Changing Habits to Travel Via Two Wheels Instead of Four

Illustration by Mike Reisel

Climate change, fitness and the price of gas are good reasons to transition from car to bike, but the best reason is that using a bike for commuting or errands is infinitely more pleasant. When you ride, you have the breeze in your face, and you notice all kinds of things—from lawn art to sprouting crocuses—you miss from behind a windshield. You feel connected to pedestrians and playing children, and you arrive at your destination with no parking hassles, your blood full of oxygen.

Studies by the British New Economic Foundation reveal that “cyclists find their mode of transport at least as flexible and convenient as those who use cars, with lower stress and greater feelings of freedom, relaxation and excitement.” The trick is training yourself to reach first for the bike helmet instead of the car keys.

Doing so is largely a matter of challenging your assumptions about how life has to be organized. Think you don’t have time to get around by bike? For trips of three miles or less, riding is about as quick as driving because side streets and paths through parks make it easier to avoid stoplights, and you can zip right past traffic. The workout you’ll get around town on a bike might even save you a trip to the gym. You may not be able to buy a week’s worth of groceries and pick up the dry cleaning all in one bike trip, but that can be a good thing. When life slows to the speed of a bike, you don’t try to do too many things at once.

To make the leap from car to bike, don’t demand too much of yourself. Your job may be too far to bike to, but what about your local supermarket, the hardware store, the movie theater or the post office? Instead of hitting these places while driving home from work, try going home first and getting the bike; it’s a great way to unwind and move your body after sitting all day. Put your helmet where you usually leave your keys so as you reach, you can ask yourself, “Could I do this on a bike?”

It’s a matter of developing the habit, and studies show that it’s never too late to break old ones and develop new ones. The Society for Personality and Social Psychology has found that it takes from 15 to 254 days to develop a new habit, and that it’s easier if you use a natural disruption in your life—moving, a new job, a vacation—to change one habit to another because the cues on which your habitual behavior relied disappear. Even a small change presents an opportunity.

You’ll need, of course, a bike that you’ll be comfortable riding. It doesn’t have to be brand new or cost a lot, but it should fit you and be in good shape. Your local bike shop can help.

Your local shop can also help you with the extras: a rack to hold either baskets or panniers to carry things; a good lock; a helmet; lights for front and back; and for wet streets, fenders. I got creative and zip-tied a seven-dollar lockable tackle box to my rack, so I have a secure place to keep lights, tools, a spare tube, a reflective windbreaker and a credit card.

Once equipped, start exploring alternatives to the big, fast roads. Side streets, parks, schoolyards and alleys are a parallel universe that you may never have seen before, and they can get you across town with surprising speed. Start slow. Choose nice days. Do one errand at a time. It’s a head shift as much as anything to switch from car to bike. But it’s worth it.