On a Year Commuting by Train and Bike

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Roland Dodds

Roland Dodds is an educator, researcher and father just north of San Francisco who writes about politics, culture and education. He spent his formative years in radical left wing politics, but now prefers the company of contrarians of all political stripes (assuming they aren't teetotalers). He is a regular inactive at Harry's Place and Ordinary Times.

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53 Responses

  1. Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

    Good for you!

    So how much of the struggle for the bay area was NIMBYS not wanting a bike or rail corridor in their neighborhood, or the unwillingness of the political class to exercise eminent domain in places where it made sense?Report

  2. Avatar Damon says:

    That’s great for you. Of course, you live in an area that has decent weather a lot of the time.

    My commute’s an hour each way when school’s in session and 45 mins in the summer. It’s on back roads as freeways a jam packed and would take longer–and it’s less direct than the back roads,, and it’s all single lane roads. I’m not going to be biking in 4 inches of snow or pouring rain 60 miles round trip. Mass transit would take hours IF the routes connected, and I doubt they do.

    I had a friend once who took transit over driving. He went from west of Chantilly VA all the way around the capital beltway to the other side. Took him 1.5 hours via Metro and buses vs 45 mins in a car. It cost him more in parking, metro, and buses than driving, but he choose that so he could read and not drive. The transit in this area is all designed to funnel folks into major cities (north to south) not move them East to West. So I won’t be using transit ever.Report

    • True about the weather in certain spots. I imagine my general point still stands about the need for better public transport even in the icy north, but using a bike year round probably wouldn’t work (hell, I didn’t ride at all in December because of a little rain).Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        The icy north has some of the best public transit in the United States because the cities were older and grew big enough to build transit systems in the pre-car era. The Sun Belt cities that exploded after the car era are the ones with really sucky transit and a sprawling geography that makes building an effective system really hard. Transit requires a density, probably around 5000 people per square mile, and a mixed use land use that many places lack.Report

        • Avatar Damon says:

          Well, the mid atlantic has a combo of good like the North and crappy, like the sun belt. The Metro goes in and out of DC. That doesn’t work well if you move around the capital beltway clock. Baltimore has light rail and buses, but the light rail is much less developed.

          I worked for a company for a few years that was right on top of a metro stop and was once asked why I didn’t take metro to work. I didn’t feel the need to commute 30 mins from my house, pay to park at a metro station, pay for the metro, spend another hour getting to work, and then doing it all again in the evening, when I could drive in in under 60 mins.Report

        • Avatar Burt Likko says:

          It’s not often icy here in PDX, but it is cold, and it is often rainy. Nevertheless, I see dozens of people a day commuting to work (going from east to west, often across a bridge) on bikes. Some of them wear bike clothing and others wear what seem to be work clothes which I assume they partially protect with galoshes or something.

          The city has put substantial effort into converting certain through-fares into primary driving streets and others into what it calls “greenways,” intended for bicycle primacy. Speed humps slow cars on the greenways and through-fare blockades stop cars from going more than about ten blocks of through traffic on them, which encourages all but actually local traffic to stay on the main driving grid pretty effectively.

          There is also a pretty substantial use of the other transit vectors: a well-staffed bus system and overlapping streetcar and light rail systems. I don’t know how subsidized the fares are, but some thought has gone in to making the routes easy: the route maps are integrated into my Google Maps system if I can’t figure them out on my own, and I can buy a fare with my cell phone, which knows when I’ve purchased enough fare to qualify for a one-day all-transit-system pass.

          I see all this despite working at home: these are folks I see when I’m out taking my own exercise — typically on foot but I’m considering getting a bike to explore more of the city and local environment than I have so far. In the rain, after dark, I am quite paranoid while driving, as despite a number of visibility enhancement techniques — flashing head and tail lights, light strips on the body and wheels of the bike, and illuminated helmets being the most common — they’re still hard to see. Seeing all this, I know that when I get my own bicycle I will also need all of these other things — I have zero pride about the bike looking silly with light strips attached to it compared to the diminished likelihood of a collision with a car.

          Portlanders complain about how bad city traffic has become in recent years, though I’ve only noticed bad traffic around rush hour and a lot of that is due to the need for a lot of traffic to move through the limited number of bridges (or the tunnel to the western suburbs) and also in part to a San Francisco-like inability of the urban planners to find ways to link up all of the input-output roads converging on the downtown area without dumping some of them into surface streets.

