All Mixed Up

My daily commute involves four modes: walking, cycling, rail, and bus. The total round trip is approximately 60 miles, with 12 miles on the bike, and 2.5 miles on foot. The rest of the trip is equally divided between the train and bus. In the morning, I ride my bike to the train station, store it in a bike locker, ride the train into the city, and walk to work from the train station. In the afternoon, I walk from work to the bus station, take a bus back to the train station near my home, and ride my bike home from the train station. Mixing modes everyday has given me an opportunity to compare and contrast these different ways of moving around.

Obviously, I find cycling the most enjoyable way to travel. I like the independence and freedom it provides, as well as the efficiency when compared to other modes of transport. There’s also the fact that I love bicycles in-and-of-themselves as objets d’art. They’re the “shiny things” that get me on the road at 5 am when it’s freezing cold and I haven’t had my coffee yet.

I find the train a perfectly civilized way to travel. The seats are roomy and comfortable, the conductors are polite and professional, dedicated bike storage is provided, and there’s even a snack bar.

The rail portion of my commute is on the Amtrak Capitol Corridor, a commuter line that runs from the foothills of the Sierra Nevada all the way to Silicon Valley and back. My short portion takes only 25 minutes to traverse. I find the train a perfectly civilized way to travel. The seats are roomy and comfortable, the conductors are polite and professional, dedicated bike storage is provided, and there’s even a snack bar.

My arrival downtown places me in the heaviest portion of the morning rush. I don’t mind walking downtown; in fact, I enjoy the feeling of cruising along anonymously in a large group of people all scurrying along to their destinations. The down side is that it takes me nearly as long to walk the 1.25 miles from the train station to work as it does to cycle the 6 miles from the train station to home. I guess it goes without saying, but cycling is far more efficient than walking.

The bus portion of my commute is always interesting. I ride a dedicated commuter line, with most of the passengers being state and federal employees. The excitement lies in the fact that the buses are terribly overcrowded and on any particular day there may end up being as many as 15 people standing in the aisle. Etiquette and common decency dictates that a healthy person like myself offers his seat to anyone that may be in need of it, something that happens frequently enough. The bus ride is my least favorite leg of my commute.

In a perfect world, I’d have a nice, medium length, point-to-point bike commute on quiet, traffic-free country roads, but short of that, I really can’t complain about my multi-modal commute. I’m just thankful that the resources are available to piece together a 60-mile car-free commute everyday.

20 Responses to “All Mixed Up”

  • Perry says:

    Alan,

    I am lucky enough to live where we have some train options. Metro-North has regular service between New Haven, CT and NYC. Amtrak covers everything between Boston and Washington, DC…maybe more (I haven’t checked). We have a local train here in town that connects up to both and it has become very popular over the last year.

    I have been ranting and raving to Jo Ellen about the automakers’ bailout. I watched these jokers march in front of Congress (they all arrived on separate private jets, BTW) and hold out their hands for $25 billion just to keep their doors open for another few months. These are the same companies that were lobbying Congress to relax CAFE and safety standards so they could sell more trucks in the 1990s. When asked why they didn’t build more fuel-efficient cars back then, they said “we just don’t understand the business.”

    MY PLAN: I say we put that $25 billion as a down payment on a world class train system and retrain the autoworkers to lay track and build and run the trains. These CEOs are always preaching about the free market so let’s see them walk the walk.

  • brad says:

    Around here (Montréal), this is what’s known as a “transportation cocktail.” The local environmental group Équiterre has a “Cocktail Transport” service that helps you plan a route from point A to point B using all the environmentally preferable modes available: walking, biking, bus, train, and Métro:

    http://www.equiterre.org/en/transport/index2.php

  • Eddie says:

    Have you considered a folding bike? Maybe seen one on your commute? It would shorten the walking time but it sounds like the bus may be too crowded. Just a thought.

  • Alan says:

    @Brad

    “transportation cocktail” – I like that. I’ll have to Google Équiterre.

