Yes, but…

They don't always fight.

They don’t always fight.

A couple of years ago we went to Copenhagen and rented bikes. The first day we rode with our children through the city was one of the best of our lives. They were single speed bikes and they were as heavy as boat anchors, and we got lost more than once, and it rained. I did not care. We could go anywhere we wanted, and the kids were screaming with joy and hugging us from their child seats behind us, and sometimes the sun came out, and it was glorious. We have had many memorable days with them since, and a surprising number of them were on our bikes, but that was the first. With the memory of that day and that feeling it seemed impossible not to return to San Francisco and buy bikes and ride them everywhere. Most days it is as good as we had hoped it would be, some days it sucks, and some days it is better than we could have imagined.

We stayed near these gardens, one of the few places no bikes were allowed.

We stayed near these gardens, one of the few places no bikes were allowed.

There are lots of reasons that people tell me it doesn’t make sense for them to ride bikes (not that I ask). I think of these now as the “yes, buts.” They are all the reasons that we didn’t think it made sense to ride our bikes before that day changed our lives. It’s too hard to ride with kids and groceries. San Francisco has too many steep hills (and we live on the side of a mountain). The city has too much car traffic to feel safe, and the roads are so terrible that they destroy bikes, and bike theft is rampant. For parents, there’s the loneliness of having so few families in San Francisco anyway, with even fewer of them on bikes. Yes but, yes but, yes but. Our reasons not to ride made perfect sense and they kept us in our car until that day in Copenhagen when suddenly they no longer mattered. We came home and we started saying: we can and we will. And we did.

Yes, but San Francisco has hills!

Yes, but San Francisco has hills!

I hear the “yes buts” all the time when we talk about our lives now. In San Francisco people say the same things that we used to say. When they come from people outside the city the things people say are different and yet they’re still the same. Yes, but you can ride your bikes everywhere because San Francisco has nice weather (after a fashion) and here it snows. Yes, but there are lots of bike lanes in San Francisco and there aren’t any here. Yes, but the drivers there are friendly to bikes (if sometimes clueless) and here they’re aggressive. Yes, but the city is so small that nothing is very far away. Yes, but you can live without a car because San Francisco has great public transit and two car share companies and all those ride share services.

Everyone’s life is different. There are families riding in hilly cities with worse weather and less bicycle infrastructure than San Francisco. There are families riding in smaller cities that go massive distances or face bigger challenges. There are families that deal with snow and aggressive drivers.

Walking is exhausting. Let's ride bikes instead.

Walking is exhausting. Let’s ride bikes instead.

Personally I don’t care if people want to drive everywhere, although I love having company when families join us on their bikes. I do have issues though, with the claim that our lives enjoy some magical convergence of necessary possibilities. There are things that make it easier for us to ride our bikes and we are grateful for them, and there are things that make it harder for us and we deal with them. There is a man in San Francisco who rides a tricycle up and down the Embarcadero with the oxygen tank he needs to breathe in the basket. I have been passed more than once on the Panhandle by a man with no legs, whose bike is powered by his arms. Who knows what’s really possible? We didn’t know until we tried.

Change feels hard and scary and unnecessary until something happens and it becomes impossible not to change. Before our children were born it seemed impossible to live without sleep for over a year, and after each of them was born we learned to live with it. It was unpleasant but it was possible and they were worth it and now we couldn’t imagine life without them.

Some changes are impossible to miss or to avoid. And some changes could slip away without grabbing onto them. We could have spent that time in Copenhagen and come home and despaired that San Francisco will never be anything like it–San Francisco, for example, will never be flat–and felt the loss of it at some level forever. Instead we came home and bought bikes, and less than a year later, sold our car. Standing over The Pit and watching garbage stream out of the city I could have returned to living and shopping the same way and pushing away a nagging sense of guilt. Instead we embraced zero-waste (which is a work in progress). And it has been… fun!

When I think of what I’m most grateful for about that trip, it is that it started to break me of the habit of saying, “Yes, but…” We tried something new to us that seemed crazy to everyone at the time and it worked. I’m still not really a big fan of change, but change and I are working it out. We can and we will, and we do.


Filed under Copenhagen, family biking, San Francisco, travel

11 responses to “Yes, but…

  1. sho

    Yes but… 🙂 That first pic of your kids is so dear.

  2. Lee

    Spot on, not just in regards to bicycling, but for all the reasons and rationalizations people come up with for why they don’t make the changes they should or can in many areas of lifestyle. If more people dropped the “Yes, but” routine we would have an overall healthier planet, less consumer debt, less chronic disease…. No one is perfect or will ever do it all perfectly, but yes, we can all do better than we give ourselves credit.

  3. This is beautiful! And inspiring. I’m going to be trying to ride with my kids for the first time this spring. Last year I began commuting by bike, and now that I’m not working I’m just not willing to go back to living in the car. I’m not quite sure how it’s going to work and I’m more than a little nervous about it – so thank you for this post! It came at just the right time for me.

  4. Great post and a great reminder that it doesn’t have to be perfect to be great 🙂

  5. What a beautiful post. A hard topic to handle with tact and you tackled it with eloquent grace. Bravo!

  6. Melissa @ HerGreenLife

    For me, the biggest “yes, but . . .” to continuing cycling has been navigating it with a baby (now toddler). While I didn’t figure out a way to bike with a weeks-old baby, as I’d originally hoped, I’m making it work, one ride at a time, and it’s definitely worth it!

  7. Sara H

    Fab post. I too live in a very hilly city, in fact I live at the top of a massive hill, so where ever I go I have a steep climb home. My answer? I get off and walk! My 10 year old son, however, loves hills and seeks them out! He powers up and waits for me at the top. I think I may have the next Bradley Wiggins on my hands!

  8. kdt

    A great post! I too returned from Copenhagen a few years ago, with a Bullitt cargo bike following me a month or so later. While I still have a car for a number of unavoidable reasons, I try very hard to ride my errands whenever possible. I’m not talking great distances (though I have a weekend Trader Joe’s run I like to do that spans 16 miles round-trip) — most of my trips are under 2 miles total. But two or three of those a day add up. The most important thing for me is that I’m not riding because it’s good for anything except me. Thanks again for sharing your experience!

  9. Great post! I can’t agree more! We are now car-free in NJ and it’s not always easy, and we get a lot of “Yes, but…” around here too.

  10. Lovely. Thank you for writing these words.
    I’ve been thinking a lot about Bobby Gadda and his own attempts to spread the “If I can do it so can you.” doctrine.

  11. Kevin Ferguson

    This is a good way of summing it up. May I add that you have become a “yes, and”. Yes the hills are steep, and I don’t let that stop me. Yes the drivers in this town suck, and I am not among them. Yes, my efforts toward a greener planet are only a drop in the ocean of change that is needed, and I am doing what I can.

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