Happiness on Two Wheels

It’s been a while since I waxed rhapsodic about riding a bike, and now that summer is upon us, this is probably as good a time as ever to sing the praises of the two-wheeled commute. We cycling evangelists are sometimes considered strident and holier-than-thou about our choice of transportation. I suppose that’s unavoidable, since it’s self-evident that we are morally and ethically superior to our fellow human beings in every way. Whatever the merits of our self-righteousness, however, lecturing and scolding can be counterproductive when one is trying to spread the good word to benighted souls, and our emphasis on the environmental, financial and geopolitical benefits of burning up less petroleum can give the impression that riding a bike is a difficult sacrifice, a hardship that must be endured for altruistic reasons.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth, so I want to dwell a bit on another benefit of getting around by bicycle which is sometimes given short shrift: the psychological benefit. I’ve thought about this in the past, but it was clarified for me during last month’s Bike to Work day. I usually don’t observe Bike to Work Day in any special way, since I bike to work every day anyway, but for some reason I got into the spirit of it this year, so I woke up early to join a loose peleton (which included my city council rep) from the Grand Lake Theater to City Hall, where they were serving a free pancake breakfast to bike commuters in the plaza out front. I then picked up a free Arizmendi scone at an “energizer station” next to Lake Merritt, then a free cup of coffee at Fruitvale BART station, and by the time I got to work I was as happy as a clam.

Now, I’m a real sucker for free food and drink, but it wasn’t only the free stuff that put me in a good mood. It was also noticing that all the other people riding their bikes to work that day, some of them presumably for the first time, had smiles on their faces. How often do you see car drivers smiling as they commute to work? Almost never! Instead you see a lot of stressed-out grimaces and furrowed brows. It occurred to me that people on bikes tend to look pretty happy as they cruise around town, and will often give a friendly wave to each other as they pass. People in cars, on the other hand, generally look tense and anxious in the gnarl and snarl of rush hour traffic. Sure, some of the friendliness among cyclists is probably just the camaraderie that comes with encountering a kindred spirit, but I am convinced that the cheerfulness of many bike commuters can also be attributed to the salutary psychological effects of riding a bike instead of driving by car.

As I thought about it, I realized that I’ve always tended to be in a better mood upon arrival to work after getting there by bike. When I used to drive a car most of the time, I would occasionally ride to work if my car was in the shop, and while I’d be annoyed about have to leave the house earlier, I would arrive feeling refreshed and chipper. Thinking back to when I lived in New York, I remember when I started riding my bike from Brooklyn to Times Square sometimes, instead of taking the subway every day. The trip took the same amount of time, but when I rode the bike, I would be more alert and cheerful when I arrived, whereas I would still be groggy and grumpy on the days when I took the subway. What’s amazing is that even though I was aware of the correlation between biking to work and feeling good once I got there, I still used to drive my car, because it was “more convenient” and would “save time” (as if time can actually be saved, rather than just spent in more or less rewarding ways). What folly! It wasn’t until my car was totaled that I was able to fully recognize that it was more a curse than a convenience.

So I can sympathize with the stressed-out commuters in their cars, because I used to be one of them. My usual route to work now takes me over and alongside Interstate 880, but in the past I used to join the unhappy masses on 880, and the experiences couldn’t be more different. I used to be just another agitated driver strapped down to my seat, tailgating slower drivers out of frustration (to the point where I once rear-ended a Camry that stopped short in front of me), and changing lanes obsessively in hopes of gaining a few seconds’ advantage. I now quite literally rise above all that, and every time I glance down at the people in their cars, I remember how miserable I used to be driving down that same stretch of road.


Nowadays I pass over that unsightly ribbon of stress and ride along the waterfront instead, which is why I end up taking so many pictures from that area. Instead of having to stare at bumpers, asphalt and concrete, I get to look at boats, buildings, parks, water and the occasional piece of art. Instead of being subject to the vagaries of traffic, I can ride happily along at whatever pace I choose, enjoying the scenery, breathing in the relatively fresh air coming off the water, and probably feeling the effects of exercise-produced endorphins.

Another reason that riding a bike improves one’s sense of well-being is that one feels far more connected to the places one is passing through. (In this, it resembles evolution’s ideal innovation in human transportation—that is, walking.) Even if one avoids the freeways in a car, the physical separation between a driver and his surroundings means that one often doesn’t care, or even notice, whether the streetscape is pretty or ugly, or whether a neighborhood is alive or dead. The effects of that alienation from the surrounding environment may be hard to measure, but I believe that it has real consequences for one’s state of mind. Even a description of my route to work conjures a comforting sense of place: instead of getting to work via “Interstate 880,” I now get there via Brooklyn Basin, Embarcadero Cove, Union Point, and Jingletown. Have any freeways ever had such evocative names? Not all of my ride to work is beautiful, but none of it is dull.