    Thanks,
    Alan

  • Alan says:

    @Eddie

    I have a Brompton that I ride to work now and again. Unfortunately, for reasons I don’t want to go into, our landlord doesn’t allow any bikes in the building, including folders. I can sneak it in, but to do so I have to lug it up three flights of stairs which is pretty hard on my bad knee. It’s easier to just leave a bike at the train station and walk.

  • Erik Sandblom says:

    The newspaper story below (in Swedish) is about 70 families in Karlstad, Sweden, who cut back on driving and instead took the bus, walked, or rode their bicycles. Forty-five of the families said their well-being improved as a result.

    Svenska Dagbladet: Ställ bilen – bli lycklig

    There’s no explanation why, but I’d say a lot of habitual drivers assume they have no choice but to drive. They think cycling or taking the buss is very arduous or complicated. But when they try it, they see it’s not such a big deal, and has advantages they might not have thought of. For instance, the lady in the photo realised it was easier to pack two kids in the stroller and take the stroller on the bus, compared to packing the kids in the car. So the end result is that the families in the study discovered new options, and to me that must mean an improvement in quality of life.

    So coming back to your multi-modal commute, it sounds to me like a more entertaining commute with some variation, compared to if you just took the train the whole way, for instance. Or is it just about getting from a to b without fuss? Which is your priority, if you could choose?

  • Dave Kee says:

    Alan: No criticism implied but isn’t a “60 mile” commute itself an environmental insult. When are we going to redesign our communities to eliminate the need for such a waste of time and resources.

    Best, Dave Kee

  • Alan says:

    @Erik

    I don’t at all mind mixing up my commute, though I would much rather it be shorter. A bike-only trip would be my commute of choice (something I did for a number of years), but current circumstances make that impossible.

    @Dave

    I hear ya Dave! Believe me, I’m not happy about commuting 60 miles a day, but I’m making the best of the situation until I can change it. And yes, it sure seems as if we need a new model going forward.

    Regards,
    Alan

  • Eddie says:

    Alan and Dave: Bringing home the bacon can entail mileage. That’s unfortunately what modern society in a good portion of America is like. A “new model” that wastes less time and resources on travel would require lots of working people living closer together in densities higher than most folks associate with a desirable quality of life. Mega cities are the antithesis of The American Dream which is to live in freedom on the wide open range. We have lots of space to do that in and that’s why our communities continue to be designed to spread horizontally, limited only to the extent of asphalt we can afford. It makes no sense but that’s human nature. Human nature – what an oxymoron!

  • Erik Sandblom says:

    Eddie, I suspect the required density is lower than you think. A cycling city doesn’t need to look like Manhattan. It can also look like Copenhagen or Amsterdam, where over a third of commuting is done by bike.

    I read somewhere that half the surface area of London is given over to roads and parking. You can look for yourself on Google Earth.

    Even now, 50% of the working population in the USA commutes five miles or less to work.

  • Perry says:

    Even now, 50% of the working population in the USA commutes five miles or less to work.

    @Erik: And let’s not forget that through the marvels of modern technology, some us only commute a few feet…to another room in our home or apartment.

    I think that the problems of sprawl are overstated in that they can be solved if we all got on the same page. I for one, am willing to make changes in my life as long as I am not whistling in the wind. I saw a brand new Hummer in a parking lot yesterday. It was obviously so new as to be purchased after the gas price spike, perhaps with one of those tax breaks I hear so much about. It was absolutely the largest personal vehicle I have ever seen in my ENTIRE LIFE. It’s hard to ask people to make sacrifices while others are hellbent on using up every ounce of our natural resources and every square inch of our public space for their personal use.

  • Erik Sandblom says:

    Perry, I don’t think anyone needs to make any sacrifices. I think people need to make changes. In Portland they talk about “travel options” for instance. They want you to have a choice so that you’re not always forced to drive. Having that kind of choice is not a sacrifice.

  • Alan says:

    I too, am lucky enough to work at home, but only one or two days a week.

