Wednesday, September 16, 2009

wherein we are inspired by Copenhagen (also Assen, and even Australia)

Monday, school began for YoungSon.

When his sisters were young, before he was born, we would walk down the hill - just over 1/2 a mile - to catch the bus at the corner. That downhill walk was part of why we chose the house, which was otherwise underwhelmingly like a small giant's shoe-box. But that hill! Rain or shine, sunrise or just increasingly visible fog, we walked down the hill each school morning. Okay, sometimes we were late and then we had to drive down to the bus stop. But usually we bundled up, mittens and mufflers, and walked. We noticed frost on clover leaves and the first fragrant day our elderly neighbor's grapes were ripe.

It was a great way to begin the day. We'd wait together at the corner, huddled up sometimes, talking always, laughing often. All the hustle, hustle of getting out the door forgotten somewhere on the road downhill. Then the bus would come. The girls would blow kisses from the windows of the bus, all fresh-faced and bright-eyed, and then bounce along to their school in the rays of the rising sun. And I would climb back up the hill to begin my own day.

But after a few years, one of my neighbors campaigned long and loud to get the bus to come all the way to the top of our hill - even though her own children never rode the bus because she drove them in. She did this as a public service. (That sounds ironic, but is not. She is in fact a remarkable woman who teaches at the alternative school working with kids everyone else has given up on. It is part of the package that makes her so uniquely and wonderfully her that she has an over-developed sense of social responsibiliy, and wide-ranging FIX-IT-iveness.) Soon the bus was driving up the gravel road all the way to our driveway.

I had to make special arrangements with the bus company to continue catching the bus down at the bottom of the hill at our old stop. We'd see the mostly empty bus on our way down, while it climbed up past our house and then turned around and passed us again before rattling up a branching road where often there were no children actually waiting (because they'd been driven in instead), and finally the bus would open its doors at the bottom of the hill and the girls would climb on. Still they waved, occasionally even still blew kisses. Still we walked, got rained on, gathered perfect bright-red leaves, saw the day the crocuses first opened.

When YoungSon was born, our town, in an effort to more equitably educate its children, broke up the neighborhood schools: K-2 in our old school, 3-5 in the school across town, 6th grade all alone in the school a town downriver. There are reasons for changes like these, but it meant the bus had to come much, much earlier. Before light. For an hour-plus bus ride that should take 7 minutes to drive. Which put an end to the morning walks.

But by then the girls were stronger, so on dry mornings I'd hook a baby-trailer behind my bike for YoungSon and we began biking to school - leaving after the bus had long come and gone and still arriving in plenty of time for the first bell. It took us 15 minutes. By the time YoungSon started school, we'd gotten tougher - I attached a Tag-along and together we biked throughout most of the year, especially once the year turned and our thoughts began to dwell on 100-miles coast rides coming up . . .

Even after his sisters began high school and took on early morning (before daylight) classes, bulky band instruments, a driver's license, and began driving themselves to school, YoungSon and I would bike together to his school with a Tag-along attached to the back of my bike. "Rocket boosters! I need those rocket boosters!" I'd holler when we turned up the long, slow uphill and he'd pedal, pedal, pedal, tugging the bike back and forth with his effort. I'd bike in my sleek duds the days I taught the art class, ducking into the girls' restroom to smooth down my hair and wipe road-grit off my face.

But last year YoungSon had gotten too big for the Tag-along.

And he moved out of the close-by school.

And the shoulderless route to his new school is nearly unbikeable that time of the morning with SUVs carrying one or two schoolchildren each and people rushing off to work. Which meant I ended up driving him to school.

Oh, we carpooled.

We even sometimes biked to the carpool when it wasn't our turn to drive. But mostly, I drove him to school. Waited in line with a lot of other mothers, trying to decide if it was more environmentally sound to stop-restart-stop-restart as I inched my way up to the designated drop-off or to just leave the engine on.

And when time for our family's 100-mile Memorial Day ride rolled around, I was out of shape and out of time to get the solid conditioning my tootling-around, school-commute-and-errands biking had painlessly provided me along the way in years past.

