Down with BTWW

I’m just about fed up with Bike to Work Week (hereafter: BTWW–because I’m a lazy typist, and because anything transportation related without an acronym is not worth its salt), and it’s only Wednesday.

Not even the prospect of free bacon can make me feel good about BTWW this year (though it will make me a little less grouchy for about 15 minutes).

You see, I’m a year-round cycle-commuter. And when I say year-around, I mean it. All weather, no matter the season, I ride. I’m one of the riders that you see zipping along with a silly grin in the pouring rain. Or spinning along on a sunny morning in March. I’m one of the two dozen or so people you’ll see every day riding the ice-encrusted bike path while you’re crammed into the last seat on the bus. That is, when I’m not riding across the frozen lake. And in every other kind of weather you can imagine (just try me…I bet I’ve ridden through it in the last year).

This is all beginning to sound like chest-puffery, but I don’t think it’s anything special. I just get up every morning, get dressed in whatever way makes sense for the weather, get on the bike, and start turning the pedals over until I get to work. I lock the bike, hole up behind the closed door of my office, clean up, and change clothes. Then I make coffee. If that’s not the perfect start to the morning, I don’t know what is. I get to do it every day. And though there have been years when I’ve taken short breaks or not ridden every day, I’ve been riding consistently for about 20 years.

My commute is between 6.5 and 7 miles long, depending on the route that I take–which by the way is as short as it’s ever been and about 10 minutes shorter than the longest version. I can ride it in 20 minutes if I’m pressed and feeling frisky, but it usually takes me about 30 minutes in the non-winter months and as long as 45-50 minutes when the ground is covered with snow and ice (and when I’m riding a low-geared single-speed with 26″ studded tires). On rare occasions, it will take an hour to get home, but that usually requires deep, jumbled snow and ice combined with substantial winds.  The point is this: it just isn’t that fucking hard. It’s not a lot of time (and hour or two at the most per day). One can put up with any kind of weather for a half-hour or so (proof: yesterday it was 95 degrees and really windy, yet the ride was somehow pleasant).

Now you know where I’m coming from. I’m not hardcore, though certain people at work and elsewhere have called me that. But I am out there, every day.

Why down?

But back to BTWW and why I tend to think it’s both a ridiculous pain in the ass and probably not all that useful in the end.

First, it brings a large number of inexperienced cyclists out on the paths and roads all at once. While just getting out and riding is probably the best way to increase one’s skills and confidence, when the usual bicycle traffic corridors are clotted with a more than usually large influx of cyclists on poorly maintained (because they haven’t been ridden much or at all) bicycles who haven’t yet learned to ride in a relatively straight line or that they are traffic like other vehicles on the road, things get dangerous. And, it’s counterproductive to getting more people to ride to work regularly.

This congestion is only exacerbated by the usual summer construction projects and further worsened by the strategic placement of BTWW donut/coffee/repair stations on regular bicycle corridors. The congestion itself isn’t the problem. Generally speaking, the bicycle infrastructure and regular surface roads are under-utilized for cycling purposes. There are a few exceptions, mostly at poorly designed intersections, but we can leave that aside. The problem comes when there’s a large influx of new, inexperienced riders. The newbies are nervous because they’re doing something new, and they’re unsure of themselves. The regulars are irritated because everything is slower. And everyone is less safe, both because the newbies are swerving about and because some of the regulars don’t have the sense to slow the fuck down and adjust to the conditions.

On the bright side, this does get me to vary my route more than I usually do, and variety is good.

Second, it makes riding to work special. Riding to work isn’t special, it’s just another way to get to work (and in my opinion, the best and most efficient for commutes under about ten miles). Making it special by creating an event (or series of events that last just a week) not only obscures of the ordinary-ness of cycle-commuting, it also leads many people to perhaps ride to work during BTWW and then go back to their other mode of commuting afterwards, just because the event is over and there are no longer coffee and donuts on the bike path to lure them out on their bike.

Third, it’s not sustained. Every year, the number of cyclists spikes during BTWW and then goes back down to pre-BTWW levels. There’s a difference between getting people cycling for a week and getting them cycling every day (or to be fair, most days). What gets people riding and keeps them riding is adequate bicycle infrastructure (so that people feel safe enough to ride and then ride again) and enough economic pressure (whether positive or negative) to get them to change from their current behavior to a new one. What’s more, a week is not enough time to form a habit (seven weeks is more like it).

Fourth, BTWW generates a good deal of self-congratulatory bullshit. The people who ride during BTWW seem to feel rather smug about it and like to let the rest of us know by talking about it. This strikes regular cycle-commuters as just plain silly (or at least it strikes this one as such). I’ll say it again: it’s not about doing something special by cycling to work–it’s about making cycling to work so normal that you rarely talk about it at all. And this strikes the non-riders (who may have not ridden for perfectly rational reasons, however much we think it would be better if they did) as pretentious and snotty (I know this, because I’ve been guilty of it in the past).

What else then?

So what’s the alternative? I have some ideas, but they’re better the subject of another post. Let’s just say that it’s not as simple as putting donuts and coffee on the bike path for a week, or riding with the mayor. Though, to the credit of Planet Bike, there will be bacon on the bike path tomorrow.

One thought on “Down with BTWW

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