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The Loneliness of the Long Distance Biker Part 2: The Trip

In Part 1 of this blog post series I described the context of my journey to NYC last September. I made the trip to demonstrate the feasibility of long distance travel by electric bike, and the People’s Climate March provided the perfect opportunity. This second part describes some details of the trip itself, then indulges in a vision of the future of long-distance biking.

One of the first mistakes I made was trusting Google maps to come up with a good route. In the past I’ve used the “bike button” on Google maps to show me bike trails along my route. For example, on a trip to Washington D.C. I was able to travel two-thirds of the 350-mile trip on scenic bike trails (in particular the C&O canal). Google recommended traveling south through Pennsylvania and then east through New Jersey, and promised a few rails-to-trails along the way. It looked good on the map! What happened in reality is that it took quite a bit of time to hunt down a trail, and when I finally found it, it turned out to be an overgrown gravelly rut unsuitable for touring bike tires. I was forced back onto the roads.

My cell phone played a key role in making the trip possible. Unlike previous trips, I almost never lost a cell phone signal. My cell phone map software allowed me to navigate back roads with confidence, so I was easily able to avoid busier roads. A few times in Pennsylvania I stumbled onto roads with no shoulder and heavy truck traffic (presumably the trucks were accomplishing various tasks related to fracking). I was able to duck down quiet side roads and continue my journey. Pennsylvania was strikingly beautiful. I felt privileged to pass through it at a slow speed that enabled me to savor it. Incidentally on one back-country dirt road I noticed lots of police activity. Only later did I learn that the police had cornered a survivalist who had shot a police officer.

I had planned to stay in hotels every night rather than camp out, mainly to charge my batteries. I carried a sleeping bag and bivy sack in case I needed to make an emergency camp, but I never ended up using them. One of the greatest anxieties of long-distance biking is finding a hotel every night when you don’t know ahead of time where you’ll end up. Again, the cell phone makes this easier. But I found I didn’t even need to make any calls: there were hotels about every ten miles on all medium to large roads. I spent about $100/day on food and hotels on this trip, much of it on local businesses that clearly needed the cash!

I didn’t exert myself at all. I did move the pedals around for appearance’s sake, but at no point did I sweat or even breath hard. I biked for about three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon. I traveled about 100 miles a day, double what I could travel bike touring without an electric motor. The electric motor helped in other ways: I found 20mph is sufficient to outrun unleashed country dogs.

New Jersey was not as scenic as Pennsylvania. As I moved east congestion gradually increased so that the quiet country road I began on in Pennsylvania ended up as a six lane highway in New Jersey requiring a left exit! My electric motor helped me get up enough speed to cross several lanes without too much danger. I would not have attempted it without the motor.

I fretted over how to get across the Hudson River. The Holland and Lincoln tunnels are closed to bicyclists. That left the ferry at the south end of Manhattan and the George Washington Bridge at the top. Even though I was closer to the ferry, their website was down and I couldn’t get any scheduling information. So I schlepped up to the GW bridge and crossed there. The view was spectacular.

hudson

In the past the thought of driving or biking in Manhattan would cause a knot of fear to grow in my chest. In contrast, my experience in Manhattan on this trip I would describe as “unbelievably delightful”. As I approached the GW bridge a group of other cyclists helped me find the entrance. Then on the other side a group of cyclists cheerfully escorted me to a 12-mile-long bike trail that runs the entire length of Manhattan along the east bank of the Hudson. When I reached the southern end of Manhattan a network of protected bike lanes led me to my destination. And during the few times that I did have to ride in traffic, motorists were polite and accommodating. WTF?! I’m not sure how this change came about, but I would now rank New York City as one of the premier biking towns in this country. It is totally fun to bike around there! I want to go back!

I stayed at the 15th St. Quaker Meeting in Manhattan and attended the People’s Climate March on Sunday October 21st. As I mentioned in Part 1 of this post, I only met two other people who had biked to the march. The Climate Movement desperately needs some vision and leadership in the transportation arena.

