Sizing Up The Competition

Hanging out at the Copenhagenize Consulting office is making me think a lot about how you brand and market a product. The product we think about is bicycling and we’re mainly trying to compete with car driving. For the record, I’m not a car-hater. I’m really not. Vehicles are very useful and they’re essential for many professions. A carpenter, for example, would have a hard time transporting lumber, tools, and a table saw to a job site on a bicycle. (Although, according to Mikael, there are plenty of bicycling carpenters,electricians, and other tradesmen in Copenhagen and beyond.)

The vast beauty of the rural American landscape is often best (or most effortlessly) accessed while road tripping, preferably while blasting Tom Petty’s Free Fallin’ or some other equally quintessential American tune. Cars are an important part of our transportation system; I just happen to think they’re an oversold product in urban America. There are many cities like Basel, Switzerland and Dresden, Germany that have almost an equal split between walking, cycling, public transportation, and private vehicles. There are places like Copenhagen and Amsterdam where cycling is more popular than driving and then there’s Delhi, India where there are 48 officially recognized  modes of transportation (apparently different types of rickshaws constitute different modes).

The personal vehicle has a transportation mode monopoly in all but a few American cities. Why do Americans drive so much?  We could point at the urban planners and politicians who–under influenced by the car companies–allowed sprawling, one mode cities to be built in the first place. But, what about the consumers of transportation? Consumers have a say. We drive demand.

In general, it seems that American consumers are pretty happy–or at least complacent–about leading car-centric lifestyles. It takes years of convincing to get Americans to approving legislation to fund public transportation. We don’t get angry when our governors approve 3.6 billion dollar transportation budgets that don’t even mention pedestrians or bicycles. We allow our federal government to bail car companies out rather than letting market forces run their course. Americans don’t even like to get out of our cars to eat meals. We invented the drive-thru restaurant and 19 percent of all meals and snacks are consumed in the privacy of our cars.

Some people say that Americans love cars. Why do we love cars?  Are we sure we really love cars?

I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube videos of car commercials trying to figure it out. It seems like car commercials are effective at making us forget about reality. The commercials usually take place in remote, people-free places and motoring is portrayed as either an exciting, traffic-free adventure or a meditative, traffic-free relaxation session. Traffic-free is key. Sometimes the professional drivers behind the wheel make turns and go at speeds that would be incredibly dangerous–and illegal–for an average driver on an average road. I typed “car commercial + speed” into You Tube and this Dodge Challenger commercial was the first thing that came up, but there are hundreds of examples of what I’m talking about.  Watch this video and think about whether you’d want your teenage kid–or anyone you share the road with for that matter–driving like this.

Sure, this commercial takes place in a desert not on a road, but really–when was the last time you went driving in a desert? Personally, I run very few errands in the desert.

The marketing team that sat around a conference table thinking up that Dodge commercial probably wanted us to think about freedom. Freedom from responsibility. Freedom from speed limits, traffic laws, traffic, yielding to pedestrians at crosswalks, needing to fill up your gas tank while running late, driving around looking for parking while running late, paying for parking tickets, paying speeding tickets, getting your emissions tested, renewing your tabs, asking a friend to drive you to the impound lot, getting your oil changed, vacuuming pretzels crumbs out from between the seats, fishing out old fast food containers stuck under the seat, comparison shopping for a new car insurance plan, rotating your tires, replacing the windshield wipers that haven’t worked right in months, refilling the wiper fluid, finally taking the car to the mechanic because of that weird noise, and the list goes on… Owning a car is one huge, expensive set of responsibilities, but the Dodge marketing team is smart. They didn’t want us to think about any of that while we were considering car ownership. They wanted us to think about freedom.

The more car commercials I watched, the more I wondered about how they may impact people’s perceptions about what they’re entitled to do when they get behind the wheel of a car. For example, parking is always available in car commercials. In one commercial, a woman leaves a hair salon in the middle of a dense urban area and her Jeep is parked right in front of the salon. There are no other cars on the street so she doesn’t even have to inch out of the spot or wait for passing traffic, she just zooms off with the top down and her hair looks great. What car consumers seem to forget is that–if they live in an urban area–they will likely (or should) pay thousands of dollars each year to park that car in the places they want to drive it. Think about how much people pay per square foot for office or living space–why should it be any different for a car? Expecting free parking in 21st century cities is like expecting free rent from your landlord. More and more enlightened urban planners are acknowledging that free parking and minimum parking requirements for new developments “act like a fertility drug for cars.”

The car companies have done a brilliant job hiding the true cost of car ownership from consumers. According to the Dept. of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, 15 percent of household expenditures go towards car ownership costs.  Americans spend more annually on cars than on food.

The quality of driving in car commercials, as I noted before, is not all that safe in my opinion. Advertising clearly influences our behavior; that’s why the United States regulates how tobacco products are marketed.  We had fairly good evidence that cigarettes were killing people, so we decided Mad Men advertisers working for tobacco companies couldn’t have free reign on our minds anymore. Here’s something crazy that I’ve been thinking about.  We know, for certain, that cars and the people who drive them take thousands of people’s lives every year. Guess how many American’s died in traffic fatalities in 2009? 33,808. That number shocked me. In the late 90s and early 2000s that number was consistently above 40,000. The recession has resulted in less driving and hence fewer traffic fatalities, but there are still close to 700 Americans dying in or as a result of cars–every single week. The United States has more traffic fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants than any other developed country in the world. Our traffic fatality rate is almost exactly on par with countries like Cambodia, El Salvador, and Bangladesh.

All these deaths are just accidents though. Right? Well, no, all of these accidents–on some level–are the result of bad driving. In fact, the British Medical Journal recently announced that it was no longer going to use the word accident when referring to deaths that were caused by car drivers. They said that accidents are “often understood to be unpredictable” and thus unpreventable. In reality though, nearly all car-related deaths are very preventable. Car drivers routinely speed and drive while exhausted, not quite sober, or intoxicated. More and more car drivers are simply in a state of constant distraction dialing phone numbers, talking, texting, responding to e-mails, eating messy burritos, and changing the playlist. The human brain is incredibly bad at multitasking and driving, even though we think of it as second nature, is actually a pretty complex task for our brains. The more you casually engage in this complex, potentially fatal task–the more likely you are to die. Here’s a scary statistic from Tom Vanderbilt’s exquisitely researched book, Traffic:

If you drive an average of 15,500 miles per year, as many Americans do, there is a roughly 1 in 100 chance you’ll die in a fatal car crash over a lifetime of 50 years driving.

He got these numbers from the US DOT.  I looked up the data and crunched the numbers myself because I found these odds hard to believe at first. What’s really interesting–and not at all surprising–is that if you drive less you’re less likely to die in a car accident. An insurance research firm called Quality Planning Corporation did a study of one million drivers over an 8 month period and found that doctors and real estate agents have very high crash risks compared to other professionals. Why? Again, an excerpt from Traffic:

Exposure matters, which is seemingly why real estate agents, always driving from house to house, showed up high on the list. Doctors drive a lot, often in urban settings, often with a certain urgency, perhaps dispensing advice via cell phone.

The firm found that pilots have a very low car crash risk because they are in the air flying so much of the time. Part of the reason the United States has such a high traffic fatality rate per 100,000 people compared to other developed countries is because we drive a lot more than people in most other countries. Vanderbilt also explains that Americans who live in the exurbs (“extra-urban” areas beyond the suburbs) typically have a higher risk of death than people who live in “dangerous” urban cores. Why? Exurb residents spend a lot more time driving than urban dwellers. Exposure matters.

I also became curious while watching all these car commercials about what percentage of commercials portray drivers following all traffic laws.  For example, I’m quite certain that it’s illegal to try and kill pedestrians with your car.  Even if the pedestrians are “the enemy.”

Cars are dangerous. They kill the people who drive them and they kill cyclists and pedestrians on the roads. Cars are also very expensive to own. I didn’t even get into all the negative externalities cars have on our environment, waistline, and international politics.  Yet, despite all this, Americans love cars.

Or do we?

Either way, the marketing departments at car companies should be applauded. They’ve done an amazing job selling their product to American consumers.

However, as a true freedom-loving American, my kudos are going to the Miller High Life marketing department.


How Many Cargo Bikes Are There in Copenhagen?


According to the 2010 Copenhagen Bicycle Account, 1 in 6 families with children own a cargo bike and 25 percent of families with two or more children own cargo bikes.

