National Bike to Work Day slipped past most of Waco, along with National Pizza Party Day, National Piercing Day and National Sea Monkey Day.
But not Megan Henderson. At 8 a.m. Friday, she took a deep breath, snapped on her helmet and headed down Maple Avenue toward downtown with only the slightest wobble.
It was a moment of moral courage for Henderson, who is director of Waco Downtown Development Corp., and by her own account, an inexperienced and “incredibly clumsy” bicyclist. In her favor, it should be noted that she ditched the skateboard kneepads she bought for the trip.
“This is one of those uncomfortable times when my values and my sense of security are not entirely the same,” she said at the beginning of the four-mile crosstown trek. “I think a lot about cycling, particularly downtown.
I think about bike safety and bike lanes. . . . The only reason I don’t ride my bike (to work) is that I’ve never done it, and I feel a little insecure.”
Henderson’s Sherpa in this expedition was Felix Landry, a city planner who has overseen the city’s addition of bike lanes in downtown in recent years. He commutes from his home near Sanger Avene and Valley Mills Drive several times a week and offered to ride with Henderson after she confessed her trepidation.
Bicycles have never been a notable part of Henderson’s childhood or adulthood, so she practiced getting comfortable with the bike at the local elementary school parking lot this week.
Landry stopped by Henderson’s house near 31st Street and Maple Avenue on Friday morning and laid out the route to her office on Elm Avenue. He also talked Henderson out of the kneepads, assuring her that commuting would not likely be a contact sport.
Henderson seemed relieved not to be dressed in what she had described as a “medieval roller derby” outfit.
Henderson said she was interested in exploring her mental blocks about commuting by bicycle. Would she make it across a busy intersection? Would she be run off the road by a giant truck? Would she feel miserably sweaty and tired afterward?
Landry said concerns about safety and logistics are widely shared.
Census surveys show that 1 percent of Americans in major cities commute to work by bicycle in a typical week, which is up from about 0.6 percent in 2000.
Landry said the proportion is no doubt lower in Waco, which has hot summers, daunting arterial roads and a lack of a cycling-friendly culture.
“Waco’s got Valley Mills Drive and Interstate 35,” he said. “Those are huge obstacles.”
But he said better infrastructure such as bike lanes could get more people out of their cars and into the bike saddle.
Some of the highest bicycle commuting rates are in college towns that made bicycle-friendly streets a priority years ago. Among them are Davis, Calif., with a 19 percent bicycle commute rate; Corvallis, Ore., with a 17.4 percent rate; and Laramie, Wyo., with a 6.8 percent rate.
Among large cities, Portland, Ore., is the leader, with a 6.1 percent rate. Austin, which has about the same climate as Waco, has a commuting rate of 1.5 percent, about 50 percent more than the average large city.
Landry said he doesn’t usually ride on days when he knows he has to wear a tie and make a presentation. City Manager Dale Fisseler is considering creating a shower facility at City Hall to encourage more city employees to cycle to work for the sake of fitness.
Friday offered perfect cycling weather, with morning temperatures in the 70s and golden morning sunlight. Landry led Henderson and a Tribune-Herald reporter down Colcord Avenue from 31st Street to North Fifth Street, passing fine historic homes, working-class neighborhoods and the World Cup Café. The crew traveled south toward downtown on Fifth Street, a wide, one-way street with moderate commuting traffic, including a couple of trucks with drivers that honked at the sight of cyclists sharing the road.
Closer to downtown, the cyclists merged into new bike lanes on Fifth Street and Washington Avenue and crossed the Washington Avenue bridge to Elm Avenue, arriving at the Downtown Development Corp. offices about 45 minutes later without any injuries or scares.
“I didn’t have any moments of fear,” Henderson said after putting her bike inside her office. “I never thought a car was going to get close to me, never thought I wasn’t going to get across an intersection.”
The only negative reaction she had was to the honking trucks on Fifth Street.
“I’m not the kind of person that someone honking at me is going to stop me, but nobody appreciates being honked at,” she said. “You know they’re not going to hit you, but it’s an unpleasant feeling. When I got onto the bike lanes, I had the feeling of, ‘This is where I can be.’ It’s a completely different feeling.”
Henderson said she wasn’t tired or sweaty after riding four miles, and a bicycle was a more mindful way to experience a commute, without the distractions of breakfast or hands-free cellphones.
“I had a great feeling of being present wherever I was,” she said. “I’m taking in so much more of what’s going on. I can enjoy the neighborhoods and the coffee shops and the river. I think I enjoyed it more than I thought I would.”
Later in the day, Henderson suspected that she pulled a muscle while darting across an intersection and decided to get a car ride home. But she said she has arranged to bike with Landry a couple of more times so she can get comfortable doing it on her own.
“It’s not ever going to be every day, but I definitely plan to ride my bike around downtown,” she said.