Needless to say, I sought a different route home. Everyone told me that bicyclists like to leave the city by going north on 9W towards Bear Mountain, so that’s what I did. This route is a favorite of muscular lycra-clad bicyclists out for an extended spin, and I passed dozens of them as I made my way north. Even though the shoulders were minimal here and there were many blind curves, motorists were used to the bike traffic and remained respectful.

Bear Mountain was in fact sort of a mountain, so again I was thankful that my motor did most of the work. I made my way west on 6, then 17, then north through the Catskills on 206. Lastly I picked up 79 at Whitney Point which becomes Ithaca’s State St. This last 100 miles I biked on quiet roads with wide shoulders and spectacular fall scenery. Pure bliss.

In my last post I asked, “Where are the bicycling advocates who work so hard to make urban biking easier but totally ignore the needs of the long-distance bicyclist?” One obvious need of the long-distance bicyclist is a long-distance electric bicycle. At a minimum we need 20mph average speed, 100-mile range, and 50 pound carrying capacity. Bicycling advocates, and the bicycling industry in general, don’t yet realize that this is easily possible. You cannot buy a commercial product for long-distance ebike travel; you have to make your own. This has to change. Our climate cannot afford for the bike industry to be timid.

Another need of long-distance bicyclists is ebike-specific infrastructure such as roads, charging stations, and accommodations. At a minimum roads should have wide shoulders and be free from debris and cracks. I found that I could increase my average speed from 20mph to 25mph by biking on wide smooth state highway shoulders. A step up from shoulders would be highway lanes dedicated to bicyclists, or even whole highways. Bicyclists deserve infrastructure that allows them to travel side-by-side with their companions, a privilege that motorists take for granted. Bike highways might seem like an unattainable goal except for the fact that they already exist in Denmark, Germany, Sweden, and the UK. Some of them go for hundreds of miles. The main difference between these highways and bike paths is that they are designed to be straighter and hence faster. Like automobile highways, they go over or under crossroads, have good lighting, and have snow-removal and other services. We need that.

Another intriguing bit of ebike infrastructure would be charging stations. Such stations could solve a bunch of long-distance biker problems. One is the number of batteries I need to buy and carry. On my trip I carried four $800 8 pound batteries for a total of $3200 worth of batteries that weighed a total of 32 pounds. Another problem is the amount of time I needed to devote to recharging. I spent 8 hours a day (while asleep) charging batteries. And lastly charging stations could free me from having to stay a hotels. Here’s how it works. If there existed an ebike battery standard so that batteries were interchangeable, and there were charging stations along my route, I would only need to carry one battery at a time. I could simply swap batteries at a charging station as they ran out. Sound incredible? Again, already being done in Europe.

Lastly one drawback to long-distance travel by bike is that it incurs more expense than travel by car because more time on the road requires more accommodations. So my trip cost about $500 for five hotel stays and dinners. However, instead of thinking of this as a drawback, we should consider the bad effects the automobile has had on small communities, and consider what we can do as long-distance bicyclists to reverse those effects. On my trip I saw many sad shriveled up little towns. Cars rushed through but no one stopped since there were no amenities for motorists. And I saw other towns that instead catered to motorists. They had row upon row of big box stores, fast food restaurants and gas stations floating in a big black parking lot sea. They had lost their integrity as towns but at least they were still on the map.

I see long-distance bike travel as a way to reverse this polarization. Biking is a mode of travel that lends itself to stopping and saying “hi” rather than zooming by. On a bike you can travel the back roads. You can stop at the local ma and pa restaurant instead of the fast food joint. You can stay at the dorky little motel rather than the corporate clone hotel. Traveling by bike allows us to be human. Join me!

  • David Robarts

    While I agree that most car trips (even many long ones) can be repaced with powered (or unpowered if you want the excercise) bikes, the extra cost of traveling slower can be significant on inter-city trips. Also the automobile does not inherently prevent traveling back roads and patornizing local small businesses rather than large chains. It is probably worth pointing out that the extra costs are easily recouped by most people by switching to a bike instead of a car for their daily local transportation. Even those who do not choose biking for long trips can use the savings to pay the extra cost car rental or common carrier transportation on their long trips that they would have taken in their own car if they owned one.