Also, 100% of cellists in Copenhagen own a cargo bike.

OK, I made the cellist statistic up.

How The Dutch Saved Their Cycling Infrastructure

I interviewed Marc van Woudenberg while I was in Amsterdam and was happy to find this video that he directed and narrated. It does a really good job portraying what he explained to me in July. The Dutch saw their cities becoming more and more car-centric in the middle of the 20th century–and they didn’t like what they saw. The Dutch people made it clear to politicians that serious investments should be made in cycle infrastructure and that cars and car infrastructure shouldn’t dominate cities.

They got what they asked for! It’s a good reminder that if we want things to change, we need to communicate with our politicians about the vision of change we have.  


p.s.  Here are all the e-mail addresses of the Seattle City Council.

Godt NytÅr

Godt NytÅr means Happy New Year in Danish.  Apparently, it sounds like I’m saying “Got Noodle” when I try to wish people a Happy New Year in Danish.

I arrived in Copenhagen on December 30th at 7:30 AM.  It was pitch black outside and only by about 8:30 AM did the sun begin to rise. The sun starts to set at about 3:45 PM.  It’s dark a lot.

As soon as I got off the Metro from the airport I knew I was back in a real utility cycling culture.  (I really don’t like the label “utility cycling culture,” but writing “A Place Where People Ride Bikes Like Americans Drive Cars” takes too long.)

There are bike ramps on the stairs to the Metro station platform and entire Metro cars are dedicated to bikes. I got up the station stairs and–boom–there were about 1,000 bikes parked at the Metro bike parking station. I walked about 20 minutes to the apartment I’m staying at and watched the bundled up morning commuters fill the cycle tracks. The sun was still coming up at that point and all the little cafes had candles lit at every table–seemingly an effort to make things feel a little cheerier despite the 17 hours of darkness.

The bridge that I’m living next to  has a bike counter on it and as of December 30th more than 4 million cyclists had crossed that bridge in 2011. This is an impressive figure because there are only about 1.1 million people in the entire Copenhagen urban area–and this is just one of many bridges.

I left Bertha at home and picked up a used bike just a few hours after I arrived. I’m living in the Nørrebrogade neighborhood which the Copenhagen tourist map calls the “multi-ethic neighborhood.” I like it. It seems to be comprised of East African, Middle Eastern, and Indian immigrants–and plenty of ethnic Danes. I went to a bike shop about a block from my apartment and tried out a few different bikes. The shop owner asked me where I was from and I told him.  I asked him where he was from and he said Iraq.

He didn’t seem to have any problem with me being an American, but for some reason I felt compelled to tell him that I opposed the war. (By, “opposed the war,” I mean I bought an anti-war sticker and put it on a notebook during my first year of college.) “We are partners!” he laughed. “You need our oil!” He gave me a discount on the bike and promised me I could sell it back to him when I left Copenhagen. He was really nice.

I’m living with a 25-year old theater student named Mohammed. He has a Euro mohawk and looks like he could be on the cover of GQ. He’s currently reading Brad Pitt’s Rise to Stardom and I have already come home once while he was–quite passionately–practicing his lines for his next play.

Mohammed and I made New Year’s dinner together and then got ready to go out. I put on jeans, a “going out” shirt, and mascara. He took one look at me and then explained nicely that girls really dress up in Copenhagen. “So, I should change?” I asked.  “Yes,” he said.  I put a dress on and then waited 45 minutes while Mohammed tried on every possible dress shirt-blazer combination he could. Finally, we got on our bikes and headed to the party. While we were biking I noticed that men we’re wearing tuxedos and women had on skimpy black dresses–I was glad I changed.

The party consisted of several of Mohammed’s friends who are girls.  We all drank cava and talked about our feelings for a little while.  Then we danced to ABBA. Right before midnight we turned the TV on and watched Dinner for One. It’s a short comedy sketch–with kind of a dirty ending–that is watched by millions of people across Scandinavia and some of Germany on New Year’s Eve right before midnight. It kills time while you’re waiting for the countdown I guess. It’s kind of funny, especially if you’ve had some cava.

Right before midnight we all took our shoes off, stood on the bed, counted down to midnight, and then jumped off the bed into the New Year.

Then, we got on our bikes and made a mad dash to the rich neighborhoods where all the good fireworks are. Citizens put on the fireworks shows in Copenhagen; it’s a little scary, actually.  We ended up watching fireworks from the bridge near our apartment–there was a DJ playing music on the bridge and the road was closed off to traffic. I’ve never seen so many people dancing in my life–not to mention that people had started fires on the bridge to stay warm and they were lighting fireworks off from the bridge. It would have been a great location for a low budget filmmaker to do a WWII battle scene.

Mohammed headed off at around 3 AM for another party and I headed home because 3 AM seemed really late. Just 3 hours into the New Year almost 1,000 people had already biked across the Dronning Louise Bridge.

It was an exciting start to 2012!

Today was my first day at Copenhagenize and I learned about all the current projects they’re working on. They’re staying busy working on everything from commercial cargo bike demonstration projects in cities throughout the EU to research about effective cycling promotion funded by the Danish Transportation Department. My first project is going to involve analyzing film footage from an intersection in Copenhagen to understand how cyclist’s behavior changes depending on infrastructure design. Essentially, the hypothesis is that bad infrastructure makes bad cyclists (i.e., cyclists don’t break laws if the road infrastructure is designed with cyclists in mind).  We’ll see what I find.

Some pictures…

Bike ramp at Metro station.

Some morning commuters.

Testing out my new bike.

Over 4 million bike trips across this bridge in 2011. Also, that is my bike.

The new farmer's market in CPH. I've seen quite a few outdoor fire pits.

Taxis have bike racks.

Mohammed in the apartment.

New Year's

More New Year's

915 trips by bike across this bridge during the first 3 hours of 2012!

Cheers to 2012! And Seattle!

It was hard for me to write about Seattle in Seattle. No one in Seattle needs me to describe Seattle to them, I told myself. I also found that writing about Seattle was incredibly complicated. I tried a few times, but I didn’t know where I was going with the writing. Seattle is a city polluted by my memories and associations; I couldn’t take it in objectively. I thought I’d have a fresh perspective, but I quickly felt like I’d never left. I’d get on my bike and pretend I was a traveler visiting Seattle, like I was experiencing it for the first time, but my mind kept skipping to the past or the future.


I’d be biking down Dexter, looking at the guys in Spandex, Arc’teryx jackets, soft shell booties, reflective vests, a million lights, shiny helmets, and bright panniers—and I’d start thinking about how much all that gear cost each of them. 1,000 bucks? Maybe more? Where are these guys biking to? Everett? Canada? The gear was the first thing I noticed when I got home. It was actually remarkably dry and mild during the two months I was home. There were a few times when the rain really started coming down while I was riding, but it was less than 5 instances out of the 60 days I was home. It doesn’t usually rain in Seattle, it sprinkles—and simple, inexpensive rain jackets can handle sprinkles just fine.

I kept wearing normal clothes while cycling in Seattle partially to make a statement to the Dexter Spandex Guys, but mostly because it’s so much easier to wear one outfit for the whole day. I wasn’t the only woman out cycling the streets of Seattle wearing leather boots with heals, skirts and tights, nice shirts, and wool pea coats. I was happily surprised to see a few other women (and men) cycling sans bike gear.

A few weeks ago a female co-worker decided to try wearing normal clothes on her ride to downtown from Fremont and she was almost euphoric about how much it simplified biking. I think she also found it satisfying to realize that she was doing the exact same thing the people with complicated bike gear were doing—getting to work. This co-worker hadn’t been biking recently because she doesn’t own winter cycling gear, proving just how powerful the Culture of Gear is as a barrier to increased cycling rates in Seattle.

I don’t have anything against the Dexter Spandex Guys—really, I love them for cycling and together we’re hopefully making the Seattle roads a little safer. The problem I have with the Spandex Guys is that they make biking look so extreme and expensive. “Why can’t riding a bike be as easy as riding a bike?” asked Jim Davis hypothetically when I interviewed him in London. Sometimes, I would like to ask the Dexter Spandex Guys this same question.


When I bike on Dexter I also look at and wonder about the Space Needle. Will the Space Needle ever start falling apart? Will it need to be taken down? Will there be a contentious political debate about what to do with the ailing Space Needle? Will one camp be in favor of a total rehabilitation while the other camp favors total demolition?

