Opinion

The soul (and sense) of biking to work

While the country searches for answers to its many problems, take another look at your bicycle.

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There's a road out there and it stretches into the distance. It's a road that leads to more roads, creating a web of concrete that crosses the country's spine. It connects suburbs to downtowns and zigzags back out again to exurbs. It's out there waiting to be explored. And it was made for a car.

But in this economy, as more and more citizens change their idea of what happiness actually includes, we would do well to rethink the road we're on and how we take it.

I've been on the road in my car; my dreams spread out before me like points upon a map. I am still on the road, but I'm looking at it a bit differently. And this perspective is priceless. I'm in the city, living without a car and making my way by bicycle.

Pickups zip by on my left, swerving in front of me to take a tight right turn. Shoulders crumble and crack beneath signs proclaiming bicycle routes. A compact car full of teenagers honks as it flies by.

On your right, there, that's me, pedaling quickly on my way to work. I'm wiping sweat from my brow at a stoplight as the sun beats down. And when the light turns green again, I'm breathing heavily as my legs pump up and down. It may be hard work at times, but my ride is invigorating. And with money tight, it sure beats paying to bike inside at a gym.

On these roads built for metal beasts of burden, more and more bicycles are appearing. Across the country, bikes come and go in steady streams. A commuter with a backpack full of work clothes on her way to the office; a student meandering home from classes; a father biking to the store for tonight's dinner. Americans, despite the omnipresent sprawl, are rethinking their cityscapes and how to get around them.

People still tend to rely on cars or trucks to get them to their destinations outside town. And I gladly catch a ride with a friend headed to the mountains for a day of hiking. But small, important changes are occurring.

With the down economy and the worsening state of the environment, the suburbs are no longer the shinning dream they once were. That road of opportunity leading to a large lot and a two-car garage is starting to seem like drudgery to many people. As urban planner Christopher Leinberger of the Brookings Institution has pointed out, a smaller house in the city or town, one that allows the owner to ride to work, to the store, to the park, now seems the better choice.

That's good news on many levels. Living close-in reduces oil consumption and CO2 emissions. It keeps the air we breathe cleaner. And it keeps valuable habitat and farmland intact. But beyond the altruistic reasons to live close-in, which are many, there's one that would be enough on its own: something like happiness.

The road often symbolizes the way to happiness and success. The road stretches on. It never seems to end, and freedom lies just beyond the bend. But in truth, connection and community can be found right here, while the road is often little more than an illusion. And it is connection and community where we most often find happiness.

While the country searches for answers to its many problems, take another look at your bicycle. Know that there is a community of riders where you live and consider joining them.

They are there on your right, legs pumping up and down, sweat rolling from their brows. They're smiling as the rush of a bike ride catches their imagination once again. They know the country is too large, too full of distance and diversity for one-size-fits-all solutions, and that the bicycle isn't going to fix everything. But riding a bike rather than driving certainly is a good place to start.

And though old dreams die slowly, perhaps in proportion to the size of the road upon which they travel, new ones are born daily. Slow down for a moment and take a closer look. On your right, there, that's me. There's road out there and I'm taking it by bike. And loving every moment.

Kyle Boelte is a freelance writer.

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