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A Case for Commuting: Happiness

A previous post chronicled the Top Ten Reasons Why I Endure Foothills, Fools, and Fahrenheit to Commute By Bike.  The following post is part of a continuing series on making a case for commuting.

“Doubly happy, however, is the man whom lofty mountain tops are within reach, for the lights that shine there illumine all that lies below.” — John Muir
Bicycle commuting is fun — it’s therapeutic for the spirit and makes me happy.I get that “happiness” is hard to define and probably even harder to realize.  But if you subscribe to the idea that happiness is synonymous with contentment, satisfaction, and fulfillment, then I can make the case that for me, bicycle commuting makes me happy.  Interestingly, I’m not exactly sure why.  I know there are countless reasons why it’s the right thing to do, but when I ride it simply makes me happy.In a totally unscientific way, I decided to go out to my favorite commuting BLOG, Bike Forums, to ask other commuters the simple question:  Does commuting make you happy, and if so, why?  What I got were 61 responses in two days, the vast majority of which confirmed my own predisposition that bicycle commuting makes people happy.  The responses were varied:

“I’m addicted to riding. I feel bad if I don’t.”
“It makes me feel good, and young, Driving has the exact opposite effect.”
“It makes me feel  good about myself”
“Endorphins”
“Addiction is a strong word, but it might apply here.”
“I need my ‘alone time’ everyday to think about stuff (or think about nothing) without interruption”
“Riding kicks ass”
“Dunno if I’m exactly happy.  More like alive, as opposed to my usual state of animated corpsehood”
“It has become essential to my mental well-being”
“The feeling is the same as when I was a little kid”
“I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it.  Simple as that.  Everything else — exercise, earth stewardship, saving money — is gravy”.

Strong words from folks who bicycle commute under tougher conditions than me!

Over on BikePortland.org, a recent headline caught my eye: Bike Commuters are Happiest.  Seems as though Oliver Smith, a Ph.D. candidate in Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University recently conducted a research project titled, Commute Well-being Among Bicycle, Transit, and Car Users in Portland, Oregon.  In early 2012, he surveyed 828 people across a variety of commute modes including bicycling, walking, express bus, light rail, carpooling, local bus, and driving alone.  What Smith discovered was that the happiest commuters are those who bike and walk under their own power.  Least happy, not surprisingly, were those commuters who drove alone.

So, if you’re like me and sometimes find solace and power in numbers, then my #1 case for commuting, that it makes me happy, is well documented.  If however, you need to experience things for yourself before you fully embrace it, then I challenge you to take the bicycle commuting plunge for a month, and like me, I’m betting you’ll be hooked.

Happy Pedaling!

Red-Letter Rides!

Yesterday was perhaps as close as I could get to cycling nirvana.

It was one of those days that simply comes together, everything in perfect alignment. I woke up Saturday before sunrise, and was on the road by 7 am. My plan was to commute the 15 miles from my home in far Southwest Austin to downtown, at which point I would connect with a local cycling group on a hosted ACA ride. The commute was uneventful, as it was the same route I take on my weekday rides to my downtown office. It was, however, nice not to feel the stress of a full workday on my mind, so I instead took a more leisurely pace for most of the route. Also, the temperature was a comfortable, albeit chilly 38 degrees when I headed out, but certainly warmer than it had been over the last few weeks at that time of the morning.

The group ride started at 9am, and 20 riders headed west out of Zilker Park. I am not a huge fan of big group rides for a variety of reasons, but I do go out occasionally for the camaraderie and for the exposure to new cycling routes. The entire 20+ mile route was contained in the scenic areas of West Austin. I’ve lived in Austin the majority of my life, but this particular area still inspires me. The short, steep hills, the oak tree-lined vistas, the views of Lake Austin, and the beautiful, older neighborhoods made the ride simply awesome.

After the group ride, Carol met me at the Town Lake Hike & Bike Trail for a quick 10-mile mountain bike ride around Town Lake and downtown Austin. The runners, walkers, and cyclists were thick (the temperature by now in the 60’s), but the sunshine and crowded conditions made it almost a festive atmosphere. About halfway into the ride, we stopped off at a local coffee joint for some very strong iced-coffee (I know this sounds cliche, but I am a sucker for a good, strong cup of coffee) before we headed for the finish line.