Sometimes when I’m biking home looking at the Space Needle I’m suddenly 4 or 5 years old again in the backseat of the family station wagon.  We’re hurtling south down I-5, it’s night, my older brother Matt and I are sleepy, and we’re staring out the window at Lake Union and the Space Needle in the distance. Matt turns his head to me and says nonchalantly, “Did you know babies are born on top of the Space Needle?”

Of course I had no idea babies were born up there, so he goes on to explain that every time the red light on top of the needle blinks—a baby is born! This seemed believable to me at the time and I guess my parents were talking about something else in the front seat (or didn’t want to get into a discussion about the origins of babies that night) because I went on believing that the Space Needle was a baby factory for quite some time. Long enough that at the age of 27 I still think about babies when that red light blinks.


Seattle is my home and I think this makes my relationship with Seattle complicated in a number of ways. I have strange childhood memories about the Space Needle, for one. Also, sometimes I can almost physically feel the passage of time when I bike past a restaurant I went to for a friend’s 16th birthday. I remember the way things used to be and I feel nostalgic for them. I forget why Seattle is beautiful to visitors. I’m quick to find it’s flaws and feel disappointed by them.  I didn’t do that in the other cities.  I was always looking for the best in the other cities.

No city is perfect–especially when that city is your home. The Parisians I met at the guest house in Kyoto complained about how dreary Paris is. And just last night I met a girl in Copenhagen who told me how much she wanted to move to Seattle. “Copenhagen is so small! It’s so boring here!”

I’ve left Seattle yet again and for the next six weeks I’m interning at a Danish consulting firm called, Copenhagenize Consulting. The firm is well-known for their behavior-change and marketing services related to active transportation. They also do bike master plans, analysis of health/economic/environmental outcomes related to increased cycling rates, and infrastructure design. It’s exciting to be back in Denmark, surrounded by newness, and I’m eager to temporarily join the ranks of Copenhagenize Consulting at 9:30 AM tomorrow. But, I’ve decided that my resolution for 2012 is to stay committed to Seattle. It’s kind of a half-baked resolution at this point, but I guess I just want to express my belief that Seattle is a city worth improving and investing in—and living in.

I’m glad it’s my home, even if I’m hard on it sometimes.

So, the first blog post of the year is dedicated to the best sides of Seattle (and the surrounding areas).

What I like to call "Little Paris" on 1st Ave.

When the Fremont Bridge goes up, bikers get to check out the big, fancy boats that go by.

Christmas Eve at Golden Gardens. We took our shoes off and played frisbee in the sand.

The view of the Olympics from Golden Gardens.

A Cyclocross race at Lower Woodland Park.

Cape Flattery. "You look so nice today!"

The Rising Sun on 65th = Most bike-friendly grocery shopping experience in Seattle

A dog in a bike basket near Green Lake.

Bertha getting her new basket (a milk crate) put on at the Dutch Bike Shop.

My mom with her new Japanese bike umbrella.

Neah Bay.

Happy New Year to all! 2011 was a fantastic year; thanks for following the blog. I’ll be doing more regular updates now that I’m back on the road again finishing up my fellowship.

“You’re safer on the bicycle than on the sofa!”

I recently had lunch with my friend Mike Rimoin who works at Commute Seattle and I told him about this cool public health campaign that I learned about in Copenhagen. He asked me to e-mail him a link to the image, but I decided all my dear readers might enjoy seeing this brilliant marketing piece designed by the Copenhagen Public Health Department.

 Here’s a translation thanks to Copenhagenize:

“You won’t believe it…You’re safer on the bicycle than on the sofa!”

“Lack of daily exercise is harmful to your health, while physical activity keeps your body healthy. Cycling extends your life – daily exercise for a minimum 30 minutes extends your lifespan by up to five years.”

Makes sense, right? The human body is designed to do physical work and up until recently most humans filled their days with chores that were similar to those I had at Sheardrum Farm—like chopping wood, bailing hay, building fences, harvesting vegetables, tiling floors, and running away from the angry flock of male geese that were constantly trying to bite me.

Those are chores I likely won’t do, or at least won’t need to do, for a long time. I hope to volunteer on a farm again at some point, but the marketable skills I have—you know, the skills that result in a paycheck and health care benefits—those are nearly all executed by tapping my fingers across a keyboard, going to meetings, and talking on the phone. I’m an “information worker” and you probably are too. 38 percent of Americans worked on farms at the beginning of the 20th century, but by the year 2000 that figure had dropped to 3 percent. Employment in production industries—where jobs involve physical labor—like construction, forestry, and manufacturing also dropped from 31 percent to 19 percent of the workforce over the course of the 20th century.1 The American labor force is now dominated by professional, technical, and service workers. This shift towards sedentary occupations and living is happening all over the world. The World Health Organization reports that, “60 to 85 percent of people in the world—from both developed and developing countries—lead sedentary lifestyles.”  We’re living in the Information Age and the Information Age is happening around conference tables, at desks, and in front of computers.

How bad could all this sitting around really be? Could sedentary living become the salient public health crisis of the Information Age?  The World Health Organization thinks so: “Sedentary living is one of the more serious yet insufficiently addressed public health problems of our time. Sedentary lifestyles increase all causes of mortality, double the risk of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and obesity, and increase the risks of colon cancer, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, lipid disorders, depression and anxiety.” 2 So, too much sitting around (sedentary living) is in fact wreaking havoc on our health, but how much movement do people need to incorporate into their daily routine to be healthier?

While I was in Denmark I interviewed Lars Bo Anderson, an exercise epidemiologist at the University of Southern Denmark, to understand the health benefits of switching from passive forms of transportation to active forms of transportation. Professor Anderson did a longitudinal study of almost 15,000 cycling Danes and gathered information about the amount of time they spent pedaling each week. He found that among this cohort the relative risk of death was lower than one—meaning that because all the subjects cycled for some amount of time each week they were all reducing their risk of death to some degree.  Here’s an excerpt from a paper he wrote about the study:

After adjustment for age, sex, BMI, smoking, educational level, systolic blood pressure, cholesterol and other physical activity than cycling, relative risk of death was 0.70 among those who spent the most time cycling (>7 hour per week) and 0.78 for those with the shortest distance (<3 hour per week).

Essentially, his research shows that just a few hours of commuter cycling per week can make you live longer—and the more time you spend pedaling the longer you’re likely to live. Professor Anderson has also quantified how decreasing rates of cycling in Denmark have impacted mortality. Cycling in Copenhagen is on the rise, but in many of the smaller Danish towns the car has begun to dominate the roads. Over the last 30 years, 15 percent of the total population has stopped cycling and Professor Anderson’s analysis concludes that this behavior change has increased the number of deaths by 4.8 percent or 2,880 deaths/year in Denmark.

Health isn’t all about the number of years we live. Good health and fitness improve our quality of life and we all want our children to have the best quality of life we can provide for them. Professor Anderson’s research shows that commuter cycling can greatly benefit the health and fitness of children. A study of 529 9-year-old children and 390 15-year-old adolescents showed that the Danish students who cycled to school—rather than using passive transport—had an 8 percent higher cardiorespiratory fitness level.  The commuting behaviors of the 9-year-olds were tracked for six years and Professor Anderson and his team were able to document how commuting habits impacted health over time. 

Among the children who at age 9 were passive travelers, some of them changed to cycling, and in the follow-up analysis these children had 9% higher fitness than their peers who stayed passive travelers. Children who stopped cycling decreased similarly. This observation could indicate that the higher fitness was not just a selection bias where the fittest chose commuter cycling, but that the difference in fitness was caused by the traveling mode.

The commute to school is a fitness (and adventure) opportunity!  An opportunity most American kids are missing out on because their parents drive them to school. The US Center for Disease Control reports that childhood obesity has tripled in the past 30 years (20 percent of American children are currently obese). The rise in childhood obesity seems to correlate somewhat strikingly with the rise in the number of children being driven to school.  The American Safe Routes to School Partnership reports that 41 percent of children who live less than one mile from their school arrive and depart each day in an automobile. 