          In my former SoCal high desert exurb, this sort of thing would have been unthinkable. This is for two reasons: first, as the OP notes, there has been basically no investment in infrastructure and not a lot of repurposing of the infrastructure that is there; and second, a lot of strong, dusty wind (whether very hot or very cold matters little) represents a significant safety and mobility challenge to the bicyclist.

          And that’s the lesson, I think: Portland has a thriving intra-city bike commuting culture because it invested in creating it; Portland has a well-used intra-city and inter-city transit system because it invested in creating it. My old home in the desert did not do these things, and if you don’t have the use of a private car there (for economic or legal reasons) you’re kind of screwed. Both places have weather challenges, but one found that despite those, if you build them, a critical mass of people will use alternative to private cars.Report

          • Avatar North says:

            Sounds like they’ve got a good handle on the roads. Now if Portlandia could pull its head out of its collective rump on the subject of permitting density they’ll be cooking with oil! Ugh, it’s genuinely dismaying how lovely I find Portland and how much I’d like to live there. Minneapolis will always be my first love tho.Report

    • Avatar InMD says:

      The transit in this area is all designed to funnel folks into major cities (north to south) not move them East to West. So I won’t be using transit ever.

      Fear not the purple line will save us all.Report

  3. Avatar dragonfrog says:

    I’m glad to hear that’s working out well for you.

    It made a big difference for me when i started riding through the winter – before that I’d feel good in summer, then within a few days of putting the bike away for the year, my energy levels would drop off.

    The transformation in my own city over the years has been dramatic – from a place that seemed outright hostile to getting around by any means but a car 15 years ago, to building a really useful network of physically protected bike lanes in the past couple years.Report

    • Avatar Slade the Leveller says:

      I’m a year round cycle commuter in Chicago. Door to door my commute time is the same driving, taking the train, or biking, so I bike. I have a desk job, and I’m not a huge fan of exercising in place, so my commute doubles as a workout.

      The last 5 years or so have cycling infrastructure really blossom here in the city. I haven’t really seen any overtly malicious drivers, but inattentive drivers abound. Ride share drivers are the true scourge of the roads during my trip. There’s a deep and fiery circle of Hell reserved for them.Report

      • Ride share drivers are the true scourge of the roads during my trip.

        In my suburb, FedEx. The other delivery drivers are fine, but when I’m out on my bike I’ll slow down or even stop until I knew what the FedEx driver is going to do.Report

        • Avatar Slade the Leveller says:

          Huh, poison/poisson, I guess.

          I really think what the rideshare guys bring to the table is unpredictability, which is terrifying to this cyclist. Constantly staring at their phones looking for a fare, or at the map when they don’t know where their fare wants to be taken, really makes me worried when I’m around these cars.Report

  4. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    One of the big mistakes of BART was allowing Marin County to ditch out. BART should have been built to include Marin County. The other mistake was not building the Peninsula line to go down to Palo Alto as originally envisioned. A BART system that goes up to Novato and down to Palo Alto and reaches east to Livermore would make the bay area more living.

    Cars spoke to something in the American psyche that other forms of transportation did not. The wholesale destruction of mass transit after World War II wrecked havoc on our cities and towns. Same with strict zoning laws that separated commerce and residential land uses. Yet, the suburban impulse is going strong.Report

    • Avatar Aaron David says:

      Cars spoke to everyone’s psyche, all over the world. There is a reason most people opt for the car and that is versatility. I can leave work early or late, swing by to pick up groceries or the kids. It works on my schedule, not me on it. It allows for the commute that I want to take.

      And yes, cars put a knife right into the heart of mass transit, due to the fact that we were, and are a wealthy nation. We can afford to live away from work, where there is less pollution and noise. Very few people like living in apartments, especially once they start having kids and no longer go to bars or eat out so much. The car allows us to carry more, so we don’t have to buy single servings from the Dollar Store. It allows for vacations that aren’t bus rides.

      One only has to look at car sales in the post-war era to see this in other countries. Or see the suburbs and exurbs that spring up in those countries. England had to put a special central London permit to try to limit the numbers of cars that people were using to enter the city. Why? Because using a car is just better.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        Nearly everybody loves driving even if they hate traffic. However, most other developed countries did not let mass transit fall into the way side even though people preferred driving. This includes countries with a heavy car culture and big car economies like Germany, Italy, Japan, and Korea. At least Germany and Japan quickly became wealthy enough to afford mass car ownership after World War II. The Japanese were referring to MyCarism as a phenomenon by the 1960s.Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. says:

          This might be generational though. I meet a good number of “young people” (20s, some 30s) who really don’t aspire to car ownership because they see living downtown in a city where they can get to work and recreation easily as the ideal. The side benefits are saving money and getting exercise. I imagine they’re the group driving (pun intended) mass transit initiatives.Report

          • Avatar Aaron David says:

            Anectodally, I had a bunch of friends move to SF after high school, either just to live or to go to school there. All but one cited not having to take care of a car as being a primary reason. Within a few years, all bitched about MUNI, started driving again, and later moved out of the city. Often because they were sick of having the car broken into.

