I read three seemingly unrelated things that converged in an “Aha! Moment” on why people ride bikes – from the traffic-jammed streets of Manhattan to the trails of the Bay Area.
The first was “How We Decide,” an engaging book about the science behind decision-making. For centuries we’ve thought that decisions are based on logic or intuition: that we either carefully deliberate or go with our gut. But that’s not really what happens. Author Jonah Lehrer elaborates on how our best decisions are a blend of feelings and reason. We may believe that logic results in the finest decisions, but emotion is an equally important driver. And part of what makes a choice ‘feel’ right is the mind doing an amazing amount of calculation in an instant. So the feeling is just confirmation of a lot of brain power.
Then, I read an opinion piece in The New York Times by David Byrne entitled “This is How We Ride.” Byrne says
I got hooked on biking because it’s a pleasure, not because biking lowers my carbon footprint, improves my health or brings me into contact with different parts of the city and new adventures … the reward is emotional gratification, which trumps reason, as it often does.
And finally, in the midst of all of this, while helping a client with the logistics of a bike program, she wrote to say: “I rode to work this morning via the Bay Trail – it’s nice to start the morning with a view of the bay as you cycle on gravel and over bridges”
As an urban bike commuter and a bicycle consultant, I think a lot about why someone would choose to leave their car at home to get around by bike. We see it happen, in ever-increasing numbers, from snow-bound Minneapolis (one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country) to sun-drenched Miami.
Is it because we want to be healthier and more physically fit; be more environmentally responsible; save on gas and parking? Reason would say yes. And for some people those are key motivations. But it’s much more than that. We decide based on how things make us feel, not just on how they stack up.
Riding a bike makes us feel good. Part of it may be the early imprinting, when riding a bike as a child meant freedom. Maybe it’s the endorphins, the body’s natural opiate, that kick in when we’re in motion. Or maybe it’s just plain fun. Moving through space, under your own power, in fresh air, is exhilarating. It just feels good.
If you’ve ever done it, you know this is true. Just the act of getting on a bike and moving your legs makes you want to keep going.
Then there’s the magic of access. The bicycle is the most efficient transportation we have invented, by far. Now we know that if you put bikes in front of people and make it easy for them ride, they will! Take bikeshare systems all over the world, where locals and tourists alike keep these bikes in constant use. The presence of these bikes motivates action, which in turn motivates the desire to ride more.
Susan Handy, Professor and Chair of the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at the University of California, Davis, and Director of the Sustainable Transportation Center, part of the Federal University Transportation Centers Program (okay, that’s a mouthful, but it’s relevant) wrote an article, “The Davis Bicycle Studies: Why do I bicycle but my neighbor doesn’t?” It’s a fascinating summary of why Davis has such an unusually high rate of bike ridership, particularly for transport (vs. recreation or sport). She concludes with this:
Sure, I believe in the importance of minimizing my driving, but I also simply enjoy getting on my bike more than I enjoy getting into the car. This may have something to do with all the time I spent getting around by bicycle from the age of four or five through my high school years. Now I can’t imagine going back to a car-dependent lifestyle. And that is exactly what my research team and I are trying to understand in our next study: where do attitudes toward bicycling come from and why do some people enjoy bicycling so much more than others? We’ll see.
If we want to increase bike ridership in a significant way, let’s get real about the motivators. Let’s create more opportunities where people and bikes come together in easy, safe and fun ways. More bike share, bike rental and loaner programs will remind us all of that feeling we had when we were young and calories and carbon footprints had no meaning at all. Best of all, there’s no stick – it’s all carrot. Put bikes in front of people and they will ride them. And when people ride bikes, we all win, and have fun doing it.
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