So much for past history. Our future in biking is shorter to tell:

This last month of summer I've been dreaming over photos of happy, bareheaded Danes biking in skirts and high heels in Copenhagen (and elsewhere):

Cycle Chic from Copenhagen - The Original. Streetstyle and Bike Advocacy in High Heels: 2009-09-06

Yes? Wouldn't you like to see a golden bike of plenty around your town, too? Can you imagine it?

I've been musing covetously over a blog from Amsterdam (or rather, Assen) about the first day of school there - with photos of rows and rows of shining bikes outside the school:

A view from the cycle path - David Hembrow: The schools are starting again
Can you imagine that? - off-road bike paths full of healthy children pedaling beneath the dappled shadow of trees?

No auto line-ups at the school.

The streets of our very own town full of people: stopping to pop into the bookshop, to buy a muffin at the bakery, to meet friends for lunch along the river, stopping to chat, to take a picture, to admire the sky -- a pair of shoes in a shopwindow -- people's gardens - oh, anything that catches the eye! All this where now there are just glinting acres of inhuman vehicles. Can you imagine it?

We decided we could rethink the commute to school - or at least aim instead for a commute to the transfer bus YoungSon would have to switch over to anyway if he caught the too-early bus that comes up to our house.

So, this week there has been one lonely bike tied up outside YoungSon's old school where he easily catches the transfer bus to his new school (it takes the bus that comes past our house three times as long to get there).

Only one lonely bike.

But at least there has been the one bike.

And at least we're out in the early morning sunshine and fresh air, starting our day with blood pumping and fully oxygenated lungs.

Yes, we're wearing helmets (a big sparks-flying issue I'm learning) and yes, we drive to the side of the road rather than take the center of the lane.

And no, even though I'd like to pretend that the red-headed free-spirit in this blog: And So To Bike (scroll down) is a dead-ringer for me, I do go for functional over fashionable when I ride my bike. I do simply wear what I'm wearing, but never skirts or sandals - yet!

Moreover, we are not car-free, nor are we likely to be, living far from hospitals and the delights of the city. Even on our morning bike to the transfer bus, YoungSon points out the sweet rides we pass - and they're all cars, gorgeous old roadsters, new sleek sports cars - and yes, even big trucks.

I can't say I'd like to see a world with no cars. Just one where cars do what cars do best - and bikes have space to do what they do best. And everyone is a little more active, a little more connected with our townsfolk, a little more healthy in both the physical and emotional sense.

So I'm not exactly Copenhagenizing my slice of the planet.

But if you can imagine it, you're that much closer to making it happen.

And every morning I put rubber to the road, smiling and waving to our friends who drive by in their cars, I'm keeping faith with the dream of our town as a human place, full of flowers and little shops and sidewalk tables waiting for friends - and bikes.


Mrs. Organic said...

Ohhh, I love those links! They look so dreamy and the riders so stylish. We'd all have beautiful legs if we biked to shops and school (although maybe not if we were indulging in hot cocoa and pastries over the latest gossip - but it wouldn't it be fun?)

Lisa B. said...

I looked at the Copenhagen link from your page a few days ago--it is wonderful, and I keep thinking about the same thing. My cruiser is so great! I can ride in a skirt or whatever. I balk at riding to work because of the sweat factor and the getting splashed factor and the riding on such busy roads factor . . . which is a dang shame, because it would be great to ride to work. I will have to give this more thought. Nice post!

David Hembrow said...

Hi, thanks for linking to my blog. Please note that we are not in Amsterdam, but in a city called Assen around 200 km North.

All cities in the Netherlands have high cycling rates by world standards. However, here in the North of the country you find the highest cycling rates anywhere in the world.

Groningen has nearly 60% of all journeys by bike. Assen, where we live, has 41% of all journeys are by bike. More journeys are made by bike than by car. The city was transformed years ago, and cycling to the centre now looks like this, a trip to the local supermarket looks like this.

Emma J said...

David - I knew you were in
Assen! why did I write Amsterdam? Thanks for the correction.

And thanks for the links to the before and after pictures of your town. Inspiring! and exciting to see such tangible possibilities. Thanks for passing them along - we'll have to look into your book a little more carefully.

Emma J said...

Lisa B - your cruiser sounds great. I need a bike I can wear a skirt with. I love my road bike but it does limit the clothes I can wear biking - which limits the times and places to which I can bike.

Emma J said...

Mrs O - we'd still have great legs, we'd just have to bike more!

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