Left Hand Valley Courier - All Local, All The Time

Wooden Clogs and Bike Cogs: Obituary of a bike commuter

Series: Letters to the Editor | Story 10

February 26, 2020 | View PDF

In the sixth grade, my social studies teacher had our class do a report and presentation on a European country. My partner and I chose Denmark. I don't remember much about the report, which I'm sure was excellent or blatantly counterfactual, but I do remember very enthusiastically wearing wooden clogs during our presentation…naturally. I realized then that the Danes weren't afraid of doing, or in the case of footwear, wearing…something hard. Also, bikes. Apparently, the Danes love bikes. At the time, I considered myself a "biker." I had a super cool, yellow and blue-tired, chromoly-framed, BMX bike. Sometimes, if I was feeling ambitious, I'd ride the six miles to school, my knees hitting me in the chest as I pedaled down old country roads on my steel horse. It was bliss.

Today, as an adult, a simple Google Maps query reveals three options for my morning commute from Niwot to CU Boulder's East Campus- 15 minutes by car/motorcycle, 58 minutes by bike, and 1 hour, 15 minutes by bus. As a new father and full-time graduate student, my default decision is often an easy one. One only has to do the math.

Ten years ago, I decided to cram all my belongings into my Honda Civic and drive 1,800 miles from northern New York to Colorado. My goal was simple: move to Colorado and figure it out. I chose Boulder, because (at the time), it boasted the highest percentage of bicycle commuters in the United States at 12.3%, according to the American Community Survey. Despite strong efforts to improve bike safety and infrastructure, Boulder's bike commuting population has decreased over the past ten years. Have we become soft? Maybe. After all, Boulder is the birthplace of Crocs, which are the antithesis of wooden clogs. By comparison, Copenhagen recently reported that 62% of commuters do so via bike, up from 36% in 2012, according to the LA Times. It goes without saying that Boulder is not Copenhagen, and the United States is not Europe, but where's the disconnect?

When I arrived in Boulder, I happened upon a small parking lot adjacent to Folsom Field. It was here that my "figuring it out", began. I quickly realized that my car was serving no purpose other than being an incredibly uncomfortable place to sleep. Fortunately, I had two bikes on top of my car, which in short order, became my primary modes of transportation to and from my "house." This had been my intention since my departure from Northern New York, except there had been an apartment involved. Ultimately, my situation proved temporary, and lasted a little more than a week. Before I knew it, I was driving a forklift, dumping synthetic caffeine into a giant vat of powdered chocolate wearing a hazmat suit, and living with/working for my dad's college roommate, Marty, who he hadn’t spoken to in thirty years. Marty lived in Longmont and owned a business in Loveland. Unfortunately, my dream of being a bike commuter and living in Boulder seemed to be slipping away.

Fast forward two months. I had moved within the city limits of Boulder (this is when it was affordable) and sold my car (by choice), opting instead to rely primarily on biking, while occasionally using public transit. Having previously lived in Longmont and Lafayette, this is important. Biking in Boulder proper was often faster than any other form of transportation. Biking (or walking) everywhere, rain/snow/sleet/hail or shine (which there is a lot of), was/is cheap, fun, good exercise, and (sometimes) made me feel…kind of…cool. It was sixth grade all over again! One only has to roll their pant cuff up once (and leave it there) to know they have entered a truly exclusive club of badassery. Who cares if society/transit professionals would have otherwise classified me as a "captive rider," I was just doing what (to me, based on the circumstances of my life) made logical sense. For me, the right choice, both environmentally and economically, was the only choice. At the time, I was working at a brokerage firm in downtown Boulder, receiving what was advertised as, "NYC $$$ in Boulder…" not true. Yes, I was naïve. I would wake up every day (including Saturday) at 4 a.m., go about my morning routine, then bike 25 minutes to work (in a suit mind you), panting, sweating, sobering up, fighting the Chinook winds, crashing, swearing, plastering my pin stripes with a perfect vertical line of mud splatter, but always arriving with a sense of accomplishment, like the feeling a kid from rural New York got in the mid-90's, when he finally discovered the importance of dodging Bowser's Mecha Koopas…speaking for a friend. Or, maybe…like the Danes.

To some, bike culture, commuters or otherwise, can seem annoying. Whether it's the legion of lycra, the single speed hipsters, the Little Miss Pony loving kindergarteners, or your Grandma…they are the worst…to some people. Why? Because they woke up earlier? Because they ride too close to your oversized traffic lane? Because they seem happier? Because they make texting and driving harder? Because they maintain their weight by simply biking to school or work? In my opinion, none of these arguments have a leg to stand on. Biking is joy. Sure, sometimes it sucks. Sometimes it's raining, too cold, too hot, too sweaty, too slow. Ultimately though, it's joy.

So how do we get more people to bike? How do I get me to bike? For starters…making housing more affordable would be helpful. Choosing to bike or take the bus would mean a one and a half to two hour difference in my daily commute. Eventually, decisions about time become less about the individual and more about their family. It's simply not sustainable. One has to assume that the overwhelming majority of individuals who previously lived, worked, and maybe biked in Boulder, but were forced to find affordable housing elsewhere, say in Longmont, Lafayette, Broomfield, or Gunbarrel, no longer bike. Maybe they bought a car out of necessity. Maybe the wealthier and more exclusive we become as a community, the softer we become. I think so. Maybe we need more wooden clogs and less Crocs. Be like the Danes. Support bike safety and bike infrastructure. While you're at it, support affordable housing. Do it for Grandma.

Brian Chamberlin, Niwot


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