Bike Your Way to Being Smarter and Happier. If You Dare.

Son of Steve is well into his first month of middle school and all the changes that entails. He’s hit that point where the honeymoon is over. The novelty has worn off, and the reality of earlier mornings, heavier backpack, crazier schedules, and more teachers and classes and assignments to keep track of has set in. He sighed this morning a heavy enervated sigh and said, “I wish Saturday would hurry up and come.” He’s tired. Psychically tired. There’s been a heroic level of adaptation going on, and it’s taken a toll.

The other big change has been a major drop in physical activity. Last year, he walked six tenths of a mile to school and back every day. This year, he rides the bus. It’s taken a measurable toll on physical activity. How measurable? About a 50% drop, as measured by the fitbit he’s been wearing for the last year and a half. In elementary school, he could dependably rack up 12,000-15,000 steps daily, sometimes exceeding 20,000. So far in middle school, he hovers in the 6-7,000 vicinity, rarely topping 10,000. Part of that is the missing walk to school, and another part is the lack of physical activity programmed into the school day: a drop from two to zero recesses, and a drop in the frequency of P.E. classes.

I’ve seen a number of studies surfacing lately that have connected exercise with mood and cognitive abilities. A longitudinal study in Britain found that car commuters who switched to biking, walking, or public transportation tended to improve their moods. Findings were further reinforced by effects of lengthening commutes: an additional 10 minutes of car commuting led to higher levels of anxiety, whereas an additional 10 minutes of commuting by bike, walking, or public transportation led to lower anxiety.

A US study on schoolchildren found that daily after-school exercise (about 4,000 steps in two hours) substantially improved children’s attention and cognitive skills during school, actually doubling some measures over the control group.

So it’s pretty clear he needs to get his activity back up, and barring a sudden revolution in Newton’s top-tier-college focus on academics, that ain’t gonna happen during school hours.

So what about walking? The walk to middle school is twice the distance (1.2 miles) of his elementary school. Though I walked that far in middle school, I started in 7th grade, not 6th. And backpacks just weren’t so overloaded in those days. Also, I don’t relish sending him across the Parker St. bridge over Route 9, new signals notwithstanding. I don’t feel comfortable entrusting his safety to Parker Street’s impatient, distracted, speed-addicted commuters. The only crossing that was close to that perilous in my own middle-school walk (a four-lane arterial) had a police crossing guard, because it was right in front of the school.

What about biking? It’s hazardous: the most direct route involves Parker St. A Brown student on a bike was injured last week on Parker (Bike Newton–and others–are attempting to find out more about the incident). But I’m looking into alternate routes: one possibility is to cross 9 at the signal at Woodcliff Road and take back streets, cutting out most of Parker. So here I am, a big proponent of biking, a bike commuter, and a bike blogger, and even I hesitate to send my child to middle school on a bike. What is wrong with this supposedly sleepy, safe little city? Or, alternatively, what’s wrong with me? (Maybe I know too much?)

This is where the rubber hits the road, isn’t it? This is where I experience the hesitation that most people have had about making a transition from driving to biking: is it safe? And this is when I have to be stern and remind myself: is it safer to lack exercise and activity? Safer to let the mind go soft in a stew of inattention and anxiety? I know my own mood and mental acuity have improved since I started bike commuting a few years ago. Should I really be denying those benefits to my child?

OK. I’ll have to try a test run. Maybe I can bike it with him a few days to see how it goes and see where the trouble spots are. Of course, we’ll soon be cut short by dark mornings and inclement weather. But maybe by then we’ll have braved the route on foot, and he can experience the joys–as I did–of a 1.2 mile walk to middle school in all kinds of weather.

Biking like a Kid

School has started up again, which means I’m seeing more kids on bikes during my morning commute through Newton. One in particular I’ve seen several times pedaling hell-for-leather on the long slope down Parker St. towards Route 9. He’s got that look on his face, the one that says he’ll be on a bike for life: he just can’t believe he can go this fast. About half of his attention is on his madly pumping legs, so it’s clear he’s taken up with the joy of the body in motion. Such single-minded delight! In spite of his lack of attention for the road, which I admit worries me a little, his joy is infectious. I smile as I continue steadily up the hill he flies down.

