Adam Sneed is a senior associate editor at CityLab, focusing on city life and culture. He was previously a technology reporter at Politico and a researcher at Future Tense, a project of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.
The best thing about biking to work has nothing to do with exercise, the environment, or saving money. It’s all about the chance to unplug.
Since moving to Washington, D.C., six years ago, there’s one question I know I’ll hear when I go home to sprawling suburban Phoenix: “So, you don’t have a car?”
For five years, I commuted almost exclusively by metro. More times than I can count, when I’ve said this to friends and family back home, they’d respond with some comment about how nice it must be to get some work done on my way into the office.
Sure, when I need to field some emails while standing on the train, it is nice. Mostly, though, I spend that time mainlining media: shuffling through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Spotify, and more or less All The News. My former life as a car commuter was great for listening to music; this new one was perfect for the golden age of connectivity. But then I fell in love with its exact opposite: a mode of transportation that wouldn’t allow me to do anything but commute.
I finally committed to becoming a bike commuter when the D.C. metro hit rock bottom last year. I told myself I was doing it for the normal reasons: it’s healthier, cheaper, and greener. I’m also lucky to have decent cycling infrastructure in my neighborhood, so why not use it?
These were compelling enough reasons to test the waters. I fixed up my bike, took a deep breath, and prepared for battle with every driver on the road. Deep down, I thought I would revert back—to the path of least resistance—soon enough. For a while, a powerful voice in my head would say that I wasn’t prepared to sweat this morning, or I didn’t have it in me to carry the bike down to the street, or, yeah, I’d rather just do some work on my way to work.
Before I realized it, though, it became the best part of my morning routine. Without thinking, I’d grab my helmet, lug my bike down the 10 steps that once seemed insurmountable, and ride away. More than anything, I was drawn to the fact that, for 30 whole minutes, my brain would be blissfully free from the demands of glowing rectangles perfectly optimized to lure me in and jam my face with #content.
Think about the last time you spent half a waking hour without a ding, or a buzz, or a voice in your ear. In the attention economy, this constant distraction has become perfectly normal. Last year, Microsoft researchers found that the average human attention span has fallen to just eight seconds, meaning we’re apparently more distractible than goldfish (at least until they get their own iPhones). According to The Atlantic, “one team of psychologists discovered that two-thirds of men and a quarter of women would rather self-administer electric shocks than sit alone with their thoughts for 15 minutes.” It may sound crazy, but you get it, right?
At first, I felt this anxiety, too. I’d imagine phantom buzzes in my pocket and check to make sure I didn’t miss an email before the light turned green. I considered getting a smartwatch as a handy way to keep up with notifications on my commute. And then it hit me: Just ignore the damn thing! When I did, I caught my mind wandering, and—it’s almost embarrassing to admit—had to fight the urge to cut it off with a quick hit of lit pixel. It was an exercise in its own right, and a difficult one. But I’ve since figured out how to be a refreshing mix of bored, contemplative, and daydreamy for those 30 minutes on both ends of the workday, and I can’t recommend it enough for anyone who thinks that sounds like a nightmare.
Smartphone addiction is real not only because it’s engineered that way, but because it’s easy. Whether you’re walking down the street, boarding the subway, or waiting for the bus, why not take a second to text a friend? If you’re driving your car or surrounded by others on public transit, why not fire up your best playlist or work through your podcast queue? Slate’s Torie Bosch has written about fighting to keep the shower as the last media-free zone. I would add that the bike, if you work for it, provides the last media-free commute.
Sure, it’s possible to stay glued to your phone on a bike, but you have to be intentional about it. (My colleague Andrew Small makes the case for biking with a boombox, for example.) You also have to understand when you’re ceding some amount of personal safety for the sake of keeping your headphones on. People can (and do) debate if that’s actually unsafe. Either way, I say it cancels out the best benefit of cycling.
Perhaps Talking Heads frontman David Byrne said it best in his rumination on cycling in The Guardian: “Cycling can be lonely, but in a good way. It gives you a moment to breathe and think, and get away from what you're working on.” Yes, even on your way to work.