David Dudley is the executive editor of CityLab. He is the former editor in chief of Urbanite magazine and a former features editor for AARP: The Magazine.
The best thing about bicycle commuting is the rage.
The other evening, as I watched a Taurus drift deliberately into my lane, I prepared to brake and shriek an obscenity. Because I had several moments of warning as it nosed its way in for an un-indicated right turn, I managed to avoid the phrase that usually explodes out of my mouth in genuine emergencies, and will undoubtedly be my last words if one of these encounters proves fatal: JESUS F*CKING CHRIST!
Instead, aware of decent people around me, I had time to compose something less objectionable, if no more clever: “You suck!”
Did the driver hear me, or care? Who knows, and probably not. I pumped away, powered by a righteous shot of dudgeon; he turned and went on about his business, oblivious. The real question is, When did I become the sort of person who yells “You suck!” in public? (Mere steps from the U.S. Capitol, no less.)
Fans of these sorts of spectacles can indulge themselves on YouTube, where there’s a thriving genre of cyclist/driver interaction videos captured on helmet cams. (Here’s the best one ever.) Watching indignant bikers erupt in fury at the motorists who almost kill them is one of those queasily satisfying entertainments we never knew existed until online videos tapped this part of our id. But, as I’ve learned over several years of bicycle commuting across two cities most weekdays, bike rage is really best experienced live.
Many studies have pointed out various wellness boosts that come with “active commuting,” not just boring cardiovascular stuff, but stress reduction, improved focus, and various woo-woo benefits that may or may not be real. (According to this piece, “Bicycling gently bounces the head, increasing healthy circulation between the right and left hemispheres of the brain—back and forth—balancing and calming the mind.”) Add to that therapeutic regimen the primal release of screaming at the top of your lungs in public. Where else but on a bike can the soft and pampered modern urbanite go full caveman? Automotive road rage doesn’t allow you to resolve your anger; you just sit there, stewing in your cortisol and plotting acts of vengeance. The furious cyclist, however, gets to burn off all those stress hormones on the next hill.
Getting a daily fight-or-flight workout is one of those little-discussed advantages to bike commuting; the flip side is that you have to be willing to be afraid. And you will be. Despite the strides made in the development of protected bike lanes, cyclists in most U.S. cities are tiny woodland critters amid large and dangerous predators. To ride is to live with constant, twitchy fear. Those who complain about the comparatively paltry numbers of bike commuters in the U.S. seem to have unreasonable expectations for the average Americans’ eagerness to be terrified.
Also: uncomfortable. On an optimal day—no rain, light breeze—the ride can be a joy; often, it’s the kind of frozen-bearded, soaked-to-the-underwear physical misery that most modern Americans manage to avoid. Eventually you will find yourself wrestling with a flat tire on a filthy sidewalk. Kids throw rocks at you. The wind shoves you backwards; patches of ice launch you sideways into trees. Upon arrival, you stink. Bike-boosters insist that the bother and safety concerns can all be mitigated with the right equipment, clothing, and state of mind, but I’m here to tell you that Gore-Tex and fancy pants will only get you so far. Bike is suffering.
Famously, the Dutch and the Danes don’t have this issue; the denizens of European bike-topias toodle about helmetless, young and old alike, in stylish outfits. They do not appear to sweat or suffer or swear at drivers. In Amsterdam, 70 percent of trips are by bicycle and the biggest nuisance is other cyclists. Theirs is a different world, a two-wheels-good culture of massive public investment in cycle infrastructure. Hundreds of international delegations visit Amsterdam annually to learn the Dutch model and attempt to import it to their home cities. I wish them good luck.
This will be my seventh year of daily bike commuting, but the first winter that I sometimes greeted the gray and sleety early-morning ride and thought, Nope. My capacity for self-administered fear and discomfort may be fading; life, for some reason, seems stressful enough. But the promise of yelling at my fellow citizens has not lost its therapeutic value. In a world that seems intent on drowning its inhabitants in mute outrage, it can be a relief to scream at someone—anyone—and ride righteously away.