It's All in the Attitude

Busy, busy, busy. Rush, rush, rush. We’re an impatient society, always in a hurry to get somewhere. We’re like the automated cleaning devices in The Fifth Elementas described by Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (played with evil deliciousness, or delicious evilness, by Gary Oldman): “Look at all these little things. So busy now. Notice how each one is useful. What a lovely ballet ensues, so full of form and color.”

Nowhere is this kind of bustling around more evident than in our traffic patterns (although “lovely ballet” doesn’t really describe the intersection of Sprague and Division all that well…. And come to think of it, the little critters were cleaning up after destruction—how apropos).

The idea that by hurrying we are somehow more productive, more in line with “progress,” more efficient with our time pushes people to push the speed limit, squeeze the orange at the traffic light, execute a rolling stop instead of a full stop, glance without really looking, assume there’s no one coming—you know where I’m going with this and Planetizen has a good essay on just how wrong some of these assumptions about time and productivity are.*

Those little creatures in The Fifth Element didn’t have much choice—scurrying around was programmed into their very being. We, on the other hand, have choices. As Kent’s Bike Blog points out, by slowing down we give ourselves the gift of time.

I was one of those impatient drivers. Red light? Time to tap my fingers on the steering wheel and mutter under my breath, “C’mon, change!”  I chose routes to avoid traffic lights so I could take my destiny into my own hands.

I’m also susceptible to the pressure created by the tailgating driver behind me who doesn’t like it if I really observe the speed limit, as if pushing me from behind will speed me up. But it does, doesn’t it? Imperceptibly you speed up to create a gap, which the other driver promptly closes again, and next thing you know you’re meeting that nice Officer Olson who ran a speed trap on Ray a couple of months ago (not that I have any specific reason for being aware of this, of course).

Where was I? Oh, right, impatient driver.

Then I started biking. My calculation of time is so different now!

I look more at distance than at time, for one thing, to see whether something is bikeable given other constraints in the schedule. Then I work out about how long it should take me to get there. Not because I’ll decide not to bike if it takes “too much” time, though—just to allow for the time it takes to bike.

What a change! I no longer worry about “losing” time. How can you lose time anyway? You don’t have it stockpiled in a big jar from which you withdraw some when you need it. Time just passes and our experience of that passage is really subjective.

Time can pass at what feels like an infuriatingly s-l-o-w rate while I pound the steering wheel and grind my teeth. Or it can pass without me even noticing while I coast downhill, smell the coffee roaster I pass on my way to work, and watch for potholes so I can pick my line of travel to be predictable and visible for the driver behind me and not get my teeth bashed together by the cracks on Sprague. (I appear to have a thing about teeth, kind of like my thing about fingernails.)

I still try to take routes that avoid traffic lights, mostly because sometimes my bike doesn’t trip the signal. But if I do hit a red light it doesn’t trigger teeth-gnashing; instead, I take it as a chance to catch my breath. It’s welcome, not resented, and that makes a lot of difference in my trip to work, or through downtown to get to a meeting.

I can’t tell you how much more relaxing it is to arrive at work after this kind of trip than after the teeth-gnashing, steering-wheel-pounding kind. Since negative stress is hard on your cells but exercise can offset this effect I may even be extending my years on the planet. How’s that for saving time?

*All this rushing around in the car at least saves a minute or two, right? Wrong.

If you do the calculations, the difference between driving at 30mph vs. 35mph over a distance of six miles (which I picked because that’s the approximate distance between 57th/Regal and Riverside/Post, or Country Homes Blvd/Lincoln Rd. and Riverside/Post, so it seems like an average Spokane commute), is less than two minutes.  

What about the difference between biking and driving—huge, right? Wrong again.

Assume I bike at an average speed of 15 (which I sure can’t do going up the Post Street hill, but I can do 35+ coming down the Bernard/Washington arterial so it averages out coming and going). If I had this same six-mile route I’d spend 24 minutes on the bike vs. 12 minutes if I drove at 30mph (ignoring traffic lights and school zones for the sake of comparison).

So over the course of a round trip I would spend 24 more minutes biking than the driver, in return for which I’ve had all the exercise I need in the day, zero money spent on gas or parking, zero frustration at red lights, and (I hope) zero damage to my tooth enamel.

Yeah, I’ll take that.
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  1. And when you get home, you've left all the stress of the day along the road somewhere.

    I walk to work in Pullman, and did in Spokane. When I started, I thought not driving might be a hassle. In fact, it's a luxury.

  2. I never thought about it but yeah, I am more patient waiting at a stop light on my bicycle than the infrequent times I am driving and have to wait. Although my town has only two traffic lights.

    I will talk to other bicyclists at the stop light, but would never do that in a car.

    Enjoyed your Ignite presentation.


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