike on the road. I just took the sidewalk to the bike path. Then there was something about being on a very residential road that I was like, “Oh, I used to do this when I was kid!” And it felt fine. I also found a way to cross the big state highway that goes through town by going on the bike path underneath it. So I’ll go out of my way to avoid the big roads. 

Sam: Is there anything else that we should talk about biking that we didn’t get to talk about?

Pearl: I think I covered all I could contribute to. I do have to say that when we were driving in the middle of Puerto Rico to go to Utuado, it’s very, very mountainous. It’s even scary being in a car. And there were people biking it! It’s amazing what people can do on bikes. 

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