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The Selfishness of the Winter Bike Commuter

by Ted Johnson

It snowed all night last night in Flagstaff. It’s supposed to snow all day today, and tomorrow.

Local Weather on my Arrival at Work

Shorts and tank top weather for Shanna.

And it got me thinking about some of the reactions to Shanna Ladd, our guest blogger who is learning to bike commute in Alaska — 10 miles from her cabin in the boondocks into Wasilla.

Some readers have commented that she makes them feel inferior — like a wimp, a pussy, ashamed.

“Why,” asked mwmike, “would anyone tolerate such pain and suffering?”

Not so deep down, perhaps I’m thinking, Mission accomplished! But really, I think it misses the point if you view Shanna as some kind of heroic extreme commuter — or worse: a martyr.

A couple of years ago, I wrote “Repeat After Me: Winter Commuters Aren’t Heroes” — and I would include Shanna in the Not Hero category — at least she’s not a hero for her commute.

I like to assert that, Owning and using a car is a pain in the ass — it’s just the pain in the ass that we are used to.

Furthermore: It’s the pain in the ass for which our culture has prepared us. And by “our culture,” I mean our governments, our schools, our parents (in most cases), our employers, our peers, and on and on.

So let me tell you about my commute today.

It began with internal combustion.

The Ladies Snowblower

Just call it the “Ladies” model, and be done with it.

I decided to bike to work — as opposed to walking. It didn’t even occur to me to ask my wife for a ride, and she didn’t offer.

But I fired up our pathetic little snow blower and cleared the driveway for her. That warmed me up.

I was wearing snowboarding pants, a coat, racquetball goggles, a balaclava, and my mismatched gloves — everything I wear for my commute, except the helmet.

I have all of that stuff ready to go when I need it, because bike commuting is the pain in the ass I’m used to.

I got on the bike to head for work. I have studded tires, and I chose the easy way to work — which is slightly longer, but less hilly, and more likely to be plowed.

These are normal decisions you make when bike commuting is the pain in the ass you’re used to.

I mingled with traffic. I claimed the center of the lane in places where the bike lane had been been buried by the plowed snow.

This is a normal and safe strategy you employ when bike commuting is the pain in the ass you’re used to.

When I reached the separated multi-use path that runs along Route 66, I noticed a lot of snow had been thrown upon it by plows. I thought, Stupid City. When will they get around to plowing this?

A couple of minutes later I got my answer.

Snow Plow on the Separated Bike Lane in Flagstaff

A welcome motorist on Route 66′s multi-use path in Flagstaff.

And this is the kind of thing that happens when you live in a city that gives you an alternative pain in the ass to get used to.

After less than two-and-a-half miles, I was at work. I was warm. I shed my snow pants and jacket, and sat on my ass in front of a computer. I was done with my transportation to work.

Now, if I were a typical American car commuter, I would have spent five fewer minutes getting dressed for the commute, and I would have arrived perhaps ten minutes sooner — but I would have spent up to the next hour-and-a-half paying for everything else associated with my car: payment, gas, maintenance, licensing, registration, insurance, etc.

(Hell, since I share the costs of the car that my wife uses, I spend a chunk of my day on her transportation even when I do commute by bike.)

People with car-dependent lifestyles spend up to 20 percent of their household income on transportation — in addition to the time spent at the pump, under the hood, at the mechanic, and the Department of Motor Vehicles.

If you add up the time that a typical American spends working to support a car as well as using a car, and compare that to the number of miles driven, the average speed is less than five miles per hour.

And that is the pain in the ass that you are used to if you commute by car.

Shanna, like many bike commuters, has merely had the epiphany that time at her desk at work is time taken from her life — time she’ll never get back. I think she enjoys her job, but would rather not spend one out of five hours supporting a car.

Shanna Ladd

Selfish, selfish, selfish…

For some of us it’s the differences between having to work 32 hours per week instead of 40.

For me it’s the difference in discretionary income that I wouldn’t otherwise have — for bass guitar strings, vacations, dinners out with my wife, duct tape for restraining the kids when I go out to dinner with my wife.

Plus we bike commuters get all of the benefits of being on a bike: being outside, and using our bodies as more than just a support structure for the body parts that operate motor vehicles and computers. (Let’s face it, many of us bike commuters don’t have very physically demanding jobs.)

