Monday, January 30, 2017

Commuting like your life depended on it

As a person ages, regular exercise becomes more important to keep the body moving and the mind engaged. Well before you reach the point where someone is holding your elbow and guiding you gently across the carpeted floor of the nice facility in which you spend your last days, you'll get around better if you do as much as you can under your own power.

Wolfeboro is full of old people. The median age in New Hampshire is rising in general, but certain towns attract retirees, meaning that the population is not only aging in place, it's recruiting people who have left the work force. This provides a lot of subjects to observe.

As I watch the retirees through the years, I see that the active ones  -- not surprisingly -- do better than the inactive ones. The local working-age commuters also enjoy an automatically better fitness base. Because of my foolish life choices, I'll be in the work force until they dump my body in an unmarked grave. So it's vitally important to me to stay in shape and save money. Transportation cycling, even for half the year, makes a critical difference.

The bike path system in town draws the largest percentage of locals who pedal. Anyone not fortunate enough to live within a half-mile or less of an access point is very likely to drive to the trail, unload the bikes, perform their obligatory exercise, and drive off to whatever is next. This is also true of many riders who are not yet retired, especially in tourist season. The Cotton Valley Trail is about to be completed all the way from Wolfeboro to Wakefield, fulfilling a plan published back in the 1990s. This makes it a destination journey for people who like to drive around, sampling different paths and trails.

The trails also attract walkers, some with dogs, some with strollers. During peak usage periods, riders have to negotiate this crowd, and the non-riders have to put up with the cyclists.

Walking is actually the best way to get around the tight center of Wolfeboro. I use the bike to get to town, but for any errands right in downtown I will walk, making better time than anyone on wheels when the traffic is at its height. Even when traffic is sparse, a cyclist will have to negotiate left turns and hills, and then find a secure place to park. If the distance is a half-mile or less, hoof it.

On trails or on the road, the vast majority of riding is done for recreation and exercise, separate from the utilitarian needs of daily life. A tiny handful of people use bikes for transportation. Most of them have an athletic background of some kind. We slip through Wolfeboro's legendary summer traffic with ease, but the prisoners of internal combustion all have their reasons to stay sealed in the can, barely moving on a really bad day. They're right: the blockage only lasts for a little over two miles at its worst. Then they can rip along, formation flying with their fellow motorists, far faster than some sweaty idiot pushing on bike pedals.

In the winter, I do not push bike pedals. With access to the cross-country ski trails, and a love of winter hiking and mountaineering, I have always set aside the bike when icy roads and encroaching snowbanks made it an unfair imposition on the road users who really truly can't get around any other way. Loggers and tradesmen need trucks. People who have to cover a lot of distance need to go faster than 15-20 miles per hour. We're all in this together. Yes, many road users could benefit physically and economically if they left the car home and pedaled on the errands on which you see them out there, but a lot needs to be done to make that easy and inviting. Right now it intimidates them.

In winters with little or no snow, the roads are as clear as in summer. Then I will ride, because I am not fenced in by a snowbank.

At some point, even a fit and healthy person starts to get physical problems. A slowing metabolism means that the pounds pile on much more quickly when the exercising stops. If people have walkable and bikeable routes to routine destinations, they have the option to leave the armored wheelchair in the garage, and get a little more conditioning without having to think about it. They'll never believe that they could change the traffic mix in their favor if they all just went for it. They stay in their vehicles, scaring themselves and each other so that only a few at a time ever give it a shot. And then it scares them, so they go back into the car.

Some people love their cars and would never consider getting around by bike. And they don't automatically rot away after age 70 as a stark warning of the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle. Some people manage to live long lives of happy smoking. There's no guaranteed formula. But the odds favor someone who remains active. I feel decrepitude eagerly hook its claws into me when I'm forced to be inactive. Even though the commute sometimes just feels like a treadmill grinding me toward my anonymous death, I know that it is helping me.


Coline said...

This is much what I have spent over half an hour telling a group touring the country visiting various communities to ask how their local environment can be improved. Keep us active, give us reasonable joined up safe routes and when you see a family cycling together you know your work is done...

Steve A said...

OTOH, cyclists are in added danger due to skin cancer. As you say, there's no sure bet.

cafiend said...

Sunscreen. And in Biketopia it would be safe to ride at night.