Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Clean Commute - Inspiration for bike to work week

If the weather co-operates with me next week, I am going to try to get at least one round-trip bicycle commute day in, without using the bus or any other motorized transportation. If I can keep it up, I will try to go all week without using the bus. That said, I'd love to see some other people -- who think they live too far from work to bicycle all the way -- to ride their bicycles to the bus for bike to work week!

Really, though, our existing mass transit system offers many benefits. These benefits will be similar for every major metro area that has buses or trains for commuters to use. You'll see why I have been and will continue to use Johnson County Transit's system.

Fossil Fuels
Using fossil fuels presents many, many problems. For those concerned with the environment, cars use a lot of gasoline and produce a lot of pollution. This damage is two-fold, both reducing our supply of natural resources as well as damaging our atmosphere. For those concerned with the source of our oil, cars increase our dependence on foreign oil from abroad, including the middle east. Some people believe oil sales in the U.S. directly bankroll terrorism. Finally some are concerned about the ballooning oil industry. Despite record prices for crude oil, petroleum companies are making record profits to match. Oil tycoons don't feel threatened; Cars are here to stay, and higher costs for raw materials just means that their already exorbitant mark-up nets them even more cash. They laugh all the way to the bank when they see oil prices on the rise.

So, ignore all those "gasoline boycott" e-mails you've been getting. Don't shift what day you pay the piper. Reduce your gasoline usage!

According to numbers I got from Cris at Johnson County Transit (a.k.a. The JO), the Olathe, KS express bus route carries an average of 35 people per trip over 6 trips. Some trips are longer than others, but my guess is the average round-trip route (including the trip back to the bus barn) is around 45-50 miles. It looks like 3.5 miles per gallon is about average for non-hybrid buses that burn diesel. In this case, each bus will burn about 12.8 gallons of fuel in order to deliver those 35 commuters to their ultimate destination. How does that stack up against using a car? Well, each person's share is about 1/3 gallon per trip, or 2/3 gallon per day. My 24 MPG car (actual consumption when used only for getting to and from work) would use about 2 gallons of fuel per day.

To use less, you'd need a car that actually gets 67 MPG or you could car pool with a co-worker in a car that actually gets 34 MPG. I'm not talking about EPA ratings. Very few cars actually get 34 MPG in rush-hour traffic. More realistically, you could car pool with two other co-workers while getting 22 MPG.

Reducing the amount of fuel used is the only way to "stick it to the man" or reduce consumption and pollution. Using car pools, mass transit, walking or riding a bike are all viable ways of making it happen.

Congestion and Traffic
Buses are pretty big, but when you consider the fact that sometimes one bus is keeping more than 30 cars off the road and out of the already crowded parking lots downtown, they don't seem so big any more. Using the Olathe bus route as an example, all the trips combined are keeping about 200 cars back here in Olathe instead of on the road and in parking spaces.

Saving Money
Let me do some math for you, using my commute as an example. It's about 22 miles from the bus stop to my office, and at $3.50 per day ($1.75 per trip), it's equivalent to the cost about 1.2 gallons of gasoline. Just to break even on fuel costs alone, you'd have to own a car that actually gets 36 miles per gallon (again, not EPA Rated, but 36 MPG in traffic). Once you count the costs of parking downtown and the wear on your car from about 900 miles driven each month, it's easy to see that there are tangible financial benefits to leaving your car at home or at a park and ride location, or better yet, riding your bike or walking to the bus if it's close enough!

Looking back at April, I saved almost $200 by riding my bicycle and bus to get to work. I also rode 250 miles more than the bare minimum to get to and from work, which works out to about $30 in gasoline. Many of those miles came from combining errands and shopping trips with my commute home. I would ultimately get off of the bus further from home, but it would position me to easily make 3 or 4 stops on my way home, so I wouldn't need to use my car.

Other Benefits to mass transit
There are many other benefits to using mass transit. In the early morning, you can usually catch a half-hour cat nap on your way to work. You could also review those reports one last time before getting dragged into that meeting first thing in the morning. If you'd rather check out the sports page or latest stock prices, you can. Feel like touching up your eye liner? Go for it. Instead of being stressed out in your car, you can relax, play sudoku, listen to your morning radio show, or whatever else you feel like doing. The time is yours, and it's liberating.

While waiting around for a bus doesn't seem like the most convenient thing in the world, it really isn't that bad. The more popular bus routes have pick-ups every 15-30 minutes. It can take a little bit of adjustment, but it works really well. If your work schedule doesn't often demand late nights, the bus will probably work great for you!

Riding your bicycle
(or, you are not too fat, old, out-of-shape, or clumsy to ride a bicycle)

The percentage of people who simply cannot -- for physical reasons -- ride a bicycle at least one mile is nearly infinitesimal. For those with mobility and/or balance problems, there are recumbent bicycles, adult tricycles, recumbent adult tricycles and even so-called "tadpoles" with two wheels in front (for steering) and one in the rear (for power). These solutions allow the rider to sit on a more comfortable seat, as opposed to a saddle. The three-wheeled cycles don't fall over as easily, and all of them allow the rider to comfortably rest their feet on the ground when stopped. The downside is that most trikes, and certain kinds of recumbent bicycles won't fit on the bicycle racks supplied on the bus.