Many of us have become Information Age laborers—we spend the day writing reports, responding to e-mails, analyzing data, designing software programs, and talking to customers on the phone. We’ve got a lot to be optimistic about as we move deeper into the Information Age, but we can’t forget that the Information Age is vastly changing the way we use (or don’t use) our bodies. Our bodies are designed to move, they must move. Personal survival and prosperity have been inherently linked to physical exertion for most of human history.  Only very recently has putting food on the table been possible by working at a desk for 40-60 hours a week. Unless we truly embed exercise into our daily routine, most information workers will spend several days a week or more being sedentary. Before I started bike commuting I would sometimes go weeks without exercising. I’m a former college athlete and love playing sports, but after starting a demanding consulting job shortly after college I sometimes just couldn’t find the time for fitness. There were weeks when there were just too many work and social commitments. When I’d go through these spells of inactivity I’d begin to feel lethargic, anxious, and unhealthy—and I’d have to force myself out on a run or to the gym. Now I don’t have to force myself to do anything. I just get on my bike when I need to go somewhere (and much of the time biking is actually faster than taking the bus or driving + looking for parking). I don’t have any quantitative medical evidence to prove this, but I do feel like daily bike commuting has really improved my fitness and overall health. During the first year I started bike commuting I lost about six or seven pounds. I don’t think anyone else really noticed it, but over the course of the year I’d step on a scale occasionally and be happily surprised. I hadn’t set out to lose weight, it just happened.  My body seemed to really respond to daily and moderate exercise in a way that no amount of “weekend warrior” activities could compete with.

It’s good that we don’t have to spend our days toiling on a farm in order to have enough food to eat.  We’ve arrived at a place in history where technological progress has allowed many of us to devote our energy to mental pursuits like science, business, art, law, medicine, public policy, and blogging about biking. These mental pursuits are exciting, challenging, and at times all-consuming, but we have to remember that we simply weren’t meant to be sedentary creatures. In the words of one of my favorite readers, Ric Cochrane, “we have to make a commitment to returning the human race to an active, working, sweating way of life.” How do we do that?  We make investments. We invest in bike infrastructure and robust bike share programs like New York City is doing so that active transportation and recreation is an affordable option for millions residents who would otherwise be sedentary. We invest in public health. Marc van Woudenberg in Amsterdam compared bicycle infrastructure to water treatment facilities. Water treatment facilities, in most parts of the developed world, are a public expense that everyone (regardless of their politics) agrees is a worthwhile, necessary investment of tax dollars.  We all know that dirty water makes people sick and the Dutch know that if their cycle infrastructure suddenly disappeared it would take a serious toll on their public health.

Many people are so quick to assume that cycling is dangerous without considering the fact that heart disease is the number one killer of Americans. Lack of exercise is one of the primary causes of heart disease. The Copenhagen Public Health Department said it perfectly: “You won’t believe it…you’re safer on the bicycle than on the sofa!”



The “First- and Last-Mile Problem” Solved at Kasai Station

I first read about the world’s largest automated bike parking facility located just outside of Tokyo’s Kasai Station about a year and a half ago on the Cascade Bicycle Club’s blog. I read the blog post shortly after I’d started commuting by bicycle and, while I was impressed by the mechanics of the futuristic system, I was more impressed by the number of bicycles the facility could accommodate. Each day over 9,000 Tokyo residents park their bicycles at Kasai station. 9,000! The station is located in a neighborhood about 10 miles from the Tokyo city center  and it’s become a major bike park-and-ride hub for commuters.

I was pretty excited to go explore Kasai Station, but I’ll be honest, there really isn’t that much to see. The bikes, after all, are parked underground.

Here’s what I did see. There are 50 small kiosks in an underground garage just outside of the train station where people slide a membership card through a scanner, load their bikes on a platform, and then watch their bike get sucked into the kiosk.

A mechanical lift then lowers the bike into an underground tower and deposits the bike in a space on a large vertical bike rack. I could just barely look down through the windows of the kiosk to see where the bikes are stored below—and the pictures I took are terrible—but this image does a good job of showing the layout of the underground portion of the facility.

People who were retrieving their bikes just slid their membership card through the scanner again and then their bike would come out of the lift approximately 23 seconds later. It costs 100 yen ($1.25 USD) per day or 18,000 yen ($23 USD) for a monthly pass.

There’s also a privately-run bike hire program at Kasai Station. The company, called Edogawa Eco Earth, has several locations near Tokyo Metro stops that are on the periphery of the city where the density of Metro stations is lower.

Having bikes for hire at these more “suburban” Tokyo Metro stations can solve several logistical challenges that would otherwise make car-free living slightly burdensome. For example, pretend you live on the other side of Tokyo and took the Metro to Kasai Station so you could have dinner at a friend’s apartment located about 1.5 miles from the station.  You’d have a few options for how you could get from the train station to your friend’s place. You could walk the 1.5 miles (which would take about 25 minutes), take an expensive Tokyo taxi for about 800 yen ($10 USD) one-way, or rent a bicycle for the evening for 100 yen ($1.25 USD). Renting the bicycle is by far the most attractive option in my mind when considering time, cost, and logistics.

Getting commuters to nearby transit centers without the use of a car is often called the “first- and last-mile problem.” Bikes are an obvious solution to the first- and last-mile problem, but commuters need to know that there will be safe and ample bike parking at transit centers before they’re going to start riding their bikes. Providing rental bikes at transit centers is also a great way to extend the range of a car-free commuter.

There were two other things I really like about the Kasai Station bike parking facility.

There are bike escalators.  You climb the stairs while holding the handle bars of your bike and the escalator does the hard work.

…and there is a really good bike pump.

The Umbrella and the Helmet

I took the train to Hiroshima. I’m not sure why, really. There are so many other places in Japan that seemed more appealing. The guide books showed pictures of the turquoise blue waters of the Okenawa islands and the foggy peaks of the Hida mountains—but something drew me to Hiroshima. Perhaps it was just American guilt. I wouldn’t be the first. “Many, many Americans go to Hiroshima,” my friend Naoko had told me a few days before when I had been in Tokyo.

I went to the Kyoto train station to buy the ticket to Hiroshima and realized that it was going to be almost $200 on the bullet train. It seemed expensive, but I didn’t care. I needed to get out of Kyoto. Kyoto had drawn me in.  Exploring Kyoto by bicycle was like having a conversation with the person you’re falling in love with. The intonation of their voice has a command over you. You listen with vigor. Time passes and you don’t notice.

Dreamy, sunny days passed too quickly in Kyoto. Every detail of the city seemed worthy of observation and reflection. I wasn’t forcing the city to show me its beauty though. I went to a few temples and gardens, but mainly I just biked. At the end of the day, I’d sometimes discover that I’d inadvertently visited a few of the “must-do” tourist destinations. I arrived, unknowingly, at the famous Nishiki Market because I had been in search of something interesting to sate my hunger, not because I felt compelled to check it off the list. I walked my bike past the stalls of pickled vegetables, dried fish, and mochi balls and I felt like I’d discovered the market. Maybe that was what travel used to feel like before the Lonely Planet, Birnbaum’s, and Trip Advisor told us what to do.

The temples were beautiful, but I liked watching life go by in Kyoto more. I stopped behind a mamachari at a traffic light and saw two small, delicate, bare feet poking out from the footholds of a sturdy plastic child seat. The light turned green and as I biked past I looked into the child seat and saw a fat baby sleeping soundly, hidden from the sun by a cotton bonnet. Grocery stores were brimming with seniors during the middle of the day. Outside of the store they’d stoop over their bikes and load their groceries into wide front baskets with their knotted hands, taking care not to damage soft produce or bouquets of flowers. Then they’d glide off, barely pedaling, moving through the universe slowly, yet effortlessly it seemed. (The electric assist batteries on many of their bikes may have contributed to this effortless look.) I spent hours along the Kamo River reading and watching the riverside bike path fill with commuters as afternoon eased into evening.

I actually didn’t like Kyoto when I first arrived, but my negative first impression was largely the result of a trying travel day. The Japan Railway Company has these cumbersome rules about bikes. There is no extra fee for bringing a bike on a train, but bikes must be in a case or plastic wrapped. These rules, I learned from Professor Hiroshi, were basically born out of fears that unsuspecting passengers might brush up against a dirty bike chain while boarding the train and stain their pant leg or dress with black grease. There is one train line in the Shimanami-Kaido region where the rule has been waived in order to promote bike tourism, however, in every other part of the country the rule is strictly enforced. So, my train trip from Tokyo to Kyoto began with a visit to a large department store near the train station where I tried to find plastic wrap or large plastic garbage bags. The department store had five levels, but unlike an American store, the aisles were incredibly narrow and the thousands of different products labeled with Japanese characters seemed to be towering over me and all around me. I found the garbage can section of the store, but couldn’t find any plastic garbage bags. I wandered up and down the aisles and from level to level—the number of household products and accessories was overwhelming. The high-pitched Japanese pop playing throughout the department store began to make me feel anxious and my frustration compounded as the minutes ticked by. Japan doesn’t cater to English-speakers; I had temporarily become illiterate and unable to communicate my questions and needs. I took a deep breath and began to systematically scrutinize anything that looked like a plastic garbage bag. Eventually, I found them tucked on the bottom shelf of the kitchen supplies section.  The roll of tape I needed was easier to locate, but the entire shopping experience left me feeling incompetent. It was supposed to be quick stop and I had spent almost 20 minutes zig-zagging through the store.

