by Mimi Montgomery
I’ve never had the best luck with cars. I actually consider mysself a good driver, but I seem to be a walking, breathing manifestation of an automotive Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong will surely come barrelling toward me and usually in an extremely public setting. On my driving record we have: three failed driving tests; uprooted mailboxes; fender benders; countless keys locked behind closed car doors; an incident with a flying bug and an air conditioner (don’t ask); numerous expired registration tickets; several middle fingers administered by portly, aggressive older men who could clearly use a hug; confrontations with neighbor’s trash cans; dislodged door handles; and a brief run-in with a boulder that I still maintain was not my fault (it was a very ill-placed boulder).
Considering my colorful automotive past, I was a little intrigued when I took my car into the shop to be repaired for a week (yes, you don’t have to ask – another fender bender). What would it be like to commute without a car in a city like Raleigh? I’ve often thought that the parameters of inside-the-beltline Raleigh were just small enough to be pretty conducive to getting around car-less. Sure, you may not want to walk everywhere, but most places are within a decent bike-ride’s distance, and they’ve already got all the painted bike lanes and sidewalks set up for you. It’s clearly a city that wants to be bike-friendly, so why aren’t there more Raleighites who travel by two wheels or two feet?
It seems that most distances that people drive here are stretches that big-city dwellers would stoically walk or bike in a heartbeat. When I lived in Manhattan for a summer, I would walk 30 minutes to work every day in the kind of sun-beating heat that leaves you praying for a solar eclipse. I frequently showed up to work looking like I had just ended an eight-month sojourn in the Amazonian wilderness: I would stumble in everyday loaded down like an urban sherpa with my gym and work bags, sweating like a nervous pig in a steam room, and grimy head-to-toe with city sludge.
It was either that or take the subway, which during that time of year was basically like submerging one’s self into the subterranean molten lava of the Earth’s core. In fact, I would have rather licked the concrete sidewalk in Times Square than spoon the subway passenger standing in front of me in that overcrowded, overheated catacomb. But the thing is, I couldn’t really complain. I was hardly alone in this endeavor; everyone did it. No one thought twice about a half-hour’s walk in the middle of summer to wherever you were going.
Part of that has to do with practicality, yes – it’s extremely expensive to keep a car in a large city, much less grab a taxi everywhere. But I also think Manhattanites all know something that I didn’t fully realize until that summer: There’s a certain paradoxical stillness to commuting outdoors in a city, to finding yourself perfectly aware of and in contact with your surroundings. Traveling unencumbered from a car, I was forced to actively participate in the world around me, to see the Hare Krishnas chanting in Union Square, the Middle Eastern man selling bananas out of a cart on my corner, the woman who put fresh flowers out every morning in front of the local bodega. These were the talismans of my morning walks, my own personal New York souvenirs, the bits of life that ingrained themselves into my own existence – steadily, slowly – like water-worn grooves on a rock.
At the risk of sounding like Thoreau on a Transcendentalist ramble, I will confess this: I am an American consumer through-and-through. I have the carbon footprint of a diesel 18-wheeler – there’s nothing better than hopping into my fuel-eating Jeep SUV, turning on the air conditioner full blast, drinking out of a plastic water bottle I probably won’t recycle, and emitting some serious greenhouse gases as I easily cruise to my next destination and the ozone layer slowly withers away above me. Of course I feel a bit guilty about this, but it’s the kind of guilt I feel when I don’t floss for a few days or purposefully “forget” to set the trash cans out before the garbage trucks come – a certain apathetic cringe and knowledge that I could do better, while ultimately allowing sloth convenience to reign.
So, when my most recent car misadventure forced me to revert to my ancestral state as a weary bi-ped traveler, I got strangely excited. This would be kind of fun, I thought, my mind racing: There I’d be, biking to work on a beautiful spring day on a cute beach cruiser with an adorable little basket, wearing some sort of chic ensemble like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.
As you’ve probably already guessed, that’s not how it panned out. Since I don’t own a bike of my own, I borrowed my roommate’s, who is a small, lithe girl about four inches shorter and 20 pounds lighter than I am. When I hopped on her bike, it groaned like an old Grand Canyon pack donkey resigned to the fact that it had to take another obese person on a trail ride. The bike sagged to the ground and my knees were practically up to my ears as I took off, low-rider style, down my street.
I tried to practice some Zen mindfulness as I cruised down Brooks Avenue onto Hillsborough Street, doing my best to take in the spring morning and the sights around me. Look – there was a beautiful collection of spring flowers, and some pretty birds perched in that tree, and was that an early morning dew I felt softly misting my face? No – that was sweat. A massive quantity of sweat, spurting from my pores like a ruptured water pipe.
As I cruised by the N.C. State belltower, the cars beside me slowed down to get a good look at the girl in the highly-bike-inappropriate summer sandals wobbling on a bike clearly made for an undersized toddler. It became apparent that even though there are lanes specifically denoted for bike riders on Hillsborough, the majority of Raleigh drivers are still confused and frustrated by bike riders. Many cars veered too close into my lane or just lurked slowly behind me, unsure of what to do. Honestly, the way some people stared, you’d think I’d decided to ride a unicycle topless through morning traffic.
One of the good things about this commute, though, was that I gained some major street cred with the Raleigh hipsters. As I got closer to downtown, they began springing up like mushrooms in the grass after a rainstorm, easily identified by their rolled-up jeans, purposefully nerdy glasses, canvas NPR tote bags, sustainably sourced coffee cups, and Bernie 2016 campaign stickers. As I passed by on my eco-friendly steed, they gave me a cool, vaguely visible nod as if to say, “Right on, man. You’re one of us,” before whooshing off toward whichever local start-up or alternative coffee shop lay on the distant horizon. If they had seen me in my Jeep, they probably would have given me a withering glance and mentally condemned me for driving something not fueled by hemp-seed oil or recycled kombucha.
My embrace by the hipster subculture aside, by the time I got to work, my knees were aching like a geriatric and I looked like I had just emerged from a swamp, with enough perspiration covering me for three grown men combined. And I still had to bike home at the end of the day!
Was it worth it? Yes and no. Raleigh is definitely a bike-able city, although I wouldn’t necessarily call it bike-friendly. Sure, you can get around where you want to on a bike if need be, and there are a good number of painted bike lanes and sidewalks for your use, but I would say bike transportation is nowhere near an expected or accepted norm.
But maybe it should be – ridiculousness follows me like an ever-persistent shadow, sure, but there was a stretch of time on my commute where things seemed to fall into place (however briefly). As I rode past the North Carolina Democratic Party building, that old, white house sitting full of history and charm, and down along the various shops and businesses that line Hillsborough Street, I had that feeling of shimmering, full joy that comes from knowing you’re exactly where you need to be when you need to be. We live in a great city, full of life, vibrancy, new things, and kind, interesting people, and getting to see it from a new perspective reminded me of that all over again.
Outside of a car, you simply catch things you wouldn’t otherwise. For better or worse (for my own well-being and that of the city of Raleigh), I’m sure I have some more bike rides ahead of me. If you happen to pass me on the open road, give me a honk – I’ll be the grown adult with training wheels and a padded crash suit.