            Then again, one friend moved back in his late 30’s (he grew up there) and pretty much walked or bused until his child was born. Once the kid was born, he started to drive again.Report

            • Avatar InMD says:

              The kids I think are a big factor. I’d love to commute by bike or foot but even if the infrastructure was there daycare duty is prohibitive.Report

              • Avatar Aaron David says:

                Yeah, and I am not sure how many people with kids can get around it. If one person works from home – yay! Same as with both. But if neither do, then someone has to provide transportation. In-business day car sounds good, but it would be a huge cost for any company.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        San Francisco doesn’t have the same critical mass of jobs in its’ metropolitan area that Manhattan has in New York and New Jersey, where something like slightly over half of the jobs in the metropolitan area are located in Manhattan. It still has a big chunk of the jobs though. A BART line into Marin would help with traffic.Report

      • I marvel at the number of hours per day people are willing to spend commuting in a car. The ferry is heaven (you can eat, drink, or walk around), but being able to read and/or nap makes trading more time on even bus or light rail for less time having to drive in traffic a great deal.Report

  5. Avatar J_A says:

    A practical question

    What kind of clothes do you wear when bike riding and how are they compatible with work?

    I could bike in mostly protected bike lanes from home to downtown Houston (ten miles). Heat and humidity would not allow me to do it in anything resembling even the most casual of work clothes, nor without a shower before getting to my deskReport

    • Every building I’ve worked in around the Denver metro area for the last 30 years had small locker rooms with showers and lockable baskets for the people who bicycled to work, ran at lunch, etc. One of them provided a huge stack of clean towels, maintained by the company.Report

      • Avatar J_A says:

        Denver is full of crazy sport people. Houston, not so much heheReport

        • I wear cycling clothes, but change into a dress shirt and tie when I get to work. I find I don’t need to shower on my morning leg of the ride as I don’t perspire at 6 AM that much.

          There is no way I would wear my work clothes for these rides.Report

          • Avatar El Muneco says:

            There’s also a product I learned about because it’s a ex-Seahawk player’s post-football business venture. They basically sized up and strengthened a wash-n-dri to the point it can do a whole body without tearing or drying out.

            I’ve yet to use one when actively sweating, but they work well enough to cut through the manly stench hours after missing a shower. Expensive as hell, comparatively, though – wouldn’t want to use one every day, but I do have an emergency towel in my bag for touch-up purposes.Report

    • Avatar dragonfrog says:

      There are very few days when I can’t ride in office clothes – either as a base layer under my warm clothes, or on their own with the sleeves rolled up. I can ride at a leisurely pace to avoid overheating and it only adds a few minutes to the ride.

      My building just this year as a gym, a nice bike lockup that doesn’t feel like a squat, and showers.Report

    • Avatar Slade the Leveller says:

      I keep a bunch of suits and a couple pair of dress shoes in the closet at work. Roll up a shirt and tie, put it in my bag, and I’m good. I keep baby wipes and some deodorant there, too, as, sadly, there is no shower. The key is to wait a few minutes to stop sweating before I go and change.Report

  6. Avatar North says:

    I can see both sides of the matter from my position in Minneapolis. As a result of my husband teaching himself to be a coder and starting to get actual coding jobs he’s had to take custody of the car while I make my commute to work, the gym and home again via bicycle in the summer and bus in the winter. In the summer all those new bike lanes are quite handy but in the winter those same bike lanes, utterly bereft of bike traffic, look damned idiotic from the clogged automobile lanes.Report

    • Avatar Maribou says:

      @north I’ve seen situations where bus lanes are also bike lanes, but I don’t think that would work well in large cities where transit is actually robust…. too many big scary buses….Report

      • Avatar J_A says:

        My only serious bike incident was being almost run over by a bus making a right turn over a bike lane. He just didn’t see me. I just threw myself to the ground. Only way to stop myself from hitting/being hit by the bus.Report

      • Avatar North says:

        Yeah a lot of the Mpls lanes are being separated from the auto lanes by these lines of plastic vertical dividers. No way for a bus to use em for good or ill.Report

    • Avatar dragonfrog says:

      The thing that looks idiotic to me is the clogged automobile lanes, when probably 5-10% of the people driving could be using the wide open bike lanes…Report

      • Avatar North says:

        It doesn’t look quite so idiotic in -5 to 5 degree Fahrenheit January or February weather.Report

        • Avatar dragonfrog says:

          Yeah we’re largely afraid of winter riding. I suspect it’s because we see so few people do it we assume it must be a big deal.

