Friday, April 16, 2010

Taking the plunge for a carbonless commute

Important Commuter Lessons learned by a flabby-thighed suburban greenmom.

I think I'm finally ready. The weather is improved, my husband has taken my bike down from the garage rafters and filled its tires, I'm realizing I work only 5 miles from home, and it's just Time.

This is the year I'm going to start bicycling to work. Not every day, but some days. As many as I can manage. And if it turns out to not be realistic or is too scary or too dangerous, I'll abandon the plan, but at least I'll know I've tried. No matter that I haven't ridden my bike seriously in about 20 years, or honestly at all in more than ten. That's why that old cliche "It's like riding a bike!" is a cliche, right? (Lesson 1: cliches are not always bad.)

My bike is a fairly unsexy, non-glam thing. I bought it at Kmart for $100 about 15 years ago. (It was one of Kmart's more expensive models, that's the most I can say for it.) But it has pathetically few miles on it from all that time, and it's in quite rideable shape.

So first I go to Google Maps. Did you know that they now give bicycling directions, as well as public transit and walking? It's still in "beta" mode, but it's very usable. My own commute, though not particularly far, is a case study for why the suburbs are generally awful for anything but car commuting: over those 5 miles (okay, actually 5.4) I have to cross two expressways, which means at least two major roads will have to be ridden on, since there are very limited options for crossing them. Google gives me what seems to be a very reasonable set of options, taking smaller back roads whenever possible and snaking me up to the busier ones only where those two expressways rear their ugly heads. (Lesson 2: Google Rocks)

So I print out the Google Maps directions. Today on my way home from work I did a drive-run, taking my car along the actual route I'd be biking, to see how biker-friendly the trip might be. Answer: well, sort of. Or, more truthfully, delightfully biker friendly for about 3.5 miles, horribly unfriendly for maybe 2. (Lesson 3: The internet is wonderful, but always do your own research and verification where possible.) One of the expressways is not much of a problem, but the other has awful narrow roads and congestion for long stretches on either side. So I go back to Google Maps, to look at what's there and if there are any alternatives, and using the satellite view I discover that there's another way under one of the expressways that takes you through a park and parking lot, thereby avoiding the absolute worst stretch of the drive and adding some really lovely and peaceful stretches. A six mile trek now, but not bad. (See Lesson 2. Google absolutely rocks.) And there's a box where one can report one's specific findings about specific routes, which of course I filled in, because it's the neighborly thing to do.

I also, me being me, am doing some research on the web to see if other cyclists have posted tips for their fledgling brethren and sistren. Found a few good ones: Paul Dorn's Bike Commuting Tips has some good info, and Commute By Bike also has some good stuff. Leo at ZenHabits also has good commonsense advice as well as a bunch of other links. Sierra Trading Post celebrates National Bike To Work Day (May 15) with even more advice. And a Google search for "rules of the road MyState" will probably give you links to your specific area's traffic and safety rules, something we all should memorize before trying any of this. I'll pore over these for a while. (See Lesson 3.)

Then there's the bike helmet thing. Having not ridden in so long, I don't have one. I shall probably suck it up, offer prayers of penance, and head over to Target. Another side effect of the suburbs--to find anything besides Big Boxes, you need to look hard and travel far, something I don't have time to do while schlepping myself and my kids around this only-way-to-get-there-is-drive suburban environment. I'm beginning to feel trepidatious about my least I have my stainless steel water bottle that'll clip to my bike. I'll probably need one of those portable pumps, too...I hate thinking that starting to bike to work will involve more consumerism, but I can't really think of anything else, and my folks drilled into me as a kid to never bike anywhere far enough from your destination that you wouldn't want to walk it, unless you have a bicycle pump. (Lesson 4: Do what you can, no plan is perfect.) Then there's also the reality that most bike helmets are made of polystyrene, which is evil. So I guess I just should give up on all of this and go back to driving...wait, no. That's not right. What's right is that, despite the depressing lack of an eco-friendly alternative, bike riding is much more carbonically responsible than driving, and helmets are a necessary part of bike safety, so it's a fairly small trade-off. At least, that's what Umbra, the "Dear Abby" of all things green, says. (I guess that's Lesson 4 too.)

