Monday, July 14, 2014

Women on Bikes Series: Megan Strom


I met Megan while working at the Co-Op and have checked her groceries out several times. When you ride a bicycle on a regular basis you become familiar with other bike riders. The easiest sign would be a customer walking in with a helmet on. I noticed Megan commuted by bike on a very regular basis, which made her an excellent candidate for a blog interview and I hope you enjoy it!

When did you first start riding a bike?
I started riding when I was really young. I’d mostly ride around our yard and around the neighborhood, often with my cat in my basket.

What motivated you to ride as much as you have over the years?
I lived in Latin America for about three years during college and graduate school, and noticed how little people depend on their own vehicles for transportation. Nearly everyone uses public transportation.


When I got back to the United States, I wanted to continue with the idea of depending less on my own vehicle and finding alternative forms of transportation. At the time, I was living in Minneapolis, and the bike culture there is great. Many of my colleagues in graduate school were avid commuters, so they really got me hooked on it. I was a full-time commuter within a month of moving back to the United States.

What were some of the positive things about the bicycle infrastructure in Minneapolis?
I think the sense of the presence of cycling and commuting in general. I think perhaps there is a commonality between Minneapolis and Decorah in that there are many trails, so one expects there to be a lot of cyclists. However, in Decorah I don't get the sense of a commuting community/culture. Because this is the kind of cycling I do the most, it is likely much more acute for me than those who just ride the trails. At any rate, visibility and acceptance of commuters were the most positive things I noticed in Minneapolis, which are not exactly tangible, but nonetheless important.

It's becoming an increasingly popular conversation and I think it would be interesting to know how you feel Decorah could better serve the bicycle commuters in this town/area-especially when you experienced a larger city area and what they've done.
This is a tough question, and one I'm not sure I could easily answer. In my opinion, awareness and infrastructure are the two most important elements, but how to go about doing that is a question I wouldn't know how to answer after only having lived here for 9 months

What kind of riding is your favorite? (paved, gravel, mountain, etc.)
Paved roads. Strangely enough, busy city roads are my favorite!

Do you remember how you felt on your first mountain bike ride? (If not a mountain biker, how about first commuter ride, paved trail ride, gravel, etc.)
My first commute was one of the scariest things ever. I was in downtown Minneapolis on a three-lane one-way street during rush hour. All I remember thinking was “Please don’t hit me, please don’t hit me, please don’t hit me…” It was probably not the best time for my first commute, but I survived. It was exhilarating to think that I could take a bike through the same places I used to go in my car and, in most cases, get there more quickly and feeling more refreshed from the exercise.

If you had nervousness at all, what do you do or think to overcome it?
Now that I’m commuting in Decorah, I don’t get as nervous because there is not nearly the same level of traffic that there was in Minneapolis. If I do get nervous, it is when I’m riding on snow or ice. I usually tell myself to stay calm, because once I panic, I start to slip, and that’s when things get dangerous. I also tell myself to stay steady and to not make any sudden movements, because that is what has gotten me into accidents/crashes in the past.

If you are a commuter what are some of the challenges you face and how do you overcome them?
Over the years, I have learned that commuting is a world within itself. To begin, there is the side of the commuters. I believe that there are different styles of commuting, from those who are ruthlessly fast and what I would consider to be dangerous (often delivery people), to those who maybe should not be commuting because they are not properly equipped and do not know commuting etiquette. It took me a long time to get used to how to share the road with these different styles, and how to anticipate what they would do. This is especially true for stop signs and other traffic signals, where some commuters will follow them and others will not. This can lead to some dangerous situations just between the commuters.

Just as difficult has been getting used to the drivers, because they, too, have their own “style”. Thankfully, many drivers are aware of commuters, and are very aware of how to share the road with them. For the most part, this is what I have come across and has made commuting a really great experience. However, there are still many people who either aren’t used to commuters and don’t know what to do with them, or, worse, don’t like them and purposefully don’t share the road with them.

For those who have not seen commuters, the most difficult part has been the ways in which they handle traffic signals: they will often not go “in turn” at stop signs to let the commuter go first, or will hesitate to go at green lights for the same reason. Although this is kind of them, it makes it difficult for the commuter to know what to do, because not all drivers are like this.

For those who don’t care for commuters, I don’t know what to say. I have gotten into some very close calls and actual crashes from these people. I understand many of their complaints (commuters don’t follow the traffic rules, they dart in and out of traffic, etc), but we deserve the same respect as any other vehicle.
The only way I have been able to overcome all of these challenges is to be a defensive driver and be overly aware of my surroundings, knowing that not everyone has the same idea of how bicycles and vehicles should share the road.

