I read a lot about barriers to bicycling and what can be done to lower them. Add new bike lanes. Create low-traffic, connecting bike routes that actually lead to where people might want to go. Add secure bike racks at transit stops. Make roads feel safer somehow. Ideas abound for ways to convince people that biking can be convenient, fun, easy, or at least manageable, just as ideas abound as to what exactly creates barriers in the first place.
I’ve been thinking about that because of my own ingrained habits and barriers when it comes to exercise.
My mom came up to Portland this past weekend, and since she’s trying to get super strong before she goes on a few different climbing trips, she wanted to check out the new Planet Granite climbing gym that recently opened up here. Those of you who know me know that gyms are not really my deal: given the choice I would basically always rather be outside. That being said, this gym is actually quite nice, open and bright and full of natural light, with lots of different places to climb or work out (and even a really nice sauna!). I remembered that I actually really enjoy climbing and the balancing choreography of it all — even though somehow, when left to my own devices, it’s never something that I do.
Every time I climb, whether it’s inside or out, I think gosh, I should do this more! And every time, I utterly fail to do so until someone else months or years later invites me to go along with them.
Which is where I get back to barriers. Like many people when it comes to many different kinds of activities, there are things that keep me from climbing even though I actually enjoy it. I think the kinds of barriers go something like this:
- Equipment. Climbing, for example, is best done with specialized climbing shoes as well as a harness. If you’re going to climb outdoors, you need even more equipment like a rope and various forms of protection. All of which leads to…
- Cost. Buying or renting equipment costs money, as does using a gym. That’s hard to justify when I can do many other things I enjoy without paying any more for them than I’ve already invested in years ago when I bought my bike or running shoes in the first place (which I guess is another barrier we could call inertia)
- Lack of buddies. Unless you just want to boulder, climbing is harder without a partner to belay you. Which, rationally, shouldn’t be that much of a barrier since it’s always easy to meet people once you put yourself out there, but is a perceived barrier nevertheless
- I could also add things like potential intimidation (what if I suck and people laugh at me?), not knowing where to do the activity (which gym is better? Where do I go to climb outside?), or concerns about safety — all of which also apply to basically any new thing that anyone is going to try, ever.
This doesn’t even begin to cover things like if you think you need specific clothes, if you don’t think you have time for it, if it’s not something that people like you seem to do, or whatever else could turn you off to it. It also doesn’t really address the situation that I think I’m in with climbing, which is that it may be something that you do enjoy sporadically but your life is actually quite fine without seeking it out.
So I don’t know. I definitely think removing barriers is an important goal, especially when they’re barriers of access or safety and when removing them makes life better for everyone. And I think an awareness of what can be barriers (and how to remove them) is an important thing to have. But I also think there’s a point where barriers end and personal preference begins, and I’m not sure that seeking to change everyone’s personal preference is really the way to go.
Then again, I do think the world would be a lot better if fewer people drove, or were at least more conscious of when and where and how they were driving. Maybe it’s always the things you love and find best for your lifestyle that you want to convince others to do. I can of course find millions of ways to justify why biking is actually good public policy whereas climbing (for example) is more of a random luxury, but that’s because I’m already convinced about biking’s importance in environmental health, personal health, sanity, and fun.
I guess what it comes down to is that I’m actually fairly fond of the way my life looks right now, and though something like climbing makes it more interesting occasionally, I’m not at the point where it seems like something that needs to be part of my world with any regularity. And to many people, I imagine biking is in that boat too. Of course, I think they’re wrong, just as perhaps anyone who’s devoted their lives to climbing thinks I’m wrong there. But that’s not about initial barriers so much as the barriers that keep you from making a change stick. If climbing is any example, it seems like you need to perceive that any potential new activity or habit positively adds value to your life. And then there need to be few enough real barriers that when you decide months later to try it again, it’s still there for you.