Riding the bike to work frees me from the car

Published 2:37 pm Saturday, June 26, 2010

When I was a young girl growing up in the suburbs, I lived in a newly developed area with farmland all around it. We had woodlands and prairies in our neighborhood and plenty of reasons to spend time outside whether it was trying to catch field mice, watching caterpillars turn into butterflies or making forts out of tree branches.

Gradually the neighborhood grew and more houses were built. This also meant more friends to play with. I remember biking back and forth to my friend’s homes; basically living on my bike as a child. As we grew older our world got bigger and the area we explored on our bikes also grew. We would ride out to the local nature preserve that was about two miles away and catch strange insects in jars to show our parents or watch for deer.

I will never forget these adventures — they are what made my youth and encouraged my love of nature and of all living things.

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At one point, though, our neighborhood grew too large for me. The county road we lived by became an in-between for people traveling from a large highway to a main city street. More and more houses were built and this meant more vehicle traffic. Biking in my neighborhood or to friend’s homes became dangerous since the only place we could travel was often on the side of the road, which was difficult since it was gravel.

This limited my transportation as a young person who could not yet drive. I was more dependent on my parents, who had busy work lives and tried their best to transport me to friend’s homes and different events. I still felt somewhat isolated and frustrated by the situation. During this time I would often long to live in a smaller community, where I could bike or walk everywhere.

When I moved to Albert Lea I was excited because we live in a house where you can walk to the city beach to watch the fireworks (don’t even ask me what it’s like to go to a fireworks display in the cities), walk to watch the 3rd of July parade and walk to the Freeborn County Fair. We can also walk or bike to the Albert Lea Farmers Market and walk to Walgreens to pick up some milk if we’ve run out.

But, after almost seven years of living here, I had one final obstacle to overcome. Though it has always been one of my ideals, I was hesitant to bike to work. I have biked a great deal out in parks and in residential areas, but never downtown. All of the vehicle traffic made me nervous.

In my neighborhood there are three men who bike to work every day. They were my inspiration to finally bike to work during National Bike to Work Week in May. I wore a helmet, of course (because I believe in modeling good behaviors to children) and set out on my course the morning of May 17. It was a beautiful morning; it felt good to be out in the fresh air, feeling the sun on my face. I made sure to keep to the right side of the road and provide hand signals to the drivers.

To my surprise the vehicles did not seem to mind the girl on her bike; and I didn’t need to bike 30 miles an hour — they just drove past me. Downtown the traffic wasn’t so bad, and I arrived at work safe and sound and with a new appreciation for my daily “commute.”

I have since ridden my bike to work several times. One change I have noticed in myself is that I feel liberated from my car. I do drive still, when I need to haul things or have meetings across town, but I have more choices now.

This community is becoming more of a biking community, and there are even biking moais every Wednesday and Thursday evening, departing from Martin’s Cycling. & Fitness. This summer 30 bike racks will be installed at different locations in the area. And on Monday, the City Council will review options for helping the community become more biker-friendly. I would encourage everyone who loves to travel by bike to attend and give feedback about what you would like to see happen in our community.

Ann Austin is the executive director of the United Way of Freeborn County.