Women on Bikes Series: Michelle Swanson

Michelle Swanson has been riding her bike as much as she can for over 25 years. She is a transportation planner for a small city in the Pacific Northwest.

She rides between five to seven thousand miles a year, on average. Michelle would really love to find the "All Powerful Bike Lobby" someday.

When did you first start riding a bike?
As a wee one. One of my earliest memories is learning to ride without training wheels, and I think I was about four. I remember my father teaching me in the garage, and the exhilaration I felt when I realized he’d let go of the seat and I was propelling myself.

What motivated you to ride as much as you have over the years?
To be honest, this is a painful question. I started riding as a teenager, because I hated my body and wanted to make it disappear. You can see from the photos that didn’t work. I still exist, and my body stubbornly refuses to disappear.
Over the years, though, the weirdest thing happened: riding my bike became the fulcrum that everything else in my life balances on. If I don’t ride, I get depressed, I can’t sleep, I can’t focus, and my brain feels fuzzy.  Something happens deep after the first hour of a ride, and the static in my head goes silent.
I ride, quite simply, because it makes me happy.

You commute regularly. What inspired you to go by bike?
Oh, this one’s easy: I was broke, and I had no money to fix my crappy car. I was about 23, and I’d already been riding recreationally for several years. It was an easy transition to ditch the car and just ride everywhere.
I should also mention, though, that I lived in Seattle, so it was easy to make this choice. Everything I needed – job, grocery store, coffee house, bar – was close by. I’d deliberately chosen to live in an urban environment, because when I was 17 and living with my parents in the ‘burbs my car broke down. I had no money to fix it, but I had to get to my job, which was some 20 miles away.
So for several weeks I made the 40+ mile round trip bike ride in a super dangerous, suburban environment while I saved up for the car repairs. It was brutal.
I needed to keep the job so I could save up to move out of my parents’ house when I was 18. I did, and I have never lived more than three miles from where I work since. I’m terrified of being dependent on a piece of machinery that can break at any time and leave me unable to meet my basic needs. Never again.

What were some challenges you faced when you first started commuting?
Clothes! Oh my god, the clothes! I worked in this rigid office that had a dress code several pages long – the women’s section was way longer than the men’s, of course – and the transition from riding my bike into those clothes was the worst. 
I didn’t want to wear my work clothes on the bike, because in the summer I’d sweat and in the winter I’d get rained on. So I’d carefully roll up my clothes (minimizes wrinkles), put them in a plastic bag, and then put them in my backpack, along with my shoes and lunch. I also carried baby wipes (armpits), an extra stick of antiperspirant, and I’d change in a bathroom stall.
Oh man, it sucked. The bathroom was hot, half the time someone would be pooping the next stall over, and my coworkers treated me like a freak.
When the employer installed a shower and changing room to get a tax break from the Commute Trip Reduction Act, they only allowed upper management access to it. That place was awful, and I worked there for seven years.  On the other hand, it sure motivated me to go to college.

Are there any current challenges that you have to deal with?
Honestly, no. I have the sweetest deal now, because I’m a city transportation planner. Not only do I work at a place that has a shower, lockers, and a safe place to stow my bike without having to fiddle around with a lock, but people don’t treat me like a freak because I ride. In fact, I’m expected to ride.
I’m also salaried, so I can work a schedule that allows me to go for a recreational ride most days before work. Best part: I get to ride my bike to off-site meetings. That sends a powerful message to other agencies, as well. It shows that my city is serious about the bicycle as transportation.
My workplace also has an “emergency ride home” program, so if you walk, bike, or take the bus to work and something happens that requires you to go home, you can use a fleet car to get home.  A few months ago my husband had a medical crisis, so I just hopped in a city car and ran home to help. It was a tremendous relief.
I am very privileged, and I bring that awareness to my work every day. I feel a deep responsibility to extend that privilege to everyone in my city. They make it possible for me to have this sweet job, and I owe it to them. 

Do you commute all year/all weather? If so, what are some tips and suggestions that would be helpful for others who are curious about it?
One of two must-haves for winter riding is fenders on both wheels. It’s worth taking the time and spending some money for fenders that are properly installed. They can be tricky.
Lights are the other must-have. I like to have two tail lights and headlights, because one of them will inevitably stop working at some point. Cheap LEDs are easy to come by and totally worth it. I keep a stock of new batteries on hand, so whenever the lights start looking dim I can freshen them up right away.
It also takes a little longer to get places during the winter, because you ride slower. Just plan on it.

What would be a good way for someone to get started with commuting in their local area?
You know, I think commuting by bike seems complicated at first, but once you do it a few times and get your routine worked out, it stops feeling like an exotic deviation from the norm and just becomes part of the background noise in your life.
I do think it’s worth investing some time in learning good routes to take to get to where you’re going. When learning to navigate a new city or new destination, I always spend some time poring over a map – many cities have bike maps for this purpose, and Google maps has a “bike” option – to find lesser-known streets to travel on. The less interaction I have with cars, the better.
And then if I’m unsure about how long it will take, I’ll ride the route on a weekend and see how it goes. The first few times I ride somewhere new, I usually leave way early, so I’m not stressed out.

