Jayne on her bike
Bicycle Commuting - Even for Fat Girls
In February 2001, I moved from Texas to Germany, and after a few days there, I decided I would not be a car owner in Germany -- the mass transit system was (and still is) excellent, and my job at the time was within walking or biking distance. I stuck with that for my entire eight years in Europe.

It was while I was living in Europe that, for the first time in my life, I used a bike, mass transit, or my own two feet as my primary transportation system. I was 35 when I moved to Germany, and was not in great shape (and I'm still not). I thought bike commuters were young hip males in perfect shape and who skate-boarded on the weekend. Advocates for bike commuting focus on young people, not overweight middle aged people like me. That may have been why it took me so long to find out how much I love getting around this way.

I have to note that I didn't live entirely car-free in Europe -- my boyfriend (eventual husband) had a car while we were in Germany (and a motorcycle). But we didn't live together for my first three years, and even when we did, he took the car every day to work. 

I'm not saying cars are entirely unnecessary. But cars sure aren't as necessary as I have always told myself they were.

Sadly, here in the USA, commuting by bicycle is SO much harder:

  • Buses give change
  • You don't have to hang your bike on metro trains or buses - meaning you can take any kind of bicycle on board, like a girly bike, and you don't have to have fantastic upper-body strength/be in great shape
  • You can go fast or slow, like a racer or slowly to enjoy the ride, or anything in between - meaning you don't have to wear spandex or bike clothes
  • Every place you need to go has plenty of bicycle parking
  • Because of the flexibility of ways people can bike, there's no need to think about things like butt or "cooter" lube. You can just RIDE and enjoy - no need to overthink things!
Portland, Oregon - Area
  • Buses never give change
  • You have to hang your bike on metro trains and in front of buses - meaning you CANNOT take just any kind of bicycle on board, like a girly bike, and you must have fantastic upper-body strength/be in great shape
  • You must ride fast, as though you are in a race, and wear spandex or bike clothes - if you aren't riding as though you are in the Tour de France, you are in the way!
  • Most places you need to go do NOT have bicycle parking at all
  • Because you have to ride like you are in the Tour de France, you have to think about things like butt or "cooter" lube, the "right" socks, the "right" underwear and on and on.
In short, in Oregon I feel like, to be a bike commuter, I have to be a young vegan hipster who is perfectly in shape and skateboards on the weekends and have the very best, top-of-the-line commuter bike - 50-something out-of-shape old-time-country-music-lovin' carnivores that ride girly bikes aren't welcomed.

What it was like in Germany

Getting around primarily by bike, bus, train and my own two feet in Germany meant freedom. That was the best part. Freedom . No car maintenance costs, fuel costs, finding and paying insurance, no finding a parking place. Biking and walking lowered my stress levels. In contrast to when I drove a car every day, riding a bike got my heart rate up for all the right reasons. I worked off stress, I met many more people than I would have otherwise, I discovered shops and sites I never would have discovered with a car, and it kept me from gaining even more weight than I did.

I also loved traveling by train: I loved zoning out, just listing to music and watching the scenery go by, including the long lines of cars at traffic lights. The downside of trains is that you have to be there on time, but the train doesn't always do the same; but it's much less of a headache than finding a parking place, something that absolutely makes my blood boil.

Silly Arguments Against Bicycle Commuting

What's stunning to me is people back in the USA who argue that their weather is much too harsh to walk or ride a bike. Hello, I lived this way in Germany . Do you have any idea what the weather is like here? And Germans bike or walk no matter what the weather. I've seen outdoor festivals take place in absolute downpours. I've seen old people happily biking on snowy roads. Europeans are a heartier, healthier people than we are in the USA -- they aren't afraid to get too hot or too cold.

Any arguments against wearing a helmet are dumb.

