Slow Ride, Take It Easy

I’ve been thinking a lot about slowness lately. Part of my inspiration has been from necessity: I recently found an old tandem bike on Craigslist and have been using it to get around Brooklyn with the kid. It weighs roughly one ton. It has only one speed, and only one pace: stately. When riding it, I affect a lordly indifference to the cars and bikes that whiz by.

3593842052_03235f0de7_m.jpgWith a bike like this, you could learn to ride more slowly, too. Photo by Beat Bike Blog.

And it feels great. Especially after a couple of days spent racing around town on my other bike, which is light and fleet and always seems to be asking me why I bother stopping when the light turns red (that’s another post).

Slow biking as an international phenomenon may not be as well known as slow food, but it’s out there and growing, along with many other manifestations of a slow movement embraced by people who find the hectic pace of the 21st century dehumanizing and counterproductive. You can find a slow biking manifesto at The Slow Bicycle Movement website. Brought to you by the Copenhagenize folks, this is a blog that moves at an appropriately glacial pace.

Many slow bikers are also cycle chic aficionados. One of our most recent additions to the Streetsblog Network, Charleston Cycle Chic, is a great example. (We’ve added Cycle Chic Estonia, too, because, you know, why not?) We applaud these efforts because they are part of a trend across the world, and even the good old US of A, toward "normalizing" cycling as transportation.

Another of our member blogs, The Beat Bike of Hartford, CT, has this to say about the slow ride:

One of the things I noticed when I was in Cuba is that the people there ride their bikes slowly. Singlespeeds are prevalent, but even bikes that appear to have functioning derailleurs or internally geared hubs are usually left on one speed, and people just plod along. The average speed is maybe twice as fast as a leisurely walk, keeping cycling in the realm of appreciable mechanical advantage while obviating the need not only for multiple speeds but, for the most part, brakes.

…[I]nspired, I suppose, by my trip, I decided it might be nice to embrace leisure in my riding — at least when I am wearing a suit. The problem (if it can be called that) is that the two bikes I have like to go at a healthy clip — the handlebars are pretty low, the saddles are kinda high, and somehow, they make me ride hard. Enter the Raleigh Twenty…

Today, all spiffed up for court, I endeavored to ride slow on a bike that I judged would not go fast even if I wanted it to. The result: smashing success. Rather than be a weird, fast-riding guy with suit pants rolled up, awkwardly straddling two worlds and two speeds, I embraced my inner country lawyer and toodled along in old-school, three-speed style. It was enjoyable, and I didn’t get too sweaty… Also, I was able to imagine this song as my soundtrack.

Other tidbits that have flowed past us in the fast-moving Streetsblog Network news feed: The Infrastructurist posts 36 reasons streetcars are better than buses. Orphan Road writes about increasing density along commuter rail lines. And Mobilizing the Region discusses the role of public-private partnerships in transit-oriented development.

  • Greg

    I have a slow bike, not by choice but because I got it free. It’s an old Schwinn cruiser with three speeds, but most of the time its easier to keep it in one. I don’ mind that it is slow, but it takes too much exertion to keep it moving. Rare are the times when I don’t have to pedal, unless I’m going downhill. I don’t care about the speed issue but the exertion level is annoying – it makes the bike good for short distances only.

  • johnson

    Why not enjoy both ways of riding. There is nothing wrong with getting to ones destination quickly. Also some use their bike rides as a means of exercise and enjoy a brisk journey to an from work. Nothing worse then dangerous riding. Though leasurely riders also contribute to accidents by not really paying attention to were they are or were they are going. Also seem to be the majority of wrong way riders in my view.

    In the end no one way is better but lets not put down either way.

  • Brooklyn

    I don’t ride to be slow. And I agree with johnson — slow riders are just likelier to be in everyone else’s way.

  • john

    My son rides an ’66 upgraded single-speed 20 to school and greatly enjoys the leisurely ride. Linking such activity to “not paying attention” is wrong as he has learned much about the risks around him with the increased attention time. Another 6th grade girl recently said to him “that’s really retro”. Convenient, educational too, and he still loves fast riding on his road-mtn bikes.