Self-portrait at the local coffee joint.
Self-portrait at the local coffee joint.

The day had it all: a total of 45-miles worth of cycling fitness, a bike commute, a fun group ride with new friends, spectacular views, an appreciation of the nature around my hometown, mountain biking, spending time with my bride, and a really good cup of Joe. What could be better? Well, I did try a Black Marlin Porter from San Diego’s Ballast Point Brewery later in the evening. An outstanding 6% abv American Porter with a huge head and a strong coffee flavor.

But I digress.

Proof positive that a boy (and his girl), a bike, and a large iced-coffee can make for a pretty appealing day.

P.S. I’ve had a number of folks ask if I’d be willing to profile interesting rides on this blog, to provide commentary on routes in the area that might be of interest to others. So, keep your eyes peeled for semi-regular updates that I’ll aptly title “Red-Letter Rides”.

The Power of a Smile

“I will never understand all the good that a simple smile can accomplish” — Mother Teresa

I must admit that I am one of those cyclists who would probably annoy those who might be more inclined toward introspection and self-absorption when on the bike.  I’m a “waver” and a “smiler” on the bicycle, which is to say that when I pass other cyclists, pedestrians, runners, and even drivers, I tend to make eye contact if I can, I wave and most times smile.  I do it mostly out of habit now, but I’m sure it has roots going back to my childhood and my parents insistence that acknowledging someone’s existence and being courteous is the “Texas Hospitality” thing to do.

We’ve all heard the axiom that if you smile at the world, the world will smile back at you. Most of us learned at a young age that smiling seemed to impact others in a positive way, that if you smile at others, more than likely they will smile back at you.

This is all well and good, but what most people don’t know is that a smile can actually extend your life.  I have two examples to help make my point.  A few years ago, Ernest Abel and Michael Krug of Wayne State University analyzed 230 baseball cards of professional baseball players from 1952.  They sorted the cards into three categories.  Those that displayed a full smile, those that displayed a partial smile, and those who offered no smile at all.  After applying what I’m sure was a set of sound statistical sampling techniques to ensure an apples-to-apples comparison, what they found was pretty dang interesting.  Baseball players in the “smiling” category lived an average of five years longer than players categorized as “not smiling”.  Even the players who had a partial smile lived a bit longer than those who didn’t smile.  Players who didn’t smile in their pictures lived an average of 72.9 years, while players with big smiles lived an average of 79.9 years.

My second example of how a smile can extend a life is a little more personal, and in fact is based on an experience I had earlier this week on my bike commute to the office.  The short version of the story is that during my usual early morning commute, I was navigating a particularly busy stretch of road, replete with bike lanes and drivers who are usually very cognizant of daily bicycle commuters.  At one of the cross streets on this particular route, a middle-aged woman in a large pickup truck, obviously doing something other than paying her full attention, rolled right through the intersection as I was in the middle of it.  When I yelled and she lifted her head up, she came to a hurried, if not abrupt stop, obviously embarrassed that she had almost made my day much worse.  Anyway, as I pedaled past her truck in the middle of the intersection, I did something I’ve probably never done on previous encounters.  I neither yelled my frustration at her nor did I display the universal salute some cyclists are prone to do.

Instead, I slowed to an almost-stop, waved at her, and smiled (it was more of a grimace) in such a way that it all felt like a slow motion replay.  My intention was to make sure that she saw my face very clearly, the shape of my chin, every line on my forehead, hell, even the color of my eyes, for her to recognize that there is a person (albeit vulnerable) under that helmet, and not just some crazy, random guy on a bike in the middle of the night.  She sort of ducked her head and continued on her journey.  Fast forward to the next morning, same time, same intersection.  Ironically, the same woman in the same pickup truck came upon me again.  This time however, as I caught her attention, she slowed down, smiled and waved furiously like we had known each other for years, all while giving me and my bike a noticibly wide berth.  I waved back and smiled and hopefully reinforced her good behavior.  All this to say that my choice on a bike is to respect those in 4,000 lb. motorized vehicles, regardless of their behavior, by not being overly aggressive, but instead courteous and more passively pointed if a correction is necessary.  In this instance, a smile may not have actually extended my life, but it probably changed the behavior of at least one driver in my community, and made her more more aware of those of us using bicycles as transportation.

