Barriers to biking

When I talk to people about getting around more by bike, or any efforts to move towards less car dependence (but here the more relevant aspect is biking), I often say that even if things seem more inconvenient at first, you really can get to a place where life is more convenient, that it’s worth the effort to get over the initial barriers.

But for a long time, my own experience didn’t necessarily reflect that. Ever since I was about 18, with the exception of pregnancy, biking has been a primary mode of transit for me. For me, it’s always been a choice of more convenience, not less. I grabbed a bike when I was 18 because it got me where I was going faster than a bus. Even when I had a car, parking on my college campus was enough of a pain that I almost always chose to bike instead, and the times I didn’t, I regretted it.

But recently, due primarily to major changes in my commute, that calculation changed.

My neglected steed, not much to look at but perfect for parking downtown


Due to the vaguaries of academic life, as of September, my job moved from an easy 30 minute commute by bike or subway, to another city entirely that I get to (on the 3 days a week I go) by commuter rail. I didn’t get much choice in the matter, and after thinking through the resulting fallout, and what we could and couldn’t fit into our lives, we decided to make it work.

The whole thing is working way better than we expected, but my full commute takes about two and a quarter hours one way. I can work for the hour or so that I spend on the train, but it’s not really practical to work during my time on the subway to get to the train, or on the 15 minute walk (up a very VERY large hill) to my lab, so I still lose a fair amount of time. If I drove, I estimate that once parking time was taken into consideration, the trip would take about an hour and a quarter, involve an unpredictable amount of traffic, and that time would be completely lost for work, so for me, especially given how much I hate driving and absolutely love trains, dealing with the longer commute by rail is worth it (setting aside for a moment that we probably couldn’t afford to buy a car anyway).

But this isn’t a post about the commuter rail. With this shift in commute, I first attempted to ride downtown to catch my train at South Station. I thought it would be faster and more reliable than the subway, but in reality, at my usual pace with usual traffic, I found that biking added about 10 minutes to the trip. With a commute this long, that starts at 6:30 am, those 10 minutes mattered. A lot. Even worse was biking out of downtown at rush hour at the end of a 12 hour day, which took about 20 minutes longer than the subway, and was damned unpleasant.

It looked like my choice was a longer commute, including biking in downtown traffic at its worst, or a shorter commute where I got to sit on the subway reading my book. I picked the same thing most everyone would pick: reading my book on the red line.

This worked OK. We found our sea legs with this new schedule (H started kindergarten at the same time, so we also entered the realm of double drop-offs and double pick-ups for the kids, and the accompanying scheduling vaguaries of random half-days and scheduling after school care). Amazingly, the commute proved workable (especially because I don’t have to make it every day). But as the year wore on, the lack of biking and the resulting lack of exercise started to get to me. Sure, I was riding with the kids on the weekends and for drop-offs and pick-ups, but it wasn’t enough. I was getting antsy.

I knew I’d be happier and healthier if I bit the bullet and rode downtown. I’ve been riding forever, so of all people, I ought to have known how much better I’d feel, and of course I already knew that would be the easiest way to fit more exercise into my routine (add about 30 mins total to my round-trip commute 2-3 days a week, versus magically conjure 3-4 hours a week to do extra rides or go to the gym? Framed that way the choice is obvious).

But getting over the hurdle to put down my book, get off the subway, and get back in the saddle wasn’t easy. There was that ill-timed cough I get every winter, that seemed to last forever and that I’ve learned the hard way I have to sit out until it passes (or it lasts even longer). My commuting bike needed attention in order for me to make the ride and I’d put it off over the weekend. The alarm would go off at 5:30 instead of 6:00 and I just couldn’t do it.

But then a chance encounter helped things fell into place. I ran into a friend from the train, A. He and I had both been riding the commuter rail with bikes in the fall, and had occasionally said hello, but then our schedules shifted, and we hadn’t seen each other for a while. I saw him again, but without his bike, and asked if he was still riding. As it turned out he was, just not that day, and I told him about my frustration with the ride and knowing I should get going again. He mentioned that he had better luck biking to Back Bay instead of South Station. I have no idea why this hadn’t occurred to me before, but it hadn’t, and when I checked the route, indeed, it was much easier, with a lot less high traffic riding. It also gained me 5 minutes, because the train leaves Back Bay 5 minutes later than South Station.

That was enough of a possibility for improvement to get me off my duff, so a little over a month ago I gave my bike some love, set my alarm early, and started the day with a lovely ride on virtually deserted streets and along the Charles. Once I worked out the timing, it turned out I could leave my house at exactly the same time I left for the subway. The ride back out of Back Bay at the end of my long day was slightly less pleasant, but not miserable, and I didn’t lose nearly as much time as I had out of South Station.

There were still some inconveniences. I needed to pack a change of clothes. I needed to actually eat breakfast before I left in the morning because I couldn’t eat on the train. But I was over the hump. I was riding again. It feels good.

The whole thing was good reminder that the hurdles to fitting biking into life are very real. We often can’t see these hurdles, because we’ve solved our particular set of problems or are just used to some of the mild inconveniences. But a shift in the delicate balance of time and energy needed to get our family where we need to be was enough to tip the balance so that I didn’t just ride automatically. I had to actually try. It was nice to learn, again, how great it feels to start the day with a ride, and that I haven’t been lying when I tell people the effort really is worth it.

About Nathan

Nathan is a postdoctoral research fellow in neuroscience. He thinks parenting is way more fun when you don't have to worry about car seats.
This entry was posted in Benefits of being carfree, Biking, Cambridge and Boston area, Problems and issues, Public transportation. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Barriers to biking

  1. Marmaduke says:

    Exercise can be addictive like that.

    I jump off/on at Ruggles or Back Bay depending which train I’m on. It’s much nicer than biking downtown. Ruggles buys me another extra 5 minutes and it’s a nice enough ride if you stay off Huntington.

    I usually drive to the commuter rail and bring a follding bike for the city. I’m working up the fitness to where I can bike the 9+ to the station without dying. My biggest problem now is that it is frightening to ride on some of the ex-urban routes on a folding bike and I can’t take my road bike (aka: old mountain bike with slicks) on at rush hour. So when I do bike, I’m adding 30 minutes to my commute, since I have to take the red-line to Kendal. I’m hoping Hubway opens some Cambridge stations soon, that will make it harder for me to wimp out.

  2. miketivist says:

    Glad to hear you made it back on the bike. When I was in college in the Back Bay, I learned somewhat late in my career there that the commuter and amtrak trains stopped there, obviating the need to trek into South Station.

    These days I live in an area without any transit & have a 56-mile one way commute. I had to buy the 1st car I’ve owned in 21 years. As my office is nowhere near any sort of eateries, I take my foldie with me when I don’t bring lunch so that I get some sort of ride in during the day.

  3. Scott says:

    I started biking my two kids (age 3 and 5) to pre-school / junior K at the beginning of the school year, and now that the weather has improved we’ve started biking again.

    Currently I put the 3 year old in a handlebare toddler seat and the 5 year old rides an Adam’s Trail a Bike. However the 3 year old is going to out grow this toddler seat very soon so I am looking at options for biking with 2 school age kids. I posted this question on cycling forum and was referred to your blog. It just so happens we also live in Cambridge! I think I passed you (on the Xtracycle?) on Brattle Street this morning.

    Are there ANY bike shops in Mass that would meet this need? I’ve read through your blog a bit and it seems you had to have your bikes shipped, and then required some custom work on top of that? I don’t know much about working on bikes, and am looking to make connections with people who have been down this path already. I feel totally lost!

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