  • I was in Charleston for a week and rented a bicycle to get around. I finally got to experience the joys of slow biking. All week I rode leisurely and comfortably wherever I needed to go (including the opera), while wearing whatever I felt like and (almost) never breaking a sweat. Had I been on one of those nifty Dutch City bicycles with a full chain case, my bliss would have been complete.

    Here’s the catch: all commuting distances were under 2 miles and generally less than one.

    In Manhattan, because I live far uptown, my typical bicycle commute is 12 miles or more. It is impossible to cover that distance without sweating, so I pack in my pannier a business shirt for changing into after getting to work. I don’t think slow biking is an option for most New York bicycle commuters unless they happen to live in (or near) the Central Business District or downtown, or they do multi-modal commutes where the bicycling portions are only three miles at most.

  • anonymous

    If you like slow so much, why don’t you just walk?

  • Maybe because what is slow for riding a bicycle in the United States is a hell of a lot faster than walking?

  • I ride slow because I’m going to work. I don’t want to get all sweaty. And let’s face it, I’m going to work, so why hurry??

    The bike makes a huge difference. If I ride my road bike then I find it very difficult to ride slow. It just doesn’t feel right. If I ride the bouncy mountain bike I ride slower, but more agressively. So I usually ride the singlespeed MTB. It’s got offroad gearing so slow is the only possible speed. And the 29er wheels and big fat Schwalb Big Apple tyres eat potholes for lunch… I can honestly say that the commute is the most enjoyable part of my day, and that’s even though it’s 15 miles of Queens Boulevard. All you anti-slow people need to realise that not everyone is in training for the TdF. Some of us ride because we actually enjoy it and want to prolong the fun.

  • In the greenway and other spaces shared by bikers and pedestrians, slow riding is much appreciated by peds. Cyclists who go at racing speed, or pass by me too close, or both, are the ones who generate stress and fear. Whereas I actually enjoy proximity to slow riders moseying past me because they don’t frighten me and are recognizable as fellow slow-moving creatures.

  • If I ride the six miles to the Metropolitan Museum of Art from my house at 8 mph it takes 45 minutes. My usual speed is 12.5 mph, so instead it takes me half an hour. I don’t find saving that 15 minutes dehumanizing and counterproductive, as Sarah’s article suggests. In fact, through riding I exult in my humanity and feel more productive, as well as more kindly, generous, and virile to boot.

  • LN

    As a devoted english vintage 3 speed rider, and the partner of a person who rides that exact bike (converted to a fixed gear) I want to say that we pass many of you-all on the greenway and on the streets when we are not even trying!

  • Ed

    slow riding equals civilized riding.
    nice aritcle!

  • My bike only has one speed–fast.

    Kidding, though I do ride a single-speed. I’m not quite sure how a multi-gear equates to “fast” riding while fewer speeds equals “slow,” as I manage to leave most food delivery guys in the dust on my route regardless of how many gears they have.

    When I am on the greenway and have time to kill, I ride more slowly. The road warriors that barrel down that path when it is full of pedestrians come off as rude. It’s such a lovely route, why should I rush?

    However, when I am in traffic, I like to match the speed of the cars, lest I get honked at or narrowly passed, two things which I despise. I also have a limited time frame to get to work from the ferry (and vice versa), and a (cautiously) quick pace relieves some of the time crunch. Like johnson said, it’s possible to ride responsibly or irresponsibly at either a slow speed or a fast one. Nothing is important enough to go so fast that I risk my safety, but so far it seems to be working out just fine.

  • Sarah Goodyear

    mcsladek,

    Obvious and true point on single-speed v. multi-speed. To clarify, this tandem is just a beast in terms of weight. Add 80 pounds of 7-yr-old boy who isn’t always pedaling as hard as he possibly could, throw in the hill up to Prospect Park, and I’m dreaming about downshifting. Conversely, the thing is geared low enough that on even slight downhills, pedaling doesn’t accomplish much in terms of adding speed.