I will grant you that Shanna has a steeper learning curve than most of us, what with the moose, meth labs, bears, many hours of darkness, high winds, blizzards, and sub-zero temperatures. My transition away from car-dependency was relatively easy — the gear and logistics parts were easy anyway. The mental part was more like abandoning a foundational belief system, like adjusting to a world where you no longer believe in Santa Claus.

Because of the social world that raised most of us — with it’s fanatical devotion to motor vehicles — it’s a deliberate choice when you reject the belief in the necessity of the automobile; it’s a choice that goes against what mainstream people think is normal — along with the false belief that automobiles save time and money.

But the goal behind making this choice is the same: to replace the pain in the ass of car ownership with a lesser pain in the ass; a more fulfilling way of spending the limited hours of your life.

It’s not heroism, or martyrdom — it’s selfishness.

 
Burley nomad 229

22 Responses to “The Selfishness of the Winter Bike Commuter”

  1. BluesCat says:

    Lemme see now, there’s a Texas cyclist who has demonstrated an enormous amount of fortitude, toughness and determination which shames us mere “transportation cyclists.” But I don’t think ANYBODY calls the guy “hero” (at least, not ANYMORE).

    Shanna is STILL my hero, though, and not just because of the redoubtable obstacles she faces on her bike commute. Let me tick off just three things which make her a hero to me, and have nothing to do with her bike commute:

    1. She comes home to a house which is 25°F (I don’t even think my fingers continue to function at that temperature, so I’d freeze to death before I could get a fire started.)

    2. She doesn’t have any running water in the winter. (When I was an avid backpacker one of my greatest pleasures was having that nice, long hot shower after a trip; I cannot imagine going just a month without that!)

    3. The mayor of her hometown was once a woman called Sarah Palin. (Uh … ’nuff said?)

  2. listenermark says:

    While I strongly agree with your thesis I am not sure selfishness is the best term to illustrate your idea. Webster’s defines selfishness as concern for your own welfare and a disregard of others. The former part of the definition is spot on, the latter not so much (unless you are a closet sociopath.) It’s interesting that western English doesn’t readily provide a term that encompasses self-interest without a zero/sum game component.
    I ride daily because it’s fun and provides a bit of adventure and physical challenge. Enjoying better health, putting some extra money in your pocket, and getting to know your community better is just icing on an already sweet cake.

  3. Norm says:

    When people say people are “selfish” because they want to be able to ride their bikes safely (and this happens all the time, by the way), I reply, yep.

    I’m saving my money, I’m improving my fitness, I’m not emitting pollutants, I’m making a better world for me and my kids. I don’t really care at all that your health insurance premiums are lower, your roads are less crowded, your air is clearer and your fuel costs are lower as a result of that. I don’t care one damn little bit.

  4. Tim Sherman says:

    I recently rode 8 miles in the dark on a 26 degree morning to serve jury duty. Bus riding jurors were given free bus passes. Jurors that drove were paid 56 cents a mile. What did I get? I was awarded two more days commuting by bike on ice in frozen rain to serve jury duty because someone broke some of our laws. Then I rode home 8 miles in the dark as the temperature dropped some more on my new bike that I bought for winter riding.

  5. bluegoatwoods says:

    Good points and I agree that we’re really not heroes. We just understand that the bicycle really is better than the car.

    And yet, Shanna is (at least kinda)….heroic.

  6. Graham says:

    This is almost exactly what I tell people when they ask why I choose a bicycle as transportation whenever I can. I tell them that “I hate my car. It’s a perfectly good car, but it’s demanding and expensive and way too self-involved for its own good. Driving it just encourages its bad behavior.”

    However, I stand by my hero worship of Shanna because she is thriving in conditions that most of us wouldn’t survive. (To be fair, I’m also in awe of those of you here who think riding in 100+ degree heat is reasonable as well!)

  7. chunk says:

    Wow, Ted… I’m not even close to the same mind set as you.

    I commute (by bike). Not because cars are bad, not because I can save some money, not to shed social chains put upon me, not even for my health. I commute because I like riding my bike. And that is reason enough to satisfy me.

