The Poor, Poor, Sufferin' Bike Commuter
How NOT to Commute
On Sunday, June 9, 2002, Bryan Blumer published in The Times (Munster, Indiana, just below Chicago) the story of his 28 day commute to work. This commute was critiqued by the members of the CarFree newslist (CarFree@YahooGroups.com) on June 10 and 11. I think Bryan's account is a good illustration of how to set yourself up for failure.
While at the local store one day in the mid-80's, I discovered an abandoned kitten that the store owner said was going to die unless someone took it home, so I took it home and took good care of it. Nonetheless, from then on, every time I arrived home after a bike ride, this cat would complain most bitterly that it was starving and neglected. I would talk to the cat in baby-talk, saying, "Oh, you poor, poor, ting! You must really be sufferin'! You really got it rough!" One time my son was complaining about his hard lot in life, and I was agreeing with him, when suddenly his eyes grew larger and his nostrils flared, and he cried, "You're treating me like that damned cat!" So to avoid any misunderstanding, I want it clearly understood that I equate this "cyclist's" tale of woe with the bitter cries of that cat.
Here's the story. Evidently, to have something to write about, Bryan decided to go car-free for exactly 28 days. Since he lived within walking distance of the grocery store and other places of business, his biggest hurtle was traveling some 3.5 miles to work (at the newspaper) and back home in the evening. Evidently, he was able to make it almost the entire way via sidepaths, but the last sidepath terminated "at the railroad tracks" a few blocks from work, so he felt compelled to travel (it's unclear whether by riding, walking, or both) through the grass for the last part of the distance because there were trucks traveling at 45 miles per hour on the road.
It seems that he didn't feel too inconvenienced the first week of his experience, but the second week brought rain, and in his opinion disaster. Why? Well, he had to wear an uncomfortable and ugly plastic rainsuit, the wind and rain were in his face, and his glasses fogged up. But worst of all, the grassy area became muddy in rainy weather, and he got his shoes wet and his clothes muddy as a result. In addition (horrors of horrors!), he even had to take his rain suit off outside so no one would laugh at him! Since he didn't have any spare shoes at work, he had wet feet all day (he did carry a change of clothes). On the first day it rained, he spent the whole day moping about the trip back home, but the weather turned nice, so he didn't have the problem, but then it rained the next day. The poor, poor, sufferin' ting!
He said that he really liked to bicycle when he wasn't traveling to work, getting into a Zen-like mood, becoming oblivious to everything around him, and riding for twenty to forty miles at a time. He said, "My brain turns off, and I just move along unconsciously. It's sort of like meditation. Hours can pass me by without a thought entering my head." But that 3.5 miles to work and back was very stressful. Part of the problem was that there just weren't enough sidepaths and sidewalks to get everywhere! He writes, "The challenges of weather and a lack of adequate trails to all the places I needed to go caused it to lose its relaxing, trance-like effect." Then there is the problem of having to carry everything he needed for the day in his backpack. When he drove his car to work, he could just run back home at lunch time, so he could get up and go without having to think, but on the bike, he actually had to plan what he would carry! He was really sufferin', poor, pour soul!
Evidently, a good bit of his problem was car-dependency. For instance, he writes, "My daily round-trip trek to work was not physically stressful, but after a while it did become psychologically stressful. The entire experience of not driving was, in fact, more hard on me psychologically than anything else." Note that he didn't say that riding in the rain, dealing with the traffic, getting his shoes wet, or being laughed at by others for his strange get-up (a silver, plastic rain suit and and orange helmet) was the worst part of the experience. No! It was being without his car!
He finally concludes that he learned a few lessons for cycling, although obviously, he never wants to attempt it again. He finishes, "It did make me realize how much our lives and our community are built around automobiles and how difficult it is to flout convention and try to get around without one."
The article also includes some statistics for the month: 92 miles traveled to work, 410 miles total cycling for the month, 18,040 calories burned for the month, equaling 86 plates of spaghetti, and 13 gallons of gas saved or $19.24 in expenses.
