I won’t lie, traveling exclusively by bike during Seattle’s winter sounded questionable on paper. But once I tried it, it wasn’t all damp leggings, waterlogged socks, and sweaty puffy jackets. My month-long experiment kicked off with some rules: if Apple Maps told me a location was accessible in 30 minutes or less aboard my nineties steel frame mountain bike, then I’d be biking, rain or shine.
The end of daylight savings time hit hard this year. As sunsets marched back towards 4 P.M., my energy levels sank. Prying myself from bed each morning felt like an Olympic event, and and my productivity surfaced in fickle waves throughout the day. Perhaps mandated movement and fresh air would break up my days and unlock consistent energy. If anything was going to save me from the deep winter blues known in the region as the “Big Dark,” I told myself, maybe it was bike commuting.
My experiment was partly inspired by a chance meeting with a middle school science teacher named Jessica Levine. Months before I set off on my first challenge-mandated ride to a nearby outdoor climbing wall, Levine and I happened to chat about bike commuting. She spends her school breaks bike touring (like, across the entirety of Canada) and her school mornings pedaling a roughly 45-minute route through five Seattle neighborhoods. Her classroom is stocked with dry socks for students who brave the rain on their own commutes, and she’s been instrumental in helping secure funding for student cyclists through Seattle’s Safe Routes to School program, which aims to improve safety and mobility for children biking to school. She told me her daily commute kept the magic of those backcountry adventures alive among what could easily have been the monotony of everyday life. Levine is selling her students on the idea that biking might also afford them more connection to nature—and independence ahead of driver’s licenses.
A 2023 study of nearly a thousand middle school students across North America backs up her anecdotal evidence: students who participated in a multi-week cycling education program experienced generally improved psychological health and well-being. If cycling can help pre-teens, it can probably help anyone, right?
Before concocting my experiment this autumn, I would intermittently hop on a bike for social rides with friends, but I had often wondered if becoming a consistent bike commuter could make my life better. Would biking give me more consistent energy for my work day? What about improved mood and sleep? Would I feel more connected to the natural world and the people I share it with? Could something as simple as an old bike outfitted with a couple flashing lights and a frame bag (that holds way less than anticipated, by the way) really fight the Big Dark? Starting in the middle of November, I was poised to pedal my way to answers.
The first change didn’t inspire much confidence: my laundry basket filled up at an alarming rate with clothes wet from some combination of rain and my own sweat. But a couple days in, I noticed that waking up was suddenly easier; I no longer groggily hit the snooze button until shame propelled me out of bed. I felt…rested? It was weird.
Throughout the first week, my mood, energy levels, and productivity became noticeably more consistent, and I was blissfully tired by nighttime. Perhaps this came from the delicate planning my new lifestyle demanded. On Thanksgiving, I chose my potluck contribution based on what could arrive at dinner fully intact after being jostled in my backpack during the 26-minute ride to a friend’s house. (Still, I failed to optimize my holiday outfit: A couple of minutes into the ride, my favorite party pants fell victim to the tooth-like chainring. Hiking them up my thigh to avoid further rippage, I slipped my gloves off to check directions. My phone went dark. Mental notes from day two: No flowy pants. If you want navigation, keep the phone charged.)
Biking to the grocery store, a co-working space 3.6 miles from home, the library, and disparate errands made for a slower, maybe even more pleasantly distracted lifestyle. I joined Levine on her homebound commute one crisp December afternoon, and we left the school bathed in golden light on one of the shortest days of the year. We paused at Lake Washington to watch waterfowl land among gloriously muted winter foliage with Mount Rainier in the background. She admitted to arriving late for a morning meeting or two after lingering too long to watch dramatic sunrises in this very spot. I understood.
“We have decided that wild is ‘out there’ and not right here,” Levine told me. On a bike, the wild adventure that’s so easy to notice on a backpacking trip showed up in my neighborhood. I made a quick detour towards an urban overlook en route to a doctor’s appointment one morning. A dynamic, rolling fog bathed the city. Moving more slowly meant wild beauty could stop me in my tracks on an almost daily basis: Lake Union bleeding gold onto downtown’s buildings at sunset; pink and orange skies sandwiching Green Lake; tiny bits of blue sky peeking through the quintessential Big Dark clouds. I started to get why a friend insisted on a daily two-hour bike commute to his new desk job after years as a full-time guide under open skies.
On a Tuesday about two weeks into the experiment, I was in a funk and mentally spiraling with imposter syndrome and a growing list of deadlines. My typical coping mechanism involves blasting the car radio to ward off additional thoughts; instead, I lugged my bike down my house’s ever-so-annoying stairs and begrudgingly set off without my beloved distractions. I had a whole 20 drizzling minutes to think without so much as a traffic light. By the time I locked my bike, the funk had dissipated. It’s possible that self-reflection in my daily cycling journal (a new habit I developed during my experiment) or shifting hormones had curtailed stress in the past weeks. Or it could’ve been the biting fresh air, relentless quad workout, and thinking space that came with daily cycling.
In a 2023 survey of 363 urban bike commuters, consumer education site eBikes.org found that slightly over half reported lower stress levels thanks to their alfresco commute. In a perfect world of well-protected bike lanes, I’d side with that majority. But reality isn’t that perfect.
This November, during my experiment, yellow silhouettes popped up at crosswalks and along busy thoroughfares everywhere I traveled, each in honor of a Seattleite killed by a vehicle in that very spot. There were over 200 of them placed by the grassroots advocacy group Seattle Neighborhood Greenways. I often cycled on bike lanes that ended abruptly or were blocked by illegally parked cars. A school bus once pinned me to a curb to avoid a pothole. Each spooky encounter raised the cortisol a tad. Were those spikes of stress worth it? I’m going to say yes.
While I can’t necessarily prove that bike commuting completely overhauled my life, I did generally feel like a better human during this experiment. I had more mental energy for work and play and felt more intimately connected to the places and people in my city. The fact that cycling led me to my new favorite biscuit place and reduced my carbon footprint doesn’t hurt either. Post-challenge, I’m stoked to have my keys back for rainy days and convenient grocery hauls, but I still plan to keep bike commuting—in moderation. As I write this, my bike is patiently waiting for me outside my climbing gym’s workspace.