Regan Detwiler: My commute through the Heart of It All

Wednesday, July 12, 2017 - 3:24pm

At the start of this summer living at home, one of my goals was to ride my bike eight miles to and from work, through the neighborhoods between my suburb and the downtown Columbus area. At first, I was afraid on the commute to my restaurant job — I'm a woman with a fairly small frame, alone, wearing a backpack, riding a visibly fancy road bike. I'm not quite comfortable enough with my bike to make repairs if something happened, and I was scared to be stranded, alone, female and carrying precious cargo as I was in an unfamiliar area of town. I wanted to stop relying on my car — and gasoline — to get to work, but I was having trouble bucking up the courage.

As the summer went on, though, I grew tired of paying for parking meters at work, and I needed the exercise biking gave me. In the beginning of June, I did a practice ride to and from the restaurant one afternoon after I got off work and have been commuting via bike three times per week ever since.

Lucky for me, I get the opening shift a lot. At a breakfast and lunch place, this means I have to be there by six, which means I have to leave my house at 5:30 a.m. Just before dawn, hardly anyone is out. Bexley and the surrounding areas are serene and sparsely populated, and I get to see the sun go up and the streetlights turn off.

I go from my house down side streets between average-sized houses that grow into mansions as I move further westward. Between the trees that line the streets, birds fly freely and low to the ground across my path, not expecting humans to be out and moving so quickly at such an early hour. Their warning cries to one another reach my ears from both sides as I barrel toward the bike trail that borders Wolfe Park, the site of ancient Adena tribe settlements I wrote about before.

When the gridded streets of Bexley open to the curved trail between the grassy park and Alum Creek, I can see where the fog has settled just above the ground, and above the treeline, dawn explodes across the sky. I wonder if Native American inhabitants were ever up at this hour, either to begin the day's work or because a small child woke them for breakfast. But I only ever catch a glimpse of all this, because I have to pay attention to where I'm steering.

I never have any worries riding my bike through Bexley. I know those streets are meticulously guarded by the Bexley Police Department, and recreational road bikers and even commuters aren't a rarity in that area — mostly because lots of people who live in Bexley can afford to buy and maintain the light, high-speed bikes that are most desirable for such activities.

The bike path follows Alum Creek, then crosses over a newly rebuilt bridge out of the Bexley area and into the Franklin Park neighborhood. On the other side of the creek, there's a bench along the path. I suspected people may sleep there sometimes, but I had ridden my bike to work so many times without seeing anyone there that I'd forgotten my suspicions.

One morning, however, I rode across the bridge and was distracted, trying to commit to memory the image of a particularly beautiful sunrise over Wolfe Park. I rode under the bridge's final arch and BAM — there was a person right in front of me. He was a man, asleep, with a couple plastic shopping bags holding his possessions resting below the wooden boards of the bench. In a fraction of an instant I registered him as wearing baggy clothes and having long, scraggly gray and brown hair with a beard. Honestly, though, I could have imagined all of that because I rode past him so quickly. But in that miniscule shred of time, my fight or flight responses lit on fire: my heart rate jumped and the hair on my neck went vertical.

Of course, the guy was just sleeping. What was he going to do? I probably scared him, whooshing by so close to his sleeping place. Subconsciously, the run-in must have freaked me out in my state of predawn, periwinkle-washed serenity, because a couple weeks later, around 5:40 a.m. I rode by the same spot and hallucinated an angry grumble coming from underneath the bridge. How messed up is that? As if the homeless guy I saw that one time is some kind of troll, lurking below the bridge and waiting to intimidate those who dare cross over.

The real kicker on my bike commute, though, is the dark tunnel I ride under that puts me out of that park area and into the Franklin Park neighborhood. Franklin Park is where Columbus' wealth urbanites used to live until they continued moving further and further away from downtown. Today, the area is less affluent, has a much higher Black population than Bexley does and much higher crime rates as well. I've heard rumors of redlining in Columbus but I haven't followed up with any research yet. Whether coded into law or not, I'm sure the segregation has been more than accidental.

Under the tunnel from Bexley to Franklin Park, I can see the road clearly lit in the streetlights, but I can't see who or what's inside the walking paths on either side. And in these moments of vulnerability, deeply embedded fears of people and places unfamiliar to me take hold. Whereas I bask in the beauty of the sunrise as I pedal through Bexley, I make my way over the border imagining attackers with my face and neck tensed.

While I'm reducing the size of my carbon footprint by biking instead of driving, I waste a lot of energy being unnecessarily afraid of the unknown. While it's important to stay alert — bikers do get attacked, on occasion — I can't help but think my fears are rooted only in statistical anomalies and classist, racist stereotypes.

Maybe those myths are convenient for some people: they're easy to believe or they give someone a way to make money. But I do think this fear of the unknown keeps people from biking places more, confining the affluent commuters of Bexley to their bubble cars for transportation and private gyms for exercise, with the absence cross-class and cross-racial interaction as collateral damage. Not to mention carbon emissions from burning so much gasoline.

The rest of my ride goes down two thoroughfares of Franklin Park and another neighborhood just outside Bexley, and my fears of riding are just as ill-founded there as they are when I simply cross over the border between Bexley and the rest of Columbus. I'm just starting to get to a place where my 5:30 a.m. rides are less dominated by anxiety about crime statistics and characterized instead by the peaceful stillness of early morning. But like most things that are different and even difficult, it'll always be a process.