The tumbling and giggling from upstairs have calmed. Two-and-a-half-year-old Micah and Marcus are finally asleep for the night, giving their parents a few peaceful moments to recharge and prepare for a new day. Father of the twins, Matt Fore uses this time to double-check his headlamp, fold and pack his work clothes into a messenger bag, and ready his gear for the four-mile morning ride. Fore is one of a growing number of Santa Barbarans choosing to commute to work by bike.
Riding on the Rise
In the last decade, bike commuting numbers have nearly doubled within Santa Barbara. This rise reflects a nationwide trend, with a 61.6 percent increase in Americans pedaling to work since 2000. The gain is even more dramatic in what the League of American Bicyclists has dubbed Bike Friendly Communities (BFCs). Such communities encourage biking through mindful road engineering, inclusion of ample bike parking, and policies that help ensure safety for all travelers. Among BFCs, including Chicago, Anchorage, Boston, and Philadelphia, the average increase in commuting by bike has been over 84 percent over the last 12 years.
Despite the rising trend in biking, the vast majority of Americans are still driving their cars to work. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 85 percent of Americans commute by car. Recent studies have demonstrated the negative health impacts of daily car use, including weight gain, stress, and high blood pressure. Long car commutes also increase the likelihood of depression and anxiety.
American workers spend an average of 46 minutes per day commuting to and from work. Much of this time is spent lamenting the state of traffic, arguing with talk radio personalities, and wishing to be elsewhere. All of this has daily cyclist Paolo Gardinali asking, “Why would anyone commute by car?”
Gardinali grew up in northern Italy, where biking for transportation is an ordinary part of life. “Everyone bikes there,” he explains. “You see kids out biking and little old ladies pedaling around with their groceries. That’s just not something you see very often in Santa Barbara.”
While improvements in biking infrastructure would certainly contribute to a greater ridership, Gardinali believes the biggest hurdle is perspective, “We need to change the mentality that sees biking relegated to sports or an activity for odd and eccentric people. Let’s look at most other countries in the world where a much larger amount of people bike to work, school, to run errands. The only way to get there is to start incorporating bicycling more in our lives.”
Sarah Eberhardt agrees with Gardinali that the barrier to biking is mostly mental. She has commuted in every city she has ever lived in, including Cleveland, Taos, Berkeley, downtown Los Angeles, and her current home of Culver City.
Eberhardt’s love of commuting began the summer she spent studying in Copenhagen. While there she noticed two important things. The first: The people around her were extremely happy. The second: Everyone pedaled everywhere. She decided there was a clear connection, “They must be so happy because they ride their bikes everywhere! I had to share in this tip to pure happiness.” She became so dedicated to bike commuting that she based her residence on the ability to ride to work: “I told myself, if I live in L.A., I want to live my life traffic-free, and hence drew a two-mile radius around my office and chose my humble home base.”
Eberhardt believes one of the reasons cycling promotes happiness is the feeling of connection that is lost through other modes of travel: ”Bicycles bring life back down to a human scale. We smile at each other and acknowledge human presence. We move slowly enough to catch a glimpse into a passerby’s eye. We experience the air, sun, ground texture beneath us.”
The health benefits of biking have been well demonstrated. Having an exercise routine readily built into the day makes it much more likely for riders to meet the minimum suggested 150 minutes of physical activity per week. But the perks of riding are not just physical. Cyclists get the mental benefit of spending their commute in the outdoors. One of Eberhardt’s favorite parts of her daily ride is “smiling as the fresh air blows through my hair and knowing I am free from a big metal cage!”
Reducing vehicle dependence was also a goal for the Fore family. With Matt riding to work, he and his wife, Allison, decided to become a one-car household. They are loving saving money on gas, insurance, and maintenance. With busy lives and two young children, they know there will be some juggling to make it all work, but they’ve decided the benefits are well worth it. Says Allison, “It’ll be tricky sometimes, but I think it’s a really great move for us right now.”
Commuting for the Community
Cycling to work has tremendous benefits for the individual riders, but the benefits extend far beyond each bicycle and into the greater community. According to the research of MIT graduate student Shreya Dave, a cyclist has a 10 times lower carbon footprint than his sedan-driving counterpart. Cycling reduces pollution, lessens road wear (reducing the need for costly repair), and contributes to a more aesthetically pleasing environment. When more people cycle for transportation, there is a reduced demand for sprawling parking lots and stacked cement structures.
The mayor of Ogden, Utah, Mike Caldwell, has vowed to ride his bike to work every day of 2014. No easy feat in a city that sees summer temps in the 90s and several feet of snow each winter. Caldwell has said he intends to set a positive example for his citizens, encouraging a healthy, active lifestyle and sustainable transportation.
Join the Commuter Club
The reasons to ride are numerous and growing daily. Undoubtedly, there can be obstacles to daily biking. Life gets busy; there are wardrobe considerations; the weather changes. But with a bit of ingenuity and motivation, these challenges can be overcome.
For those living far from work, the park-and-ride option can be a nice compromise. Driving part way to work, parking, and riding the rest may seem like cheating, but it’s certainly doing far more than driving the entire distance.
As Gardinali says, “We need more people to bike commute. … It’s good for our bodies, for our brains, for society, and the environment. If we don’t do it here in beautiful Santa Barbara … who will?”
The most powerful drive to pedal isn’t environmental, social, or political. Whatever their reasons for starting, most bike commuters choose to keep cycling each day for the unique experience it offers — for the feeling of freedom, the joy of being alive. Matt Fore puts it best, “I love how I feel when I ride.”