The next part of the plan, which almost makes me feel a little silly, will be training. There's a nice 1-mile walking loop around our neighborhood that we've clocked, and I'll try tomorrow riding my bike around it as many times as I can manage, and hope that it equals at least 5, or pretty close to it. If not, I'll have to keep doing that for a while before I try to bike to work. (Update: I actually had a little time this afternoon and did 2 miles in just under 10 minutes, and I'm only a little tired. Could easily have gone for 3. I am pleased. Of course, they were very easy local miles, but it's a good start.) (Lesson 5: Believing one can't do something is the greatest barrier to doing it; just giving it a shot is the best first step.) (Oof...Lesson 6: even if you feel great 2 minutes off the bike, your thighs might start shaking twenty minutes later or might be a good idea.)

I post every other Friday here at the Booth, so I'm asking all of you to hold me accountable for this! In two weeks when I post again, I want to be able to update you to how this is going.

So...anyone else want to join me in the Great Bike To Work Challenge? Or how about the Bike to the Grocery Store Challenge? (Er...don't buy ice cream if you're doing this one, okay?) the Bike to a Friend's House Challenge? Post office? Anywhere?


AnnMarie said...

I used to bike to work, too, but not quite as far. A few more tips:

Try the full route on a weekend without traffic. If you can only go one way, have someone pick you up or plan a picnic.

Get Better World Club-same concept as AAA but greener. They offer bike assistance. I think you can get just that w/o the car assistance but not sure.

Be sure you have aln alternate way home in case of, say torrential downpour. We could fit my Bike in the back of the crv then we bought a bike rack.

Good luck! I wish I lived close enough to work to bike again!

Anonymous said...

Good luck! I did it once, and it is 12 miles or so and so it took me an hour and 15 minutes because of all the traffic stops. And a few scary stretches of road. I really need to give it another go. The other issue I had was that I had good intentions, but on days where I didn't have meetings (and therefore could squish my work clothes in a bag) it would be raining :-(

Jenn the Greenmom said...

@AnnMarie--thanks, I'll look into that!!

@Local Cook--yeah, the traffic is the part that scares me more than the rest. And re the rain thing--yup, it's my day off, I have all these good intentions, but it's raining today. I'll buy the helmet, but the dry run will have to wait for another day, I'm afraid. I'm too out of practice to go out on slippery asphalt. Thus are the best of intentions thwarted.

My goal isn't so much to ALWAYS ride the bike, but for now if I can do it at least once a week that'd be helpful. I believe in baby steps. And I'm fortunate to work in a very casual clothing environment and I wear a lot of BohoRumpleNonTailored clothes anyhow.

Julie said...

It's great to promote being green and avoiding consumerism, but I think you should be careful with your tone about buying a bike helmet. They save lives. They saved my father's life when I was a kid and he used to ride his bike to work. I'd much rather have evil polystyrene in the world and 'yet another thing to buy' than a dead, or possibly just brain-dead, father. You should buy the helmet and sing its praises to everyone you know.

I also have met a few triathletes who were hit by vehicles while riding, and all of them rave about how their helmets save their lives. Those are the kind of people who bike hundreds, if not thousands, of miles each year. They won't ride bikes without helmets, because they *know* what can happen without them.

ehmeelu said...

This was a nice post to read this morning, as it was the second day this season I've biked to work! I hope you do get biking - I'm sure you will enjoy it so much when it becomes a habit. Last year I just bought a bike, hopped on it for the first time in years, and rode it all the way home through busy traffic. In comparison it's so much easier this year!

My city has been busy trying to promote "active transportation" but sadly their idea of bike lanes on major routes involves marking a lane for use by BUSES and bikes with some suggestion of expanding it to include car pools . . . yikes. I have a nice route planned out through fairly quiet streets, though.

The most important thing I have learned about riding with traffic is to "take the lane"; don't pedal along an inch from the curb because it will give cars the idea they can squeeze by you without changing lanes properly. Instead, claim the space by riding a couple of feet out from the curb or edge of lane so people go around you more safely.

I also like to browse through as it makes me feel very glamourous about being on my bicycle! Happy riding!

KatieB said...

