What Motivates People to Give Bikes a Try?

As I mentioned last week, I haven’t always been a bike rider. One of the things I’m interested in exploring in this blog is what motivates people to start thinking of bikes as transportation options, so I’ll share how I got started.

In spite of growing up in an incredibly bikeable area (the East Bay) and subsequently living in two of the bike-friendliest cities in the country (Berkeley and San Francisco), riding a bike for any reason at all basically didn’t occur to me until I was in my mid-twenties. Three things were key in motivating me to make the shift:

First, I started dating a guy who biked. The night I met my now-husband, I remember walking out of the concert where we’d been randomly seated next to each other and following him up to the bike valet so he could pick up his cool grey road bike. At the time, the only thoughts that passed through my head were “Jesus, a valet just for bikes? Get over yourselves.” and “That guy looks pretty cute leaning up against his bike, asking for my number.” As we started dating, I thought it was neat that he often biked to get around, but mainly considered it a quirk or a novelty. Even after we started living together, biking wasn’t a thing that we shared. It was in the back of my mind that I should probably get a bike someday so we could get around in the same way, but my established inability to ride without crashing and my cluelessness about where one finds a bike to ride kept these thoughts theoretical. I was going to need some external motivation to give two wheels a try, which brings me to my second key motivator…

I rode the bus to and from work every day, and it was absolute hell. I should clarify right off the bat that I think public transit is a fantastic resource, and that Bay Area Rapid Transit and all of the MUNI lightrail lines are top-notch. But as someone who suffers from pretty gnarly motion sickness, riding MUNI surface-street busses was grim. Even on lightly-used lines where I could nab a window seat close to the driver, I would have to spend the entire ride with my forehead pressed against the window, focusing on deep, slow breathing, if I wanted to get off the bus without feeling nauseous. The line I took to work, however, was not lightly used – it was one of the most popular routes in the city and most days I would wind up standing in the middle of the aisle, craning my head around someone else’s armpit to try to catch a glimpse of window for the entire 40-minute ride so I didn’t throw up right there on the bus. Every time I got off at my stop after work, I’d be green to the gills for an hour.

Misery in action: The 38L churning around the streets of San Francisco.

I realize that this is hardly the worst commute disaster ever suffered – after all, I was spending very little money riding a generally on-time, conveniently-located transit line through a gorgeous city. But the fact remains that I started and ended every working day feeling really ill, and that started to eat away at my normally sunny-ish outlook on life. I bitched to Morgan about this on a near-constant basis, and his reply was usually a mix of mild concern and no-pressure encouragement to think about maybe riding a bike to work one of these days. I ignored this advice until one super horrible bus commute (in which a blackout drunk guy in a business suit had fallen backward out of the open doors at a stop, his skull thwacking against the pavement with a sickening sound I can still hear now, five years later) finally pushed me over the edge. “Where would I even get a bike?!” I asked Morgan, exasperated. “I don’t know where to start.”

“If you want to give it a try, I have a spare bike,” replied my ever-calm partner. “My friend borrowed it, but it’s been sitting on his balcony for a year. You can have it. We’ll tune it up and you can try it out next week.” And that brings me to my final motivator…

A bike basically fell into my lap. Knowing nothing about bikes and being generally afraid of technical subjects, I wasn’t going to go out and figure out which bike was right for me. The only way I was ever going to start riding was if a bike magically appeared under me, and that’s essentially what happened. Morgan got the bike from his friend, his dad tuned it up and fit it to my octopus legs, and I scooted off to work by bike for the first time on December 1, 2011. I didn’t know how to come to a complete stop, I was terrified of going downhill, and I had to get off and walk the last mile to work because I couldn’t navigate downtown traffic. But what I remember from that very first ride was feeling thrilled, amazed, utterly elated to walk into work and not feel sick.

I’ve ridden my bike almost every day since. All it took for me was regular exposure to a happy, healthy biker, a significant daily struggle that could be easily avoided by riding a bike, and the presence of a free bike, tuned to my specifications, in my garage. I’m hoping that not everyone is as oblivious as me, but I’m curious, for those of you who ride: what motivated you to give it a try, and to stick with it?


2 thoughts on “What Motivates People to Give Bikes a Try?

  1. Go Jo! Well written and inspirational. We enjoy all your blogs but this one made me want to get on a flight in order to be at the hearing!

    1. I’m so pleased you guys are reading! You and Alex basically kicked off my whole cycling life so I owe you a lot 🙂 Next time we visit I’m planning to write a post about Santa Barbara’s bike friendliness, so stay tuned…

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