A smile is one of the most basic, biologically uniform expressions of all humans.   If, during these sometimes polarizing times, a smile and a wave can be used for good, and if our intent really is to improve conditions for all cyclists by effective co-existence with automobiles, shouldn’t they be in our tool bag?

My Obligatory Lance Post

“Had we not faults of our own we should take less pleasure in observing those of others” — Francois De La Rochefoucauld

Like millions around the world this week, I was drawn to the gripping, albeit painful spectacle of Lance Armstrong coming clean regarding his use of performance enhancing drugs during his glory years of winning seven Tour de France titles.  “Coming clean” is an interesting choice of words here, but you get my point.  I debated watching the tabloid-infused coverage that, beyond the actual interview on the OWN Network, seemed to completely overwhelm every major cable news outlet for a good part of the week.

I also debated whether or not to post about it.  But in the end, given that Lance is an Austin icon with whom I’ve pretty much followed his every move since 1996 (and I ride on the Lance Armstrong Bikeway on my daily bike commute!), I felt a bit obliged.

Nothing in “The Interview” really surprised me.  What was however, shocking to me was the poisonous nature, if not vitriol that the so-called talking heads displayed toward Armstrong and his admissions.  Let’s be honest.  Lance’s confessions regarding the use of performance enhancing drugs were not exactly scoop-worthy, in fact they were quite possibly the worst kept secret on the planet.  The “shock and anger” displayed by news outlets and their invited guests, the feigned outrage by sponsors who have profited mightily, bordered on that usually reserved for movie-theatre shooters, terrorists, and dog-killers.

So, I decided to sit down and assess the factual attributes relating to Lance, to see if ahem.. the news, actually aligned with what we know to be true.  As I drafted my list, lots and lots of Lance’s attributes came to mind, many of them inspirational, some of them unsavory.  In the final analysis, here are the facts about Lance Armstrong.  They are inarguable:

  • Cyclist
  • Stage 3 Cancer Survivor (metastasized to his lungs, abdomen, and brain)
  • Admitted Cheater
  • Founder of LIVESTRONG Foundation
  • Aerobic Capacity of 83.8 (<–included this one because it still amazes me!)


In the scheme of things, there are exactly two attributes on this list which matter:
cancer survivor,  founder of LIVESTRONG Foundation.  Count me, not as a Lance apologist, but as an admirer.  An admirer that recognizes a flawed man beat cancer and went on to use his pulpit to raise $470 million (and counting) so others may have an opportunity to fight that same, deadly disease.

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell had this to say earlier in the week, “I am disappointed that Lance misled me and so many others in the Austin community and beyond.  However, my goal is to focus on the overwhelming good created by the Livestrong Foundation and I will always be grateful to him for starting the organization that continues to serve the millions of people around the globe fighting cancer.”

I founded PedalBIG on the premise that those of us who love and use bicycles could use them as a tool to do something bigger than ourselves.  Lance Armstrong, warts and all, fits that bill.

Today I made a contribution to the LIVESTRONG Foundation.

The LIVESTRONG Manifesto
We believe in life.
Your life.
We believe in living every minute of it with every ounce of your being.
And that you must not let cancer take control of it.
We believe in energy: channeled and fierce.
We believe in focus: getting smart and living strong.
Unity is strength. Knowledge is power. Attitude is everything.
This is LIVESTRONG.

Why I Endure Foothills, Fools, and Fahrenheit to Commute By Bike

Returning from a grocery store commute.
Returning from a grocery store commute.

“Enjoy Life.  This is not a dress rehearsal.” – Author Unknown


30 Miles.
53 Traffic Lights.
40 Stop Signs.
33 Speed Bumps.
8 School Zones.
4 Railroad Crossings.
Hills.  Lots of Hills.
Traffic.  Lots of Traffic.

These are some mildly annoying statistics I deal with on my daily bicycle commute to my downtown office in Austin, Texas.

