Early on Sunday mornings I cycle to the chapel where our church community meets. On one recent Sunday I encountered zero cars going either way on the streets I was cycling for two miles. The roads were silent except for the minimal sound of my chain rotating on the crank, which marks the rhythm of my movement on the streets.
On many Sundays I have a similar experience, although it is rare to encounter no other vehicular traffic. The experience can extend to weekdays as well, if one rides outside the hours when the heaviest traffic is on the streets. The sound of silence is not only appealing and gratifying, it also affords me opportunity to clear my head for the preparation of the services that are to come. When there is minimal traffic on any given day, not only on a Sunday, a silence accompanies you as you pedal. You might even say that it acts as a wrapper around you, a protecting cloak to guard your journey.
There is a website called Streetfilms which I have mentioned before. Recently I watched a newer episode about Nijmegen, the Netherlands, which is a premier cycling city. One of the main qualities of the city noted by people who have experienced it is the quietness of the streets. Sixty percent of all the people who can potentially ride in Nijmegen are cyclists, and the result is a quiet city, especially since the city center is completely car free. In this video, people spoke of “hearing the silence,” and about the peacefulness of this means of transport. Instead of all the noise we usually associate with cities, one hears people walking, children playing and conversations between cyclists on the road. But the quiet is noteworthy.
We’re not in Nijmegen, of course, and no comparison is possible: the Netherlands are primarily flat as a board. It’s so flat in the country, except for the far south, that you have to construct hills (called terps). It’s mainstream and ordinary for the Dutch to travel by bicycle and not by car; that culture has been built into the scene for so long that it is taken for granted. Children learn to ride by the age of five and by the third grade they’re already cycling by themselves to school. But it was not always so, and hence Holland can serve as an inspirational model for what many of us would like to see in America, and in fact are beginning to see again in bigger cities like New York and Philadelphia and Chicago.
When you commute by bicycle, you have the opportunity to see other people you know and stop and have conversations or to meet new people while you ride. You get exercise and mental stimulation while you are going to work, and you arrive in better shape than if you sat in a car. You avoid the hassle of traffic and the anxiety and frustration that goes with it. You get rid of your road rage. At the same time, street level riding makes you more aware of options for shopping. Storekeepers should recognize this as an asset, not a liability. I have learned a lot about the resources of Las Cruces simply by cycling everywhere throughout the city. When you commute to work, you experience your city or town on a different level of consciousness than if you are ensconced in a car or truck.
These are some reasons to commute by bicycle, but don’t forget the key one that began the column. I treasure hearing the silence of the commute and you will, too.
Fr. Gabriel Rochelle is pastor of St Anthony of the Desert Orthodox Mission, Las Cruces, an avid cyclist and chairman of the Hub (community bike shop of Las Cruces) steering committee. Email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.