What If Your Morning Commute Was Designed for Joy?

It’s a clear, crisp September morning with a piercingly blue sky and leaves just beginning to turn. My sister, Susan’s, family is trying out a new morning drop-off routine with their Rad Power Bike designed to “replace the minivan.”  It looks like a contraption out of a Dr. Seuss book: bright orange, six feet long, with a “back seat” consisting of a cushioned bench and a blue plastic kid seat. Dad pedals in front with the 5-year-old perched behind him on the bench and the 3-year-old strapped into the kid seat in the back. The whole getup without passengers weighs 75 pounds. A custom sticker on the rear fender proclaims, “This Machine Fights Climate Change.”  

An orange longtail cargo bike parked at a bike rack while a festival goes on in the background.
Bright orange, 6-foot-long commuter bike with passenger bench and blue kid seat

Meanwhile, a greasy bag of pigs’ ears sits in a bag at my feet. I’m hoping they’ll help me convince my beagle, Ellie, to ride in the basket of my own new e-bike. As I lift her up and set her gently in the basket, her little body thrums with eager enthusiasm for the smelly snacks. I’m excited, too, but not for pigs’ ears. My heart is pounding because I’m going to try getting her to daycare in downtown St. Paul by bike, instead of by car, for the first time. 

It’s important for me to teach my dog to ride in the basket because she has severe separation anxiety — so bad that her shrieking earned me an eviction notice within five months of bringing her home. The stakes are high: Because of this problem, she goes to friends’ houses or Dog Days Daycare when I go to work and comes with me everywhere else. I’ve cobbled together these solutions over time, but if I’m going to bike today, the dog will need to come with me. And I really want to bike. 

Author Sarah, and her beagle Ellie, pose with their green e-bike on the sidewalk.
Ellie Beagle tilts her head in the rear basket of my e-bike

The route for beagle drop-off this morning involves a lot of high traffic stops and starts and steep hills. I’ve tried doing it on my old, yellow, analog Cannondale, but I was defeated by my limited strength, bravery and willpower. I struggled to pedal up Ramsey Hill or Kellogg Boulevard with a 50-pound dog trailer. Enormous trucks zoomed past me, with drivers practically and sometimes actually shouting, “Get a car!” It wasn’t working and it wasn’t fun.

A Joyful Commute

My sister’s story finally inspired me to see if an e-bike could transform this commute from drudgery to joy. Last year, she was burned out from her job, and missed her kids. Every day, the family needed to travel about 27 miles to get everyone to where they needed to be. In the context of suburban America, their 27 miles was on the shorter end of the commute spectrum, but they were unhappy and stressed out.  “It felt like all I did was wrestle my sweet babies in and out of car seats and shriek inwardly at the enormous trucks that always seemed to be tailgating us,” she recalls. Something needed to change.

With the transition to a bike commute, our mornings have changed completely. In our respective “backseats,” our passengers delight in the thrilling sensation of zooming up a hill. For Susan, the 6-year-old giggles uproariously while the 3-year-old stretches his plump little arms wide and pretends to fly, singing an incoherent and joyful song at the top of his lungs. During my commute, Ellie’s floppy ears flutter and she inhales a sensory overload as the air washes over her at high speed.

In addition to the sheer fun of the e-bike, the best surprise has been the way the bike builds community. Everyone we pass stops to smile. The children love calling out compliments as they ride past neighbors: “I like your dog!” “Cute baby!”  “Your garden is pretty!” When people spot the beagle in my basket, ears flapping and nose turned up and sniffing the fresh air, their faces light up with surprise and glee.

A Bike That Works for Me

There are all sorts of reasons to go car-free. Wrestling kids into car seats, struggling to find parking and navigating stressful traffic can make car dependence miserable. I feel guilty about contributing harmful carbon emissions every time I fire up the hybrid vehicle’s internal combustion engine, especially for short trips.

When we bike, we experience the full vibrancy of Minnesota’s dramatic seasons instead of emerging from a garage in a hermetically sealed metal capsule. We exchange smiles with strangers and get to know our neighbors. We stop at intriguing storefronts instead of zooming past. 

Still, as much as I want to bike on a philosophical level, realistically, I’ll do it only if it’s safe, easy and fun. That’s why I chose the RadRunner 2 Electric Utility Bike. In the 18 months I spent researching, saving money and agonizing over this decision, I concluded that the only way I would reliably choose the bike over the car is if biking is as convenient as driving — so I chose a model with a throttle in addition to pedal assist. I also really like the step-through frame, which means I don’t have to worry about what I’m wearing when I go for a ride. The wide tires on this bike are comfortable and sturdy, and the rear rack and large basket are a perfect fit for the 20-pound pup. I also liked the price point. At $1,200, it is not a casual investment, but it is on the lower end of the cost spectrum for e-bikes and worth it to add joy to my mornings, reduce my carbon emissions and build a stronger connection to my city and community.