Enough with the bizarre bicycles. Most people reading this could probably ride a comfortable hybrid bike. High-quality hybrid and commuter bikes can be purchased for under $400 at any bicycle shop. Hybrids offer more road comfort than a racing-style road bicycle with curvy handlebars, but they offer better efficiency and less rolling resistance than mountain bikes. This makes them good for most tasks involving a bicycle. A genuine bicycle shop (that is, one whose primary business is bicycles, not a sporting goods store or heaven forbid a store with a toy aisle) will be able to find the right bicycle for you. Not just one that you can stand over and ride, but one that fits both your budget and your body. They'll also make sure it's assembled properly, and adjusted for the best possible riding position. $400 might sound like a lot of money to drop on a bicycle when there are bike-shaped toys at discount stores that can be purchased for under $100 but you really do get what you pay for.

If you can ride one mile, then the battle has been won. The first week or two are the hardest, because your body has to get used to riding. Bicycle saddles are not like the seat in your car or office and they require some getting used to. Once your body has built up some muscle around your "sit bones" where you rub on the saddle, you will find that most bikes are not that uncomfortable to ride. In fact, it's easy to get hooked!

If you live within 5 miles of your job or a bus stop, then you should just trust me when I say that you can probably ride a bicycle 5 miles once you've gotten used to it. Your legs are fully capable of it. Back in September, I bought a bike that was just about the most inefficient thing I could buy. It had cheap front and rear suspension which made it difficult to pedal and It had wide, low-pressure knobby tires with a lot of rolling resistance. The engine -- my own body -- hadn't gotten a genuine work out in over ten years. I was 100 pounds heavier than I was when I graduated high school. I had bad knees, sore feet and ankles every morning when I woke up. As heavy and out of shape as I was, and as horribly inefficient as the bike was, I was still able to ride it 5 miles in a single sitting. If you don't believe me that all you have to do is start riding, check out the inspiring story of The Amazing Shrinking Man as he went from 581 pounds to 241 pounds in a little over a year with the help of a bicycle and other lifestyle changes.

Challenges to cycling or walking
Sure, riding your bike or walking to work does present its own set of challenges. What if your hair gets messed up? What if you get sweaty? How are you going to carry your briefcase to work? How will you get home if it starts storming in the middle of the day?

I'm not saying that a bike can replace a car all the time, and my family still owns two motor vehicles: a fuel-efficient compact car and a modest-sized SUV with a flexible-fuel V6 engine that can accept a blend of Ethanol and Gasoline up to E85.

Here are some hurdles I had to conquer.

Getting Sweaty
My first few days of commuting by bike, I got really, really sweaty. Fortunately, I had a half hour to cool down on the bus before getting to work, but I still had damp work clothes on. I solved the problem by riding in shorts (or jeans if it's cool enough) and a t-shirt, while gently rolling my dress clothes and placing them in a backpack. I may switch to using panniers (saddle bags that hang next to the rear wheel on either side) as the summer gets closer and my back gets sweatier from carrying a backpack. Now that I'm in better shape, I pace myself as well so that I don't sweat much while I ride in the morning.

Carrying stuff
Not only do I usually carry my business casual attire to work, but I also carry a laptop, occasionally carry my lunch, and sometimes use my bicycle for other errands such as light grocery shopping. Both of my commuting bicycles (a hybrid and a road bike) have racks on the back, with bungees to hold things down to them as needed.

Being Prepared
I'm not the type to worry excessively about bad things, but I like to be prepared. On both of my commuting bikes, I carry at least one spare inner tube, some tire patches, and a way to inflate the tire. For my hybrid, I just use a hand-held miniature air pump that fits easily in my bookbag. The tubes and tire changing tools sit inside a little pack under the seats. For my road bike, I use an inflater that takes cheap CO2 containers (for pellet guns) which fits nicely inside the under-seat pack with the inner tubes.

Cleaning up a bit at the office
When I get to the office, I still might be a little sweaty, so while I change clothes, I slap on another layer of deoderant, sometimes use a bit of foot powder, and/or use a refreshing wipe (like the Old Spice Cool Contact wipes) on my brow, arms and legs. This cools me off a bit and wipes off any road dust or grime. I usually run a comb through my hair as well; My helmet usually gives my hair an interesting look.


Frogman said...

I don't have time to go through the whole post, but I must take issue with your example of oil company profits. They are large. That's true. But, as a percentage of their gross revenue, their profits are on the order of 7-11%. That's fairly low ROI. Most health care and pharmaceutical companies make 30%+. The huge numbers made by oil companies don't show how much they screw the consumer, but rather just how huge the amount of fuel is actually sold. I don't have the links with me right now, but I found the numbers and figured it out for '05 or '06 for another friend several months ago. Profits as a function of capital invested is actually fairly low for the entire industry.

Noah said...

Tell me you didn't just break out the healthcare industry card, Jon!

Anyone who knows me should know my opinion of that entire industry. In my not-so-humble opinion, healthcare, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies make oil tycoons, drug lords, and casino big-wigs look like saints.

I'm an odd one. I'm not an environmentalist, nor do I really have anyone I want to "stick it to", including terrorists. The oil comes from the Earth. Our Earth. Not the Saudi's Earth, China's Earth, Chile's Earth. Ours. It belongs to everyone. Oh, and I'm not one of those "mother earth" people either.

I realize that what I'm doing is helping the environment, reducing our foreign oil dependence, and reducing the clutter of downtown just a little, tiny bit. It's not why I do it, but I acknowledge these facts and I never have to worry when someone asks what I'm doing to make the world a little better place (a la the Applefritter discussion)

I'm ultimately doing this because it personally saves me money, it's getting/keeping me in shape, and I enjoy it. If any of those things stops being true, I'm giving it up.

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