09/25/2009 05:28 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Bike to Work Day: Motivation for Getting Back on the Bike

Tomorrow is National Bike to Work Day, which is part of National Bike Month, coinciding with Bike Month NYC here in the Big Apple, and I have to admit that it's all making me feel a bit guilty.

Last summer, after I started working at NRDC's midtown Manhattan offices, I reveled in the ability to ride my bike to work (even when I had a minor accident soon after my pedal commuting began). I felt healthier, happier, more in touch with myself and my city, and certainly more alert to speeding taxi cabs.

There are plenty of good reasons to bike to work:

  • It's good for our health: An estimated two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese, increasing their risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Simply riding 30 minutes to work provides the kind of exercise needed to reduce weight, improve fitness and relieve the burden on our health care system.
  • It's good for our communities: If more commuters cycled, it would reduce the burden on taxpayers of road building, street maintenance, parking spaces and police services, while losses from car accidents, pollution and congestion would go down.
  • It's good for our planet: If Americans who live within 5 miles of their office rode their bike to work once a week -- only once a week -- we could save nearly 5 million tons of global warming pollution every year. That would be like taking a million cars off the road.
  • It's good for our wallets: Bicycle commuting saves on parking fees, parking tickets, fuel costs, auto maintenance costs and transit fares. In some large urban areas, the League of American Bicyclists says, it's possible to save more than $200 a month on parking alone. (In New York, I think that would be even higher.)

After getting off to a good start last summer, I kept riding right on through the fall, even braving bad weather and getting thoroughly soaked on more than one ride. Then came snow and the holidays and several nasty colds (all the usual excuses), and my bike pretty much stayed in the basement through the dead of winter.

By the time spring came around -- and it took its sweet time this year -- I had a newborn baby at home, and biking through New York traffic while exhausted from late-night feedings and diaper changings didn't seem like the best idea, so I mostly stuck to the subway.

I've biked a few times this spring, but nowhere near the regularity of last summer and fall. Bike Month is just what I've needed to get me motivated and back to my regular riding routine. (Whoever scheduled Bike Month for May knew what they were doing.)

I wonder, though, if the streets and bike paths will feel different this year. Last summer, high gas prices led to a surge in bike sales and commuting across the country. Biking has been on the rise for several years in New York City, but despite improvements to bike lanes and more bike racks, cycling still seems impractical to many.

I'm sure that a lot of those bikers who took up riding to work last year, around the same time that I did, also took the winter off. Will they be back this year? Do they still feel the lure of the spoke, or is the dip in gas prices enough to keep them in their cars?

Alex Marshall wrote a memorable column for Streetsblog last year asking if biking in the winter was like eating Spanish tortillas. He enjoyed them all the time when he was living in Spain, but stopped making them when he moved back to the U.S. -- even though he still loves the taste, they're easy to whip up and the ingredients are close at hand.

It's the same thing with winter biking, he postulated. In Amsterdam, for instance, people ride regardless of the weather. In New York, despite the brave and admirable few, most people stop riding in cold weather, and so did he. "Culture matters," Marshall wrote.

"I'm not shirking the fact of my own laziness; it's a real observation about how the world works. If my friends and family members were riding off to work in the cold, I likely would to, without complaint. But alone, when few other people are, it's easy to decline the invitation my bicycle offers me, or not even see it."

Then, of course, there's the safety-in-numbers argument. Plenty of studies show that as biking increases, accidents actually decrease. The theory is that drivers get more used to seeing bikers on the road and know how to deal with them. So it might actually be a smart strategy not to be out there by yourself.

Regardless, I'm glad for the extra push that Bike Month gives me to pump up my tires and start riding more regularly again. I'm lucky to live and work in a city where biking is more practical and accepted all the time, and I aim to enjoy it and all the benefits that bike commuting has to offer. Hope to see you out there!

This post also appears on NRDC's Switchboard blog.