I totally get what you mean in terms of the difficulties/differences of various bike riders and vehicle drivers. I actually find myself somewhat frustrated because I'm out there "pretending I'm a car" and I make my full stop (because I'm not great at trackstanding yet) and I'm waved through when it's not my turn makes me feel like I must "get up n' go" and get my hurry on because others are waiting. I appreciate people being nice or considerate, but at the same time I think it does make multiple parties confused.
Exactly!! Very difficult to predict what drivers will do, especially in a place that's probably not used to the heavy commuter traffic that a large city gets. 

Do you commute even if the weather isn’t ideal? Why or why not? If yes, what do you do to make it more tolerable?
Yes. I have commuted through the winters in Minneapolis for the last 5 years for practical purposes: I hadn’t purchased a bus pass and parking was too costly and difficult to find.

In the winter, I have learned what to wear so I don’t sweat too much but also keep my extremities warm. For the slop/rain, I have learned how to equip my bike so I don’t get too much dirt/mud/water on me. For most inclement weather, I simply wear workout clothes for my commute and change into my work clothes once I get to work. It’s certainly more work, but worth it, in my opinion.

Could you name 5 things that a person new to commuting should know or take into consideration?
I don't know that I have 5 things total, but rather two important ideas: Commuting etiquette and how to be safe on the road. For example, How do you make turn signals? What roads should you/should you not be riding on? There are many excellent sites you can find through a simple internet search, and this will help any beginning commuter prepare herself/himself for the road.

What would be 5 things that you would suggest a commuter invest in?
I can really only think of 4 that are absolute musts.

1. A helmet. There is just no way around it. Even if I'm riding with traffic that is going a maximum of 30 mph, a helmet is an essential. 
2. Lights. People must see you in order for you to be safe. The brighter, the better.
3. Appropriate clothing. I am not one to talk, because I'll often commute in high heels and other clothes that don't lend themselves well to commuting. However, I do notice that I'm much safer and confident when I'm wearing clothing that fits the weather and will not get caught in gears, for example.
4. A messenger bag.

What would you suggest for tips for winter commuting? (other than what you already wrote?)
Safety comes above all else. If I think it's going to be dangerous, I drive or do public transportation. Although I place a high premium on avoiding motor vehicles, there is no reason to put my life at risk.

I would highly suggest for beginner winter commuters that they "test the waters", so to speak, during a non-commuting situation. Do you know how your bike will react to snow? To ice? To black ice? To slush? These are all things you DO NOT want to learn when you are riding with traffic. "Practice" around your home to get a sense for how you and your bike react to these conditions so you are prepared to commute safely. It is not the same as a car, so do not assume that if you have driven your car in the winter weather for years that you will be fine commuting in the same weather. 

Have you had a bike biff? If so, how did you recover on a physical/mental/emotional level?
Yes. I’ve had some very scary incidents driving in rush hour in Minneapolis. I was riding in the rain one day when a car decided to pull into the bike lane to avoid all of the traffic. I was going so quickly that when I hit my brakes, I slid on the rain and hit the back of the car and fell into the road. The most disappointing part was that the car did not stop, although it was very clear that it had been hit. Many other times I have wiped out on ice because the bike lanes are not nearly as clear as the regular roads. For these times, all I can do is to stay calm and get out of the path of traffic as quickly as possible.

I have never had major physical injuries from these crashes, but mentally, it is really difficult to get back up and finish your commute. I usually tell myself that continuing to ride will help me clear my mind and perhaps help me get over the incident more quickly than if I just got in my car and rode to work/home. By the time I do my next commute, I start over with my usual mantra of “stay safe, be aware of your surroundings, and enjoy the ride”.

What do you love about riding your bike?
The freedom from being tied to a vehicle. Knowing that I am reducing my carbon footprint. Being able to see wherever I am from a different perspective than I would in a vehicle.

I notice your boyfriend is a commuter as well, did you inspire that or were you both commuting when you met?
That's a great question. He did nothing bike-related before we met, but he did own a really old mountain bike. We planned on going to a Twins game a few years ago and I insisted that we bike there from my apartment just a few miles away because I hated trying to find parking for big events. I think he was hesitant about it, especially because there would be traffic, but after that day he was hooked! He bought his own hybrid bike and is really into trail riding now.

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