Shortly after leaving the department store I found myself in front of Tokyo Station, one of the busiest train stations in the world, where I took the wheels off my bike, put them into a garbage bag, and then taped multiple garbage bags around my frame, seat, and handle bars.  Thousands of people hustled by me during those 15 or 20 minutes of awkward disassembling, wrapping, taping, and repacking, but I felt invisible. Everyone else seemed deeply engaged in the Friday afternoon rush, as if getting on their train would be their salvation. Everyone else seemed to be part of a massive, tightly-packed school of fish that sliced quickly and knowingly through the train station. I was different. I was disoriented and floating alone—harnessed to a bike covered in white plastic garbage bags and bands of tan packing tape.

I limped through the train station, crippled by the weight and unwieldiness of my amputated bicycle. The shoulder straps I attached to my panniers dug into my neck, the fork of my bike gouged my shin a few times, and my wheels—which I’d looped through one of my shoulder straps—shifted unpredictably with each step I took. When I got to the bullet train ticket gate I put everything down. I was tired and unsure of how I was going to maneuver through the narrow gates with my wide load. A young and slightly overweight Japan Railway employee in a navy blue suit with gold buttons and cuff links appeared. He spoke in Japanese at first and then laughed nervously when he realized I didn’t understand what he was saying. Finally he sputtered out a few words of English indicating that he was going to put my bike on the train for me. He gracefully marched away with perfect posture, holding the frame a few inches from his body. His uniform, buffed dress shoes, and seriousness seemed in disaccord with my strangely clad bicycle. Tape was coming undone in places and a plastic bag hung off the back of my bike, dragging along the floor as he walked. I almost started laughing, but instead I picked my things up and hurried after him and my bike. “Arigatou, arigatou,” I thanked him after he wedged my bike into a little slot at the back of a train car. The few Japanese words I know seem to exit my mouth with a Spanish accent.

The interior of the bullet train looked like an unusually wide airplane cabin. It was spotless and all the other passengers looked so polished with ironed shirts, firm leather briefcases, and expensive watches. I felt underdressed and I seemed to be the only person that wasn’t contemplating the screen of some type of electronic device. I thought about how possessions can complicate our lives and even make us unhappy. I’d been living happily for months with just four panniers worth of belongings. I probably could have made it with even less. There’s so little that we really need.

It was downpouring when I arrived in Kyoto that evening. I ripped the tape and plastic bags off my bike and put the wheels back on outside of the train station. Hundreds of commuters with umbrellas were scurrying urgently in and out of the train station. Everyone seemed eager for something—to change out of their suits or heels, to see the kids, to kiss their lover, to get drunk, or maybe to just zone out in front of a TV. I attached my panniers to my bike and put my rain jacket on. The rain wasn’t going to stop and I accepted that I was going to get drenched. I took a look at the map I had of Kyoto, but it meant nothing just yet because I didn’t know east from west or what the name of the street was that I faced. I didn’t feel like asking anyone for directions and didn’t really care if I got lost. I pushed off the ground, out from under the shelter of the train station entrance, and then fat drops of rain started pelting me. I eventually arrived at the guesthouse I was staying at and hung my soaked clothes up to dry while I settled into the room. I was cold so I got in bed and closed my eyes, but my stomach kept reminding me that I skipped lunch and I knew I need to get something to eat.

It had stopped raining, but I could hear rainwater dripping off of roofs into the puddles that had formed along the dark side street I walked down. The air in Kyoto smelled different than Tokyo. In the morning I would see the deep green mountains surrounding the city—the fir trees in front of the Nanzenji Temple, the cherry trees at the Imperial Palace, and the bamboo groves to the north—but on that first night I could just faintly smell all that vegetation. I walk to a commercial street and find a little bar that’s packed. The windows are steamy and the people inside seemed buzzed, intoxicated by booze and the freedom that Friday afternoon brings. I’m drawn in and sit at a counter facing into the kitchen. I drink a beer. The cold liquid slides down my throat in this really satisfying way and I can feel the alcohol settling into my empty stomach. My shoulders relax and the shuffle of my thoughts slows down. I allow myself to be completely mesmerized by the staff yelling orders back and forth, the sous chef’s furious chopping of vegetables, and the interactions of other people in this bustling bar. There’s so much energy at some tables—people are telling animated stories, flirting, teasing, bragging, and whispering secrets in each other’s ears. My food comes, and it tastes alright, but the scene is amazingly satisfying. I get back to the guesthouse and it starts raining again outside. The rain drums the metal eaves outside my window. That sounds makes me feel something, but I can’t quite find the word. Then I realize there is no English word for how I’m feeling. I feel safe, and warm, and cozy, but that’s not quite it. I feel hygge. My Danish friends told me that families and individuals create and cultivate their own concept of what hygge means to them and I know for sure at that moment that I feel hygge.

Kyoto was my last week of Aloneness. I feared solo travel intensely before I left for this trip, but the freedom of being alone is what I’m going to miss the most. I don’t think I even understood what freedom was before this trip. When I started my trip five months ago in Denmark I tread softly at first.  Suddenly I didn’t have a calendar telling me I had meetings, or friends calling, or family dinners, or soccer games, or even a boyfriend sending me e-mails. Everything in my life had changed so dramatically, so quickly. It was as if the laws of gravity had been altered. The people, organizations, routines, obligations, and expectations that had kept me grounded and made me me had vanished. I decided that first week in June that I wanted to and needed to understand Aloneness. I avoided socializing with other travelers at the hostel I stayed at those first two weeks in Copenhagen. I wasn’t seeking companionship. I ate meals at strange times. My plans evolved as I went based on how I was feeling. One day I biked out to a white sandy beach near Copenhagen and I sat in my bikini reading, snacking, sipping beer, and staring out at the Øresund Strait for hours. When I began to feel the chill of the early summer evening I packed up and biked slowly back to the center of Copenhagen. I think that was the day I realized I could do it—I could be alone for the next few months. I was traveling alone and I was overcome with happiness. Not the bubbly happiness you feel when you’re laughing with your friends. Not the warm happiness I feel when I’m with my family. Aloneness offered a placid, peaceful happiness. This new way that I could feel happy was a discovery for me. I’d never really spent that much time alone before this trip and I had certainly never genuinely enjoyed being alone before this trip.

I grew up with two older brothers. I was born into Togetherness. I sat in the middle seat when we‘d go on outings in the family station wagon. The three of us would draw invisible lines on the beige fabric seats and we’d try to protect our backseat plots of territory, but inevitably Matt would end up asleep, with his warm cheek resting on my shoulder, and Gabe’s long legs would cross the boundary lines and rub against mine. I’d say annoying little sister things like, “You have such hairy legs, Gabe!” He’d scowl at me and then use me as his pawn, trying to convince me to stick something up Matt’s nose while he was sleeping. I liked being Gabe’s pawn because it made me feel close to him—useful even. If I got scared at night I’d sleep in the bottom bunk of Matt’s trundle bed. I’d run into his room and tell him that I heard something outside or that the wind was blowing really hard. “What if a tree falls on the house?” I’d whisper. He’d mumble with his eyes still closed that everything would be fine—and I’d believe him. Whatever seemed dangerous to me when I was alone in my room became benign in his presence. My childhood was the opposite of Aloneness; my identity was shaped around Togetherness.

I like the comfort, security, and distraction that Togetherness offers, but I’ve come to really appreciate Aloneness too. This trip has been about biking, but it’s also been about understanding how to be alone. I have memories that are all mine now. I mourned the impending loss of my Aloneness while I was in Kyoto. I was getting ready to say goodbye to Aloneness and I realized it was going to be as hard as all the other goodbyes. I know every time I bike through a city late at night by myself I’ll be able to have a brief visit with Aloneness, but it won’t be quite the same.

