Columnist Johanna Neumann: A bike journey to the bank

  • Chrissy Straub, left, of Pelham, on a single recumbent trike, joined by Dan Crespo of Springfield and Daniel Lang-Gunn of Pelham, sharing a tandem, try out the adaptive bikes on the Norwottuck Rail Trail during a special cycling program by All Out Adventures, in Hadley, for Valley Gives Day on Tuesday, May 2, 2017.

Published: 5/16/2019 9:41:12 AM
Modified: 5/16/2019 9:41:02 AM

A few weeks ago, I needed to go to my bank, the UMassFive College Federal Credit Union, in Hadley. It was a gorgeous sunny spring day so I decided to bike. I rarely regret biking. Moving makes me feel good, and I burn calories instead of fossil fuels.

Given that transportation is now the largest source of global warming pollution in the United States, and we need to quickly reduce our carbon pollution, we need to be thinking about how to make short bike trips, like the two or so miles to my bank or the mile to my kids’ school, appealing and safe for people from all walks of life.

I buckled on my helmet and hopped on my bike. I pedaled along my neighborhood streets, up the gravel road past Amherst College’s Book & Plow Farm and through the woods to the bike path. So far so good.

I sped along the smooth pavement of the Norwottuck Rail Trail loving life. The birds were singing, people were out walking and running, everyone was smiling. This is how life should be, I thought. As I passed the greens of the Amherst golf course and the exit for Swift Way, I wondered where I should turn off to get to my bank. There was no signage to help folks like me, out running an errand on a bike, navigate safely to the places we hoped to go.

Since I was going by feel, I was pleased when I spied a gravel path headed the right way when I was roughly parallel to when I thought my bank would be. A charming footbridge crossed a woodland stream. I slowly pedaled across and found myself behind an apartment building. My path became a concrete sidewalk. I was getting curious about where this route would lead. The sidewalk curved around and then ended … right in front of a dumpster.

And that was that. I stopped my bike and laughed in wry recognition of the fact that once again our infrastructure had left me at a dead-end.

After the euphoria of the bike path, the dumpster was definitely a buzzkill. I shrugged off the feeling of abandonment, got back on my bike and navigated by feel along the potholed roads in the direction where I thought my bank was.

When I got to an intersection with Route, 9 I felt even more letdown than I had at the dumpster. My bank was only 200 yards to my left, yet I didn’t know how on earth to get there.

Although there were traffic lights, it felt wildly unsafe to cross four lanes of traffic only to then have to cross back over again 200 yards later. And the thought of riding alongside trucks and speeding cars that weren’t expecting me to be there made me shudder.

I’ve been doored by cars in Boston, had my bike stolen in New Orleans and Washington, D.C., and almost been hit by a bus in Baltimore. The respectful and courteous behavior of drivers (especially the PVTA bus drivers who are consistently exemplary citizens on our roads) to cyclists in the Pioneer Valley is refreshing by contrast. But good behavior by car drivers alone is not enough.

To get to a place where bicycling doesn’t feel like an adventure sport, our communities need to seriously jumpstart efforts to make our streets more bike-friendly. As we move to more concentrated development where people live near where they work and go to school, dedicated bike lanes away from cars and universal signage should be part of the plan.

Instead of putting myself at the mercy of cars, I rode on the sidewalk, the space for pedestrians. I found myself asking, how do I safely run this simple local errand without getting into a car? And realizing that, until we can answer that question, bicycling and walking will remain on the fringe instead of being part of the mainstream.

When I pulled up to my credit union, a rack for a single bike right in rock star parking position by the front door greeted me. I smiled.

 ***

Which local communities have bicycle commuting rates above the national average?  

Only Amherst, Northampton, Brimfield, and Granville. In 1990, in the Pioneer Valley, 0.3 percent of commuters traveled to work by bicycle and 6.1 percent walked, below the national average. Today Americans walk and bike at even lower percentages.


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