A few weeks ago my wife and I decided to ride downtown after work. We’d both had a tough day at the office and figured a little pedal therapy would put a smile on our faces.
The rules for this early evening ride were simple: no Lycra, plenty of lights (half of our ride would be after sunset), slow down and have fun.
The slowing down part was easy. We began right in the middle of rush hour. The gridlock meant we were surrounded by cars, though the traffic jam made us feel safer. Sure it was crowded, but with everyone moving at the speed of molasses, we had plenty of time to react and plan ahead.
Once we reached the Esplanade we encountered a different kind of gridlock. This time we were slowed down by joggers, fellow riders and pedestrians, all out for an end-of-the-day jaunt.
Fortunately we were not in a rush (see rule #3, above). We knew this would be a slow ride, the kind of ride where you linger and savor the sights and the sounds: people fishing along the Charles River, kids playing soccer, couples holding hands and smiling babies being pushed along in their prams.
Eventually we made our way to the waterfront and back onto the city streets. Here’s where things got tricky, for with less gridlock, motorists were free to drive fast. We were happy to share the road, though a number of motorists (and one or two bus drivers) acted as if sharing the road meant, “Cyclists must pull over whenever a car wishes to pass.”
Right then and there I became even more convinced of the need for traffic calming. The data show that slowing down saves lives and energy. It also reduces stress and pollution yet has little effect on how long your trip by car will take.
But enough about traffic: once we reached the harbor we realized that sharing the road was worth it. Standing at the water’s edge and watching the sky turn gold, yellow, dark blue and then black is truly one of life’s great pleasures.
Once the stars came out we decided to head home. Here’s where our bicycle lights were what my son’s pre-school teacher called a “must do.”
Even though I work downtown, I managed to quickly get ourselves lost. Fortunately a police officer waved us through a street that had been closed for repairs. From there we ended up at City Hall. Without his bending of the rules we, like Charlie on the MTA, might still be circling around.
I admit it felt counterintuitive to ride in the left hand lane along Commonwealth Avenue, but after a while we were able to make the adjustment. Just in time to confirm that the underpass beneath the Mass Ave Bridge is a perfect echo chamber. Try it.
Getting through Kenmore Square unscathed was a challenge. I felt anxious as I watched my wife, a competent cyclist who is new to urban riding, negotiate that hornet's nest of an intersection. For a moment I was afraid our pleasant outing was about to turn bad. Fortunately we made it through in one piece. Still, I look forward to reaching critical mass, that tipping point at which there are enough bikes on the road to make it safer for everyone, even in Kenmore Square.
Riding at night means that the clutter and distractions around you disappear into the inky blackness. What you're left with is the present, for the darkness cuts off the past (what's behind you) and the future (what's far down the road). I like to think of riding at night as yoga on two wheels.
By the time my wife and I got home, the smiles on our faces said it all: mission accomplished. We felt great. Not because our son did his homework (he didn’t, unless watching Top Gear was part of his social studies assignment).
No, we felt wonderful for the simple reason that with the right attitude, riding your bicycle is one of life's little treats.
Jonathan Simmons is a Brookline psychologist and avid cyclist. His book, “Here For the Ride” will be published next spring by Cadence Press.