The CarFree crowd immediately recognized the weaknesses in the article, due to their experiences with alternate modes of travel.
David Hanson pointed out that the bike in the photo was not really suitable for commuting (it had off-road tires and shocks, no fenders or lights, and seemed to be of poor quality as well). Later, he commented about the seat being in the wrong position (pointing down and perhaps crooked) and very low. He felt the reporter's experiment was "designed to fail" and felt it fit within our desire for instant gratification. Much more sensible would be for the person would begin by learning something about commuting routes and suitable equipment and then to gradually adapt to bike travel.
Riin Gill observed that her own initial experience was that bike commuting was actually a lot easier than she had expected, but that might be due to her having done some research on the subject and having bought the equipment she needed. She concluded, "Someone should tell this guy 'get some fenders and ride in the street, you idiot!'"
"Greenjeans" noted that the bike lacked the features of a city bike, including racks, fenders, chainguard, and basket, and felt that the writer's problem was in forcing himself instead of taking an "integrated" approach. If it's a rainy day, why not take a bus or a cab? He could car share as well. (For that matter, if the rain bothered him so much, why didn't he take his own car on that particular day? It's certainly better, for the health and the environment, to bike commute only on the pretty days than to give it up altogether.)
Doug Muller asked, how can someone ride 20 to 40 miles per day and yet be uncomfortable on a 45 mph road? Is this person riding that many miles on sidewalks? He was skeptical of the writer's claims and felt that the whole purpose of the piece was to dismiss healthy, ecological alternatives.
John Synder pointed out that there are links on the same page to the automotive advertisers and that the writer's pay check is in part derived from a good relationship between the advertisers and the paper, so the article inevitably ends the way it does.
De Clarke noted that journalistic articles in which a writer briefly tries something exotic are common. The story might involve a week on a vegetarian diet, two weeks with the Amish, or a month going car-free, but in the end the writer returns to normal. "'Normal' being of course the (imho) embarrassingly self-indulgent, indolent, hyperconsuming lifestyle which the paper's advertisers need its readers to pursue." She concluded that if he got some lights and fenders and a decent rain suit plus learned how to ride in the road, he would not need to indulge in self-pity.
Michel Gagnon wondered if all the streets in that area had 45 mph speed limits. He thought that perhaps the rider would try again, and he wonders why he didn't try doing his shopping by bike. Michel saw the biggest problem as being the lack of self-training. He also commented on the statistics in the story: 86 plates of spaghetti was way too much, unless the writer is a Lance Armstrong. In figuring the savings for automobile travel, the writer should have included his other car-related expenses besides gasoline. Finally, he suggested that the miles of cycling with Bryan's brain turned off might have all been done on local bikepaths rather than on roadways.
I also discussed with Bob Matter about the roads in the area because I thought that a different route might solve Bryan's transportation problem. I saw traveling down Manor, Fisher, Columbia, and Camellia. However, I was mistaken about the location of the newspaper office, thinking it was to the east of Calumet Avenue. Instead, it turns out that Bryan's workplace is west of Calumet Avenue. Now the only alternative is down Wentworth Avenue, which looks like it might also be a busy road, although he could travel on parallel streets for part of the distance. I wrote an email to Bryan to ask him if Wentworth would be a viable option (since Bob did not know), but I have not received an answer.
A 45 mph road with trucks on it does not seem horrible to me, but I haven't seen the road. In Canada, on the busiest highway I have ever been on, with monster trucks (18-wheelers are babies there) and a torn-up roadbed, I met a bike commuter. He told me that he had been using that road to travel to work for years and that he had never had any problem. However, one person's ability to tolerate traffic is not another's.
