Thinking Out Loud

Many moons ago, before The Wiggles and Yo Gabba Gabba became the mainstays of my family’s playlist, Public Radio was our go-to station for diverse, thought provoking and often humorous programming. Oregon Public Radio show Think Out Loud ran a show last month about biking in non-urban areas. City cyclists receive much attention in terms of safety, infrastructure and funding but developing safe roads for cyclists in non-urban areas is a relatively novel concept. TOL asked me a few questions about our experience competing for road space in rural washington. You can check out the entire broadcast here. My segment only lasted a couple of minutes but it was a fun to touch on these issues from a family perspective.

Recording the broadcast itself was exciting. My twelve year old son had babysitting duty while I ran to the garage for quiet. Live radio doesn’t yield much forgiveness for a wailing “Momeeeeeeee”. Worrying about the children interrupting or burning down the house did wonders for my nerves, in general, as I didn’t really have much time to worry about what I was going to say. As short as my segment was it got me thinking about family biking, the concept of the weakest link and grassroots advocacy.

For us, as a car-free family biking is much more than recreation or a hobby. It’s about function and practicality. Getting groceries, getting to school and meeting our transportation needs without turning a key. As a result we are exposed, to the elements, the public and most critically to a constant stream of 2,000 plus pound vehicles zooming by next to our children. Our town has a lovely multi-use trail for recreation however there is no infrastructure to connect us to stores and services. As a result we are forced on sidewalks, across grassy/ muddy areas where there is no shoulder and in some places into the streets.

The idea of building streets and communities to service pedestrians and cyclists seems like a no-brainer. A hundred years ago the auto was viewed as a dangerous intruder to streets in which pedestrians, bikes, women, men, children were the dominant force. In our “modern” culture cyclists and pedestrians are fighting for safe ways to commute.

While I believe cycling to be one of the safest and most affordable means of transportation; we bike defensively. With my twelve year old on two wheels and five year old and one year sheltered only by a fabric and aluminum frame trailer it’s not enough to assume a motorist will stop or check the bike lane before turning. I take full responsibility for the failure of motorists to stop, yield or give enough room. I have to assume that every car is playing a deadly game of Russian roulette and keep the barrel aimed away from my family.

Buffered bike lanes and infrastructure certainly offer some measure of protection but they must be built with the smallest, or most vulnerable user in mind. The wheelchair, the stroller, the child are the weakest links. If our streets fail them. They have failed entirely. One casualty is too many.

I believe the path to change is going to be cut by a change in consciousness. It was not until my family got on bikes that my scope of vision widened. Now I notice cyclists and pedestrians. I pay attention to legislation and bicycle advocacy. I seek opportunities to encourage and educate everyone and anyone about the freedom and possibilities that using a bike as transportation offers.

There is no overestimating the strength of families, mothers and fathers for providing and protecting their children. As more families and individuals experience the myriad of wonderful benefits of biking, their consciousness will expand too. Collectively we can raise awareness, be a force for change and build a better future.

What do you think? How can cyclists and family cyclists protect themselves? What are the solutions to keeping families and individuals safe while commuting? Are cities inherently more safe because of biking infrastructure ie: bike lanes, sharrows etc?

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Out of the Box

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I figure I’ve spent most of my life in a box. Boxed up in a house, in a school, in an office, in a store or in the glass, plastic and metal confines of a car; it’s all box time.

The transition to car-free living is like being mounted on a spring and catapulted out of the box. Every day, whether on foot or on our bikes we must venture out. The days of vacantly transferring our corpse-like bodies from work to school, to car to garage, to box to box are gone.

The morning was rough as the pothole, pocked and cracked roads we ride. My three children were in rare form, being both rambunctious and as slow as molasses on a cold day. Getting them out the door I assumed my usual role as the octopus drill sergeant, juggling backpacks, rain jackets, lunchboxes and children while barking orders to the troops.

The barometer was pitted against me; the forecast: cold, wet and windy. My shoulders constricted up to my ears, the tension settling into my face, to call me dour would be a loving compliment. I get the two little ones buckled in the bike trailer and my oldest I take to our bikes and pedal out. Outside.

The magic begins before the garage door has creaked closed. My breathing syncs to the rhythm of bike as the furrows in my brow soften. For the first time in the day, I feel aware. My eleven-year-old son pedals beside me; his cheeks glow rosy from the cold and exertion of the ride. I can’t believe the change in 5 months, transforming him from sluggish and soft to this young man before me. He is strong and lean, confident on his bike. Outside we are equals. Bicyclists.

Usually shy, my five-year-old is singing at the top of her lungs. Outside she is free of inhibition, a happy bird singing her morning song. Her one-year-old brother is nestled beside her. Outside he is content and relaxed. “Content” is an achievement for this non-stop powerhouse.

The streets are quiet; a few poor souls putter by at 35 mph locked inside their boxes. I pity them. Their faces are dour and their shoulders hunched around their ears like mine were in the box. They haven’t had the chance to be outside. We stop short as one wheels in front of us, brushing her teeth furiously, while texting on her cell phone. My son lets out a guffaw. She never even noticed us. Most of them don’t.

“We wouldn’t have seen (fill in the blank) if we had been driving.” Has become my children’s favorite saying. Today it was the circle of Morel mushrooms the oldest spotted by the schoolyard. My five-year-old wonders out loud who planted the hundreds of blossoming cherry, apple and dogwood trees? She says they surely weren’t here last year. At least we didn’t notice them from inside our boxes.

What else did we miss while doing box time? Pushing through the perceptual barrier of convenience and comfort has driven home the adage “out of the box”, and this Jack-is-not-going-back-in-the-box.

Venture out of the box and tell us about it! Join the revolution!

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