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Naomi  The Biking Life

 by: Naomi Bloom  1/1/2006

The Commute Resolution

Resolved: This year let's save gas, decrease pollution and/or get in shape by bicycle.

If this is your New Year's Resolution, good for you! According to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, "Exercise, no parking problems, gas prices, it's fun. An automobile is expensive. You have to find a place to park and it's not fun. So why not ride a bicycle? I recommend it." Personally, I've commuted by bike and by car, and believe me, biking is better.

But don't just take our word for it. Herewith a sampling of well-earned wisdom shared by three intrepid commuters.

Bruce

This is one lucky guy. He live a mere three miles from work, all three of them are down one road in Mountain View. His route is totally straight. Bike lanes all the way. Just a few traffic lights. No tricky left turns. No hills to climb (just one freeway overpass).

"A flat route such as I ride does not require extraordinary fitness. The chief requirements are a bike, a helmet, rain gear, gloves, a lock-and-cable, a pannier, a few tools, and confidence to deal with flat tires." As a result, Bruce claims that he never, ever drives to work.

He's also lucky enough to work for a company that provides showers, lockers and bike racks. But "I lock my bike to a horizontal pipe, because I do not like the style of bike rack that is provided."

His commute bike is an old beater that he bought for $60 at a swap meet, adding only fenders and lights. Because the distance is so short, he can afford to use a small headlight powered by four AA batteries that rarely burn out en route. Just in case, he also has a front flashing light, as well as one in the rear.

Paul

At the other end of the commute spectrum, Paul has a 26-mile round-trip commute. So he usually splits the trip between pedaling and riding the VTA Light Rail. He often gets off at the Children's Discovery Museum, a few miles away from his office, to get more exercise.

But once every couple of months the trolley doesn't run on time. "Last time it happened, I was about 30 minutes late. Even when it runs on time, biking is about as fast as light rail. It's a question of knowing soon enough how late the light rail will be to decide whether to ride. I'm a little faster than the train on the way home. So if I just miss the train when I'm heading home, I can beat it to Children's Discovery Museum."

You'll rarely catch Paul driving to work, either. "Last time," he confessed, "it was because I had to be in really early, and I wanted the extra sleep." Sometimes he does leave the bike at work if he can carpool home from an after-hours meeting. His wife then drops him off at the light rail station in the morning. If she needs him to pick up the kids after work, she leaves their bike trailer with them. Paul just hooks up the trailer and puts the kids in.

Paul too works for a company that supports alternative commuting. It not only provides showers, lockers and towels, but also covers up to $100 of his monthly transit costs.

He stores his bike inside wherever he can: at the end of a cubicle row, in his own cube or at a nearby a support post. The company does provide bike racks, but like Bruce, he'd rather skip them. Keeping the bike inside ensures weather won't cause a problem. Besides, "I can pump up the tires, and. . .hear any comments (from possible future bike commuters)."

After all, it's his "best bike," the Klein he also takes on long club excursions. His only addition: lightweight fenders. He recently invested in a good 15WNiteRider Digital NiteOwl lighting system. "For a while I was cheaping out, trying lighting systems from $25 to $50. They weren't strong enough for the speeds I wanted to do."

The rest of Paul's equipment runs to rain gear, including a neoprene helmet cover, a good rain jacket, and plastic rain pants, which "aren't as good for long rides because I get wet from my own sweat instead of the rain."

Jim

Yes, that Jim. He's the bike commuter I know best. And he's been at it for some 30 years now.

Jim's biggest advantage is his starting time at work -- 10:30 am. So he leaves about 9:45 to cover the 5.5 miles to the shop, stow the bike and change clothes. His biggest disadvantage is quitting time -- 7:30 pm or later. So most of the year he's riding back home in the dark. This has given him a thorough education in lighting systems.

What system he uses generally depends on what bike he's riding. You see, Jim owns what I consider too many bikes. Sometimes he likes to ride his fixed-gear bike. Sometimes it's the full-bore touring bike. And lately it's often his new Ritchey Breakaway, just because it is new. His high-end system is a NiteRider RoadRat. He also often relies on an old Canadian unit called the Night Hawk (no longer manufactured), or his Cateye EL500, a single-LED powered by AA batteries. "It's quite effective," he said. "You can even see where you're going."

Yet there are some things in the road that are still hard to see. Certain other cyclists without lights or reflectors on their bikes present a serious nighttime hazard.

His other pet peeve is riding past strip malls where motorists tend to cut him off while entering and exiting. So he's even altered his route to avoid the malls along the way.

So why do they do it?

"I commute by bicycle because it is feasible and suits my personal philosophy of low impact on the earth," says Bruce. But he does think he's taking some risks. "Eventually I will get clobbered. I just hope it happens 700 years in the future."

Paul, on the other hand, is more economically motivated. "It lets the family make do with one car," he admits. But he's also glad to be environmentally friendly and he needs the exercise.

Jim is blunt: "I can't afford to pay for the gas. Besides, it's better for my health." But he's not all that die-hard when the skies are wet. Rain usually drives him into the car.

Words to the wise

A man of few words, Bruce keeps his advice as simple as his three-mile ride: "Be careful. Minimize hazards however you can. Expect the unexpected."

Paul seems to have fun figuring out train schedules and alternate routes. "You don't have to ride both ways," he advises. "Maybe take transit to work, and then bike home. Depending on your car needs, you could even drive to work, bike home, bike to work the next day, and drive home. And you can definitely drive early in the week to get multiple changes of clothes to work, so you don't have to carry clothing in on your bike."

For any new commuter who's not accustomed to riding in traffic, Paul recommends taking an introductory cycling skills course such as the ACTC Academy, or LAB's Road I. They'll impart a respect for the rules of the road, the skill to make basic repairs, and a healthy dose of confidence.

Jim basically agrees with that advice, noting that good bike handling skills are a definite requirement for keeping upright in a pinch. It pays to keep your bike in good mechanical condition and especially to keep your tires inflated to proper pressure. No one wants to get caught on a busy road fixing a flat.

Paul was also kind enough to share some informative hyperlinks. Check out:

  • BicycleSafe.com - "How Not to Get Hit by Cars"
  • How to Turn Signals Green
  • California Bicycle Laws & Safety - "Are You A Safe Bicyclist?"
  • MapQuest
    "I can ask for a route, and then, at the top of the directions, I can click on 'Avoid Highways,' which means 'Avoid Freeways.' This usually comes up with a reasonable, short route, that I can then fine tune to avoid areas I don't want to bicycle."
For a specifically Bay Area point of view, I'd add: And we all agree: Stay resolved. Keep riding. And, hey, be careful out there.

Naomi can be reached at naomibloom@earthlink.net



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