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Bicycle Days

Random thoughts from my morning ride

I used to run—five miles most mornings of the week. I did some of my best thinking during those runs, and the aerobic exercise set my mood on high for the rest of the day. But then a couple of years ago I injured my knee, and that brought an end to my running days.

Since then I’ve been searching for an alternative form of morning exercise. I’ve tried various aerobic programs at home, but they’re boring and I quickly lose interest. I miss getting out in the fresh air, so I walk. But walking just doesn’t pack the aerobic punch of running.

This summer I found a good deal on a used bicycle, so I gave it a try—although with some trepidation. I live in a suburban sprawl of cul-de-sacs branching off two-lane highways. Few of the main roads have shoulders, and none have bicycle paths.

Riding the roads this summer hasn’t been much of a problem. I get up early, and I’m out at daybreak. Traffic usually hasn’t been that bad, and when I do encounter a congested area, I go up on the sidewalk—just like the few other cyclists in this area. (After all, there are rarely any pedestrians.)

An hour on my bike gives me the same aerobic high I used to get from running. And I’ve even lost some of the weight I put on after my knee injury. My rides have been delightful—until last Monday morning.

It was the first day of class for the public schools. The streets were packed with school buses, parents shuttling their children to school, and newly licensed teenagers driving themselves. So I went up on the sidewalk, reasoning that it would not only be safer for me but also better for the traffic flow.

As I approached the entrance to the local high school, the cop directing traffic pointed at me.

“You need to be riding in the street,” he told me.

“In this traffic?” I asked.

“You’ve got to follow the rules like everyone else,” he said.

So I got into the street, staying as close to the curb as I could. But there was no room to pass, and traffic backed up behind me. Once I was out of sight of the officer, I went back up on the sidewalk and the cars and buses moved past me.

(When I got home, I looked it up. It is against the law in Georgia to ride a bike on the sidewalk. If you have to be on the sidewalk, you have to get off and walk your bike. I’m not quibbling with the law, but I don’t believe in mindless obedience, either.)

As I pedaled along the sidewalk, I wondered why we bus our kids to school. Even the kids living in the subdivisions surrounding the high school were standing at the entrances to their cul-de-sacs waiting for the bus to take them half a mile.

That reminded me of last Saturday, when we were invited to dinner at the home of a family we know.

“Brandon’s starting first grade on Monday,” the mother announced.

“Is that where he’s going?” I asked, pointing to the school directly behind their house.

She nodded.

“It’s nice being able to walk to school,” I said.

“Oh no,” she corrected me. “Brandon’s taking the school bus. It’s much safer that way.”

As a society, we’ve convinced ourselves that we have to ride a motorized vehicle everywhere we go. Even when walking is faster, we tell ourselves that driving is better. Yet our love affair with cars—as well as our dread of physical exertion—underlies our national epidemic of obesity and depression.

Many of the blog posts on Psychology Today deal with depression, and a common theme is “Get more exercise.” While the advice is sound, it’s hard for many Americans to follow, simply because our society has made it extremely difficult in incorporate physical activity into our daily routine.

There are some pedestrian and bicycle-friendly cities in the U.S. My daughter lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where all the major roads have bicycle lanes, and special bicycle path “expressways” link one section of the city with another. (And no, you don’t ride your bicycle on the sidewalk because people are walking there.) My daughter commutes by bicycle year round, even on the coldest days of winter.

But my area of suburban Atlanta is more typical of America, where “your car are your feet,” as the saying goes. I live just two miles from the college where I teach, an easy bicycle commute—except for the fact that I would have to travel along a two-lane highway with no shoulder and no sidewalk. In this case, I really do feel safer in my car than on my bike.

We all know we need to be getting more exercise. At a personal level, we’ve got to be creative in finding ways to incorporate physical activity into our daily lives, fully aware that our society has stacks the cards against us.

The long-term solution to our national epidemic of obesity and depression involves a fundamental change in the prevailing attitudes of American society. “Off your seat and on your feet!” needs to become the default way of thinking. Changing social attitudes can be done, but it takes a long time—and, of course, a lot of effort.

David Ludden is the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach (SAGE Publications).

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