A green e-bike sits just off the path in front of a pond and tall native plants. The bright sun in a clear blue sky casts a shadow across the path.
Portrait of the RadRunner on its inaugural journey in front of sunny wildflowers and a pond.

When I picked up my new bike at Jonny Rock Bike Shop in Bloomington, I felt a strange mix of buyer’s remorse and excitement. I did a hundred calculations in my head. Can I really replace enough car trips to justify the expense?  Will this bike help me feel confident and safe biking on city streets? Will its small motor make it a reliable alternative for those little trips to the hardware store, to breweries, or dog daycare? And most importantly, can I persuade my sweet old beagle to ride in the basket?

The answer is a resounding yes. Despite my initial worries, the bike proves its worth every day. The pigs’ ears turn out to be very persuasive to my sweet old beagle, and slowly but surely we are increasing the distance she can ride. Soon it will be an easy and refreshing 20-minute round trip to drop her off at daycare each morning. This fall I expect to totally replace all short car trips with the bike. I’m even testing out the 16-mile commute to work.

A City That Works for Casual Cyclists

I know so many people who, like me, philosophically want to bike and reduce car trips, but are prevented by small barriers: they don’t want to show up sweaty to work; they lack the physical strength; or they have caretaking obligations that require ‘backseats.’ The e-bike eliminates the little hurdles that used to prompt both my sister and me to choose driving over riding, like wobbly starts at intersections, intimidatingly steep hills and the added exertion of hauling either a hound or two children. With pedal assist and an optional throttle, getting up hills and starting at intersections is smooth and stress-free.

There’s lots of work to be done so that more families can use e-bikes more often, so Susan and I advocate for protected bike infrastructure in our respective cities. One of the best levers for change is simply doing it! When we wave and smile and chat with neighbors from our bikes, we like to think we are making biking more welcoming to anyone who might feel intimidated by the lycra clad speed racers they associate with the phrase ‘urban cyclists.’  Every additional biker and every fewer car on the streets make them safer for us all.

Another important part of bike advocacy is tuning into the democratic process in our cities. For example, I was recently involved in a series of public meetings where neighbors had a chance to weigh in on roadway reconstruction near their homes. The conversation can be emotional, as residents and engineers and planners grapple with competing priorities.

I heard a city manager once say that sidewalks and trash are the hardest things to change in local government. It’s worth participating in complex public policy decisions because they will affect the landscape of our communities for generations beyond us. Those enormous trucks that used to harass me on my analog bike are still on the road, and I’m still terrified of them, but I am thankful that enough people have fought for better bike infrastructure that I can carefully select routes to use side streets, bike lanes, crosswalks, pedestrian tunnels, and even sidewalks when I can’t avoid the busiest roads. 

In addition to showing up for bike advocacy on your own street during road rehab season, I also recommend looking at the city’s website and finding out when there will be public comment opportunities on the citywide bike-ped plan, climate action plan, or other development decisions. It’s hard to overstate the value of showing up. I’ve seen City Council decisions turn on a dime based on three people’s public comments, which can be really exciting or really frustrating! Streets.mn has been a great resource for me to learn more about the nuances, context, and policy values of issues that affect my bike commute, like the ‘Save Our Street’ disinformation campaign in my neighborhood, which is partly what prompted me to submit this essay! I look forward to working with this community towards a future with better bike infrastructure.  

Stickers reading "This machine fights climate change" are spread out on a wooden table.
A handful of custom stickers with a bike icon and text that reads “This Machine Fights Climate Change”

E-bikes can help us solve problems like climate change and car dependency, and that’s part of why Susan and I bought ours. But for my family, the best reason to use the e-bike is the joy. I love to think about the memories my nephews will carry of their joyful morning commute. I believe that a happy childhood and the knowledge that their mom and dad and aunt worked to build a better world will give them the resilience and strength they need as they grow to adulthood in a climate crisis. In the meantime, we climb on our bikes, wave to our neighbors, and carry our precious cargo with the sun on our backs and smiles on our faces.

I am indebted to my sister, Susan, for sharing her own testimonial about the practical, environmental and emotional benefits of transforming her family’s morning commute from drudgery to joy.

Sarah Ryals

About Sarah Ryals

Sarah is a Kansas transplant in St. Paul who enjoys reading, hiking, and supporting climate justice in cities.