Also, I should probably mention that I work in a highly professional environment that requires that I wear professional attire, I sometimes work long hours, I have a very fast-paced daily routine, I’m over-50, and in the town I call home, a rather tepid day in the middle of summer reaches 100 degrees Fahrenheit with a 90% humidity reading.  If this all sounds like I may be a little pessimistic, then you should consider that, in spite of these obstacles, I choose to live a little better by commuting to work via bicycle as often as I am able.  And, frankly speaking, if I can do it, anyone can do it.

I have been commuting to work on my bicycle for a few years, and quite honestly, I would have probably begun sooner had it not been for the myriad excuses that I always seemed to drum up as I got close to making the commitment.  Many of you know the drill: I’m too busy, the distance is too great.  I have kids, I don’t have enough time, I am a professional (and professionals don’t ride their bikes to work), there are no changing facilities at my workplace, I’m not fit, traffic makes me nervous, my bike is not commuter-ready, I don’t have a planned route, I don’t know how to commute by bike, colleagues will think I’m goofy… and the list goes on.  Believe me when I tell you that I internalized all of these excuses, and many, many more before I took the commuting plunge.

For those of you who might be considering commuting to work, or if you’re on the fence as to whether or not you should try it, I thought I might dedicate my first commuting-related post to ranking my top ten reasons for commuting by bike.  In subsequent posts, I’ll detail these reasons out in more detail to hopefully line out the rationale as to why many of you should consider commuting, or if you already commute, considering doing it more frequently.

Top Ten Reasons Why I Endure Foothills, Fools, and Fahrenheit to Commute By Bike

#10 Cycling is a great conversation starter
#9   It increases my productivity at the office
#8   Commuting by bike gives me a feeling of self-sufficiency
#7   Bicycle commuting connects me with my community
#6   Cycling leaves behind virtually no carbon footprint
#5   Bicycling is the most energy efficient form of transportation ever invented
#4   Increases my fitness and improves my overall health
#3   Prepares me for other cycling adventures, specifically long-distance touring
#2   My commute is the best part of my day instead of the worst part of my day
#1   Bicycle commuting is Fun — it’s therapeutic for the spirit and makes me happy!!

I must admit that I am completely addicted to commuting by bike.  Over time, I have stopped looking for excuses not to commute in, and instead now look for an excuse to commute as often as I possibly can.  The excuses have evaporated, and have been replaced with excitement and anticipation!

What’s your excuse?  Give commuting a try, and I’ll wager that soon you’ll be one of the many that endure foothills, fools, and fahrenheit to commute by bike!

“Just Say Yes” to New Years Resolutions

“An optimist stays up until midnight to see the new year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves.” – Bill Vaughn

I’m proud to be classified as the former.

I must admit that I love New Year’s Eve and I am especially drawn to New Year’s resolutions.  I remember as a boy waking up on January 1st, resolute with thoughts of something new and fresh, a pledge that didn’t exist just a day earlier.  I’m pretty sure my resolutions were run-of-the-mill, whether it was to break a six-minute mile (I was an avid runner as a kid), read a particular book I was interested in, or to simply stop harassing my big sister (this last resolution proved particularly difficult for me, and to this day it is one resolution I cannot seem to master!).

Interestingly, New Year’s resolutions have been around for over 4,000 years, when Babylonians, during spring and autumn equinoxes, celebrated the beginning of a New Year by paying off debts, returning borrowed goods, etc..  Later, the Romans influenced the New Year by naming the month of January after Janus, the god of beginnings and endings.  They established January 1st as the day of new beginnings.

So, it seems New Year’s resolutions have an extraordinarily long history, so I figure there must be something legitimate about them.  Apparently, a lot of Americans agree with me.  After the Great Depression, around a quarter of the country’s population made New Year’s resolutions.  In the 21st century, that number has increased to approximately 40% of Americans who have made resolutions about one thing or another.  Statisticians tell us that the most popular resolutions, not surprisingly, deal with improving one’s well-being, or committing to volunteer to help others.  Unfortunately, the “numbers guys” also tell us that 88% of the people making New Year’s resolutions actually fail to achieve their lofty end-game.  I tend to take the more optimistic view that fully 12% of the folks succeed in achieving their resolutions!  It’s also shown that you are 22% more likely to succeed in your resolution if you set small, achievable goals, and work in increments instead of grandiose visions.

