Life by bicycle

Mark Dawson - Chicago, IL

Life by bicycle
I was 53 in January. I have made exactly one car payment in my life, $500 cash for a 1975 Chevy Impala station wagon that I bought in September of 1982. That Chevy had about 75,000 miles on it and a lot of rust, besides a balky windshield wiper motor that prompted the wipers to lock up at terrible moments. So we would open the back window (it was one of those tank things with a clamshell back door and window) and line up in the lane we were in using our rear view mirror. The car eventually broke down 50,000 miles later in eastern Tennessee when visiting relatives around Christmas of 1985. We sold it to the man who towed it for $50 and flew back to Chicago. I have never owned another car since. We live in Lincoln Square on the north side of Chicago, a WWI vintage community with a Walk Score of 97. So when we aren't riding, we walk or take the L. We are a block from an stop on the elevated train, less than a mile from a commuter train line, close to three bus lines. We can walk to grocery stores, four parks (one with an indoor pool), Sears, a large library, a post office, Greek, French, Thai, Italian, Indian, Filipino, German, Mexican, and British restaurants, the Old Town School of Folk Music, a stained glass studio, a shop that offers lithographic printing, an animal hospital, a farmer's market, and a grove of 300-year-old oak trees on the property of our local elementary school. Mostly, we bike everywhere. I ride all year, 95 degrees and humid in August, and in a recent winter, 14 below zero. For a while last winter I was on my bike at 6:30 AM every morning to get to work on a contract assignment at an office part in the northwest suburbs. So I would ride to a train station, and then take my bike on the commuter rail line to a suburban stop and pedal 3½ miles from there to the office. It was fine, and the project lasted from October until mid-February. One cold morning I was waiting at a traffic light on Montrose Avenue in Chicago when a lady rolled down the window to her car, smiled at me, and said “You are amazing!” But I am not amazing. I don’t want to be admired. I want to be seen ordinary. As long as motorists view me as a saint with pedals and a helmet, that relieves them of the responsibility of thinking about changing their own lifestyles. They never get to the point of thinking that they might actually try to find their way through life on two wheels as well. I want to be understood as an alternative, and not just to our auto-dependent culture. I also want to be a bike-riding rebuke to the debt-ridden culture that is always buckled into the passenger seat. Certainly, giving up a car and relying on a bicycle would require many Americans to move. I would have a hard time living without a car in Naperville or Glendale Heights or most other Chicago suburbs. But sacrificing a sweeping lawn and 2500 SF or more means I also do without payments on a pair of SUVs in the driveway. You don't save anything by biking to work periodically when the weather is nice. You save by doing without a car entirely. Most of what you pay to own a car you still have to pay if the car is sitting in your driveway. By not owning a new car in Chicago I save about $1100 a month. Those savings have multiplied over 28 years. My wife and I share a 3BR unit in a two flat with a single bathroom and a tiny back yard. I grow icicles in my beard in February and have to towel off my sweaty head when I bike to work in August. But we also paid off our mortgage when we were 34 years old. Our two sons finished Bachelor's degrees without needing to borrow a dime (neither of them own cars either). We pay off our credit car balances in full every month, and the first half of 2013 featured trips to New York City, the Boston Early Music Festival, and to Olympic National Park in Washington. My wife finished a Master's degree in nursing a year ago, and we didn't have to borrow for that, either. We travel well, without a car. Life is good, much better thanks to the freedom we enjoy by traveling slowly.
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