I wish you all the best, and thank you for posting all the great tips. I just looked at the bike directions from my house to work. 2 hrs and 23 min. It takes me through deserted stretches of woods, then onto a 4 lane highway for about 12 miles. I'll be sticking to my car for now.
As for biking from my house to say the closest store or post office, that's a little over five miles on roads with no sidewalks. It might be doable though, and something I will investigate more. I live in a rural area (and heck, a rural state) but I like the thought of not taking my car every time I leave the house. Thanks again for you informative post.

Shona~ LALA dex press said...

If you stick with this you'll need to call your ins. co. because you can possibly get reduced car ins. rates if you meet the requirements of a non-car commuter + do not exceed a certain amount of miles/ year. How about that as an added incentive?

Kellie said...

Good luck Jen! We'll be rooting for you!

Eco Yogini said...

I am totally going to join you! I just got a new (to me) bike, her name is Veronica and she is purple. And we are going to use our bikes for grocery shopping and going to yoga in the park. Right now I walk to work every day... so I'm doing alright on that end.

i had no idea that google maps has a bike option (even if it is beta). will look into that.

biking in the city scares the crap out of me, and after a zillion year biking hiatus, getting back on wasn't really 'as easy as...' but it wasn't that bad.

Now I just need to learn the weird arm signals....

i think I'll probably end up walking my bike through the cross walk intersections. cuz i am a wimp.

Jenn the Greenmom said...

Shona--Hey, great tip! Thank you! I would never have thought of that.

Julie--I'm sorry about my tone, but I don't think I ever implied that riding without a helmet is even an option. Polystyrene is completely unsustainable, but for now it's all we've got since forays into eco-helmets are just beginning. But as I pointed out, much MUCH better to wear one and bike (since biking without a helmet is COMPLETELY UNACCEPTABLE) than to not buy the helmet and drive when biking is an option.

Styrofoam bad. Helmets/safety good. Good here far outweighs bad. My crabbiness is about the lack of availability of any sustainable alternative to the polystyrene.

The 4 Bushel Farmgal said...

I'll take your challenge! I've been biking to work once a week (9 very hilly miles round trip), so I'll increase it to twice per week. Along with all the eco- reasons, it's just plain healthy.

I carry crush-proof good clothes along with my lunch bag and pocketbook in a Wald collapsable rear basket. I also bring extra deodorant ;)

My only advise is to be careful, and enjoy a closer look at everyone's flowering front yards!

Wonder-ful said...

I've had my bike by the front door all week. So long as I'm not picking up more gardening stuff tomorrow, I officially switch to bike in the morning. Otherwise, sunday's ride to church kicks it off.

Fortunately, I have the gate key for work as our bike racks are locked inside the school grounds. Now I can get in, lock up, and all before the busses arrive.

The 4 Bushel Farmgal said...

Ooops, I forgot to tell you about
You can register and log in all your miles.
Now I'm going to check the links you've listed. Thanks!

Brenda Pike said...

I just started biking, too! Before this week I hadn't been on a bike since high school. Google Maps showed me a nice relaxing shortcut around the horrible rotary at the end of my street. (Although the bridge is still a little terrifying.)

I'm finding that other bikers are a lot more pushy and intimidating than cars. You, too? Or is that just a Boston thing?

DramaMama said...

Here in WI it's still pretty chilly to ride anywhere substantial but the past 2 years I have attempted to log 100 miles each season by biking everywhere I could think of. I will again be attempting this, so yes, I'm joining you! It might be harder for me this year since we have more kids, but I'm going to try. I've been reading up on trailers (we already have one but may need a bigger one) and other cart type things for the kids. I'm looking forward to checking in on you - love getting motivated by others =)

Jackie said...

I'm in! I'm on week 2 of biking to work...only about 5-10 minutes longer than driving and about 20 minutes shorter than public transportation. AND my thighs are already showing improvements. Now, I only work 2 days/week and I'm a nanny, so it's ok if I show up to work sweaty :)

Maple Leaf Red said...

Yup, I am in...I posted on my Blog just 2 days ago to ride my bike or use Public Transportation 52 times this year. I posted on my Blog to keep myself accountable and for others to keep me accountable. Actually there are 5 or 6 goals I hope to achieve this year. Good Luck to US!!!


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