The Un-American Activity

What gets the equivalent of 1,000 miles per gallon, doesn't pollute, will save the world, and transports you in breezy style? Your bike.

Jan 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
Americans drive nearly two and a half trillion miles a year—the equivalent of five million round trips to the moon. Every day the average adult American drives almost 40 miles and spends an hour in the car. The average American household makes 2,321 trips by car every year.

"Forty percent of these trips are made within two miles of our homes," says Jody Newman, the executive director of the Washington D.C.­based League of American Bicyclists, an advocacy organization founded in 1880. "What's more, over half of the working population lives within five miles of their workplace. The problem is not so much physical, but psychological. Americans believe bicycling is the hard way."

But this wasn't always the case. "At the turn of the century, cycling was the rage across America," Newman says. "Everybody bicycled. To work, to the store, as a form of recreation." In 1893 cyclists successfully petitioned Congress for the first $10,000 grant to study the possibility of a paved highway system. As Newman points out, "Cyclists actually started the push for paved roads."

Bicycling was also a tool for social change. "I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world," feminist pioneer Susan B. Anthony said in 1896. "It gives a woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can't get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood."

The engineering invented to create the bicycle—lightweight metal tubing, ball bearings, drive-chains—spawned the automobile and aircraft industries. That may have been the beginning of the end. By the middle of this century, the bicycle had been largely abandoned as a graceful form of transportation and had become a toy for children.

Having learned in Holland that things could be different, I bicycled all through college. It was cheap—free, really. On a bicycle you are immersed in the landscape instead of passing it by. On a bicycle the world touches you instead of touching the glass. A bike blows open your senses just like a drug (but with no side effects). I had a car in college, too, an old Volkswagen bug. How else to go climbing, skiing, backpacking? But the bicycle was still my means of city transport, and sometimes more. One summer my sister Pam and I wound up in Boston after having cycled across the country. We were homeless and penniless, but we had our bikes. A friend at Wellesley let us crash at her place, and Pam and I commuted by bike to jobs in downtown Boston until we had enough money to get back home.

Today my city bike is a ten-year-old Trek mountain bike hybridized for street travel: slicks instead of knobby tires, sissy bars, fenders, a rear rack with big red panniers, plus two bike trailers, either of which can cart anything from groceries to lumber. I'm fortunate to live in a relatively small community where 90 percent of my in-town travel can be done on my bike. Which is not to say that it always is. But if the round-trip distance is five miles or less, even in a town with limited congestion, it's often faster to bicycle. Not to mention more fun. So for runs to the post office, grocery store, gym, my kids' grade school, Kinko's—I ride.