It happened gradually. We were a one-car household, then we had two.
The original car was dying but we couldn’t get rid of it. It was a gas guzzler with a lot of mileage under its belt, so it’s no wonder no one answered our advertisements. Even pizza delivery drivers rejected our offers to sell it to them.
So I began to tool around in the old car, which wasn’t that bad. I did all the errands, shopped for groceries and occasionally drove myself to work when I had to go in early or stay late. Because everything was relatively close, it cost $25 a week in gas. Insurance was part of our household bundle. A monthly bus pass cost more.
In the winter, my feet were cold and wet – the floor of the car was rusting below the pedals. Just until spring, I told myself.
Like other drivers, I was seriously aggravated by cyclists “owning the road.” It seems unnecessarily dangerous. Cyclists are invisible on grey days, blending in with the pavement and coming out of nowhere. They should wear neon to alert drivers of their presence. I hoped they would see my right-turn signal, but I had no way of knowing.
By spring, my husband, daughter and I took a two-week trip to Europe. We flew to London, spent a few days there, then took the train to Paris, rented a car and travelled around France before returning to Paris for a few more days. It was phenomenal.
We walked and biked everywhere. Paris is nirvana for walkers. London was wonderful for walking too. We bicycled the wine country in Burgundy. I lost 15 pounds without any effort. Life in Europe was spectacular.
Returning home, the repair bill for our first vehicle cost more than it was worth. I called the wreckers and collected my $500. I went back to taking the subway and streetcar to work. Driving had been a luxury.
On good summer days, I tried walking the eight kilometres home from work listening to my iPod. This, however, led to sleepless nights with leg pain. And it wasn’t Paris.
There are days when I face a wall of congestion taking the subway home from work, no matter if I leave early or stay late. The density and intensity of downtown commuters trying to get home makes me panic. I’m convinced I’ll catch a flu virus, a cold, bedbugs or some sort of contagion in the squeeze to and from work. Then I have nightmares of being trapped underground and not seeing the light for 40 minutes.
My husband and I are weekend cyclists. We load the bikes into the trunk of the car, then drive to cycling nirvana – roads with no cars in the heart of the city, the lakeshore park, the Toronto Islands.
Finally, I took the plunge. Since my daughter is away at university and her bike is sitting unused, I took it out of the shed and began to cycle to work. I discovered a route through parks in the morning for the first few kilometres. Halfway to work, I turn on to a main road that leads directly to my office.
It’s the safest route, patrolled by police, monitored by cameras on every block and so congested with traffic, vehicles barely move.
I tried the bike lanes on other roads and alternate routes, but cars sped by and I worried about what would happen if I fell. Drivers were menacing and threatening, yelling and bullying me to get off the road, even when I was riding in the bike lane. I felt my life was in danger. I’ve learned to memorize licence plate numbers and report those who try to run me over or do me wrong.
Out of consideration for drivers, I get all decked out with lights and a neon vest, and stop at every red light and pedestrian crosswalk. The police regularly stop cyclists and ticket some. If you don’t stop at a stop sign, you’re fined. If your bell doesn’t work, you receive another fine. I’m good with that. Sometimes, when I wonder if I’m doing the right thing, I ask “What would Jack Layton do?” and I know I am.
My husband and I spend more time together now doing all the stuff I used to do on my own, including picking up the dry cleaning. Apparently, I can’t be trusted to drive our sporty newer car with its standard shift, so we run errands together. He drives and carries the grocery bins.
Now, after four months of cycling to work, I don’t know if I could go back to driving a car. I’m afraid of the costs of gas, maintenance and parking, of negotiating traffic and the inevitable parking tickets, fender benders and rear enders. So I continue to cycle at my peril. The city could afford to build more bike path routes if tolls were charged for downtown drivers.
But I love my cycling life. I feel refreshed after a ride to work. My lungs fill up with the fresh morning air and exercise changes my focus and thinking. I feel closer to nature on my shortcuts through parks. I arrive at work feeling invigorated. The day ahead feels full of promise.
It happened gradually, and I didn’t think I could or would become a bicycle commuter. I cycle, therefore I am.
Christina Schumacher lives in Toronto.