    Which is all fine with me. Like I said, I have other bikes that like to go fast.

    I can’t remember where I heard it, but someone once said that bikes are like shoes…different ones are right for different purposes. If you have room to store more than one ride, you can enjoy all the different styles.

  • raleigh twenty

    that’s right LN, raleigh twenties ain’t slow! i gots one of them too and know several others with ’em, and, damn, can we go plenty fast . . . just look for us on the greenway – oh, don’t bother, we’ll be such a blur!

  • Sarah is exactly right.

    Bikes are like shoes and depending on what your riding/wearing you will act accordingly.

    I am the admitted owner of 8 bicycles (4 race inspired bikes, included two high $ custom jobs and 4 different types of 3-speed town/Dutch/folding bikes). The design of the bike often dictates the style and speed of riding.

    My first 3-speed townie was a garbage find about 10 years ago. After years of riding only race inspired bikes that old Columbia was a real blast to ride but dictated that you don’t try to go too fast. When I let my friends take it for a spin they always came back grinning ear to ear.

    Contrary to popular belief, riding slow can actually be faster when commuting to work as long as your ride is under 6 miles. I used to ride a 3.5 mile commute on my race bikes and was able to do in 13 minutes by riding at “Warp Factor 10” and in full race kit. But before I took off to work I would spend at least 10 minutes packing my office cloths and getting into my bike cloths. Once reaching work I would need to spend at least 10 minutes to cool down freshen up and change. All told the whole commuting experience took around 25 minutes, often 30.

    Since I discovered slow biking that same commute is now down to 20 minutes max! Riding at a relaxed 12mph I can cover the 3.5 miles in 18 minutes. While this is 5 minutes slower than before, there is no longer a need to pack before I go nor is there a need freshen up and get changed at work which saves me at least 10 minutes at each end of my trip. Yes in Summer I’ll wear a t-shirt and then change quickly when I get to work but that’s only on really hot days since it is usually cool enough before 9am to ride without breaking a sweat.

    So give slow biking a try. You just might like it.

  • john

    i find that slow biking on dedicated bike paths or cycle networks is very nice and enjoyable, allows me to enjoy the countryside and the beauty, say hi to the folks walking or cycling or whatever and is relaxing. that being said i dont go slow in the city, i keep up with cars and work to keep my speed high 17mph+ both for safety and because its fun to go fast 😛 also i cant go slow up hills, i dont have the long term stamina to be able to go slow up a hill, i usually power up blowing past other riders because well if i went slow i would have to stop half way up and walk the rest. the slow bike movement has its place, as do the fixies, as to the bmx, as do the tour-de-francers, if you do it safely and pay attention then great its another person on a bike!

  • I wonder what the Cycle Chic blogs do for tourism and economic development.

    Personally, I would love to visit Charleston now that I know it welcomes cyclists.

  • jack

    Personally, I think that until “slow biking” becomes the mainstream, accepted form of cycling, it will never reach the “critical mass” levels everyone here hopes for. I know everyone rushes everywhere in New York but fast cycling is always going to be connected (however unfairly) to crazy lawbreakers, keeping the whole concept of “serious cycling” as a niche effort.

    I am writing this from Tokyo, where just about everyone has a bike, and nobody goes particularly fast. Granted, nobody bikes 12 miles (that I can tell) to get to work; most people bike to their nearby station (all stations I’ve seen have large bike parking garages) and take the train to work. This way really does work the best, because the distances are antithetical to cycling, no offices have showers, and trains are way too crowded for anyone to bring their bikes. And to be honest, as much as it sucks to ride the super-crowded train, I do think this is the best way to go.

    If the MTA and NJTransit added serious bicycle parking at their train stations I think we’d see a serious sea change in perception. I wouldn’t expect anything like an underground parking level (like they have here) but simply replacing some car parking spots with bike parking would do wonders.

    This post is really unstructured but what I’m trying to say with the parking and train commuting is that once people feel they can cycle as a part of their commute without a serious (negative) effect to their personal hygiene (or anything else etc) the perception of bicycling as a loony/hipster activity will disappear.

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