In my work, we focus a lot on getting people into electric vehicles. However, with so many e-micromobility opportunities out there, we do need to think about more than just replacing one car for another. So, as I was getting ready to replace my old Volvo with an electric vehicle last August, I was inspired to buy an e-bike instead. I then committed to riding this e-bike anywhere within a 3-mile radius of my house. Here’s what I’ve learned so far doing what someone told me was “a very Christine thing to do” (which I will take as a compliment).

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I wish my bike looked like my article cover image, but reality is a lot less exciting as you can see above. This screengrab is from a video expertly created by Erin Hardick.

Lesson #1: Start small and stick with it

Why The 3-Mile Commitment? It was probably inspired during one of my jogs along Denver’s Cherry Creek Trail. I heard heavy breathing coming up behind me. It was a bicyclist who could barely sputter out: “Which…way…is…downtown?” I pointed him in the right direction, and I soon realized it was bike-to-work day. Had it been an inspirational movie, we would have seen this man barely arriving at his office that day but feeling inspired, and then a montage of him training over the summer into the winter to get stronger at bike riding. The closing scene is him confidently arriving at his office at the next bike-to-work day in a suit and tie. However, I never saw him again on the trail—or most of the other bikers from that day. So, I wanted to aim lower.

Even starting small, I’ve learned that my ability to ride an e-bike—like my ability to do most things—is more psychological than anything else. People stop me and ask me about the bike, and that they wish they rode their bike more, but <<insert your excuse here>>. One woman even said, “I saw you bike by me driving to yoga and you beat me here.” Even when she saw it was just as fast as taking her car, she still had some half-hearted excuse about her bike having clip-in pedals as to why she couldn’t ride it to class.

I haven’t been perfect on The 3-Mile Commitment, but a year into my experiment jumping on my e-bike has largely become automatic. It’s now a legitimate and easy transportation option to get where I need to go locally. We focus so much on bicycle transportation to commute to work, when that can be 20 miles or more each way in the U.S. That is a daunting bike ride for most people to start out with. Shifting my mindset to start with those neighborhood trips, taking small steps, has given me the confidence and commitment to take it on longer and longer rides.

Lesson #2: Think of it as transportation instead of recreation

Many people ride bikes for fun or exercise—I ride mine for local transportation. Recreational bicyclists buy insane, wonderfully garish biking spandex and fancy clip-in shoes. I bought paneers and bungee cords to haul my groceries.

This shift in mindset is important. When I thought of a bike as recreation, it was something I rode when the weather was absolutely perfect. Or, I wouldn’t be triggered to think about riding it unless I saw the bike as part of some fun activity. (Like getting ice cream—is there a more perfect situation for riding a bike?)

When I think of a bike as transportation, the bike gets integrated into my planning and thoughts for the week. It helps me with thinking about what I ride for, and what I really need. For example, we ride to our local grocery store—about 1.5 miles or 2.4 km one way—a couple of times a week. Driving the bike starts to shift my thinking—do a really need to haul a 50-pack of those dangerously addictive wasabi almonds? (the answer is no) Can I haul a 25-pound bag of cat litter? Could I carry two to test the strength of my paneers? (the answer is yes and yes).

Biking has also calmed the dangerous temptation of the one-click buying option. I felt like before the pandemic and e-bike, I was all about removing as much friction as possible to get what I needed or wanted. Now, I appreciate trying to build in a bit of friction, to think about where I can get something locally (or if I even really need the item), and how I’ll bike over to get it. It has made me a bit more purposeful.

Thinking of a bike as transportation has also toughened me up a bit in terms of when I’ve driven my bike. I rode my bike throughout the winter, sometimes down to 12 F. The cold isn’t the worst though. The worst is snow—both hitting your face at 20 mph and mocking you as you ride (i.e., slide) through it. Just when you think the weather is something no one else would ride in—and you finally give yourself an excuse to skip riding—sure enough I’d see someone huffing it on a bike in a 0-degree blizzard.

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Seth getting ready to ride his bike to the grocery store as a snowstorm rolls into Denver on September 8, 2020 (note the basil and tropical plants sheltering in the garage with no car hogging all the space).

Lesson #3: Many U.S. neighborhoods aren’t built for bikes

I live in a post-World War II neighborhood five miles outside downtown Denver. We have wide car-worshipping streets and Hollywood sidewalks (since they pretty fake at two-feet wide). Yes, Denver’s been adding some bike lanes, but you get people putting up signs like this in protest:

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Or bike lanes that look like this in the winter:

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As I bike along, I often ponder what accommodations would help make people want to bike more. Bike lanes help, good bike signs help, pleasant side streets help. And yet, it also still comes back to just making yourself commit to biking. The man biking to the downtown Denver along the Cherry Creek Trail rode along what is essentially a pleasant bike interstate—and yet he never returned.

And, yes, there are hauling kids and dogs with tons of equipment, but I’m amazed in hindsight how many little trips I did alone in my car. It doesn’t take much more time to ride my bike instead.

Other e-bike lessons learned

  • It needs a cup holder: Bikes absolutely need cup holders. Not just water bottle holders, but a holder for beverages that non-bicyclists drink. The day I biked the farthest, to Montbello in northeast Denver, our tour guide of the neighborhood we were studying generously bought us all delicious smoothies. I needed to get back, so I wedged my delectable green concoction into a paneer. One train track crossing later, avocado sludge had exploded and seeped into very annoying crevices across my bike.
  • The curb at my driveway is killer: I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve never learned how to jump a curb—I don’t know what I was wasting my childhood doing. We have steep curb cuts onto our driveway, and I was coming back from a dinner at our local tavern, Bull n’ Bush, carrying amazing mashed-potato-and-green-chile leftovers. I bounced up on the curb and my precious green chile splatted out across my driveway.
  • Eyeglasses are on a bike: They help keep your eyes from freezing.

Well, that’s what I’ve learned so far. Get a cup holder, get those paneers, and find the interesting joy of trying to haul all your groceries. Or, maybe just start with replacing that car trip to your local coffee shop—and integrate your bike into your thinking from there. HCR