I’m home now.  I’m back in Seattle and I still haven’t reactivated my cell phone. I need to. I really do, but for some reason I feel like that will be it. That will be the official end of my trip. Without a working cell phone I can convince myself that I’ve just been a visitor in Seattle for the last week. Without a working cell phone I’m still allowed to ask strangers on the street for directions. I was up near Kenmore on Monday night and I was trying to keep up with the cyclist in front of me. We got to the part of the Burke Gilman trail that’s under construction and while we were both carrying our bikes down a small set of stairs I asked him if the detour signs were easy to follow. He said they were easy enough to follow because he did this ride every day, but I could bike with him if I was worried about getting lost. We got to talking while we were biking together. His name was Ben and he has been commuting by bike from Ravenna to his engineering job in Totem Lake for 11 years. I apologized for my rattling fender. I explained that I’d just reassembled my bike a few days ago and that the fenders didn’t seem to fit quite as nicely as they used to. He said he hated it when his bike made weird noises, but he didn’t notice it when other people’s bikes were whiney. He asked me where I’d been. I told him. He said he was going to Tokyo next week for work.

It was Halloween and little kids in costumes were walking through the residential neighborhoods we biked through. We went by a house where someone was making curry. I told him about my fellowship and we talked a little bit about biking. He said he’s been biking to work all these years because it’s easy. It takes 50 minutes to bike and 35 minutes to drive, but driving gives him a headache. When he does occasionally drive in, he always regrets it. He said Seattle is a much safer place to bike in than it was 11 years ago and that drivers are a lot more aware of cyclists now. Still though, he can’t read the comments section of Seattle Times articles about cycling. “Some of those anti-cyclist comments make me feel like I’m going to have a stroke,” he says. I tell him it’s strange being home and that I guess I need to buy a helmet because I’m not in Europe or Japan anymore. He isn’t judgmental that I’m not wearing a helmet and he listens to me talk about how I’m uncertain about what’s next for me. We talk about how the section of the detour route we’re on is dangerous; the cars are going too fast. He says he’ll be happy when the repairs to the Burke Gillman are complete. We get to Lake City Way and he tells me he has two extra helmets at home that are almost brand new. He says if I don’t mind meeting his wife and kids that I should swing by and grab one. “Really? You don’t mind?” I ask. He says he’d sleep better knowing I have a helmet. I spare him my usual diatribe about helmet laws and agree to come get a helmet from him. Saying yes to experiences and interactions with new people makes me feel like I’m still traveling. We get to his neighborhood and he says hello to several of his neighbors who are out trick-or-treating with their kids. We lean our bikes against one of the pillars of his carport and he invites me into his living room where his teenage daughter, Stella, is doing her homework. Ben goes to get the extra helmet, and Stella rolls her eyes with a smile when I explain that I met her dad on the bike path and he wanted to give me one of his extra helmets. “Oh god,” she laughs. I like her. We all talk for a little while and then I need to get going. I thank Ben for the helmet and he shows me to the door. “The best thing about cycling is all the great people you meet—isn’t it?” he says.  I agree wholeheartedly.

And so I bike away wearing a helmet that Ben bought for a Japanese co-worker who came to visit a few months ago. I feel good about the world for the moment, but oddly enough it makes me think about my daytrip to Hiroshima. You wouldn’t know that an atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima if it weren’t for the one destroyed building that has been left as a reminder of what happened on August 6, 1945 and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Today, large towers dominate the skyline, a street car system moves people from place to place, a large modern art museum sits at the top of a hill overlooking the city, and beautiful parks and paths dot the urban landscape. Hiroshima has made a full recovery, but something about it still felt damaged to me. It’s possible that I was just projecting my own feelings on to the city in the same way that it’s sometimes hard to make conversation with someone after they tell you about how a family member died tragically years before. They may no longer be reeling from the death, but your emotions are raw for a moment or two as you imagine going through what they did. Is it appropriate to act normal and to make small talk after someone shares this with you? What reaction will best convey your sympathy without seeming contrived? I walked through Hiroshima feeling uncertain about how I was supposed to feel and act there. I spent a few hours in the Peace Memorial Museum learning about Japan’s involvement in World War II, the $2 billion dollar Manhattan Project, the actual impact the bomb made on August 6th, and the residual health and environmental repercussions. The most genuine emotion I could say I felt was confusion. Why had this happened? I know there are innumerable scholarly books and PhD dissertations attempting to answer this question, but I’m not sure that reading any of those texts would have made me feel any less confused. I think part of the reason I felt especially confused by the atomic bombings, and war in general, was because I had just spent months traveling—in a fairly exposed fashion—and of the thousands of people I had encountered not a single one had tried to hurt me in any way. I may have been overcharged a few times, but for the most part I met people who went out of their way to help me in some way if they could. Sometimes I asked for help, but a lot of the time people just seemed to be looking for an opportunity to be kind.

I left the museum and began walking across town. It started raining really hard. It had been sunny in Kyoto when I left and I didn’t bring my rain jacket. Luckily, I had my Haruki Murakami book with me so I just sat on some stairs under an awning and read. A woman walked by and said something to me in Japanese. I smiled and shook my head because I didn’t understand.  She made a motion like she was opening an umbrella and I smiled again.  I wasn’t sure what she was trying to tell me. She walked away.  I kept reading. About 5 minutes later she came back with a little umbrella and handed it to me. She made it very clear that she was giving it to me. I thanked her several times. I truly was thankful for the umbrella because it kept raining for the rest of the afternoon, but I was also thankful because now I have a happy memory of Hiroshima. It’s a memory that will remind me that I didn’t need to be so afraid of traveling alone. It will remind me that there is a vast well of kindness out there in the world. Maybe I thought about the umbrella in Hiroshima after Ben gave me the helmet because it made me aware that travel isn’t the only way to experience the kindness of strangers. Like Ben said, cycling is a form of transportation that connects people. It forces us out of our bubbles and we notice each other, talk to each other, help each other, and begin to understand each other better.

Serious mamachari in Kyoto.

The Nanzenji temple in Kyoto.

Bike lanes in Kyoto.

Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima.

Hiroshima bike lanes.

Ben, Stella, and their cool Seattle pumpkin.

Mamachari and the Tokyo Picnic Club

Maria and I took the Tokyo Metro across town on Thursday morning to Tokyo University’s Industrial Science campus where I would be giving a presentation to about 15 architecture and urban planning students. We both hadn’t slept enough the night before because we’d been at a street festival with a few of her classmates late into the night. I’d heard and read that festivals are a core part of Japanese culture—and excellent venues to try a smattering of different types of Japanese food—so I couldn’t pass the opportunity up, even though part of me just wanted to lie in bed and read that night.  I’d filled many of the cold, quiet nights on the farm in Scotland reading under a heavy comforter with my feet curled around a hot water bottle. My body greedily absorbed every minute of sleep I allowed it while I was on the farm, but in Tokyo my body refuses to sleep when I ask it to. Part of it is the jet-lag, but part of it is my fault. I simply won’t get in bed and close my eyes at a reasonable hour—there’s been too much to see, too many people to talk to, and too much on my mind.

We get to the festival and there are dancers, drummers, children holding lanterns, groups of men carrying miniature temples, street vendors, and masses of observers. We’re not sure where to go, but then we realize that this blur of people, movement, light, and sound is slowly moving towards a temple off in the distance at the top of a hill. There’s a group of about ten of us now—representing nearly every continent on the globe and each of us with a different accent—and it’s impossible to stay connected to the group amidst the joyful chaos.

Maria, her friend Julio, and I aren’t in a hurry and we let the others get ahead of us. Maria is Brazilian-Japanese and she has a wiry, lean frame that makes the enormous camera she has around her neck look even bigger than it is. I initially thought it was odd that the ATMs in Tokyo provide directions in Portuguese—especially because the only other two options are Japanese or English—but I soon realized that there is a sizable Brazilian/Portuguese population in Tokyo. I learn from Maria that many Japanese immigrated to Brazil before the industrial boom in Japan to work on coffee plantations and a strong connection remains between the two countries today.

Maria snaps photos incessantly. Julio is jovial and talkative. He explains to me what each food vendor is selling; I’ve never seen so much seafood prepared in such a diversity of ways. We pull coins out of our pockets and buy whatever looks good. We pass flimsy plastic trays of food back and forth between each other as we walk down the crowded sidewalks and our hands get covered in grease. “I’m going to finish this, Christine!” Julio warns with a smile as he opens his mouth wide and grips the last few sautéed mushrooms between his chopsticks, slowly guiding them into his mouth. I tell him to finish the mushrooms because soon I’m gnawing on a skewer of chewy grilled squid.

