In my first Car-Free Challenge post, I focused on my experiences learning to use MATA. While I’ve continued to use MATA and have had several fun MATA misadventures (including walking home in that rainstorm earlier this week), I want to use this post to focus on my preferred means of car-free transportation: my bicycle. I want to talk about how I came to think of my bike as the best way of getting around town.
I was a very reluctant convert to cycling. In college, I had the misfortune of living with my older brother at a time when he was going through a very serious mountain biking phase. Several times a week, he would drag me out of bed at 5:00 am and demand that I go with him to bike the trails at Shelby Farms. We’d throw our bikes in the back of his truck before sunrise and drive out to the park, where we’d bike until the trails ran out. Then sometimes we’d forge our own trails, making our way through shrubs and snakes and muddy creeks along the banks of the Wolf River. We wouldn’t stop until my brother decided he was ready to go home.
Eventually, he figured out a way to mount a GPS to the handlebars of his bike and began tracking our progress through the wildernesses of Shelby County. After each ride, I was shocked to see how far we’d travelled that morning – sometimes 15, 20, or 25 miles – well out past Memphis’ eastern suburbs. And all before breakfast.
Looking at maps of our rides through rural Shelby County, I began to think about just how easy it would be to bike around the city of Memphis. Compared to 25 miles of mud and thorns, what’s 3 or 4 miles on paved roads to get to and from school?
As it turns out, biking on Memphis streets in 2007 was much more intimidating than any kind of mountain biking. I am much more afraid of cars than I am of cottonmouths, and I was very, very hesitant to trust my life to our notoriously reckless (not to be confused with “wreck-less”) Memphis drivers. After several tentative rides around town, I decided that maybe bike commuting wasn’t for me.
However, in the summer of 2011 I had the amazing opportunity to join a group a friends for part of a cross-country tour of the United States. That May, they had gathered at the Pacific Ocean in Oregon and begun biking east across the country to raise awareness about poverty and raise funds for a Christian Brothers volunteer program. I met them in August and followed alongside as they finished their adventure, riding 80 miles a day on a friend’s borrow bicycle. By the end of two weeks, I had ridden nearly 1000 miles from Chicago to the Jersey Shore.
That trip helped me to become a more confident cyclist. We rode in all kinds of weather and traffic conditions – from 100 degree heat on backcountry roads in Indiana to rainstorms on hilly highways in Ohio to one particularly memorable (and crazy) ride on the shoulder of an interstate in Pennsylvania. We climbed up and sped down the Appalachian Mountains, and biked the busiest streets of major cities like Pittsburg and Philadelphia.
Most importantly, that trip helped me realized just how efficient the bicycle could be as a mode of transportation. Watching our route unfold on a map of the United States, it was surreal to see that I had crossed the entire state of Indiana by bike. And then Ohio. And then Pennsylvania and New Jersey. If my spindly legs and a friend’s bicycle could get me across a third of the United States, there was no reason why I shouldn’t be able to use a bike to get around the city of Memphis.
Thankfully, when I returned to Memphis in 2012, the city had been transformed. In the two years I had been away, Memphis had painted nearly 50 miles of dedicated bike lanes and had witnessed the opening of the Shelby Farms Greenline and parts of the Wolf River and Germantown Greenways. Within a few weeks of starting graduate school, my route to the U of M was almost entirely bike-laned. Soon, I realized that it was actually faster to bike to class than drive my truck.
And I think that’s an important point. Biking is much faster and more efficient than many people realize. I’m not particularly athletic, and I’m a really, really slow cyclist. But bicycles are amazing machines. When I first started biking, I would have never imagined that it was possible to bike from Shelby Farms out past the city’s outer suburbs (All before breakfast, I might add.) I definitely didn’t think that I would eventually be able to bike across 4 states. And I would never have thought that my junker bike would enable me to get around this city as easily and quickly as it does.
If you’ve ever thought about leaving the car at home and taking a bike instead, I’d encourage you to try it. Hopefully you’ll be as surprised as I was, and you’ll enjoy all the benefits our new, more bike-friendly Memphis has to offer.