In the depths of the post-Sandy transit shutdown and gas shortage here in New York, I put out an offer to everyone I know: I have a spare bicycle. It’s in perfect working order. I can give you lights and a lock to go along with it. If you need it to get around town, to work or anywhere else, please let me know. It’s yours for the duration, free of charge.
Nobody took me up on it.
What I heard from several people was the same thing I always hear: I’m uncomfortable biking in traffic. I don’t know the right route to take. I haven’t been on a bike in years. I need to dress for work. It seems intimidating. I’m scared.
These barriers are real. Their persistence even in the face of a complete regional transportation meltdown should be sobering to anyone who cares about making bicycles a more common mode of transportation.
Maybe one of the best ways to encourage people to use bikes to get around town is not just to push bicycles at them and smile, which is essentially what I was doing. It’s to offer to ride along with them, answering questions as they come up, supporting them when they have mechanical or other issues, helping them when they fall or their bike tips over while they’re parking it, or whatever else is needed. Biking is a lot less scary if you have a friend riding along.
A sweet little book called Everyday Bicycling: How to Ride a Bike for Transportation (Whatever Your Lifestyle), by Elly Blue, provides just the kind of companionable assist that’s needed. (Full disclosure: I used to be Blue’s editor when she wrote regularly for Grist.) In this handy volume, Blue goes over pretty much any question you might have about getting started on using a bicycle to get around in daily life.
Need advice on what type of bike is best for you? The relative virtues of messenger bags, backpacks, baskets, and panniers? Family bike logistics? How to avoid succumbing to road rage? What to wear in the rain? How to pick a seat that won’t hurt your butt? It’s all in here.
Blue’s approach is down-to-earth, practical, and kind. She’s got tons of good advice, and she delivers it in plain English without getting all preachy or judgy:
You don’t have to marry your bike. If your first bike ends up not being right for you, there is no shame in that.
Starting to bike is a bit like getting a piece of new furniture or moving to a new neighborhood. You’ll need to rearrange some things and change some habits to make everything functional and harmonious.
[S]trap down your cargo very tightly, with the elastic stretched to its fullest. Believe that whatever you are carrying will use all its wiles to escape, and stay one step ahead of it.
Blue has made plenty of mistakes on her bike over the years, including riding into a wall because she wasn’t paying attention to where she was going; falling over for no real reason when stopped at a red light; and splitting the seams of a too-tight skirt. She’s the kind of bike buddy who would never make fun of you if you’re a little wobbly and uncertain, and who can talk you through just about any emergency. Unlike too many people on bicycles – those wearing Lycra and those wearing skinny jeans alike – she would never leave you by the side of the road to fend for yourself.
And her book is what anyone who wants to start enjoying bicycle transportation can use: a collection of hard-won wisdom, delivered by someone who really cares.