The Bicycle Difference

Recently, Kris and I made the decision to invest in a pair of bicycles. I was highly skeptical of the idea at first. I never thought that having a bike was necessary, and I didn’t think that it would make that much of a difference in travel time and the accessibility of the whole of Wonju. I thought it didn’t make financial sense. I thought it would be unsafe. I am happy to say that I was utterly wrong on all of those fronts, and our bikes are two of the best purchases we’ve made in our brief time in Wonju.

I was no stranger to using a bike as a form of transport. I had done so at university, to save money on petrol and car maintenance. I remember biking to university being a stressful experience, always worried about whether I would get hit by a car, or miss my first class because of bad robot (traffic light for non-South Africans) timings. These slightly negative experiences seem to have put me against getting a bike in Korea, simply because I didn’t want to add mild unpleasantness to my pre-work time, as there would be mild unpleasantness in excess once I got there.

On top of this, a bike was most definitely not necessary in Dongtan, the town that Kris and I lived in last year. It was the perfect size and distance from major cities to not need a bike. Dongtan itself was small enough that you could walk almost everywhere within half an hour, so faster transportation was unnecessary. Dongtan was also, I reckoned, too far from the closest major city to plausibly bike there. As such, we never truly considered getting a bike in Dongtan.

Wonju, however, is a moderately bigger city. While it is possible to walk everywhere in a day, it is far less of a practical option. One of my contracts that I was due to start shortly after we bought our bikes required me to be at an office 7 kilometers away from my house by 07h45. Sure, I could get up early and jog there. But I would rather not. Even the school I work for most often is a 40-minute walk from my house. I spent the first three months of our time in Wonju catching up on the superb Freakonomics Radio podcast, with the distance floating by.

I also felt that a bike was an unnecessary expense. Spending the equivalent of R2000 (US$160ish) on a mode of transportation that I seemingly didn’t need was, in my mind, wasteful. It was only once we purchased the bikes and started using them regularly did I see how wrong this perception was.

Despite my misgivings, Kris convinced me that bikes would be useful in Wonju. So, I caved and we bought them. From the next day, my eyes were opened as to how foolish I had been in not buying a bike earlier. My travel time to work went from 40 minutes to 15. The office trip turned from a R190 (US$15) round-trip taxi into a 30-minute bike commute. Best of all, Wonju is designed with bikes in mind. There are wide bike lanes on almost every road, so there is no need to risk your life by cycling on the actual street. The most dangerous obstacles are children that stop suddenly to pick up leaves, and old ladies who somehow take up the entire sidewalk.

Overall, I am thoroughly enjoying riding through Wonju. It is a safe, quick, relatively cheap form of transport that is perfect for a city of Wonju’s size. We have explored more of the city on our bikes than we would have if we had continued to take taxis everywhere. The rides are good exercise for our lazy bodies. Finally, it is a way for Kris and I to spend more time together, laughing at the things we see on our rides. Let us just hope that we don’t get stranded by a flat tyre any time soon.

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