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Two wheels to paradise
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The short bout of cool, wet weather in Savannah last week served as an excellent advertisement for traveling by car. Only crazy people ride bikes when it’s misting outside, right?

Confronted with such nonsense, veteran cyclists will explain that bad weather is easily managed with the correct clothing and bicycle accessories such as fenders. It’s true.

Some cyclists (including me) even derive a certain smug satisfaction from staying warm and mostly dry on a bike, while watching others trying awkwardly to deploy their umbrellas, exit their cars and scurry to their destinations — a series of maneuvers that is rarely graceful.

Still, when it’s damp and dreary, a car’s climate-controlled confines are inviting. In our cocoons of glass and steel, we are shielded from precipitation, uncomfortable temperatures and even unwanted sounds. Our cars can insulate us from the unpleasant.

The problem is our cars can also insulate us from the pleasant. They come between us and the outside world when it is positively delightful. Heavenly, even.

Dec. 8 was that kind of day. Early in the afternoon, I rode my bike downtown to meet a photographer from Atlanta, who was shooting for a magazine story about bicycling in Savannah. He’d been in town since the night before and had spent the morning taking photographs at locations I’d suggested. His assessment of Savannah was emphatic: “The city is a cyclists’ paradise.”

Yet Savannah is a cyclists’ paradise that many of us — including those of us who identify as cyclists — experience too often from inside a car. Sure, we take advantage of sunny weekends or pleasant evenings for recreational rides, but as a community we’ve yet to fully embrace bicycling as part of our everyday lives by riding to work, to school, to the store, to the doctor or to other places we need to go. These places often aren’t as far away as we think.

Data from the National Household Travel Survey, which “provides information to assist transportation planners and policy makers who need comprehensive data on travel and transportation patterns in the United States,” reveals that in urban areas, 30 percent of all trips are one mile or less. What’s more, 44 percent are two miles or less and 53 percent are three miles or less.

These distances are comfortably bikeable for healthy people, and the two–mile zone has become the focus of campaigns like the “2 Mile Challenge,” sponsored by Clif Bar. It makes a game out of substituting bike trips for car trips and raises money for worthy causes. I imagine it provides needed motivation to people in places that lack Savannah’s advantages of moderate climate and flat terrain. If cyclists must brave steep hills, endure freezing temperatures or overcome other barriers to make that two–mile trip, extra incentives can help.

That’s not to say that cyclists in Savannah always have it easy. Sometimes that two–mile trip must be made on a wide, high–speed arterial that is unwelcoming and dangerous to cyclists. A destination just a half mile away can be nearly unreachable by bikes in the parts of Savannah that were designed for cars instead of people.

In some parts of the city, concerns about crime may cause us to retreat to the perceived safety of our cars. Others of us have memories of frightening encounters with aggressive drivers that dissuade us from riding our bikes to work, to the store or to dinner with friends.

These are significant challenges to be sure, but they can be solved by citizens working together with government, businesses, nonprofit organizations and other institutions. After all, we don’t have to flatten the topography or control the weather.

For many here in Savannah, however, the barriers are often in our minds. We default to driving, even when we know riding a bike is more enjoyable, more economical and more fun. We must alter our thinking so that bicycles are the first choice for short trips. Imagine saying to a friend, “For some reason, I decided to drive my car to the supermarket today. I don’t know what got into me.”

That’s where we need to be.

We are in the interesting predicament of having to convince ourselves to select a mode of transportation that provides a closer connection with the beauty around us. While we try to talk ourselves into more fully enjoying Savannah’s natural and built environments, millions of people from around the world come to experience our community every year, often at significant expense.

We are holding ourselves back from the paradise right outside our door.