Legitimate Arguments Against Bicycle Commuting

In the USA, it feels like MOST car and truck drivers who don't understand that bikes have equal rights on the roads (though much more rare in Germany than in the USA). People often ask me if I'm scared to ride my motorcycle; I'm not nearly as scared as I am on my bike. I completely understand why people say they are too scared to bike commute, even just a few blocks.

Riding in the rain is AWFUL.

Having to bring business clothes with me rather than wear them, then change into them at work, is beyond annoying and hard to coordinate (many business clothes don't pack well).

I can jump in a car, with little prep, and drive somewhere. Car driving allows or spontaneity and changes in plans. It doesn't require hours of planning and preparation. Bicycle commuting doesn't allow for that.

Portland, Oregon: Over-rated for Bicycles & Mass Transit

The quality of mass transit and bicycle transportation in the greater Portland, Oregon metropolitan area has been a huge disappointment for me since moving here in 2009. Breathless reviews of TriMet and bicycling conditions were one of the reasons we moved here. I've realized none of the writers were people who actually use TriMet or are bike commuters themselves.

It's fascinating to hear Portlanders brag about TriMet, but start to stutter when I ask, "Do you yourself take it every day, or even every week?" I single Portland out because of how often their non-car infrastructure is lauded here and there, and because I currently live here, but the reality is that, compared to other countries, the state of mass transit and bike travel anywhere in the USA is shameful. Portland's trains and buses are reasonably priced, and they are clean and very comfortable. But after all these years of experiencing it, of often relying on it, I've found TriMet to be largely over-rated.

It takes a tremendous amount of planning in order to ride Portland mass transit -- unlike just jumping in your car and heading off to where you want to go. Frequent service buses are fantastic and surprisingly reliable - but if you have to transfer to another bus, expect to add 20, 30, even 60 minutes to your trip. And outside of rush hours in Portland, your fellow riders won't be people who are trying to be green; they will be people who have had their driver's license suspended (and are really angry about it), or have never had such a license, and they will often be far more disruptive during your ride than my dog would be. And that speaks volumes about the true attitude of most Portlandiers to mass transit.

What would make the alternatives-to-cars infrastructure better in Portland -- or anywhere else in the USA? What would make this scheme actually work, here in Portland or elsewhere?

What would happen if all these changes were employed? Rider numbers would sky-rocket. It would become economically feasible to offer more frequent service, and to increase service in the evenings, cutting down on the number of drunk drivers on the road. People would lose weight. There would be more space for car parking. 

None of the aforementioned suggestions above is impossible; they are being done in other countries, and have been done for many years. It's not happening in the USA only because of lack of will. In Germany, I considered myself a mass transit/bike commuting convert. I gushed about the freedom using mass transit and bike commuting gave me in Europe. But in the USA, I'm being driven back into a car.

Bike Advocacy Groups - EXPAND YOUR HORIZONS

For the most part, advocacy groups in the USA do a very poor job of promoting mass transit and bikes to the general public, even in Portland. And government agencies in the USA do a very poor job of making mass transit easy to use. For instance, bus stops in the USA rarely have any information other than what time a particular bus stops there. By contrast, in Germany, at most every bus stop in Bonn, there's a map to help you figure out your entire trip right from just that bus stop. I navigated all around Berlin without a transit map, because the signage was so great. I've used mass transit in Madrid, Barcelona, Geneva, Paris and Prague -- and I've always been thankful I wasn't driving in those cities!

I would love to see many more places in the USA adopt the mass transit and bike commuter practices of Europe, particularly those of Germany and the Netherlands. I want more people to get to experience this freedom and flexibility, help counter the many negative immediate and long-term effects of too many cars on the road, and help more people leave the slavery of oil dependency. Car drivers should embrace such campaigns, as they reduce the number of cars on the road and in the parking lots. Everybody wins.

How to Go Car-less/Car-free in the USA (or, at least, use a car less)

I'm very interested in promoting mass transit and other alternatives to cars in the USA - but to EVERYONE.

This link goes to the archived version of A Girly Girl's Guide to Bike Commuting. 


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