    • Ted Johnson says:

      But my point was…

      I hate it when I begin on comment on one of my own articles clarifying my point. It means I failed in some way.

      So, chunk, I think it’s totally valid that you weigh your motivations differently than I do. You put no weight at all on some money, social nonconformity, health, and the environment. But your motivation is (for lack of a better word) selfish.

      I put a little weight on most of the motivations you listed, as well as on the fact the that I enjoy riding my bike. However, I don’t ride for the sake of nonconformity. My point is that one must be willing to part from social norms when they begin to commute by bike. This is more true in some places in the world than in others. And where it is true, it is even more true for people who choose to go car free.

      This blog is not about hating cars, but neither is it a safe haven for people who never want to hear a disparaging word about cars.

      When I say rhetorically that bike commuting is a pain in the ass, I don’t mean to say that I dislike it. I mean that (for me and many year-round bike commuters) the aspects of bike commuting that seem daunting to a habitual car user are, for me, second nature, Just as the habits of car use/ownership are second nature to those have been assimilated form birth into a car-centric culture; second nature and unquestioned.

      I’m sure there are people who could be brought to understand all of the potential benefits commuting by bike, and also brought to the knowledge that they spend one entire work day of each week simply supporting their commitment to their cars — and these people would say, “One day a week for cars is totally worth it.”

      But we don’t live in a society where people are encouraged to look at that calculus. If we did, I think we’d see a lot more cycling infrastructure, and a lot more people on bikes.

  8. Shanna Ladd says:

    Bluescat,

    thanks for the encouraging words! I am very thankful for those who commute by bike and are willing to share information and laughs. It makes all the difference. My daughter & I have often wondered how people in the lower 48 bike in the heat!!

  9. I’m one of those Texas commuters that rides in the 100+F heat (hottest I rode in the paramedics said the air was 145F at head height above the pavement at 170F, when I stopped at someone else’s wreck for a hydration check because I was feeling bad). And I wear a full-face Downhill/BMX helmet to protect what’s left of my teeth after a bad wreck in 2001. The secret to surviving that kind of heat is hydration and riding within your limits and not overdoing it.

  10. BluesCat says:

    Opus has it spot on, Shanna: water, water, water, water and ride like you’re cruisin’ — not racing — and the second you start to feel even slightly not-right get into the shade and pour water over your head.

    I’ve often thought of getting a couple of those small, stick-on thermometers; put one on my helmet and one down low on the bike. There have been a couple of times I’ve seen 110°F on a digital thermometer on the storefront for a bank and said to myself “Huh. That ain’t right. It’s MUCH hotter than THAT!”

  11. Shanna Ladd says:

    Opus the Poet,
    Wow! Can you use ice packs for your ride?

  12. OHHH!!!! Does anyone know a word in ANOTHER language that DOES have a term that encompasses self-interest without a zero/sum game component? I want THAT word in my lexicon…

  13. Nick says:

    What are you on about? I bike throughout the winter here in frigid Minnesota because I enjoy it not because I’m “selfish”. I enjoy the challenge, I like the quiet and it’s fun. Don’t make it my problem if you have some kind of inferiority complex about riding or not riding in the winter.

    • Ted Johnson says:

      There’s a semantic issue here (as listenermark and bergerandfries have both pointed out).

      English seems to lack a word for benign self-interest. Graham gets it.

      “Self-interest” doesn’t quite capture it. Neither does “self-love.”

      For the sake of this article, let this be the operative definition of Selfish: “To optimize the time value of personal happiness.”

      If there’s a word for this in English or any language, I’d love to add it to my vocabulary. (My bet is on German.)

      I bike throughout the winter here in frigid Minnesota because I enjoy

      Yes. You do it to please yourself.

      I like the quiet

      You do it because you, yourself, like it.

      it’s fun.

      Do you like things that are fun for yourself?

      Don’t make it my problem if you have some kind of inferiority complex about riding or not riding in the winter.

      Golly. Am I trying to make something your problem? This post wasn’t about you, Nick. You seem a little self-involved. :)

  14. Matt Johnson says:

    Shanna and Ted are inspiring if not heroic. I aspire to bike commute in snow or on ice. Thanks for the post.

  15. JaimeRoberto says:

    The conclusion of your post bothers me.

    “It’s not heroism, or martyrdom — …” Ok so far so good.

