When I was a student living in Toronto, I rode my bike everywhere and loved the freedom that came with it – no traffic jams, no paying for gas, insurance, or parking, reliable arrival times, great exercise. There are countless benefits, as many of you readers already know, not to mention how good it feels to be part of a cycling revolution, reclaiming the car-dominated transit system. When I moved to a small town three hours away from the city, however, I quickly realized that the cycling revolution is an urban phenomenon. Unless I never wanted to go anywhere, I needed to buy a car, so I did.
The town where I live now has no public transit, except an expensive private bus that makes one trip daily to Toronto. The nearest Greyhound station is forty-five minutes away by car. The grocery store is located at the north end of town in the middle of a cornfield and it disappears completely from sight when snowy whiteouts come blowing in from Lake Huron. Fortunately we live across the street from our son’s school and close to downtown, so some things are within walking distance.
"If you think a fast car is scary, try biking alongside a combine."
I continue to bike when the weather is good, often pulling my kids in a trailer, but I’ve realized that there are serious problems with cycling in the country. First, it’s extremely dangerous. Rural drivers don’t know how to handle cyclists because they’re not a common sight. They tear past at highway speeds in big vehicles – minivans, pickup trucks, giant SUVs, and heavy-duty farm equipment. If you think a fast car is scary, try biking alongside a combine.
Second, the roads aren’t designed for cyclists. But even country roads can have small changes that would make a big difference. For example, simply adding wide paved shoulders that function as bike lanes would help, and installing stoplights in towns that detect cyclists without having to ride onto the sidewalk to press the pedestrian crossing button (which is challenging when hauling kids in a trailer). If my kids are with me, I opt for the sidewalk, but if I'm alone, I ride on the shoulderless road, keeping to the center of the lane when in town to discourage any idiotic, near-fatal passes. So many unfortunate cyclists have died on rural highways that it makes me take my bike rides very seriously.
Third, my perception of distance has changed. My daily commute in Toronto was a round trip of 15 miles. It never seemed that far, but out here, 15 miles hardly gets me anywhere – just more cornfields or herds of grazing cattle.
Cycling can be very discouraging here, far from the supporting hordes of riders in an urban setting. But the more people who bike, while following the rules of the road, the stronger the message will be that cars must learn to share. The increased presence of rural riders, whether individually or in the form of bike coalitions, will encourage highway department officials and town planners to make accommodating and desperately needed changes for cyclists in rural areas.