Port of Oakland

Even the decaying vestiges of the area’s industrial glory days are fairly picturesque:

Dock of the Bay

What’s most remarkable to me when I compare riding to work and driving to work is how driving a car can dramatically change one’s relationship with other people. You can take a generally calm and easygoing person—for example, me—and put him behind the wheel of a car, and he is suddenly transformed into a kind of sociopathic monster, who sees other drivers as the enemy, sees pedestrians and bicyclists as irritating obstructions, and is willing to put lives—his own and others’—at risk by running a red light, or swerving around a blind corner, or cutting off someone else on the gamble that you won’t both pull a reckless move at precisely the same moment. And for what? To shave a couple of minutes from one’s commute? Agitation and anxiety are a high price to pay for that small amount of “saved” time.

I don’t know precisely what psychological mechanism is at work, but there really seems to be something about being inside a metal box, separated from the rest of humanity by a barrier of glass and steel, which encourages anti-social behavior. I can still feel the change in mindset occur on the rare occasions when I get behind the wheel of a car, and I need to remind myself to breathe deep and relax—and to stop for those bothersome pedestrians at crosswalks. We like to think that some people are nice and some people are assholes, but the truth is that most people can be both at different times; context, circumstance, and the expectations of others can have a huge impact on one’s behavior. I really think there’s something about getting behind the wheel that can often make normal people act like psychopaths.

Of course some bicyclists also ride recklessly and selfishly, and I can attest from personal experience that being on a bike doesn’t make one immune to road rage. Just as a lot of car drivers are very responsible and considerate, a lot of bike riders are jerks (it’s worth noting, however, that a jerk on a bike is extremely unlikely to maim or kill anyone). And riding a bike does have its drawbacks, such as arriving to one’s destination sweaty, and the danger inherent in sharing roads with heavy metal objects moving at high speeds. (That last issue is why it’s so important to design streets that feel safe to ride a bicycle on—there are a lot of people who would enjoy getting around by bike, but who are reluctant to do it because they simply don’t feel safe riding in traffic.)

When it comes to fostering peace of mind and mental health, I doubt any mode of transportation will ever beat walking, but when getting someplace by two feet is impractical, the two wheels of a bicycle are the next best thing. Exercise, fresh air, independence, and none of the stress that comes with stop and go traffic, or waiting for a late bus, or crowding into a subway car: what’s not to love?

15 Responses to “Happiness on Two Wheels”

  1. ng says:

    You’ve said it all!

  2. wordnerd says:

    Even though people evolved to walk (and run a bit) somehow they’ve harnessed that abstract geometric object the circle and turned it into a vehicle that’s a seemless extension of the body. (At least when it doesn’t rain.) This is a miracle comparable to the way abstract mathematics happens to do a great job of explaining the universe.

  3. wordnerd says:

    I suspect that SOME car commuters love their commute, and see it as the only time of day when they can be safely alone.

  4. ruth gutmann says:

    By now we have several generations of bicyclists in the family. My guess is that you pretty well expressed the sense of wellbeing that comes with cycling. Your photos underlined your points. Walking, which is our thing, is good and enjoyable too. But while we have not changed — as far as we know –, the environment for walkers has. Because of the prevalence of cellphones, one is surrounded by unseeing people who are gesticulating to no one in particular while they appear to be speaking to themselves. They seem to take no interest in their surroundings, often not even in the kids they are pushing in their strollers.

    The British recently came out with a study that aimed to prove that children which face their caretakers in their strollers speak earlier than those facing the street.– But as far as I can see, if their mothers or caregivers talk on the phone, it can hardly matter which way they face!

  5. eric says:

    It rained today and I was STILL happy on my bike! I was interested in what you said about knowing what would make you happier and yet not choosing it. I do this all the time in many ways–most people do–and I never cease to wonder why I do. Poe’s imp of the perverse, I suppose; or the privileging of the present, or something. If you have any practical hints for how to make yourself choose what you know will make you happier, let me know. In the meantime, I will keep riding my bike.

  6. Carol says:

    I’ve never been hit by a car, and that may be why I’m still here. But I have been hit and hurt twice by bicycles, once by a bike messenger going the wrong way on a one way street and once by a guy on the sidewalk who thought he knew that I wasn’t going to turn around and take a step toward the bus pulling up beside us. Both offenders rode away as rapidly as possible, wounding me in spirit as well as in flesh. I wish you and your fellow riders only good will as long as you do the right thing. It’s rare, however, to see cyclists obey any of the relevant rules.

    It is San Francisco, of course, where the sense of entitlement is a serious disease.

