Maybe you’ve heard that May is bike month.
Maybe you’ve heard that Friday is bike-to-work day in Tacoma.
Maybe the thought crossed your mind to dust off the old Schwinn and pedal into the office.
Maybe you’re still on the fence, envisioning the city’s steep hills, the scary traffic, the unpredictable weather.
Cindy Schaarschmidt has a message for you: Do it.
The 37-year-old Tacoman commutes to and from her home in the North End and her job at the University of Washington Tacoma every day, rain or shine.
The News Tribune sat down with her recently to ask about commuting by bicycle and what it takes to do so successfully.
“I’ve never crashed with a car or had a car hit me,” said Schaarschmidt, UWT director of student fellowships and awards. “The few times I’ve fallen on my bike were self-inflicted. I do have a few scars, but, by and large, nothing terrible has happened.”
Q: Do you commute by bike every day?
A: I do. I’ve been here about two years, and I think the number of times I did not take my bike I can count on one hand.
Q: How long is your commute?
A: It’s a little over three miles one way, and, of course, much more fun going downhill than up, but I like both directions.
Q: How long does it usually take?
A: Going to work, probably just under 20 minutes. Going back up the hill, a little over that, so 25 minutes to maybe half an hour.
Q: The hills can be steep around here. Can you pedal the whole way home or do you have to get off your bike and push sometimes?
A: When I first moved to Tacoma, I spent the first month or so figuring out different routes to and from work that aren’t crazy steep. I live in the North End and I work downtown, so I’ve found a route that’s a somewhat gentler hill than 11th Street or 19th, which are so steep.
Q: Do you have a car?
A: Yes, I do, but I never actually owned a car until I moved to Tacoma.
When my partner and I first moved here, we realized we would probably need a car, mostly because we like going hiking and sometimes to bike out on trails, and sometimes to get to those places we felt like we needed a car.
But I use it very, very rarely.
Q: What appeals to you about commuting by bike?
A: I don’t like driving. I like being outside in the elements, even when the weather isn’t great. That’s one piece. And I feel like I get to enjoy Tacoma in a very different way when I’m on my bike.
You know, I stop on Yakima to look at the Sound and the Olympics when they’re visible. It’s just a much different experience.
And it helps me wake up in the morning. You drink coffee, but that only does so much. But then when you take your bike and you actually exercise, it’s a whole different feeling. The exercise piece is something I value as well.
This time of year you have all these flowers blossoming that smell really beautifully, and you can’t partake in that if you’re inside a car and the windows are closed.
Q: What do you do to keep yourself and your clothes clean while commuting to work? Do you have access to a shower and changing room?
A: When I go downhill, that’s not as much of a concern. What I do do is I keep sort of more professional looking shoes at the office that I change into when I arrive.
And I often will wear shorts or something when I ride my bike and then change into something else when I get to the office. So I keep clothes there.
Q: What are some of the challenges of being a bike commuter in Tacoma?
A: I would say it’s mostly great. I’m trying to get more people excited about biking, especially women.
Some of the challenges are safety. I choose my routes very carefully to avoid streets with a ton of cars. All the time, you have to be very aware of your surroundings and make sure drivers can see you and that you’re safe. We could certainly use a bit more infrastructure to make biking safer in Tacoma.
I don’t mind the rain. You just put on gear. I don’t mind the hills. It’s just a matter of doing it a few times, over and over and over again, at some point you build up muscles and you get up there.
Q: You mentioned infrastructure. What kind of things do you think need to be expanded to make Tacoma more attractive for bike commuters?
A: A good piece of infrastructure would be protected bike lanes that are clearly marked and are separate from the road. That’s one big piece.
I’m from Germany originally and lived there most of my life. There we have separate traffic lights for cyclists that change a little bit before lights for cars. That makes a huge difference because that way, you get a bit of a head start, and, say, a car that is turning right is not going to run you over.
I know that’s asking a lot, but, in terms of making biking safer, that’s one approach.
Q: Downtown on the Go is sponsoring bike-to-work day on Friday. What advice would you give to someone who doesn’t bike regularly who might be considering taking part in that event?
A: I know that getting on your bike for the first time in a long time can seem a little daunting, but finding a bike buddy is a good way to go about it.
So find somebody who is already riding their bike to work and see if they’d be willing to test the route with you the first couple of times. I know Downtown on the Go has a bike buddy program.
And then you do it a couple of times and it really is exhilarating. The more people who try it, the safer it becomes to ride bikes because drivers are used to seeing people on bikes, and it becomes just really commonplace and a normal part of traffic.
It can be easier to think about doing it one day per week. Even riding to the market or to a café or something like that instead of always depending on your car. Kind of taking little steps.
Downtown on the Go is sponsoring a bike-to-work day Friday in Tacoma:
▪ Free cup of coffee available for bike commuters from 7:30-9:30 a.m. at Cosmonaut Coffee, 817 Division Ave., and True North Coffee, 1127 Broadway.
▪ Bike commuter celebration from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at The Hub Event Space, 203 Tacoma Ave. S. Appetizers and Bike Month beer on tap.
▪ Information on finding a bike buddy or a place to park your ride: firstname.lastname@example.org or 253-682-1734.