Recently, I heard this metallic clanking arise from the brake system of my car.
It was the kind of sound where you immediately visualize the stack of hundred-dollar bills necessary to pay for the repairs, and your stomach hurts.
I yelled. I pulled over. I cursed myself not renewing my AAA membership.
Long story short: the car was taken to the shop and I was without motorized transportation. All I had was a road bike with a flat tire.
It’s amazing how truly helpless I’ve come to feel the more I’ve relied on cars. I moped and sulked around the rest of the day wondering: How will I get to work? How will I get to the gym? How will I meet friends? And, can you do any of this in Louisville on a bike?
For less than $13 I got the bike tire replaced (sorry dad—I’ve forgotten how to do this myself), and begrudgingly came to grips that I would be cycling for the near future.
It didn’t take long to realize that this would be an instructive experience. It’s far from heroic or exceptional. People do it every day. But it immediately opened questions: To what extent is Louisville really a bike-friendly city? Could one potentially—and practically—give up their car and still live comfortably here? How does relying only on a bike change of the rhythm and contours of your day?
I’m not going to pretend to give authoritative answers to these questions. But I kept notebook. And here’s a few notes:
To and From Work
My day starts early. I’m on air at 5:09 a.m. to host Morning Edition. This means an alarm at 4:15 a.m., a barely-conscious shower, a cup of coffee, and out the door. I have this ritual down to a time-saving science. So my greatest fear was how this would change riding a bike — i.e., how much longer would it take to get to work, and therefore, how much more sleep would I lose?
The answer astounded me. I live in the Highlands, and it takes roughly 10 minutes in a car to get to our building on Fourth Street. Door to door on my bike, it took 14 minutes. Not bad.
Riding through Louisville at 4 a.m. is an entirely different experience. It’s still pitch black. The city is eerily quiet. The lights are off in almost every house and apartment. You can feel the city sleeping around you.
That early hour gives rise to the oddest confluence of people: paper boys, bakers, partiers and endurance athletes working out while the heat is suppressed. They all pass each other, wordlessly, on the empty streets.
I arrived safely to work soaked in a sweat and feeling like a mess. Thankfully, I work in radio, so you can never see me. And thankfully, there is only one other person in the building at the hour.
A little water on the face, a change of shirt, and I felt 80 percent more energized than I normally do at 4:50 a.m.
The ride home at 3 p.m was a different story. That’s when you really take stock of what it’s like to a bike in Louisville—when it’s hot, when the roads are busy, and when you just want to get home safely and quickly.
Navigating from Fourth Street back towards the Highlands at this time requires thought. Do you take the long busy avenues? Chestnut Street would be the obvious: It’s a one-way heading east.
Bad idea. The lanes are clogged. The hospitals are a hazardous cross-section of ambulances. Cars appear to either idle on the side of the road or merge instantly from the parking garages. If there was a bike lane, I didn’t see it.
Broadway didn’t provide much more hope. Instead I cycled south, toward Old Louisville and Smoketown. Here, the traffic drops off instantly, but the cars almost seem to be driving faster, with more space to accelerate and swerve.
Classic cycling dilemma: Do you prefer more cars around you moving at a slower speeds, or fewer cars traveling faster?
Another dilemma: Exactly how comfortable are you—with both the safety and legality—of blowing through red lights when you’re certain no one is coming?
If I was certain of anything that afternoon, it was my mental and emotional state.
I felt both terrified with the cycling conditions, and yet oddly proud that I was enduring them. With practically no other bikers around me, I felt a certain defenselessness. And yet, that was coupled with the feeling of actually using my own body, generating my own force and no longer looking out a rectangular pane of glass to experience my surroundings (more on this later).
What struck me was the simple lack of shoulder space on the roads. In other words, people park on the streets, which causes a severe narrowing of the navigable space. Moreover, I’ve never thought of Louisville’s streets to be particularly wide to begin with. (Point in case: Cherokee Road near Baxter Avenue.)
The takeaway from the daily commute is that it didn’t add much time, but one should choose their roads wisely. Other bikers have told me that biking Louisville—successfully—is all about route selection. The rest of my week confirmed that: stay near parks, the waterfront, the un-clustered streets.
Before Louisville, I lived in Colorado and owned a motorcycle. I would take long weekend trips to explore the West.
A motorcycle is not the same thing as a road bike, but they share something in common: You, the rider, experience your surroundings with an incomparable intensity.
A car, by design, is a shield. It isolates you from the weather, the temperature, the quality of the road, the local smells and sounds. You sit there, encased in metal, with speakers, floating at fast speeds to your destination.
A bike is an invitation to embed with your environment. When it rains, you feel the drops. When you pass a field, you smell the plants. When the road become unsteady, you feel it in your whole body. Faces and places no longer blur by, but are comprehendible and memorable. Many books have been written on this subject, a classic one being “Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig. Another book that conjures up that experiential element is “Motorcycle Diaries” by Che Guevara (think how different the book would be if it were called “Car Diaries,” for example).
Point being, I saw more things on a single ride than I would have seen in weeks driving my car.
Routine is a memory killer. When you drive the same route to work, every day, you simply stop noticing things (See: “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” by Annie Dillard). You just drive. You fiddle with the radio. You make a call.
Biking, for just a few days, infuses the brain with newness—which, I have to admit, can be uncomfortable. It’s not always pleasant to be reacquainted first-hand with the pounding rain of a summer thunderstorm. But it’s memorable either way.
If you bike to work, bike home, bike to the gym, bike home again, then most likely you will be ready to get off the bike for the remainder of the day. Or, at the very least, you’ll want to minimize the distances at which you continue to bike.
What’s interesting is how this changes your interactions and perceptions of your neighborhood. Without a car, everything becomes hyper-local. There are no more cross-city trips to buy something or meet someone. You want to stay close to home.
This forced me to really take stock of where I live. For example, if I wanted get a beer, there was no driving to Germantown or NuLu. I would find a place within three blocks of my home. If I needed food, I would walk to Mid-City Mall, not drive to Trader Joe’s. If I needed a light bulb, I would seek out a local hardware store and not Home Depot.
In other words, I was forced to engage with my neighborhood and see what it really had—and what it lacked. This issue, I think, raises larger questions or urban planning and suburban sprawl (a could also be an entirely different essay). Still, I couldn’t help but wonder what conclusions people would draw about their neighborhoods if they had to rely only on a bike or their own feet for a few days.
When I collected my car from the mechanic, it occurred to me that answering the question of whether or not Louisville is a bike-friendly city would take a lot more work. But I’m honestly excited to explore the question further. That week I ran into a lot bikers who told me about group rides, teams, routes, weekend trips. There is, of course, the long-term plan of Louisville building a 100-mile biking loop around the city. The world Cyclo-cross championships were held this winter in the city. So things are certainly happening for the biking community.
But perhaps the most memorable part of the week was answering the vaguer questions: Why do we bike? How does it change our rituals and lifestyle? Those are questions I’d like to explore more.
(Image via Shutterstock)