I have recently had the pleasure of watching two people learn to ride a bicycle. I have vague memories of learning to ride a bike around age five. Like many people I rode as a child and stopped as a teenager. I took it up again in my late 20s and have now been riding as my primary transportation for over a decade. There are a lot of things about riding a bike that I do not think about anymore, not only the physical aspects of controlling a bike, but also the street itself. I do not have to think about the street as I bike to work. I only think about it in so far as I want to see improvements to make it safer. So, I was curious how very new riders experience the street and their bicycles.
The first new bicyclist is my seven-year old son, Quinn. His experience is probably a lot like mine and most other people’s, except that he has been in a trailer, a bak fiets, or a long tail cargo bike since he was a baby. He had his first crash with a car at the tender age of six. Those experiences are not the norm for most children, but his experience on his own two wheels is probably very similar. The other new bicyclist came to it differently. Angela Woosley, 39, learned how to ride a two-wheel bicycle last month after riding a tricycle for five years. Woosley never learned as a child.
Learning to Ride a Bike
Woosley bought a tricycle five years ago. She wanted to get outside and get exercise and thought a tricycle would help her do that while being easy on her knees and not requiring her to balance like on a two-wheeled bicycle. She has used it for short trips around her Saint Paul neighborhood. Recently though, the weight of the tricycle became a burden and her social circle changed to include many bicyclists. She told me, “It partly felt shameful not to know how to ride a bike. People think it is weird. I know all these bicyclists now and when I say I don’t know how to ride a bike it’s like saying I don’t know how to walk, I crawl everywhere.” Although no one said anything mean or purposely shaming, it made her feel strange and made some social situations awkward.
Quinn had a powerful motivator. At seven years old he could not ride a bike, but his four-year old sister and cousin could. Once he saw his sister circle the block on two wheels, he had it figured out within 30 minutes.
For each of them learning to pedal was only the first step. Woosley describes it is as “a lot of tiny victories. Every time I make a turn that was tighter than I thought I could, stop solidly, start solidly, every little thing is a tiny victory.” Quinn was proud of himself when he first made a tight left turn and did not crash into the boulevard and when he was able to swerve to avoid a dog walker.
Quinn has been riding the five blocks to school each day, around the block in the evenings, and, recently, rode from school to the pharmacy half a mile away and then home. That last ride was on side streets rather than the sidewalk.
Woosley has ridden a few miles at a time from her home in Hamline-Midway to local restaurants and shops. On sunny days she bikes the quarter mile to the Green Line station, takes the train to the University of Minnesota where she works as a senior teaching specialist of Mortuary Science, and then closes the last half mile between her office and the train station with her bike.
Thinking About Streets
Learning to ride a bike has changed how both think about and use streets. Woosley pointed out that she still has to think consciously about controlling her bicycle while thinking about traffic. “On the trike I didn’t have to think about balancing or taking one hand off my handlebars to signal. I could do all those things. I could focus on being safe in traffic. I have to spend a lot of time thinking about all of these things. It effects my route really strongly.” She sticks mainly to residential roads, saying that even in “no car zones” on the University campus “there are cars who are [in the bike/pedestrian only areas] because they are really dumb. Some drivers have not kept up with the changes on campus. Then there are experienced cyclists who are buzzing me. Then there are completely oblivious pedestrians.” She has to maintain 100 percent focus all the time.
I asked Quinn if he preferred the sidewalk or the street. He said, “I like the street because we can go faster. We only stop at stop signs.” (I make him stop at each intersection when we are on the sidewalk.) He added, “In the street there are cars though and I could get hit. So, the sidewalk is better. But the alley is the best.” For now, I agree, particularly when he is without an adult, although we will continue to practice on-street riding together.
When asked if they had anything they want people planning bike infrastructure to know Quinn said there should be more bike lanes and cars should not park in them so much. He likes “bike freeways” like the Greenway and the I-35E trail in Saint Paul. “They are fun and you can go fast.”
Woosley echoed his first statement, but added “I’m still working on feeling safe around cars. I feel safe in bike paths that are completely separate from the road. I feel safe on side streets. On busy streets I feel like an imposition. I feel a lot of pressure to stay to the side and, frankly, even that is hard for me. It’s hard for me to judge my distance. I don’t ride a perfectly straight line. It is hard for me to judge the distance I need between myself and the parked cars so I need more of that road or more space.”
Quinn did not have a lot to say about what he enjoys about his bike other than “It’s fast.” He is clearly proud of himself and has a big grin when he pulls up to school on his bike and sees friends who rode in cars. He wants to ride his bike every night and is disappointed when he cannot. As a mother, it is a mix of pride and fear to watch him turn the corner away from our house.
Woosley had a lot to say about the joy she feels when riding her bike. “It gets the wind in my hair. It gets my blood pumping. It helps me see the scenery. I can see more of my surroundings [than in a car] and take them in. It’s a very cooperative experience. I have to cooperate with the bike and the bike works with me to get there. I like the tuning in to what I am doing and paying attention. It’s a way I can engage with my body and the world around me in a different way that helps me think about and appreciate my body and my neighborhood. It feels really liberating. It’s weird thing to feel. Few things feel liberating when you are a grown-up. It is hard for me to put in words.”
A City for Ages 8 to 80
I was struck by the similarities in what they had to say and the feelings riding a bike gave them. Although Quinn is seven and Angela is 39, they both were concerned about safety around cars and chose their routes based on it. They both wanted more separated places to bike and wanted drivers to pay attention more. Quinn wonders why drivers run red lights, saying, “I know they are not supposed to and I know they do. I just don’t get it.” I wonder how to teach him to be wary and make good choices, but how not to scare him. Woosley says, “When I was learning, before I could pedal, it was terrifying. As a grown-up you really know what can go wrong. Quinn does not know how badly you could get hurt. To overcome that fear was really hard. I think I have been very brave.” I agree.
Besides safety concerns, they both feel a sense of pride and had ideas of “liberation” and “freedom.” Quinn did not use those exact words, but he did say he can go to the park by himself and asked when he could go to a park a little further away from our house, which sounds like freedom to me. The tone in their voices was very much the same when they talked about the excitement of learning something new that changed the way they interact with their surroundings. More than ten years into this, I concur. Even mundane daily rides to work are still often joyful, filled with the sense that I am doing something positive, that I am strong enough to get somewhere with the power of my body alone, and that I am connected with my neighborhood in a deeper way than I am when I drive a car. I am proud of you both!