When you throw down a challenge, there’s always someone who blows you away by going the extra 1000 miles. That would be Pep, who not only dedicated six entries on her blog to the Anything Goes Challenge, she also inspired Nadia to do it too. I met Pep through the Low-Key Hill Climbs years ago and if you’ve been following this blog, you know her too. She’s the one with the amazing little STRiDA folding bike. This is her story.
A kindred spirit and bicycle commuter par excellence, Ladyfleur, recently wrote a series about her commute options for getting to the office. She wrapped up with an open challenge to her readers to do the same. I’m in!
Solo Drive: My least favorite option is driving to the office during rush hour. I volunteer for a non-profit organization once per week after work, which means I need my car—any of my transportation alternatives are so impractical that I would just stop volunteering. To avoid the rush hour crawl, I spent an hour at home in early morning video conferences with colleagues in Europe.
The live traffic map looked promising, so I headed for the first freeway; traffic was flowing nicely. From an overpass, I glanced at the traffic on the next freeway … and bailed out for the local expressway when I saw three lanes of stopped cars stretching into the distance.
For a while I was stuck behind a driver who repeatedly and erratically slowed without braking; when I was finally able to pass her, the reason was clear: SHE WAS TEXTING. The expressway route is less direct than the freeway and has traffic lights—but they’re synchronized. Given that it was now nearly 10:00 a.m., I exited onto one final freeway and suffered through the expected-but-short traffic jam.
Carpool: After work one night I headed up to the city for a performance by the world-renowned San Francisco Ballet. Which means I needed my car. Technically, I could have devised a mass-transit solution that entails less driving, but it would have been ridiculously complicated and prohibitively time-consuming.
With back-to-back early meetings, I also needed to get to the office before 8:30 a.m. I cruised over to the shuttle stop to pick up a carpooler. Most people would actually prefer to board the Wifi-equipped shuttle, but I got lucky. A colleague was happy to join me, and we had a nice conversation on the way to work.
Driving in the carpool lane is stressful. You are traveling at nearly the speed limit in the leftmost lane, constantly scanning the lane of stopped traffic to your right: Will that driver suddenly swing out in front of me? How about that one? That one? I parked the car at work and breathed a sigh of relief.
Bike + Shuttle: My typical commute involves riding a shuttle bus to the office. Sometimes the bus stop has been within walking distance of home; it is always within biking distance. While I don’t mind walking on a rainy day, I am a fair-weather cyclist. Fortunately (or not), we don’t see a lot of rain in these parts.
Riding the bike is fun, but slightly stressful as I cope with morning traffic and pass lots of parked cars—always on the alert to avoid being “doored.” I get to the shuttle in 8 minutes, fold my STRiDA and load it on the shuttle.
Riding the shuttle is totally relaxing; I listen to my favorite podcasts. I might check my email and get an early start on the day, but I will suffer from motion sickness if I do much reading. Along the way I marvel at the daily clog of solo drivers on the freeway. I have a clear view of the drivers (illegally) texting, (illegally) holding their phones to their ears or in front of their faces, eating breakfast, and applying eye liner in the number two lane. At the end of the day, I have been known to doze off on the way home.
The very first time I rode the shuttle and arrived at work relaxed, I was ready to hang up my car keys. The chief downside is that I generally decline most after-work social gatherings. One upside is that I am a free ticket to the carpool lane for a solo driver looking for an express ride home: people woo shuttle riders every afternoon via a mailing list. It is easy to “need” your car every day, to run an errand or get to an appointment. It just takes a little planning to align commitments to fall on a single weekday, or two.
Solo Bike Trip: Biking to work is a commitment. Even though I have the luxury of loading myself and my bicycle onto a shuttle bus at the end of the day, I prefer to cycle home. The round trip translates into some 40 miles and 1,000 feet of hill climbing. I have optimized my route over the years to make it safer and more direct. The Bliss factor would be higher if I did not have to contend with a few busy stretches of roadway, and if there were fewer clueless joggers, dog-walkers, and cyclists on the trail.
To while away the time, I usually count my fellow cyclists along the way: kids on their way to school, adults on their way to work or just out for a nice ride. Today was unseasonably warm; for the first few miles, I saw surprisingly few cyclists. By the time I rolled up to my building, I had counted 60—that’s higher than I remember for a morning commute (with the exception of Bike to Work Day).
Once at the office, the first order of business is my second breakfast. Without that, I would bonk later in the morning. The next order of business is to shower and change into street clothes; I keep an extra pair of shoes at the office to minimize what I need to carry on the bike. When I get to my desk, I am energized for the day. More and more research has shown the beneficial influence of exercise on the brain, explaining why I feel more alert (and definitely not tired) after propelling myself to work.
Our company has a generous “self-powered commuting” incentive program. Each time I cycle to work, I earn credits that turn into dollars donated annually by the company to the charity of my choice. Last year, that amounted to more than $200 … but I can do better.
Group Bike Trip: There are many avid cyclists at my workplace—many commute daily, some over long distances. It has become a tradition for me to lead a group of riders to the office on Bike To Work Day, but that rolls around once a year. What if we biked together once a week?
On most Thursdays, a plan starts to form: who’s in, where and when to rendezvous. Riders meet over the first few miles: four guys and me, today. They are stronger and faster and more fit; I rode my heart out to keep up.
A sampling of our morning chatter: a fierce-but-friendly competition between two colleagues to establish who can complete more commutes by bicycle this quarter; the recent Boston Marathon (one of our riders had run it, luckily finishing well ahead of the chaos); bridging and nearest neighbors; the n Queens problem. Yes, these are engineers; this is, after all, Silicon Valley.
The Upshot: Not surprisingly, there is no “one best way” to get to work.
- The fastest way? Carpool. The downside: this is also the most stressful (for the driver). One alternative that I did not fit into the Challenge is to be a carpool passenger: fast and low stress. Cost is a wash, because I reciprocate.
- The most freedom? Solo drive. This is costly (time and money), but sometimes necessary to fit a schedule or allow extra-curricular activities.
- The best for exercise? Bike it, preferably with a group that pushes the pace. The cost should be a bit higher than the Challenge suggests, I think (fuel, aka food), but it would still be insignificant.
- The best overall? Bike to the shuttle, ride the bus. Low stress, low cost, least time wasted. An additional benefit is having the bike handy for quick trips at work.
What’s Next for Pep? There are options I did not consider, such as mass transit. When the schedules align, I can walk to catch a public bus that will drop me off near the shuttle stop—a good rainy-day option. While it would be technically possible to rely on mass transit entirely, doing so would be slower than biking to work: 2 hours, 30 minutes plus $10.75 to ride multiple buses, light rail, and Caltrain.
I could walk to the shuttle stop (1.5 miles), but that would be time-intensive. When the shuttle stop was closer (1 km), this was my preferred approach—rain or shine. I could drive to the shuttle stop. (It has been known to happen.) The cost is low ($0.85), but it saves little time with competing with commute traffic, school traffic, and the vagaries of six traffic signals along the way.
Finally, I would be remiss to exclude one occasional option: the “Solo Scenic Drive.” It takes about 90 minutes, 15-20 of which are wasted in traffic. Standard mileage reimbursement doesn’t apply … but the Bliss factor is 11.
First photo by Pat Callahan. All other photos courtesy of Pep of About Pep and are used with her permission.