Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Women Bike PHL Interview #2: Lisa M. Rau

Lisa M. Rau is a state court judge in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas. 

How long have you been biking? How did you get started?
I began bike commuting when I became an empty nester, almost two years ago. I bike commuted during law school years ago. Back then, I did it for financial reasons because I couldn’t afford a car but I ended up absolutely loving it. My husband started bike commuting about four years ago, which I thought was really cool, but I didn’t do it because I wanted to be home for the kids for dinner and they had events after school.  It just didn’t seem like there was enough time. I no longer had an excuse after the younger one went to college. I tried it on a weekend to see what that was like and then I was hooked.

What kind of bike do you ride? What’s your approach to choosing your bike for commuting?
I initially had a clunker because I wasn’t convinced that I was going to be a bike commuter. My husband finally convinced me to get a better bike, because my bike was so heavy that when we rode together I was holding him back. So for my birthday last year he gave me a nicer bike. Having disc brakes and all that kind of stuff has been great. The ride is much smoother now.

How long is your commute?
 It’s an hour, almost exactly 10 miles door to door.

Is your commute very hilly?
Oh, there are hills. Riding home, there’s a hill no matter which way you go. When I first started doing it, I’d be changing into my bike gear and thinking about that horrible hill. I realized that I was ruining the entire ride by thinking about it. I don’t have to go up the hill fast, I can even walk up the hill! Not that I ever do. The hill reminded me of the obstacles that you have in life. If you spend all your time worrying about them, you’re going to have a lousy life. Besides it is usually not as bad as you anticipate. So I don’t mind the hill anymore.

Do you ever do the same commute in a car or on public transportation?
I don’t bike commute every single day; I do it probably half the time. I’ll commute in a convertible or a pickup truck other days.

How do you feel on days when you bike in versus drive in?
The biking takes maybe 10 or 15 minutes longer. But on bad traffic days it’s the same amount of time. It's kind of fun to ride by all the cars with people who look frustrated by the back up, and I’ve got the wind blowing through my hair. And then I’ve done my exercise for the day, too. 

The ride to work is prettier on the bike. To me it feels safer on the bike because most of my commute is through a park. The bike lanes have really changed the commute too. One of the streets I take now has a bike lane. It used to be you had to really dodge traffic, but now there is often more bikes than cars. The cars have grown accustomed to having bikes there, so it’s not as dangerous.

When I bike in I feel like I’ve had a mini-vacation before I get to work, so my mental attitude is just a completely different thing. I’ve already have fun, and sort of carry that into the office. My staff can usually tell when I’ve biked in. I just feel a little bit happier.

Does biking give you more opportunities to interact with the community?
When you drive in, you’re sort of in your own little glassed-in world, whereas when you bike you get used to seeing the people with their kids standing at the corner waiting for the school bus or the runner who doesn’t feel like running one day, but who the next day is happily speeding along. You also really take in the outdoors which is a nice combination of invigorating and relaxing.

We have a lot of people in my office who have been bikers too. My court officer bikes in from West Philly, my former law clerk used to bike from South Philly, interns frequently bike so there’s a culture in the office of people coming in with their helmets.

How do you deal with logistics, like helmet hair, and looking professional after a sweaty summer day?
That was one thing I was convinced was going to be an issue. I have a closet in my husband’s office with all my work clothes, and I bike down, put my bike in his bike garage, and do that kind of superwoman change in the phone booth thing, and put on my geeky work clothes.

Before I set up the whole closet thing I used panniers to carry my gear. I thought they would make the bike unbalanced or way too heavy, but I don’t really notice them. You just hook them on the back of the bike and you can bring whatever clothes you need for work. Gear is important, there are those hats you can put on under the helmet which sort of mitigate helmet hair.

Many of the things I initially saw as big problems with commuting to work weren’t that hard to deal with after all.

Do you bike through the winter?
I do. I didn’t think I would, because I’m a total wimp when it comes to cold, and this experienced commuter said to me, “gear is everything.” And it is, it totally is! If you’ve got the right gear it doesn’t feel that cold, but you’ve got to have the right gear.

Are you athletic in other ways?
I used to be a runner, but it is hard on my knees and my back. I was a little devastated when I couldn’t keep running, and I never thought I’d find a sport I liked as much. I really didn’t see cycling as a viable replacement, but I feel differently now. Bike commuting makes it so you don’t think anything of walking a long distance anymore, it really does overflow into making you feel generally more active.  I also am an avid fan of yoga which is a nice counter to cycling.

Any words of encouragement for people who are starting bike commuting?
It doesn’t take an Olympian to do it. That’s one of the things I like about it, you’ve got all different kinds of people commuting. You just need enthusiasm. Its not racing; its riding. For anyone who’s contemplating it, I would try it on a weekend, and see what it feels like. You’ll be amazed at the people out there who are biking. It’s pretty addictive once you start it.

Do you see yourself continuing to bike commute in the future?
I do. My dad is 84 and he just sold his bike a year and a half ago, so I figure I still have a ways to go.

[Ed note: 4/24/13, 1:05pm: this interview has been updated since its initial publication.]

This interview is part of our Women Bike PHL Campaign. If you are, or know, a woman who would be a good subject for a profile, contact Katie Monroe at katie@bicyclecoalition.orgInterview conducted and transcribed by Claudia Setubal. Illustration by Meredith Bentley.