Finally we can’t eat anymore and we’ve arrived at the steps to the temple. The stone stairs are big, uneven and old; Tokyo police officers are stationed every few yards politely warning us to watch our step with a slight bow and a forged smile. Maria jokes that Tokyo police officers have nothing to do. We look back down at the scene below. There are thousands of people behind us and an equal number of camera flashes sparkle.

Pulsating drumming drowns the sound of the crowd out as we arrive to the hilltop courtyard surrounding the temple and inside the temple I can see hundreds of shoe-less people on their knees, drumming. Many people linger in the large courtyard, but Julio yells that he wants to go inside the temple and Maria and I nod. We go up the stairs of the bright red temple and a robed monk points to a box of plastic bags. We each pick up a bag, take our shoes off, and place our shoes in the bag. Then he gives each of us a small drum and a drumstick and guides us onto a platform.  The platform faces a gold, intricately decorated shrine surrounded by offerings of fruit, flowers, bags of rice, and bottles of alcohol. I sit down, first cross-legged, but then realize that everyone else is sitting on their knees with their feet behind them. I put my plastic bag down next to me and get ready to start drumming. Everyone is following the same beat. It’s a very simple beat and monks keep the rhythm consistent as they walk up and down past rows of knelling worshipers with their larger, louder drums.

I start drumming. The task of drumming, the vibration of the drum in my hand, and the omnipresent noise stills my mind. I’m not thinking about biking, my career future, people at home, or what else I need to do while I’m in Japan. I do feel connected to the strangers around me though. I know that they too have worries, fears, hopes, ambitions, and secrets—but this seems to be a collective exercise in temporarily letting go of the inward thoughts we cling to. I’m not entirely sure of the religious symbolism behind the drumming, but it feels good. The three of us drum for a long time and after we leave the temple we all agree that the drumming did something for us. If nothing else, we feel relaxed.

It’s late now. Our bikes are in a secure bike parking facility that closes at midnight and its well after midnight. Julio assures us that we can still get our bikes out. We get there and he puts the number of his parking spot into a machine that is covered with directions in Japanese. Then he puts 100 yen in (about a dollar) and we hear a loud click. His front wheel has been released from his parking spot; we won’t have to leave our bikes overnight. Maria and I pay our fee and the three of us make our way down the now silent streets. We cut through Ueno Park and see the outline of the park’s temple against the backdrop of the brightly light buildings of the larger financial and commercial districts. We can hear some of the animals in the Ueno Park Zoo; the smell of animals and hay drifts over the walls of the zoo and I again think of the farm in Scotland. There is a pond full of lotus flowers that will bloom sometime long after I’ve left Tokyo. I remember talking with Roos in Amsterdam about how her late-night rides home from parties with friends are always the best part of the night for her. Julio and Maria’s unexpected friendship has unlocked Tokyo for me.

Night turns to morning quickly and Maria and I are soon part of the morning bustle on the metro. We arrive at the classroom and I meet Professor Hiroshi. He’s well-dressed and more concerned with getting coffee made for everyone than he is about starting class on-time. I tell him I have 22 slides, but that I can hurry through them, and he tells me to take my time. We do a round of introductions and then I start my presentation. Crafting the presentation made me realize how much I’ve learned and as I speak I realize how much this topic means to me. I explain the problems we have in the United States with sedentary living, cities that are planned for cars, and fossil fuel dependence. The last part of my presentation focuses on bike culture and the social stigma many Americans have about active transportation. I explain that in many parts of the country using a bike is only something you’d do if you were broke, had your driver’s license taken away, or were emulating Lance Armstrong on a Saturday afternoon. I showed this recently released GM ad to make my point.

We ended up discussing active transportation for the entire two hour class. Professor Hiroshi pulled up some recent mode split figures for Tokyo that he created. (Mode split=percentage of travelers using a particular type of transportation.)

Tokyo is one of the biggest cities in the world with a population of almost 13 million people. Actually seeing what a 13 percent biking mode split looks like in a city as populous as Tokyo just looks like a lot of biking—millions of trips are made by bike every day! But, let’s stop for a minute and talk about trains because trains are a big part of why cycling is so popular in Tokyo. Trains methodically and efficiently move people about Tokyo prefecture and Japan in an almost factory assembly line-fashion. The trains are always on time. Train station escalators have a line of people to the left that stand still for the ride, leaving the right side open for passengers who are pressed for time and need to run up the escalator to their train. Instead of mobbing the opening doors of the metro cars, Tokyo residents form neat lines on the platform and patiently file into the train cars when the doors open. The trains are meticulously clean, generally very safe, and great places to be rocked to sleep by the swaying of the train. The train system in Tokyo has played a big role in how the city has developed and the complete network of routes is an essential part of what makes car-free living possible.

Bikes (especially ones with baskets) are an important part of the car-free lifestyle too because they make trips around the neighborhood that are too short for a metro ride, but too long for walking, quick and easy. I’ve mistaken grocery stores and ramen houses for bike shops more than once since I arrived in Tokyo because of the sheer number of bikes parked outside of them.

Outside of a restaurant in the Kichijoji ward.

Professor Hiroshi explains to me that in Japan they call utility bikes mamachari, or mom bikes.  “You know, for carrying vegetables, meat, and babies,” he says. “But lots of men and people who aren’t moms ride them too!” I protest. He and the rest of the class laughs and they describe a concept that has already been explained to me many times in Holland and Denmark. “Mamachari just means that you aren’t using the bike for sport, you’re biking to get around and run errands,” one of the students in the class says. Mamachari bikes are relatively cheap ($200-500 USD unless it’s an e-bike version) and disposable. My friend Junji says that in the Kichijoji ward where he lives close to 48,000 bikes are abandoned every year.  

There are, however, plenty of people who bike for speed and ride custom-built, slick bikes that are hardy disposable. There is a fixie sub-culture that is developing and the loose rules around biking in Tokyo are starting to cause problems because people aren’t just doing mamachari-style riding anymore. Despite the high levels of cycling there is almost no cycling infrastructure and the cycling infrastructure that has been constructed isn’t consistent across the 23 wards. The consequence is that the few bike lanes that have been built are not acknowledged and end up full of pedestrians. Officially, cyclists are to ride in the road in the absence of a bike lane, but at least half of all cyclists ride on the sidewalks—including police on bikes. Cyclists on the sidewalks use their bells liberally and are generally courteous with pedestrians, but pedestrians still get annoyed. Younger riders on faster bikes take to the streets.

Professor Hiroshi says that the Tokyo Police—if they had it their way—would like to do away with bikes all together because cyclists make their job harder. Three modes of transportation are using the roads, but there is only adequate infrastructure for two modes of transportation (cars and pedestrians) and this creates conflicts and accidents.

Bill, a serious Taiwanese student who seems like a deep thinker makes an interesting comment. “What is the bicycle?” he asks. Then he pauses for several seconds. The whole room is quiet. “Is it part of us?” he continues. “Sure, it’s made of steel, but sometimes when I ride my bicycle I feel like it becomes part of my body. The bicycle is in the middle of a machine and a human.” I know what Bill is talking about. My bike, at times, feels like an extension of my body. Cars have a normalizing effect. A young fit man and an old man in poor health can both drive a car at the same speed. Bicycles expose the strengths and the weaknesses of our bodies, and our minds too, to a much greater degree. Also, although bicycles can feel like they are part of our bodies they are still machines that make us move at speeds much greater than we could ever move on foot. Bicycles, like cars, can seriously injure—and in rare cases kill—pedestrians. Cyclists aren’t the softest users of the road, nor are we the hardest. Cyclists are the middle child of the road.

There is more work to be done in Tokyo improving bicycle infrastructure and expanding bike parking facilities, but the bicycle represents a significant part of the transportation puzzle. The class ended and I felt like Professor Hiroshi and his students taught me more than I’d taught them.

At the end of class.

