I remember flying ahead of my dad as he ran behind, watching me on my recently liberated bike. Of course I fell once I realized he wasn’t holding on anymore, but I was finally free of my training wheels.
For five-year-old me, this meant everything. I would finally be able to keep up with the big kids and race them down the hill. I would pedal until it felt like I was flying and skid to a stop with all the style a little girl in pink shorts could muster. I loved my bike and the freedom it provided.
But of course, things changed as we all grew up.
The same routes got boring. The older kids became “too cool” to play outside. The streets outside our block-and-a-half radius were too dangerous for the youngsters to bike alone. So kids stayed inside and played video games or watched TV.
I remember getting a hand-me-down adult-sized bike from my cousin and, after the initial excitement wore off, storing it in my garage until it collected a nice layer of dust and cobwebs. I would brush it off and ride when my parents yelled at me to “go outside for once,” but those rides were few and far between.
It wasn’t until I went to college in Syracuse, NY, that my love for bikes was renewed, though that grew out of necessity rather than any inherent desire to ride.
Growing up in New York City meant I could rely on the extensive public transit system to get anywhere I needed to. I didn’t have my driver’s license or a car because it was too expensive and impractical to drive.
However, in Syracuse, I was on my own for groceries, errands and my daily commute. While I did have access to a nice public transit system, and campus was — more or less — a walkable distance from my apartment, biking was a much faster and convenient option. It only cost me $100 and some know-how to buy and maintain my bike.
There was also the perk of mandatory exercise, completely unaffected by my workload. I also simply felt safer biking home at night than waiting alone at a bus stop for 45 minutes after a late-night study session. Biking had become an integral part of my daily life.
After graduating college, my bike and I moved to Pittsburgh for my fellowship with Highmark. Here, I continued to integrate biking into my daily commute and excursions to local events. With the change in terrain, though, and the lack of bike infrastructure, I found myself getting really frustrated at first and had to bargain with myself to continue biking.
While I am no stranger to hills, the configuration of the roads and highways in and around Pittsburgh severely limited the bikeability of many areas. Biking in Pittsburgh also seemed more dangerous than I was comfortable with: numerous potholes and cars taking “Pittsburgh lefts.”
But I was determined to make it work. I wanted to stay active and healthy, especially since I no longer had the free time youth so often affords. I wanted to walk the talk as an environmental professional and reduce my environmental impact — a factor that can make a real difference in supporting a healthy community.
I took extra precautions with my route planning to avoid bicycle “unfriendly” roads. I became involved with my community and learned about the local roads from more experienced Pittsburgh cyclists and friends. I found routes that would help me get to work in about the same or shorter amount of time. I learned as I went and have even been able to share what knowledge I’ve gained with others.
In return, I have proudly watched Pittsburgh shift toward a more Complete Streets mode of planning. In the short time I’ve been here, this city has already welcomed the addition of dedicated bike lanes, more accessible public bike parking and a city-wide bike share, Healthy Ride Pittsburgh. I became so connected and invested in Pittsburgh through biking that I’m still here working on transportation planning and research initiatives (even though my fellowship with Highmark ended in April).
Thus, apart from the environmental, financial and health benefits, cycling provides an immense sense of place and community.
Perhaps that’s why I’m such an advocate for cycling and safer streets. Perhaps that’s why I was so happy when I had a hand in increasing secure bike parking in Highmark’s Pittsburgh headquarters and helping Highmark to obtain recertification as a Bicycle Friendly Business from the League of American Bicyclists. And perhaps that’s why you should join me in celebrating National Bike Month this and every May, when the cycling community shares awareness of local cycling conditions and safe street victories. It’s a time when people are encouraged to get on their bikes and ride together to show their support and be a part of the greater cycling community.
Search online for bike events near you, especially during Bike to Work Week (the second week in May) and Bike to Work Day (mid-May). There are often great opportunities to try cycling out and to get others to join in the fun. You may even discover a new passion. But either way, it’s never too late or too soon to start. So get biking, and stay safe!
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