So, what does it all mean?  For me, it has been a mixed bag.  Looking back and recalling some of my more memorable New Year’s resolutions, some have worked out and others seemed to evaporate by the end of January.  Regardless, I still like the feeling of new beginnings, and I still anticipate the freshness of a new goal to improve myself, or a fulfilling commitment to help someone else around me in some small way.

What are my 2013 New Year’s Resolutions?  Well, adopting the aforementioned advice regarding the higher probability of achieving small, achievable goals, I commit to the following:

  1. Log 100 miles/week on my bicycle by commuting, traveling, training, participating in charity rides, etc. over the next year.                                    (hey, 100 miles/week sounds more attainable than 5000 miles/year, right?)
  2. Post at least one entry to the PedalBIG blog every week
  3. Learn to cook 3 new dishes
  4. Stop spending money on cheap beer                                                                 (this one actually intimidates me a bit)

So, there you have it!  The pressure’s on.  I’ve committed publicly, Yikes! So, I guess I’ll be providing occasional updates on my progress (unless of course, I don’t make it through the month of January).  So, what’s your New Year’s Resolution?  Are you really committed to making a difference?  Will you consider using your bicycle to achieve at least one of your commitments?  I hope so.

P.S.  In a true testament to the wonderfully-skewed priorities of those I choose to hang out with, I spent New Year’s morning at a somewhat ungodly early hour in a “special” 90-minute Spin Class with 25 other “optimists”.

 

PedalBIG is Born (and an anniversary).

“What Convinces is Conviction” — Lyndon Baines Johnson

Growing up, I routinely entertained thoughts of ways to become more impactful in life. As I’ve gotten a bit more seasoned, it seems as though the pursuit of making profound impact, while arguably noble, hasn’t been typically realistic. On the other hand, making simple, incremental and heart-felt life changes, pursuing achievable, short-term plans, and committing fully to them, always with an eye keenly fixed on something a little bigger, a little out of reach — that is the journey I wish to embark upon.

 

“To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time” — Leonard Bernstein

As life in the 21st Century has become increasingly complex and uncertain, I’ve come to appreciate and am slightly comforted with the basic principles enshrined in Robert Fulghum’s classic book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.  In what is probably a rarity in this day and age, I really do subscribe to the notions that we should “play fair”, we shouldn’t “hit people”, and we could probably benefit by “holding hands and sticking together”.  More recently, and during a re-read of the book, it became unsettlingly clear to me that I hadn’t truly adopted all of Fulghum’s tenets.  In fact, there are a couple that stick out like flashing beacons, frustrating me more than a little.  Without a doubt, I’ve probably been less than adequate with the particular tenet to “share everything”, and I admittedly don’t quite “live a balanced life”.  I’ve always prided myself on “learning some and thinking some” and I have sometimes over-emphasized “working every day some”, but I have not spent an inordinate amount of time “singing and dancing and playing some”.  I am also having trouble believing that “warm cookies and cold milk” are really that beneficial for me, but that’s another story!

It is with this backdrop that I begin the journey to try and achieve a more balanced life, a greater focus on sharing, and maybe even playing some.  How will I do it, you ask?  With the theme of simplicity as a guiding principle, my focus is straightforward: I intend to use the simplest of machines, a bicycle, a BLOG, and commitment as a catalyst to help me (and hopefully others) more fully experience life — I call it PedalBIG.

The notion which defines PedalBIG is really quite simple, to inspire better living.  While that notion might sound a bit basic — indeed, everyone desires to live better — my personal interpretation of better living is grounded in the belief that doing something for a higher purpose is the key ingredient to better living.  Not to suggest that doing something only for ourselves is inherently bad, but we all have the capacity to do so much more, and that’s what this website is about.  With this in mind, PedalBIG was born out of the desire to pursue something I thoroughly enjoy — cycling — but it’s also been developed with an eye toward leveraging this passion to do something good, really good.  So, “pedaling big” is quite simply about inspiring better living through the joy of cycling, with all of the traditional benefits, but it’s also about using the bicycle to support something more meaningful, something bigger.  Let’s have some fun!

Oh, and by the way, today is an anniversary of sorts.  One that thankfully helped me to think a little clearer.