          Thing is, it’s not nearly the big deal we make of it. There are a few cities that have winters that make yours and mine look balmy, and with huge year round bicycle mode share. Oulu Finland is one that’s often cited. Build and maintain good infrastructure, and it gets used. Every city has its own special reason why it couldn’t possibly work, until they do it and it works.

          I’ve never spoken to anyone who started riding in winter and then went “that was harder than I expected.” It’s always easier than expected.Report

          • Avatar North says:

            We shall see. The bike lanes and the winters are both here. So far winter biking seems pretty uncommon even though the infrastructure is present. I sure as hell won’t be using em, the buses are too good here.Report

            • Avatar Slade the Leveller says:

              You should give it a shot. The first couple of blocks are not so fun, but once you get warmed up it’s no worse than summer. Just remember to layer up.

              That said, I hate the bus. CTA drivers have 2 speeds: floor it, and stand on the brakes. More often than not I end up carsick.Report

              • What I worry about here is breathing, especially now that I’m older. While our mid-day temperatures can be reasonable most of the time in the winter, it can stay quite cold until the sun is well up, and the temperature drops quickly at sunset. 30 degree temperature swings are common — say, a 20 °F overnight low, then sunny and a 50 °F high during the day.Report

              • Avatar North says:

                Storage of layers of clothes at work would be something ranging from a nuisance to a raging pain; arriving sweaty from layers or freezing my fundamentals off due to lack of the same are two likely and unappealing outcomes and the Minneapolis Metro Trasit is a joy to ride; cheap, on time like clockwork and direct routes from my condo to the gym and work along with a virtually friction less ecard system. I spend more on coffee each day than transit.
                Also, frankly, I’m close enough to work that on days when I’m not lifting I simply can walk to the campus in about fifteen minutes.Report

              • Avatar Slade the Leveller says:

                If I was that close, I’d walk every day.Report

              • Avatar LeeEsq says:

                I love walking to work.Report

              • Avatar North says:

                My gym is further away so that’s the wrinkle- otherwise I would walk every day.Report

  7. Avatar PROFESSOR ESPERANTO says:

    How many miles a day?Report

  8. Avatar Kolohe says:

    Good piece. I totally agree, you get a much different view of the city as a bike commuter than a car one.

    I commuted by bike frequently towards the end of my last job. (Had full gym facilities during warm days, but during cold days, I could just close my office door and towel off)

    I have the usual complaints that suburban roads are traffic sewers. Going through the city itself was somewhat more roundabout but with better bikable tranpo infrastructure. (Going through the city also meant going through ‘bad neighborhoods’ but that was never a problem – particularly at 7 in the morning.)

    The only non-fixable problem is that between my residence and my work were two ridgelines that required crossing no matter which direction. (Ridgelines that were taken advantage of for Civil War defensive fortifications). Getting a lighter bike helped with that somewhat.Report

  9. Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

    I will say that the electric bike has made a huge difference in my desire to bike to work. I can avoid getting sweaty on the way in, and it helps with the 400 foot elevation gain on the way home.Report

    • Before I got my road bike (the one pictured above) I considered an electric bike. It just seemed like I would need to drop at least 2 grand for a decent one and I wasn’t ready to put that kind of money down. I am glad I didn’t as I realized I could do without the extra assistance.

      Having said that, I might get one some day if I can no longer physically handle the hills.Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

        Aside from the very dramatic hill climb during the last 2 miles of my ride home, I don’t need the electric assistance. But those last two miles are a solid pain in the ass. Having a powered assist helps when you are just all out of steam at the end of the day.

        And $1500 was worth it.Report

  10. My commute overlaps with Roland’s, but both begins and ends further south, starts with a short drive to the ferry and continues with a boat ride to SF. The project to extend the train to the ferry has taken up much of the parking there, so that on the days when conference calls mean I’ll arrive at work after 10 AM, the drive turns into Lyft. When the train finally goes through, I’ll be able to avoid using a car at all (walk->train->boat->walk), which I’m really looking forward to.Report

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