Where else do you like to ride?
At this point in my life, most of my riding is commuting or the morning trail ride, with occasionally detours to the farmers market. I do ride sometimes as part of my job (sweet!), but on the weekends I like to spend time with my daughter, who’s four. Securing the bike and trailer at our destination is always a crapshoot and a pain in the ass, so we usually take the bus. She loves the bus, and I love the leisurely walks with her to and from the bus stop.
When I was younger and single, I rode to the bar a lot. Heh. And the grocery store, and the movie theater (what a quaint idea – does anyone even go to the movies anymore?), and class, and Critical Mass and and and!

Have you ever had a cycling accident or situation that was tough for you physically/emotionally/mentally? If so, how did you heal or deal?
Yeah, I’ve had some crashes, especially when I was younger and rode more aggressively. For me, just riding is my way of healing and dealing with life’s difficulties, so my rule is to get back on the bike the next day, before I get too scared to do it again.
When I was 8 years old I had an epic crash that was pretty traumatic. I didn’t ride a bike again until I was 11, which is a long time when you’re a kid. I learned from that experience to not let fear get in the way of doing something worthwhile.

What do you love about riding your bike?
Oh man, I could go on and on.
When I ride, I feel like I belong to my city, the planet, the mountains, the water…I’m not separated from the outdoors like I am when I drive. My husband will remark about the weather sometimes, and I’m just like, “Yeah, so?” I always know what the weather report is, because I have to dress for it every day. To him, it’s a bit of trivia. To me, it’s a central part of my everyday life.
Every time I’ve moved to a new city I’ve developed a network of friends and community much sooner than he has, because I’m out and about every day, seeing other people walking and biking.
I also love that I’m not dependent on an expensive piece of machinery to get my needs met. When stuff breaks on my bike, the repairs have always been within my budget, or I’ve been able to do them myself.
Or maybe I’m just in it for the endorphin high.

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?
Oh, the bikes I’ve loved and lost…it’s like reciting a list of old boyfriends.
Right now I ride a bike that I won in a contest, if you can believe it. It’s a mixte with an 8-speed internal hub and a chain guard, which means no more worrying about getting my dress caught in the chain. I wondered if I could deal with the hills on an 8 speed, but it’s got a nice range and it’s a relief not to be shifting all the damn time.

I rode road bikes almost exclusively for 20 years, but the hand and neck pain is losing its appeal. One of those bikes is a custom and feels like an extension of my body. I still ride it in the summer when I want to go long, hard, and deep into my mind, but it sucks for commuting. The mixte has a built-in rack, so I can schlep all my crap around.
I have an off-the-shelf mountain bike that I mostly use when towing my daughter, because the mixte won’t accommodate the trailer hitch. It’s got disc brakes, which is helpful in our rainy climate.

What clothing/bike accessories do you love? What would you recommend to your friends?
I only a little embarrassed to say that I got these so-called “body shapers” off Amazon a while back, and they are amazing for riding in a skirt! They’re indestructible!  They don’t prevent me from breathing or moving, they’re just like lightweight bike shorts. Plus they keep me from wearing out my expensive wool tights. Yay!
I also love my cheap-ass balaclava, which I wear under my helmet when it’s raining or cold. I do wear a helmet when it’s raining, because it keeps the rain from getting in my eyes. Helmets are a touchy subject, so I gently suggest that each person make her own choice.

What do you feel deters women from being more involved with cycling?
Shitty infrastructure is the main reason, but the other is a little tougher to get at: many of us live in places where the distance between work, home, school, daycare, and all the other places we need to go are really far apart. As we age into our childrearing years, women do more trips to the grocery store and hauling kids around. It’s pretty hard to ride with your kid and a pile of groceries on a busy street with a paint stripe between you and a driver fiddling with a cell phone at 40 mph.

What do you feel would encourage more women to ride?
Better infrastructure and more dense cities with a mix of uses in each area. I guess I’m a pretty orthodox urban planner.

Why do you feel commuting by bike is valuable?
Probably for all the reasons I’ve listed above: it keeps me sane, it helps me feel like part of my community, it’s cheap, it keeps me healthy, and it’s just so much fun.

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
No lie: while I was writing this, my daughter asked me to take a break and help her ride her bike in the garage. She’s had a balance bike since she was 18 months old, but she’s been reluctant to try out her pedal bike.
She just figured it out, and I had that moment when you let go of the seat and watch her take off. I totally cried.
She’s the same age I was when my father did the same thing in his garage. The wheels keep turning, I guess.