  7. dc says:

    Carol: Yikes! I’ve seen a lot of reckless, aggressive bikers, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of them hit a pedestrian. For whatever it’s worth, I do think that SF has the highest ratio of reckless to “reckful” cyclists of all the places I’ve ever been. Even in NYC, which has a lot of messengers (and chinese food delivery guys etc) who ride recklessly, my sense is that they tend to put their own skin at risk more than that of pedestrians (I’m sure some pedestrians would dispute that, however). On this side of the bay, where life is slower, we do have a lot of hipsters on bikes, but very few actual messengers, so there is much less financial incentive to ride like a maniac. Most people I see on bikes around here are actually very civilized, whether they are students or commuters or recreational riders wearing their thousands of dollars worth of gear.

  8. eric says:

    I’m sorry to hear about your accidents, Carol. Some cyclists can be obnoxious, that’s for sure. On the other hand, over a million people die every year in car accidents worldwide, most of them car-less pedestrians. Many, many fewer people die in bike accidents; most of those are cyclists hit by cars, and almost none are pedestrians hit by cyclists. Of course, just because you don’t die doesn’t mean it’s not awful to get hit, and I do hope cyclists can learn to be more civil.

    By the way, where I live it’s not “rare” to see cyclists follow the rules. I ride my bike to work every day, I almost always follow the rules, and I see many other cyclists doing the same. Of course, often bikers and pedestrians run red lights, but I also often see cars running red lights and making un-signaled turns–at much greater risk to others!

  9. Carol says:

    You guys are sweet. Probably would never run over me. BUT, however many folks die in car accidents (or by buffalo cart in some places), it’s irrelevant. Most of those car deaths (and I tend to think the numbers are greater than eric indicates, since I place less reliance on Asian statistics) are caused to the driver and passengers and don’t kill pedestrians (although that does happen).

    Nothing happens between cyclists and others that is not a reflection of all relationships. The stronger destroys the weaker. It’s all in the great chain of being. Keep yours well greased.

  10. dc says:

    Some 2007 numbers for U.S. motor vehicle crash fatalities, from a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration factsheet:

    Total fatalities: 41,059
    Pedestrian fatalities: 4654
    Bicyclist fatalities: 698
    Motorcyclist fatalities: 5154

    Pedestrians account for 11.3 of the total deaths. If anything, that might be an even higher percentage than I would have guessed. The number of cyclist fatalities might be lower than I would have guessed, although I guess there just aren’t that many of us out there on the roads in the first place. Ultimately, I think I’m more a pedestrian than a biker at heart, with all due respect to wordnerd’s theories about miraculous harnessing of abstract geometric objects.

  11. wordnerd says:

    Don’t act like giving someone his due respect is doing him a favor. That would involve giving him MORE than he’s due.

  12. eric says:

    I was speaking off the cuff, and I was a little off about pedestrian/cyclist fatalities, but not far off. According to the recent WHO report, 46% of the 1.3 million car accident deaths worldwide were deaths of people not in a car. In the US and Europe it’s different, but in much of the world cars are another way that the rich kill the poor, that the strong, as Carol says, destroy the weak.


    In the US, of course, most car deaths are of people in cars (although in DC pedestrians are something like 27% of deaths!)–which makes sense, because in the US most people are in cars and almost no one is out walking or biking. Which is of course why car deaths are very relevant, as buffalo cart deaths would be, too, if we lived in a world where buffalo carts were the 10th leading cause of death and effectively kept everyone else from walking or biking the streets. Carol seemed to be saying in her first comment, Bikes are nice but scary and dangerous; I just wanted to point out that cars, the dominant alternative, are much, much more dangerous. But again, I’d like to see cyclists act more civil (civilly?), and my guess is that if we could somehow get some of the cars off the streets, the jacked-up cyclists might calm down a bit and learn to appreciate the more pedestrian cycling pleasures that David described so well.

  13. dc says:

    Officials in San Francisco are voting voted today on whether to approve a long-delayed bicycle plan that will double the number of bike lanes, add more bike racks, etc., to make the city safer and more welcoming for cyclists. Part of the reason that reckless maniacs predominate among SF cyclists is that you almost have to be a reckless maniac to brave those steep hills and narrow, busy streets (not really, but you do have to be pretty confident on a bike and be used to riding in very close quarters with cars). Hopefully new bike infrastructure will increase the number of non-reckless cyclists, and maybe even shame some of the asshole riders into behaving themselves more. Now, those reckless riders tend to see the world as them against everyone else—maybe if they are sharing the road with a lot more civil cyclists, some of them will lose the us-against-them mentality that causes them to behave so anti-socially. Or at the very least, they won’t dominate the cycling ranks so much that they give the rest of us a bad name.

  14. nnyhav says:

    Caleb Crain’s got a new bike:

  15. dc says:

    Nice—one more convert discovers that peace of mind has two wheels and pedals.

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