It wasn’t until we were leaving for lunch that I learned about Professor Hiroshi’s fulltime hobby outside of academics–picnicking. Yes, Professor Hiroshi is a passionate promoter of picnics and a founding member of the Tokyo Picnic Club. There are a lot of restrictions (both legal and cultural) about how people should behave in and use public spaces in Tokyo. His picnicking movement is about showing people that they can and should enjoy public spaces. Picnicking and bicycling have some interesting parallels. I’d discussed the right of way (ROW) in my presentation and showed pictures from the different cities I visited of innovative uses of the ROW—like green spaces, pea patches, and ping pong tables. Americans have a hard time thinking outside the box when it comes to ROWs and bikes challenge our thinking about how roads can be used. Professor Hiroshi believes that Tokyo residents would benefit from getting out of their small urban dwellings and using public spaces in a more relaxed, informal, and social way. He’s using picnicking to challenge the public space status quo and remind people that they have a right to use public parks.  He gave me some Tokyo Picnic Club green tea and some leaflets about how to have a picnic. I’m considering starting a Seattle chapter.

Bertha’s Health

Don’t worry. Everything is fine. I just thought it was time to give an update on how Bertha is doing. Yesterday she had her third flat tire of the trip. I’m staying in a small apartment in the Bunkyō ward of Tokyo. Bunkyō is a very unique part of Tokyo because many traditional Japanese homes here survived World War II and the numerous earthquakes that have shaken this city over the years. The houses and apartments in Bunkyō are two or three stories high and are clustered tightly together amid a labyrinth of narrow alleyways where bikes, potted plants, and curious cats can be found.

Yesterday, looking up from the alleyway I see small decks where drying racks are full of clean, wrinkled clothes, small tables, and miniature laundry machines. Space is so limited here. The residents of the apartment I’m temporarily calling home store their bikes under a concrete stairwell. There are about five other bikes nestled together in this little alcove. I grip my seat and guide my bike out from under the stairs, and I hear the defeated sound of a flat rubber tire. I sigh, but really it’s lucky that I got the flat while I was still at the apartment. I run upstairs and get an extra tube and my pump and change the flat in just a few minutes. Less than a year ago I didn’t know how to change a flat. My friend Sarah had to teach me on the side of a bike path somewhere east of Renton. Now I always think of Sarah while I’m working the tire back into place.  I decide to adjust the breaks and clean my chain after I fix the flat. My fingertips get covered in black grease. I’m enjoying myself. I thought I didn’t like bike maintenance.

Bertha has racked up a few scars on this trip. The brown paint on the frame is chipped in several places and there’s rust forming on the pannier racks.  I’ve locked her up hundreds of times on this trip—to street sign poles, fences, stairway banisters, small trees, and even my tent one night. I’ve negotiated on dear Betha’s behalf dozens of times. “Please can I bring my bike into my room?!” “Could she fit in the luggage room?” “The laundry room will do–I just don’t want it (her) on the street.”

Bertha makes a good travel companion. I know she’s just a bike, but without her I’d only have myself to worry about. I’ve woken up in the middle of the night on this trip not knowing where I was, but instead of trying to place what country or town I was in I’d first try to remember where I’d locked Bertha up that night. My mind, thick with sleep, would slowly rewind until I could visualize where I’d left her for the night. Then I’d go back to sleep. One night while I was in the Netherlands I snuck her up a flight of fire exit stairs and into my room. I’d received explicit instructions that I was not allowed to bring my bike inside, but with everything I’d heard about bike theft in Dutch cities I just couldn’t risk it. It was pouring rain that night and as I lifted her up the grated metal stairs I felt incredibly defiant—but in a very silly way. I snuck her back down the fire exit stairs in the morning without notice from the hostel staff and felt smug for the rest of the day.

While I was biking up the coast of England I was approached by a man at one of the campsites I stayed at and he wanted to talk bikes. He was interested in buying a Kona Sutra (that’s what Bertha is), but his local bike shop didn’t carry Konas and he’d have to pay for the bike before they’d order one. He said he really didn’t want to order one until he’d gone for a test ride.  I got the hint, unlocked my bike, and told him to take a test ride. He was so pleased that he’d found an American with the American bike he’d been researching on bike blogs. Dozens of people—from friends to strangers—have made meals for me, opened their homes to me, answered my questions, taught me, listened to me, and helped me get my bike on and off trains. I’ve experienced a profound amount of generosity over the last few months and it felt good to finally have something to offer—something this man so clearly was grateful for. He was gone for a while test driving Bertha, but I wasn’t worried. He came back energized and with many questions. I felt like I was working at a bike shop trying to make the sell. In early September Bertha received a clean bill of health—and her only proper tune-up of the trip—from Spencer Paxson, a Kona-sponsored professional mountain biker. This tune-up happened to occur less than 24 hours before Spencer competed in the mountain-biking World Championships in Champéry, Switzerland.

Me, Adam Craig, Spencer, and Sarah at the Team USA headquarters in Switzerland.

So, this was no ordinary tune up. I felt like I owed it to Spencer to sell at least one person on a Kona—and I think I was successful. The Englishman told me he was going to pull the trigger and order a Sutra.

Last week, the afternoon before my flight to Tokyo, I looked up a YouTube video about how to disassemble and pack your bike into a cardboard box for airplane travel. The first recommendation the narrator offers is that you should not wait until the afternoon before your flight to begin disassembling your bike. Oh no. To my credit, I’d already picked up a free cardboard bike box from a shop in Edinburgh and it was still early afternoon. I ran to the hardware store to get packing tape and foam and stopped by the bike shop again to have them take my pedals off because I don’t have a pedal wrench. The rest of the disassembly and packing process went smoothly, but I didn’t like seeing Bertha in pieces before I taped the box up.

I’ve heard horror stories about how bikes can get beat up on planes, but I took comfort knowing that I was flying KLM—a Dutch, bike-loving airline.  KLM (usually) doesn’t charge extra for bikes as long as it’s your only piece of checked luggage, but it all really depends on the weight of the bike and the whims of the agent checking your luggage in. I had a layover in Amsterdam and during our decent to the Schiphol Airport I looked down and could see cycle tracks next to the busy roads near the airport. Big, fat, safe cycle tracks. I pined for that flat, bike utopia.

Soon, though, I found myself in a new bike utopia. Tokyo. Utility bike culture is alive and well here. Women with thick eyeliner, pencil skirts, and heels ride bikes. Hurried men in crisp suits jump out of the saddle the second the lights turn green, eager to get where they need to be. Mothers and fathers carry multiple children on bikes. Leeks poke out of bags full of groceries that have been tucked into front and rear baskets.  Old ladies with loose floral blouses and plastic sun visors pedal slowly down the sidewalks. Bikes are parked everywhere, usually unlocked or secured only with a O-lock preventing the back wheel from moving.

Navigating the Tokyo Metro system with a bike box and all the other trappings of my nomadic life wasn’t nearly as difficult as I was anticipating.

Tokyo Metro map.

Japanese addresses, however, are incredibly hard to decipher and when I arrived in the small neighborhood where the apartment I’m staying at is I accidentally knocked on the wrong door. A skinny Japanese man with a sun splotched face who looked to be about 90 opened the door. I was looking for a twenty-something Brazilian University of Tokyo architecture student, so I was quite certain I was in the wrong place. “Maira?” I asked him, hoping he knew his neighbors. We had a funny dialog for a few minutes where he spoke to me in Japanese and I spoke to him in English. I kept showing him the address, but it didn’t seem to mean anything to him. He motioned to me to leave my bike box on his porch and his wife came outside and looped a purple ribbon through the handholds of the bike box and around the metal gate of the porch. She tied a bow. This was a security measure, I believe. The old man walked me down the street to a payphone. I tried calling Maria multiple times, but I just kept getting an error message in Japanese.  The old man asked some other people if they knew where the address was, but no one seemed to know. We walked back to his house. My bike was still tied up with the purple ribbon. The old man wished me well, I think, and went back into his house. I hadn’t slept in over 24 hours. I walked up and down the little alleyway and looked at the address. The apartment had to be tucked in here somewhere. Finally, I started yelling Maria’s name. This was a desperate measure, but about 30 seconds later I saw a woman with a curly bob of jet-black hair hang her upper body over the deck railing of one of the top apartments. “Christine?” she said, laughing.

Maria made me green tea and within an hour or so Bertha was out of the box and reassembled. Maria took me to the local ramen place and then gave me a bike tour of the neighborhood.

Bertha and I had made it to Tokyo.

Tokyo skyline and canal.

Going to the park.

There are LOTS of e-bikes in Tokyo.

The "mini-vans" of Tokyo parked outside a day care center.

Many police ride bikes--helmet-free.

Breaking the law!! Talking on cell phones while biking is illegal in Tokyo.

Parking lots like this are common at apartments.

Memorial to Steve Jobs at iPhone store.

Yokohama--a city next to Tokyo.

Imperial Palace.