The Commuting Life

I bought an bike about a month and a half ago at a little shop north of here, on Clark.  It's a late seventies or early eighties Schwinn Traveler Xtra-Lite, baby blue, with new chain, tires, grip tape, and a cranky derailleur.  I can't quite place the date because I can't find the serial number.  At any rate, it's steel, it's older than me, and I've been creaking around the city on it for a couple weeks now.  Before moving to Chicago, I had probably been on a bike three or four times in the last ten years.  Now I'm riding daily, commuting to a new (temporary) job at a little architecture studio on the west side of the Chicago River.  According to Google maps, it's a 3.7 mile haul each way.

The Blue Beast.
The first two weeks of riding, back in the heat of the summer, left me so sore I couldn't bend my knees to get things out of the fridge.  While I've done my share of manual labor over the years, and spent a lot of time on my feet, I haven't really worked aerobically in a long time.  While Chicago is blessedly free of hills, I was definitely hurting from the unfamiliar motions.  Bicycling competitively has always been a dialogue on pain -- lactic acid searing muscles on hard ascents, the burn of October air in windpipes -- but I mistakenly thought I would escape that conversation by riding slow and easing into things.  

Besides the pain, biking has given me a new perspective on the city.  Walking, you experience the city at a certain remove: traveling in a protected pedestrian zone (the sidewalk); moving at a very slow pace; and operating untethered to objects.  In a car, you experience the city in a different kind of isolation: sealed in a climate-controlled steel container, listening to your own music and conversation; viewing the outside world through windows that tightly frame your view; moving over a wide continuum of speeds, from zero to forty miles an hour; traveling in an exclusive area (the street); and experiencing propulsion untethered from physical effort.  

In motion.

On a bike, you travel in the margins, a forgotten zone, squeezed between cars both parked and moving, dodging tire-eating potholes, fighting the weather, and enjoying the speed afforded by the mechanical advantage of pedals, chains, and gears.  It is a weird hybrid of walking and driving -- human powered, yet on a vehicle; moving at similar speeds to a city-bound car, but unable to keep up for really long distances; in the open air but unable to engage stores, people, and urban features in the same way as a pedestrian.  

When I was in school, I had one professor who insisted to us that space has a grain, like wood.  While part of my brain grasped his point intellectually, I hadn't really got ahold of the idea experientially until I started riding a bike around a major city.  I follow the same route to and from work, yet the experience is completely different: a dynamic, ever-fluctuating matrix of factors such as grade, wind speed, wind direction, road maintenance, bike lanes, right-hand turn lanes, T-intersections, bridges, tunnels, and left turns influence how I attack my daily rides.  The other day, I took pictures on my ride in both directions to try and illustrate the point a little bit -- apologies on the photos, I took them with my phone, sometimes while moving . . .

Cortland Avenue bridge westbound.
I choose to cross the north branch of the Chicago River on the Cortland Avenue bridge because it has smooth sections of metal riveted down to make a bike lane across the open-metal road surface.  You can ride on the open grid, but it's hell on the tires.  On the other hand, the bike lane is really slick when wet.

Elston Avenue gas station.
Right after the bridge is a gas station that provides me with a good place to top up my tires when necessary.  Notice gas prices.

Under the bridge.
After the gas station, I've got to roll under the highway, which is crazy loud -- something you don't really experience cocooned in a car -- and involves turning left, across traffic, which frequently annoys drivers.  

The studio (courtesy Google street view).
After working some big, four-lane roads, the ride ends with a half-mile through leafy, quiet, one-way streets, weaving to avoid frequent potholes.

Ashland northbound.
The first major intersection on the way back is rough -- two lights in quick succession.  At each, the road widens into three lanes to provide right-turners and buses and chance to squeeze by.  This, however, puts the biker between the bus lane and the right-most forward traffic lane, which is, ahem, less than ideal.  

Beautiful downtown Chicago.
On the Cortland Avenue bridge eastbound, a great vista opens up -- the skyline over the river, framed perfectly by two hulking old industrial buildings.

Fullerton and Racine, northbound.
Another classic pinch point, and perfect illustration of how bicycles are squeezed the margins of urban arteries, between the plaque (parked cars) and cholesterol (chugging, fatty moving cars.)

And then I'm home again -- just got to haul the bike up the stairs.  We'll see how I feel in a couple of months, struggling against not just the traffic, but the cold and the dark.

Biking spikes the seams of the city with new life and vitality, but also struggles to find a true home on city streets.  Bike lanes help, but situated as they are between parked and active cars, they are still nothing but a border zone, cut up by moving cars, parked trucks, opening doors, and oblivious pedestrians.  Still, as a  guerilla urbanist it is important to critically examine and engage the public space I move through every day.  Every trip taken on a bike is a step towards a better, more diverse transportation future.

I'll close with a quote from our old friend Jane Jacobs:  Traffic congestion is caused by vehicles, not by people in themselves.