Back view of three school-age children on bicycles, with backpacks and blinky red tail lights, riding up a gravel path in a park

Five miles

Published 2019-03-27
This is one of my favorite blog posts

Human beings are machines designed to walk. Before our ancestors could make art or sing or talk or make fire or use tools — indeed way before they were humans — they were walking. Our bodies have been designed over millions of years to walk about 10–20 miles every day.

Bicycles are among humanity’s most efficient machines because they utilize the most efficient parts (about a dozen large leg muscles) of our oldest available energy source (our bodies). Riding a bike is comparable to walking in terms of effort, but produces 3 to 10 times the leverage.

Human + bike = machine optimized to travel 30–200 miles/day

I ride my bike more than most people and I’ve been doing it at this intensity almost 20 years, so I’ve optimized those muscles even more. I feel like that lower bound — 30 miles — is about what I could ride on a whim, in my street clothes, on any bike. Indeed several times a year I have to do something in a suburb like meet with my accountant or cardiologist, and I’ll do exactly that. Leave work early, ride my bike out to Hillsboro, chat with the CPA, ride my bike home.

But the really honest truth is that the most comfortable distance to ride on a whim, in my street clothes, on any bike is about five miles. I feel pretty strongly that most people with baseline health and physical ability (I’m not talking athletes here), could get on a bike and ride five miles over flattish ground.

I never planned it this way, but the distance between any two of my usual destinations — office, downtown, school, home — is about five miles. It’s been like this at least 15 years. No matter where we’ve lived I’ve somehow, subconsciously, contrived to keep all the pieces of my life about five miles away from each other. So every day I wind up riding my bike about 15–20 miles, because I’m tracing these triangles about 5 miles on a side.

Five miles is about how far my kids ride their bikes to school. They push their clunky heavy bikes with their short little legs, wearing rain gear, hauling backpacks, five miles there and five back. Yes, in the winter, in the rain, in the sleet. They’ve done this since kindergarten. The hardest part is dealing with traffic. The second hardest part is planning an extra 20minutes or so for the journey. The physical effort isn’t hard at all. A kindergartner does it.

This is, or should be, utterly unremarkable. We are using the most efficient and most convenient machines at hand. Yet we get so many plaudits for doing this basic thing. We sometimes ride our bikes directly past our classmates’ houses; sometimes as they are loading into the car to drive to school. Most of the parents at our school then drive themselves to jobs downtown. Sometimes I see the same parents at both ends of that journey, because at rush hour a car can only move about 15 miles an hour on average anyway. About as fast as human + bike

I feel proud (and, OK a little smug) about the 10–20mi/day my family logs on a bike. I shouldn’t feel anything. This should be how society is arranged in the first place.