Later in the ride I catch up to another biker. It’s on the long climb up Beacon from Centre to BC. That’s the part of my ride where either I’m passed by someone who doesn’t seem to notice the slope, or I catch up to someone who hasn’t labored up this hill every day for a few years. So, I catch up to this middle-aged man (like me), but only very slowly – slowly enough that I’m not going to pass him. I’m behind him all the way up the steep, narrow section near Elizabeth Cady Stanton Mary Baker Eddy’s house*, observing his style.

He’s looking down at his legs and feet a lot, straining against the high ratio he hasn’t shifted out of. And he’s swerving, partly to avoid obstacles like that divot next to the storm drain right where the bike lane reachest its narrowest point, but partly to make corrections in his path as his attention refocuses on the road ahead. Maybe, too, his body is telling him to take switchbacks to make the climb easier. So I can tell he hasn’t been at this all that long. I’m happy to see someone coming back to biking, the way I did a few years ago.

Over the crest of the hill, I’d have expected him to coast, but he pedals like mad, just like that kid flying down Parker. But that’s not a wise choice here: cars are stacked up to the light at Hammond St. an arm’s length to his left, and there’s green light ahead, and he’ll reach the end of the bike lane, where the cars are about a foot from the curb, in seconds, just when those cars start moving. But that’s when he surprises me, and no doubt a few drivers, by swerving left into an opening and swerving again to follow the double-yellow down the middle, next to the wide-open turn lane. Is he turning left? If he is, he’ll have to slow and wait for a gap, because the oncoming line of cars is already moving. But no: he swerves to the right into another gap between cars. At this point, I’m reaching the squeeze of traffic right before the gamut of potholes at Hammond St., so I have to mind my own business.

When I look up again, he’s straight ahead of me in the bike lane, pedaling like mad downhill. This is where I’m nearing the end of my ride–a left into the BC campus–, so aside from being mindful of traffic, I can relax. Coasting, it’s easy to reach 30+ mph. I ride the brakes a bit, eyeing traffic behind me in my mirror. I look back and confirm a nice wide gap, signal, and move into the traffic lane for a left turn. Thankfully, there’s a nice wide gap in oncoming traffic, too, right after a white Toyota. And there’s my biking colleague, swerving from the bike lane into an uncomfortably small gap, and then darting to the left of the mid-road crosswalk sign to take the left into BC before the oncoming Toyota.

Were he 20 years younger, it would be easy to ascribe his recklessness to his age: 20-somethings are self-absorbed immortals, right? But he’s in the vicinity of my own age, which is good, because it makes me stop and reflect. Did I do crazy things like that a few years ago? I hope not. But maybe.

More than resembling a 20-something risk-taker, he resembles the kid flying down Parker, at once absorbed in his embodied joy and totally unmindful of his potentially lethal surroundings. And it’s not just a lack of mindfulness of risks. There’s a lack of mindfulness about the entire road situation, as if he’s alone in a wilderness dodging inanimate objects, among which he, an interloper, has no place.

That’s my moment of insight. Recklessness isn’t necessarily the behavior of someone who owns the road: it can also be the behavior of someone with no place. Having no place, he invents places willy-nilly. He dodges through, in a solo sport. A street is not a place to be: it’s a place to get through, to survive, an obstacle course. But if you see it that way, you become an obstacle yourself. You don’t attune to the rhythms of traffic, you don’t see the drivers on their way to work with plenty of their own troubles, you don’t see the whole environment or the constant dialogue that goes on between people with a place on the road. You see moments, gaps, and opportunities, and press them spontaneously and suddenly.

For all his mad downhill pedaling, and for all his darting and weaving through gaps, he reaches the BC campus only about a second ahead of me. No doubt his heart is racing with exertion and adrenaline, and maybe that’s part of what he seeks. But that’s all part of the same picture: biking like a child, bounded by one’s own needs and senses, unable to see the bigger picture and balance your own needs with others’ needs.

It comes with experience. I’ve been at this biking-in-traffic thing for a while now. I’m no expert, but I don’t think I bike like a kid, either. At some point, I recognized both my vulnerability and my capability to do harm, and I became a different biker: stolid, predictable, aware of everything around me, and every year a little more lit up by blinking lights and safety yellow.

So it’s a tricky balance. We want more people of all ages to take up biking. And one of the joys of biking that keeps people on bikes is some combination of maneuverability, freedom, and taking joy in the body’s capabilities. In short, the joy of biking like a kid. But we want people to be safe, too, and to be safe, we have to trade some of that joy for the less visceral pleasure of having a rightful place on road and with the traffic.

But only some of that joy. Because what can beat the joy of riding home down Chestnut Hill at the end of the day? I just don’t get that experience in a car.

*Now you know my terrible secret: I’m so bad with names that I confused the founder of Christian Science with one of the earliest leaders of women’s suffrage.



The days are getting shorter. It’s time to check on all of my visibility gear again:

  • Godawful ugly day-glo yellow vest with reflectors: check
  • Nerdy reflective velcro trouser cuff holders: check
  • Reflective tape on the helmet: check
  • Rear blinky on the seat-post: check
  • Rear reflector: check
  • Wheel reflectors that make me look like I’m riding a brand new kids bike: check
  • Obnoxiously bright headlight: check

I guess it turns out I’m a little vain. But I swallow my pride, and leave my vanity for the bike-less hours of the day. Well, OK, maybe I’m still a little vain on my bike: a new leather saddle and cork handgrips lighten the burden of day-glo.


The key is, I’m visible, which means there’s a good chance drivers will see me. And I won’t get run down by someone who sees me. Unless I mortally offend their aesthetic sensibilities. For which I wouldn’t blame them.

Any ideas for marketing visibility? I was thinking:

It’s cool to be alive!

BTW, Monday bike rides are continuing in spite of the encroaching dark. Bike Newton wants you all to learn a little about night biking, and in order to encourage you to try it out, we’ll loan you front and rear lights and a reflective vest. And if you want to take them home, we’ll sell you the ensemble at cost, for about $34.00.

Newton Bicycle Update

Please join us this coming Monday, September 15, from 6:30-7:30PM!

photo of electronic sign saying -bike enforcement area- on Beacon Street in Newton, MA

The annual  Newton Bicycle Update will be on Monday, September 15 from 6:30-7:30PM at Newton City Hall War Memorial Auditorium (rear entrance at Newton City Hall). We urge you to attend this meeting to learn what has been happening in Newton regarding bicycling since the last update in June 2013

In 2014, Newton re-applied to the League of American Bicyclists for Bicycle Friendly Community status. Newton was awarded a Bronze rating and the League made many suggestions about how Newton can continue improving. Bike Newton utilizes the following 5 categories (the League’s “5 E’s”); the Bike Update will follow the same format.

  • Engineering of accommodations – William Paille, Dir of Transportation, city of Newton
  • Education of cyclists and drivers – Steve Heinrichs, Dir of Education, Bike Newton
  • Encouragement –  Lois Levin – Bicycle Coordinator, City of Newton
  • Enforcement – Sgt Jay Babcock, Newton Police Dept
  • Evaluation – John Pelletier, co-chair Bicycle Advisory Committee, Newton

There will be time to ask questions at the end. We hope to see you there.

Everybody Loves a Parade

The seventh annual Brookline Bicycle Parade and Community Celebration of the Parks is Sunday, May 18th.
It’s a free, fun, family-friendly, five-mile bike parade for ages 8 to 88+ on a car-free Beacon Street. Festivities start at Amory Park at 11:30 a.m. with giveaways, community booths, dj music, bike shop safety checks, a Hubway membership raffle, and food to purchase. A shorter ride for younger cyclists is also part of the fun. Parade leaves promptly at 1 p.m.
What could possibly be better than a parade of bikes? A parade of bikes with an ice cream party at the end!

Keep on Bikin’

A mugger robbed me for every dime so my sleep was deep and careless. Nobody troubles an empty pocket– I bless the one who made me fearless.

– Mirza Ghalib Since my bike was stolen, my temporary ride has been a Raleigh 3-speed with a step-through frame that was manufactured the year before I was born. I found it at the curb ready for the trash back in 1996 or so, before the vogue for old Raleighs had taken off. I never did a real restore job or anything – just replaced the rotted tires and the plastic saddle and the brake shoes, and it was good to go. I looked through Craigslist for a while, first for my missing bike, and then finally as it sunk in that I wasn’t going to find it, for a replacement. But I didn’t see anything inspiring. I’d been bike commuting off and on for close to 5 years on the bike that was stolen. I liked it well enough, but I’d been starting to see the limitations of building a commuter bike out of a mountain bike: a frame geometry built for a different purpose, gearing that meant I had to pedal like a caffeinated hamster on the flat, and a style that didn’t speak to me: the bicycle equivalent of a Jeep Cherokee. We’d recently re-possessed my wife’s old Peugeot 10-speed (I’m sorry, I can’t start calling it a “road bike” this late in life) from her parents’ basement. I started to have daydreams about it. I prefer the frame shape of the 10-speed, perhaps out of nostalgia – the first bike I bought new with my own cash was a Motobecane. I asked myself questions. What if it had thicker, puncture-proof tires? What if it had a nicer seat? What about switching out the drop handlebars for a more upright ride? And so I asked my wife if I could have it. “Of course.” And I went to Harris an hour later. photo of peugot cranksetI’m about halfway through breaking it down and cleaning it up. The cranks are off. The big gears are clean and shining. The freewheel cluster is waiting for a tool. The chrome rims are shining again. The rear wheel bearings and axle are in a plastic bag, waiting for grease. I love this work. There’s something deeply satisfying about scraping off 30-year-old hardened crud and discovering nearly pristine gear teeth underneath. photo 2 Simplex derailleur on a Peugeot bike Maybe it’s a way to slow down the pace of aging, the pace at which old stuff is cast off for the latest new thing. This bike is old, but damn, it’s younger than me, so it can’t be THAT old! Right? Un-sticking frozen old parts, putting a shine on things that were dull, making things glide, getting wheels back to round. Like new? No, there’s still some rust and corrosion, nicks and scratches, even a few dents, and a slight wobble in one wheel that won’t go away. But at every step, I’m closer to having the commuter bike I really wanted while I rode my serviceable but not quite satisfying converted mountain bike.

I wonder how long I’d have gone on riding an unsatisfying bike. Maybe I needed that thief; I’m out some money, but richer by a process of rebuilding.


Sad Tale of a Missing Bike


bike with bagWhen I went out to the garage this morning to grab my bike and head to work, there was no bike to grab. My thoroughly modified old Raleigh mountain bike was gone. In its place was a kid’s Raleigh mountain bike.

Awful feeling – not just stolen, but stolen right out of my garage. And no, it wasn’t locked. It’s such a junky-looking old thing I never imagined someone would want to steal it. Now I know better.

It pretty much looks like this picture, though there were a few minor mods after this: the addition of a black chain-guard, a yellow Bike Newton sticker (of course!) and a “Support Radical Militant Librarians” sticker. There’s a rather nice cat-eye headlight, too, and an updated saddle.

If you happen to see it (probably in Newton), please contact Steve Runge. It disappeared in the vicinity of Weeks Field, and my bet is it hasn’t traveled all that far.

kids raleighOh, and the kid’s bike? Here’s a picture. If your child’s black and red Raleigh mountain bike went missing sometime in the last several days, I have it. Though I’m sure my son covets it, I’d much rather return it to its rightful owner. It’s in pretty good shape.

Both my missing bike and this found bike have been reported to the Newton Police as well. My advice to all: don’t depend on the ugly-duckling theorem of theft-protection, and don’t get complacent at home. Lock your bike if you value it.