It’s an odd time to be on earth. We know peak oil is approaching, the planet is getting warmer, and human-generated greenhouse gas emissions are contributing to that. You’d have to be living in a climate-controlled cave to not be worried that life as we know it is in grave danger. And yet the vast majority of us continue to get in our cars and drive alone to wherever we need to go, day after day. And in the U.S., about 50 percent of those car trips are for distances less than two miles.
Santa Barbara County’s Traffic Solutions program recently conducted a commuter survey that revealed 70.7 percent of county residents drive alone to work. Biking, at 2.3 percent, is the least common commuting method. Though this is better than the national percentage of less than one, for Santa Barbara, the birthplace of Earth Day blessed with a nearly perfect climate and relatively calm roads, that number is inexcusably low.
Not long ago, I would have laughed if you’d told me I would be the poster child for biking to work. Three-year-olds routinely beat me in tag, and driving alone in my car blasting music is one of my favorite activities. But about a year ago, my conscience got the best of me-I could no longer handle feeling like a polluting murderer every time I filled up my tank.
So I bought a rusted mountain bike for the cost of one tank of gas off Craigslist, then headed to Bicycle Bob’s for a helmet ($30), bike light ($20), lock ($20), and pump ($15). Within hours, I was completely geared up. The rest is history for anyone who’s ever decided to make the switch: I was instantly hooked on the fun of whizzing down hills with the sun on my face, the satisfaction of saving money, the planet, and my rage for something more meaningful than the road, and the easiness of getting my daily workout. I understood right away what cyclist Bruce MacAlister meant when he said, “Driving a car versus riding a bike is on par with watching television rather than living your own life.”
Bicycle Bob’s manager Kenneth Aclin said most of his clients are in the market for recreational bikes, but many people eventually end up using them to commute. “Once people buy a bike and see how fun it is, they think, ‘Why am I not doing this all the time?'” Plus, Aclin said the number of people looking to bike their commute has increased along with gas prices.
Still, biking to work is prohibitive for some due to distance, age, or work environments that don’t welcome sweat-drenched suits. Fortunately, Santa Barbara offers numerous alternative biking options. Open Air Bicycles now offers a Trek coasting bike ($500-$580), which is essentially a cruiser with a three-speed automatic transmission-you couldn’t ask for an easier ride than that. And Santa Barbara Bicycle Coalition Director Judy Keim, who is in her in sixties and finds the ride to her home at the top of La Cumbre Road daunting, throws her bike on her car everyday, parks a little way down the road and bikes from there. The Santa Barbara Electric Bicycle Company offers electric bikes ($489) and electric conversion kits ($400-$1,600), that can be swapped on and off conventional bikes. These e-bikes and enhancements allow the rider to draw as needed on the electric motor, which is powered by a rechargeable battery with a range of about 15-20 miles. Owner Scott Shaw said one of his recent happy customers was a 79-year-old man who hadn’t been on a bike in 15 years.
But Aclin of Bicycle Bob’s warns that adding an electric motor to a bike voids the bike manufacturer’s warranty, since the added weight is so tough on the bike. For an easy commute, Aclin instead suggests a hybrid, which combines the efficiency of road tires with the comfort of mountain bike seating and shocks. “They’re perfect for riding around town,” he said. “They’re not all stretched out so you feel like Superman.” Of course, any bike that can be ridden is suitable for commuting: Cruisers work fine for flat trips, and mountain bikes are ideal for commuters who don’t mind a more intense road workout plus the ability to hit the trails on the weekends.
Recently, a five-year-old tried to teach me to skateboard. After a few minutes of watching me fall, he asked for his board back. “You’re not doing it right,” he said. “I think you might hurt yourself.” Which is to say, if I can manage to stay upright on a bicycle for the four-mile ride to work, so can you.