I've loved riding a bicycle for as long as I can remember. Propelling myself at almost dizzying speed is the closest I'll get to flying. As a kid, I had a sturdy Schwinn, followed by a more serious road bike that I used for long rides in the country. After college, living in New York City and pinching every penny, I rode to and from work, cruising regularly up Central Park West right up until the day in my early 20s when some unsuspecting yutz opened a car door in front of me. I braked, swerved, and narrowly escaped with my life. That night, I stowed my bike deep in the basement of our apartment building. I didn't ride again for 15 years.
Then for my 40th birthday, a group of coworkers gifted me with a bike. By then my husband and I had two kids. At first, I confined my rides to rail trails and quiet country roads even as we outfitted the boys in training wheels and helmets and took them to the parking lot of a local school on weekends so they could learn to ride in a safe, car-free expanse.
Meanwhile, I was desperate (as so many moms are) to find a way to slip more exercise into my crammed days. Seduced by the sight of more bikers braving the city streets, I began to ride in New York City again. I started out of necessity three years ago, after Hurricane Sandy, riding the five miles to work and bypassing train delays and traffic. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed it. But I was nervous, too, about safety. It felt selfish of me to do something risky when I had kids. Twenty cyclists were killed in New York City last year, up from 12 the year before (probably because so many more people are riding bikes). My neighborhood turns up among the top 10 on this list of most common police precincts for cyclist injuries. Virtually every time I ride I have a near miss with a car or find myself swerving into traffic to avoid someone (often a police car or other city vehicle) parked in one of New York's newly abundant bike lanes. I frequently have near-collisions with fellow cyclists who ignore red lights. People who learn that I ride a bike often ask, "Aren't you afraid?" and it's common practice for two bikers to part company by telling one another to "ride safe."
And I do take safety seriously. When I ride, I find myself at stop lights wearing a facial expression that I think of as "resting bike face," a don't-mess-with-me look. I also wear a helmet, use a bell and light, and have studied the rules of the road. But none of that will save me if I have a run in with a car.
So still, I feel selfish. Biking to work makes me happy. But it's not saving the world. I'm not serving in the military or traveling to an embattled corner of the globe to work for a humanitarian aid organization or taking risks for some other truly important reason. On the other hand, I am showing my kids an example of what it means to live an active lifestyle, and that must count for something. And I'm demonstrating, in my own small way, courage and the willingness to take some risk to do something that brings me joy. So I continue to ride with the cars, although one weekend soon, after the first snowfall here, I admit I'll feel a little relieved when I stow my bike for the winter and turn to that other somewhat dangerous activity I regularly engage in: driving.
Dana Points is the Editor in Chief of Parents and a member of the board of Safe Kids Worldwide, which might explain why she spends so much time thinking about safety.