After the pandemic started and planes were grounded, I was overwhelmed with the guilt of my old frequent flyer lifestyle. Now travel is back, and I still feel terrible about flying.
I recently noticed that my home airport – Reagan National Airport just outside of DC – has public bike parking near its parking lot. I travel mainly by bicycle, but it never occurred to me to go to the airport by bicycle. I decided to do the 7 mile ride on a shared bike along the Mount Vernon Trail for my carbon footprint. Plus, the price was a flight ($3.85, to be exact) compared to skyrocketing prices for Uber rides to airports.
Before you say it, I’ll say it for you: cycling to the airport doesn’t outweigh any damage to the environmental cost of flying. But since the biggest source of greenhouse gases in the US economy is transportation, if I can drive one less trip, isn’t that worth anything?
If you’re curious about trying your own way to get to the airport by bike, here are some takeaways from my experience.
Theoretically, you could ride your own bike to the airport and lock it up somewhere in the hope that no one steals it. I didn’t want to take that risk, so I planned to use a bike share program.
If you are unfamiliar with the concept of bike sharing, bike rental stations are positioned around towns for a nominal fee. In the DC area, Capital Bikeshare is the main system. You rent one through a digital kiosk at the dock or through an app (one from the company itself or sometimes from a partner like Lyft). Once you’ve paid, you can ride the bike to your heart’s content, and when you’re done, you can return it to any station with available docks.
These bikes are not nimble by design; they’re bulky because they have to endure wear and tear – and so people don’t throw them in their cars or into rivers. They are heavy to pedal up the hills, so you will need to pay attention to the route and your physical stamina before heading to the airport. Capital Bikeshare added e-bikes to their fleet, but I opted for the old-school version.
When packing for the airport by bike, you should practice minimalism, ruthlessly shrinking your stuff so you’re not weighed down like a human version of the “Beverly Hillbillies” truck.
You can’t do this with traditional luggage, which may deter much of the traveling public from giving it a shot. But if you can swap out a rolling suitcase for something more nimble, you’re back in business.
My packing was largely the same as if I was driving to my flight. I went with my usual duffel bag which could be crushed into the front rack of the bike. Instead of my leather travel purse, I store my laptop in a borrowed backpack. It felt more like “Tomb Raider” than “Up in the Air”, adding to the sense of adventure.
There was a major flaw in my plan: I didn’t have a helmet for the ride. I know you should always wear a bike helmet. There’s no doubt that helmets save cyclists’ lives, plus I’m clumsy.
But the idea of wearing a helmet for the ride and then carrying it around on my journey—through three cities, four flights, a train, and a bus ride—seemed impractical. A compromise may be to get a foldable bike helmet that would take up less space in your luggage.
Daylight was another big concern. My trip was well before sunset, but I wouldn’t have attempted the ride if my flight was at night. I biked the trail the night before and there are few lights making it a very dark trip. To watch out for obstacles along the way, I would have to pack and mount my own bike light for hire.
Facing the Elements
Except for die-hards (and maybe Danes), biking to the airport is a good-weather transportation option. Snow and rain would distract me 100% from my focus on greenhouse gases.
Armed with SPF 45, I set off on a freezing February afternoon with a windy warning. The gust resistance made the trip harder, but the challenge appealed to me from an adventure perspective. I love being outdoors, being active and experimenting with travel styles.
My Google Maps route guided me to some of my favorite parts of town, leafy parks and tour groups. It also took me along extremely noisy and busy roads and over an even noisier bridge. Eventually I took the paved Mount Vernon trail, a path that initially has no signs for the airport but does indeed take you there. The trip wasn’t entirely scenic, but it was mostly fun.
Halfway through my trip, it felt like I did every time I flew: Parts of me were sweaty and swampy, while the rest of me was freezing. I imagined my future self crammed into an economic seat crossing the country, swept by the wind.
My airport ride did not end in a clear or concise manner.
Airport signs on the trail appeared as I approached the domestic airport, eventually signaling me to leave the trail for another path to a parking lot. In the distance, a brown sign read “To Airport Terminals and Bicycle Parking” with an arrow pointing to a ramp leading to the basement. It turned out to be a tunnel – illuminated but spooky – that allowed pedestrians to bypass the busy freeway. Diving into its depths freaked me out, but on the other side were the Capital Bikeshare docks.
About an hour and less than $4 later, I had arrived at the airport an hour and a half early for my flight.
I thought the trip would end there – I thought wrong. Once I docked the bike and followed the sign to the airport, I realized there wasn’t a very clear path inside. The bike-share dock is located at the foot of the airport parking garage, with no proper sidewalk to guide the way. I walked up a ramp meant for cars and felt I must be doing something wrong. But no one stopped me, so I kept walking.
At the mouth of the parking lot, an attendant directed me through the parking lot to Terminal B.
At the end of my ride, I felt happier and more energetic than when I left for the airport. Perhaps it’s due to the feeling of pride in having accomplished something new and something a little kind for the planet. Or maybe it was basic physiology.
Exercise is good for physical and mental health, and I had just exercised – albeit leisurely – for an hour. Either way, I headed into TSA PreCheck with a sense of accomplishment and an endorphin rush.
But for many reasons, biking to the airport isn’t for every trip or traveler. I can’t imagine doing this trip with children, with an injury or illness, for an early morning flight, or in a city where there is no infrastructure for cycling. When it makes sense, I’ll ride my bike back to the airport, whether that moves the global warming needle or just my guilt.