Bay Life

 Vol. 10, No. 47

November 21-27, 2002

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Confessions of a Bicycle Commuter
by Rebecca L. Hurst

On my first day bike commuting to work, I cycled past a blue heron standing Zen-like over the muddy waters of Spa Creek. As I drew close, its wings spread wide, and with a swift, stabbing movement the heron speared a silvery-bright fish. A moment later, rumbling over the Spa Creek footbridge and glancing down at the signs of a constantly changing water-level, I pondered anew on how much I miss when viewing the world through the windows of my car.

A car roars through the landscape, its passengers insulated from the world — from the smell, sound, and feel of the places it is passing. Images flash by, one superimposed on another in quick succession. Like a monk in a cell, the driver of a car is sealed away from the grit and potholes and heat of the real world that lies on the other side of the windshield.

I’m a Believer
I have been riding a bike since 1976 when, as an intrepid five-year-old, I pedaled my first two-wheeler cautiously along the side of my house. But I have been a bike commuter for just a few short months. I still talk with the evangelical enthusiasm of the new convert about the joys and hazards of my twice-daily trek to friends, family, the cashier at Fresh Fields and total strangers. If you want to really know a place, I tell them, get out on your bike. Dust will blow in your eyes, dogs will chase you, and you might arrive at the office a little sweatier than your non-pedaling peers. But unlike the driver of a car, you can (and will, sooner or later) jump a curb and explore your city’s hidden places.

When I began working in downtown Annapolis, just a mile and a half from my home, I drove my car down West Street to the office. Depending on the time I finished work, where in the city I was parked and the day of the week, that brief commute could take anywhere from 10 minutes to half an hour.

Having just moved to Annapolis from a small, Western Massachusetts town where I walked or rode everywhere, I had initially considered biking to work. But after one trip down West Street at rush hour, I didn’t fancy starting out each day by weaving through the bumper-to-bumper traffic and choking on exhaust fumes. So for two or three weeks I instead sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic, contributing to the congestion and air pollution and thanking my lucky stars the commute wasn’t any longer.

Then my partner, the intrepid trail-blazer in my family, discovered a new route to town. Our search for a northwest passage — one we had begun to fear was utterly futile — turned up a perfectly viable Suez Canal solution to the problem of biking to the historic district. Now, by simply slipping down Silopanna Road and across the footbridge at the top of Spa Creek, we emerge on the path that loops around the playing fields behind Bates Middle School. From there it is an easy ride through the neighborhood that follows Spa Creek into downtown: a neighborhood of tree-lined streets and lovely old houses set in peaceful, flower-filled gardens.

Commuting’s a Breeze
A couple of days after the new route into town was discovered, and armed with a hand-drawn map and my bike helmet, I set off on my first Annapolis bike commute. In my backpack I had a lock and my lunch. The weather was cool enough for me to wear a light fleece and to simply tuck my pants legs into my socks.

Riding my yellow bike down the hill to the creek, the rush of cold air against my face was refreshing and energizing. I felt almost five years old again, and the brisk exercise made a day spent largely in front of a computer monitor seem less onerous than usual.

As I turned onto the short Bates’ bike path, I saw in a large pool of water that had accumulated at the bottom of the playing fields a pair of mallard ducks, paddling cheerfully among the tussocks of marshy grass. This enormous puddle — several feet wide and five or six inches deep — proved to be the ducks’ spring home, and I saw them twice a day over the next couple of months. Until the puddle of water finally dried up they were as familiar and welcome a sight as the morning dog walkers, the pick-up soccer players, the little gaggle of children who sit and wave to passers-by from their tree-house refuge, the turtle that floats beneath the Spa Creek bridge, the boat-dwellers who keep an old bike locked up within rowing distance of their off-shore home and the two neighborhood cats (one tabby, one midnight black) who lounge on their front porches whenever the sun is out.

As spring warmed to summer, I shed my fleece jacket and carried a change of clothes into work. Meanwhile, I watched as gardens were planted, canoes uncovered and repainted for the season, renovations completed and nests built. The mallard couple’s pool shrank to the size of a bath tub. One evening I saw them — so used to the sight of me that they no longer bothered to quack their disapproval as I zipped past — paddling disconsolately around their reduced home. By the next morning they were gone.

Gardens showed tender green shoots, then, when the weather turned steamy, blossomed and bloomed giddily. A daily pleasure was passing a wire fence laden with a creamy pink and extraordinarily fragrant climbing rose. Riding past it, I would slow to a snail’s pace, breathe slow and deep and smile as I thought of my grandparents’ garden in England.

In the summer, I rolled up my pants, packed a clean shirt and covered my arms and the back of my neck with sunblock before leaving for work each day.

Now the weather has turned chill, again. It is autumn, and there are some evenings when winter is clearly in the air. It is now mud and rain that the around-Annapolis biker must contend with, rather than summer heat and dust. I have dug out my fleece jacket, a pair of gloves and a waterproof jacket for buzzing in and out of town. Working from home four days a week, I am now a bike visitor rather than a bike commuter.

Now, when I cycle into town, I dress in layers, putting on clothes that can be shed as I warm up or when I arrive at my destination. I do not invest heavily in expensive biking gear, but I appreciate the new fabrics that keep hard-working bodies warm and dry by blocking the wind and rain and wicking away perspiration.

The approach of winter can be a more challenging time for the bike commuter, but it certainly does not have to mean a return to commuting by car. Investing in mud-guards, winter cycling clothes and a headlight prepares the year-round cyclist for those darker and damper winter rides.

Meanwhile, what is more exhilarating than swooping downhill on your bike through great drifts of red and gold maple and oak leaves? Or more enjoyable than a morning ride in the still-warming sunshine, spinning past leaf-strewn lawns and seeing the blue of a clear autumn sky reflected in the Chesapeake Bay?

Try It Yourself
Summer or winter, riding a bike to work is a viable, even a wonderful option for many reasons; and, assuming you live within a few miles of your workplace you don’t have to take my word for it. Of course, you might have already thought through the to-bike-or-not-to-bike conundrum and decided that commuting by car or bus is best for you. Or perhaps you became a car commuter, adding to the congestion in our streets and the smog in our air, without realizing things could be different.

But they can be.

Commuting on your bicycle gives you daily exercise, increases your sense of community and brings a new perspective of your hometown. Additionally, you will be reducing traffic congestion and, therefore, air and water pollution, and saving yourself the expense of parking lots and the inconvenience of crowded streets.

These days, even when I do take to my car, the Annapolis I drive through is a city transformed by my experience as a bike commuter. Over the course of a single year, my new home has opened up, revealing its hidden, surprising places. It is now a city that stretches far beyond the charm of the historic district and the hustle of City Dock or the commercial grime of lower West Street. I am still a newcomer to this town, but thanks to my bicycle I am no longer a stranger.

For recreation: Annapolis Bike Club •

Advocacy for Maryland bicyclists and walkers: One Less Car: 410/360-6755 •

About the Author:
Born and raised in Great Britain, Rebecca Hurst has also lived in Spain, Russia and the Netherlands. In January, 2002, she graduated from Smith College with a degree in hstory and Russian civilization. She now lives in Annapolis, where her husband attends graduate school at St. Johns College. A writer and private tutor, she also conducts creative writing workshops for children and adults. Her 11-year-old daughter shares her passion for books, history and faraway places. Reach her at: [email protected].

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly