5 Surprising Things I Learned from Bike Commuting

By Simon Tam

Though I grew up after Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s main era, the Boss nevertheless resonated with my generation: freedom was tied with the roaring engine of an American car. For most of my life, that was my belief–at the age of sixteen, I promptly received my driver’s license and started driving to and from school (I could have walked). Throughout most of my career I depended on my car. I believed that my car was the most versatile, comfortable, and convenient option for every situation, even though I was victim to ever-increasing gas prices, parking fees (and parking tickets), and traffic jams. Was Thunder Road really the path to the promised land?

After a gap of nearly twelve years, I recently took a step that made me feel like a true Portlander: I finally bought a bike. Incidentally, that same week I also picked up kale, a bag of quinoa and sprouted rice mix, and a case of rice milk. These things seem to happen like falling asleep or falling in love: gradually, then all at once.* I faced the challenge of commuting from work: ten miles of uphill riding through main streets laden with traffic. I didn’t really know how to go about it; I just thought I’d dive in.

Here are 5 surprising things that I learned when switching to bike commuting:

  • Hidden gems in my neighborhood: I’ve been driving through the same streets of Southeast Portland for over a decade, always looking for new haunts or places of interest. But the reality is that city exploration isn’t optimal at 25-45mph. It’s really when you walk or bike that you begin to discover new delights: a hidden park trail, an entire store dedicated to dartboards, an unmarked sausage kitchen. I always assumed that Yelp would help me find the best new places–but sometimes it’s about where the eyes and nose will steer.
  • The lack of infrastructure: Though I live in one of the most bike-friendly cities in the U.S, I quickly discovered how treacherous some of the streets could be–especially in those areas I find myself in the most (Portland’s Jade District). Just a few short rides made me much more conscious of where sidewalks and bike lanes are desperately needed in our city. This new awareness will help be become a stronger advocate for development in my community.
  • The learning curve: I thought it would take me a while to ride into shape, to learn the best/safest bike paths, to know what kind of gear I needed for my commute. However, things fell into place one ride at a time. Almost immediately, I began to sleep better and felt more energized. When I was unsure of which roads to take, I just followed one of the many other bikers. And when in doubt, the bike commute function on Google Maps has helped me navigate the city–and even find paths with less of an incline.
  • A bigger wallet: I knew biking would be less expensive than driving or public transportation, but I didn’t really know what that would feel like until I noticed the extra cash in my budget. For example, each driving commute to work costs me about $14 (gas and parking). With public transit, it’s $5 per day. I was spending an average of about $208 per month or $2,500 per year (not to mention that my better health is saving me money on medical bills). I paid off the cost of my used bike in one month of savings. Biking was like giving myself a raise, allowing me to pay down my mortgage more quickly and giving me money for travel. What would you do with an extra $2,500 per year?
  • A faster commute: Of all the new discoveries, this was probably the biggest surprise. I always assumed that driving was the fastest way to get to/from work or to one of my many meetings. However, I found that biking lets you avoid traffic congestion, frees you from being dependent on late bus or train schedules, and creates new, more efficient ways to get from place to place. Saving time and money? Yes, please.

I’m not sure why I resisted biking for so long. Was it the fear of looking ridiculous? Was the distance was too great? Did I really believe that redemption was to be found “beneath a dirty hood,” as Springsteen claimed? Whatever it was, it didn’t matter: once I tried it, instead of falling back to my usual excuses, I was hooked. I can’t say the same about the quinoa and sprouted rice mix though–that tasted too healthy.

So if you’re on the edge, now is as good of a time as any. Most bike stores have a return policy if you have a change of heart. But when you find yourself in better shape, with money in your pocket and a new love for your community, you’ll thank yourself for it–even after a long and sweaty ten-mile uphill commute. Newfound freedom is a wonderful thing.

So I think it’s time for an update to the Springsteen mantra: because baby, we’re born to run ride.

*A borrowed genius coin of phrase from author John Green.


Simon Tam is the Marketing Director at OEC. Learn more about him here

3 Replies to "5 Surprising Things I Learned from Bike Commuting"

  • stewart wershow
    April 14, 2015 (12:20 am)

    Having a safe place to put my bike was the thing that got me using my bike. Our family was able to get along with only one car because I was able to bike to work. I also was able to bike home for lunch which gave me a great deal of exercise. However, I don’t bike anymore because I am afraid of the bike being stolen. If I had a secure place to put it, I would ride it rather than drive. We need more lockers that can be locked.

  • Amelia
    July 17, 2015 (5:17 pm)

    My husband and I carefully designed our Hawthorne lives so we could easily bike to work in downtown Portland in about 15 minutes. We have been house sitting for some friends who live in Milwaukee 10 miles away from our office. We braced ourselves for a long haul in the mornings and after work. The surprising things we learned were:

    1. We arrived at work earlier. Because we had to adjust to a 50 min bike ride we had to plan more and we couldn’t just roll out of bed and be at work in 15 minutes.
    2. No matter where you live or how hilly your commute is you will absolutely adjust to it. Over time you will be amazed at how difficult you used to think your commute was.

    So get biking people! You can do it! At least try it once so you can bitch to your friends about how hard it was.

    • Simon Tam
      July 17, 2015 (5:27 pm)

      “No matter where you live or how hilly your commute is you will absolutely adjust to it. Over time you will be amazed at how difficult you used to think your commute was.”

      Absolutely! My ride home each day is uphill. At first, I thought my lungs would explode and that my legs would fall off. But after a few weeks, it became easier. After two months, it feels quite normal and actually, quite refreshing!