    This topic gets complicated when you factor in a career that is competitive, has a high turnover rate, and requires working in an urban center; children who are deeply involved with friends, school, and community activities, and are at an age where moving them could be disastrous; and aging parents who require regular, and increasing, assistance. In a situation like this, it may not be realistic to relocate just to shorten a commute.

    I’m thankful that in my area there are so many options available to piece together a long, car-free commute. It’s the next best thing to relocating.

  • Perry says:

    @Erik: I was thinking of the word “sacrifices” for the general population. Most people are adverse to change so when you ask them to change, they consider it sacrifice. It makes it easier to ask if they don’t have to see their neighbor consuming resources like a drunken sailor.

  • Duncan Watson says:

    I count myself lucky that I have been able to avoid automobile commuting since 1993.
    From 1993-1997 – I commuted by bike, rail, walk, subway (LIRR + NYC)
    From 1997 -1998 – I commuted by ferry or bus, walking
    From 1998-1999 – I commuted by bike, rail(s-Bahn), bike
    From 1999-2006 – I commuted by bike
    From 2006-2008 – I was lazy and commuted by bus instead of riding my bike.
    From sept 2008 – today – I commute by bike.

    From April 1998-Oct 2007 my household as car-free. Now we have a TDI Jetta wagon running on bio-diesel.

    From the day I got my first bike I used it for transportation. I walked to elementary school, but rode to my friends houses. I walked to Jr High, but I cycle commuted every day to high school. I also used my bike to get to and from classes @VirginaTech. Bicylcles are very useful.

  • Neil says:

    Why train one way and bus the other? i.e. why not train back too? Or why not bus in?

  • Alan says:

    @Neil

    Scheduling. The train only runs one time each direction per day. In other words, taking the train in the morning and the bus in the afternoon best fits my work schedule.

  • Adrienne says:

    Sometimes, when you have a career that is very specialized, you can’t live near work. There is so much competition for jobs in my field in the city I live in, that I have to go 30 miles away for a job that accommodates my talents and needs. Just the way it is. In my case, local employers would have to make it a priority to hire local talent, but they don’t do that, and instead, higher people from outside the city who are looking for higher wages. So instead of looking at it as an environmental disaster, I look at it as an opportunity to stay in shape and get sometime to myself. My commute (22 miles) is bike/BART/bike, and I love it.

  • andy parmentier says:

    walking-kind of the “granny gear” of locomotion..makes you appreciate the “higher gears” of bicycling.
    traveling above bicycle speeds (35mph or so) eventually feels pedestrian…? so hop on the..plane!
    and of course, there’s space travel..for you multi millionaires..i believe this type of stuff
    is a sort of removing yourself from the worry and bother of gas tanks..after all, once you hit geosynchronous orbit, you are moving by gravity power-and 17,000 mph or so at that)
    .i am so attracted to the idea of flying, but WITHOUT a gas tank!! so that’s a big reason why i love bicycles, and hydrofoil boats (those hulls with fins
    that elevate the boat clear above the water).
    i like water because it’s the perfect medium between the solid (earth) and the ethereal (space) it can travel to both places, like a bird. so “flying” on a bicycle makes you like water, and like a bird (and yes, i like waterbirds)
    crazy birdily-
    andy

  • Alan says:

    @Andy

    “walking-kind of the “granny gear” of locomotion..makes you appreciate the “higher gears” of bicycling.”

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as I transition from walking to biking to riding the bus and back again. I do a fair amount of riding at a pace most people would describe as a crawl — probably no more than 10-12 miles per hour — to be safe, avoid getting my street clothes too sweaty, and just because I enjoy it. I often think of it as a sort of “fast walking”, and the effort I exert feels a lot like a brisk walk. The difference though, is that walking is always at a 1:1 ratio, whereas the bike multiplies the rider input by a factor of 3 to 4. Given time, patience, and persistence, even a slow bike rider like myself can cover an awful lot of ground with not a great deal of effort because of, as you put it, the “higher gears of bicycling”.

 
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