What bothers me more is riding on sidepaths, especially while daydreaming. These are glorified sidewalks. They are a method of taking cyclists' right to use the roadway away from them, they are dangerous to pedestrians, and they are doubly dangerous to cyclists. Traffic engineer Richard C. Moeur wrote describing such a sidepath in wreck bikes in December 1997, "The AASHTO Guide to Development of Bicycle Facilities specifically recommends against this treatment, because it endangers cyclists by placing them in a location of greatly reduced visibility, and in a location always in conflict with turning traffic." Certainly, a day-dreaming sidewalk cyclist would be at great risk. Tom Revay has written an article with many links about the building of such sidepaths in Massachusetts, and John S. Allen has provided a page with many photos, which demonstration the traffic problems involved.
There are much safer ways for the state to accomodate cyclists. Most states are adding additional width to the shoulders or outside lanes of roadways. I find that cycling in a state with very heavy traffic, such as New Jersey, is now very easy due to these excellent shoulders. They lack the danger of sidepaths because the cyclist is visible to the motorists at all times, although cyclists should exercise extra caution at intersections.
The distance of 3.5 miles is not particularly far. When I was in high school, I used to walk 2.5 miles to and from school every day. I credit the walk with helping me to get my head straight and with helping me to understand the world around me. Those sidepaths that are too dangerous for cycling would be much safer for walking. I think walking or jogging 3.5 miles each way would be physically challenging, while 3.5 miles is not enough bicycle distance to get much exercise benefit. One could also use inline skates to cover that distance, but the use of inline skates on a sidepath and crosswalks would be almost as dangerous as using a bicycle. One could find streets suitable to bicycle on for most of the distance and then walk the rest, as I did at the University of Alabama. With the gear in a pannier on the bicycle, pushing the bike can be done at a jog, after getting used to it.
Some non-bike, non-exercise options exist. In such a built-up area, there must be public transportation. One could also carpool.
In any event, I don't think Bryan really wants to travel by bicycle. The real point of his article was to prove that bicycling commuting is a horrible experience, but I think he failed to make the case. His final remark, "It did make me realize how much our lives and our community are built around automobiles and how difficult it is to flout convention and try to get around without one" indicates that his real reason for not riding is not due to the physical difficulties but due to the social pressures. It's OK to enjoy riding the bike in the afternoon, but one has to bow to public pressure and spend a large chunk of income on an unnecessary car in order to fit in with the boys. Thoreau suggests instead that we test our resolution by opposing "what are deemed 'the most sacred laws of society,' through obedience to yet more sacred laws," but I think Bryan is not ready yet to make such a step, and perhaps he never will be.
The Poor, Poor, Sufferin' Motorist
Byran's story reminded me of my own pitiful state. Due to an accident, I was unable to bicycle to town for over a month, and had to drive a car instead. It was awful!
While driving the car, I couldn't watch the clouds, hear the birds singing, see the turtles and bunnies along the sides of the road, smell the clover, or feel the breezes on my cheeks. I wanted to drive slow enough to look at the scenery on either side, but faster cars were constantly rushing up and then staying on my bumper, frightening me to death!
The worst trip, however, was the one home in the afternoon. Even though I had been careful to keep the car in the shade, it was frightfully hot. I was sufferin'! On a few occasions, I felt compelled to use the air conditioner for a few moments; that's how bad it was! Open windows were not enough! Yet most people leave their vehicles tightly sealed up in the hot sun all day. The temperatures inside must get above 160°! How do they stand it? Of course, they don't mind leaving their engine running for long periods of time while they are inside the store so that the air conditioner will keep the interior cool, but I am not a polluter!
Unlike Bryan, I couldn't get by on $19 a month for gas; I filled the tank several times at $28 a tank. And that's not counting any of the other expenses, which fortunately, I did not have to pay, as I was just borrowing the car.
It has always been such a pleasure to ride in town on a bike, but that tanklike car just did not want to go around the corners! I had to stick to the main streets as a result! Man, I was sufferin'! It was rough!
Now, thank God, I am back on the bike and enjoying the 30-mile round trip to town, with my sufferin' behind me, I hope, forever!