    “…it’s selfishness.” Not so good.

    There is a difference between selfishness and self-interest. You are making a decision based on what you believe is best for you. We all do that, whether we drive a car or ride a bike. It’s just a fact of life that people focus more on themselves, their friends and their family than they do on strangers, but that isn’t necessarily selfishness.

    As Adam Smith said, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self interest.” Likewise, you are not going to work (on a bike or a car) because you are selfish, but rather because it is in your self-interest.

  16. Joel says:

    People,

    Lighten up!!!

    We are here and reading the posts because for whatever reason, we commute to work by bicycle.

    The first reason I like to ride my bike to the bus station on my multi-mode commute: I like to ride my bike.

    Everything else is icing on the cake. I like reading and commenting on this blog because I am sharing that joy of riding my bike with people who have the same gut feeling.

    Yes, we save money. Yes, we loose weight. Yes, we use less fossil fuel which is helping conserve resources. There are so many wonderful reasons why we ride but if you ask me why I ride as much as I can, it is because it makes me feel like a young child again, riding on two wheels under my own power, hearing the wind whistling in my ears, and feeling my eyes water as I pick up speed.

    I commute about 13 MPH on an old steel bike. I savor every moment of the commute. I do not rush it, I enjoy it. It is MY quiet time to go to my special place. My worst day on a bicycle is far better than riding a car. It is not about the destination, it is about the journey. I enjoy every bit of it.

    Have fun, enjoy, discuss, and debate the article but do not forget about why you are here to read and comment about what our fellow bikers are sharing with us.

    Did I tell you that I like to ride my bike?

    • Ted Johnson says:

      Thanks, Joel.

      I always find it interesting when I’m in an online discussion that seems to be going well, even though there may be differences of opinion, and someone jumps in and says, “Whoa! Everybody settle down!

      I still can’t find a better word than “Selfishness” to convey my idea — in spite of the negative baggage many people associate with the word.

      A long time ago, I read Atlas Shrugged, and it did have a temporary effect of turning me into an insufferable prick (as that novel tends to do to many people). I got better. (I’m not that particular breed of insufferable prick anymore — I’m a different breed now.)

      But perhaps a lingering effect of that phase of my life is that the word “selfishness” has lost some of its reproachful sting in the way I use it.

  17. Shanna Ladd says:

    I am very thankful for commute by bike website that covers how to get started biking, commuting by bike, and biking all over the world. This information has been helpful in making the choice to start biking and then to use my bike as my basic transportation. I am thankful for all who share their experiences, good and difficult. This has helped my daughter and I as we learn how to commute and use our bikes in all kinds of weather and conditions. Winter biking has been quite the challenge. Thank you, Ted for your honesty, commitment and humor. It is nice to know that when my daughter and I are out there in 12” of new snow or flooding with freezing rain, if it is difficult and we fall, it isn’t just that we are clumsy or too weak to do this kind of thing, but people that have been doing this for years may consider this type of situation a bit of a “pain in the … a” also. And it is ok to have a day (or quite a few days) like that. Like Joel said, a difficult day on a bike is far better than a difficult day with my car. This web site is certainly a place that welcomes diverse opinions. And I am very thankful

  18. Chief Redelk says:

    YOU should have been PAID 56 cents a mile just as if you drove. That is fair. The fact you saved your 56 cents a mile is not a problem. ASK for the money DO NOT tell them you ride a bike..HOW you spend or don’t spend the allocated money for drivers is YOUR business..IF you don’t have a CAR they need to pay for a Taxi or pay you the 56 cents a mile. Talk to a judge..

  19. Tim Sherman says:

    Just so that you know. I did ask the bailiff for the milage. In a regional justice center when you have been appointed to a court it is in your own “self interest” not to lie after taking an oath. I was amused that I was the second juror to arrive on the first day and I had “commuted by bike”. Why would I not tell a judge about that. Certainly not for 56 cents a mile. The judge was not there to hear my story about riding a bicycle in the frozen rain on ice. My bike was locked directly in front of the court house steps. I was cold with no place to change my clothing so I went inside in my commuting clothes. I signed in with bike bags and a helmet after going through security. I carried my bike bags into the court room. The reason I was there was because someone else was “selfish”.

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