Biking to work again, sort-of

Shortly after I wrote this employment status update, I learned that, after making it to the final interview (round of six) for a very competitive position, I was not their top choice.  With that option off the table,  I accepted a part-time, work-from-home position.

Given the “work-from-home” status, the only commuting (other than walking across our front room to the desk) involves biking to and from a weekly meeting with my supervisor who lives about four miles away.

After this morning’s blistering hot commute, I am two for three on biking to the meetings.  I wimped out two weeks ago, given the smack-in-the-middle of the day start time.  I would have traveled there during peak sun and returned home during peak heat.  Blech!

My current situation is a bit different than my previous bicycle commutes.

Previously — Biking to an office where I worked all day:

  • I traveled to and from work at off-peak sun times, so I didn’t really worry too much about sun protection.
  • It made sense to bike in one set of clothes (especially during sweaty summer weather) and clean up and change when I arrived at work, then change back into the “bike clothes” (nothing fancy, just gym shorts and a t-shirt) for the evening commute.

Current — Working from home and biking to/from meetings:

  • I’m trying to encourage early morning meetings to minimize heat and sun, but I don’t get to dictate when we meet.
  • It doesn’t really make sense to bike for thirty minutes, spend time getting cleaned up and changed, meet for an hour or two, and then change again to bike home . . . .
  • So instead, I have to pick outfits that work both for the bike and for the meetings.
  • These are one-on-one meetings with my boss who also works from home, so I don’t need anything too fancy in terms of attire, but I also don’t want to arrive wearing gym shorts and an old t-shirt.

I’m not a heavy sweater by any means, but 90°F, with 50% humidity and a heat index of 94°F (the temps I faced when returning home this morning), will make most anyone perspire.  It was a bit cooler on the way there, but also higher humidity.  I arrived, hydrated, wiped the sweat off my face the best I could, and spent the ninety-minute meeting in sweaty clothing.  Not the end of the world, but I was very ready to get home and lose those clothes!

Changing seasons — both the cooler temps and less intense sun — will mitigate some of the above factors, and come winter, I might be angling for middle of the day meetings.

Though there are a few kinks to work out, I’m happy to have a job and to face the challenge of incorporating [work-related] bike commuting into my life again.

Bicycle inspiration from around the blogosphere

True to my word, I’ve spent some time over the past few weeks digging into bike-related blogs.  If my recent food-to-bike posting ratio is any indication, I have indeed found the inspiration I sought.

I’ve mentioned it here before, but one NOT new to me bike blog is Simply Bike.  S. and I both biked through our pregnancies, and her daughter C. is just a couple months younger than Gabriel, so I feel like we’ve been figuring out this whole biking with babies thing together.

I used S’s blogroll as a jumping-off point in my bike blog search, which led me to Hum of the City.  Inspired by a vacation in Copenhagen, this San Francisco family returned to the U.S., bought bikes, and later sold their only automobile.  In addition to detailing their adventures as a bicycle family (with two kids), the site contains a wealth of information on different cargo bikes.

Two recent posts that really struck a chord with me are “Yes, but . . . ” that addresses excuses for not giving cycling a try, and “Bicycles and privilege,” a thoughtful look at how, whether we ride bicycles out of choice or necessity, we are not so different.

Over at Tiny Helmets Big Bikes, the Bustamante family chronicle their adventures using bicycles for transportation (and fun!) in Sacramento.  I especially enjoy reading about their travels on the Yuba Mundo, a longtail cargo bike that I’ve been drooling over for about a year now.

Sara over at Life’s a Bear added cycling to her family’s routine fairly recently.  Since January, she’s been collecting photos for her #everydayonabike challenge to encourage others to give bicycle transportation a try (which reminds me that I need to snap a photo one of these days).

I would be remiss if I did not mention Girls and Bicycles (no, not a calendar with pictures of semi-nude women on bicycles, regardless of what Google thinks), a blog I read regularly before I started writing here.  While “stylish cycling” is not so much my thing, seeing Miss Sarah bike through cold snowy Edmonton (Canada) winters makes winter cycling here look like nothing.   And she was on her bike with her son when he was just a few months old — part of my inspiration for wanting to start early with Gabriel.

Finally, I came across this stand-alone guest post, “Becoming a Biking Family.”

While my selections thus far are heavily skewed toward biking families, they run the gamut from cyclists who became parents and incorporated their children into their preferred form of transportation to families who discovered the joy of active transportation together.  Their stories and examples provide inspiration whether you have kids or not (and, heck, if you don’t have kids, you’ve got it easy — you REALLY have no excuse for not giving biking a try).

I know I’ve just scratched the surface here, but, as I don’t have all day to sit around reading bike blogs, no matter how awesome, starting small makes sense.

Multimodal transportation — The people you meet

My travels on Friday included a number of interesting encounters that I wouldn’t have had while stuck in a car, including the WashU research scientist I met while waiting for MetroLink, who bemoaned the fact that my bike’s rear cargo rack was full of my stuff and thus couldn’t accommodate him as a passenger (we continued to have a nice chat until I reached my stop).

Then, while biking the small stretch of Kingshighway that we regularly use to connect lower traffic streets on our route, a driver (in her hurry to pass me so she could spend more time sitting at the red light 25 feet away), passed too close [for my  safety and comfort], despite my best lane position and communication efforts to dissuade just such a pass.

Seeing that her window was partially rolled down, I pulled up next to her (at that red light), and, ignoring the fact that she was talking on her cell phone while driving (AHEM), inquired where she was going in such a hurry that she needed to risk my safety by passing so closely to get to the red light sooner.  She seemed quite taken aback, and muttered that she didn’t know she had passed too closely.  I politely and calmly informed her that the distance (maybe a foot?) that she left between her car and my bike (and my body), did, in fact, feel quite unsafe from my perspective on the bicycle.

At that point, the light turned, but she did manage a rather sincere sounding, “I’m sorry,” before we both departed.  While trying to confront/correct motorists is quite often a losing proposition, and thus something I generally try to avoid, my polite approach, and her apparent open-mindedness to the information, made this a pleasant encounter.

On the home stretch of my ride, I came up behind two middle-aged men out riding together recreationally.  Their riding — weaving in and out of parked cars, riding in the door zone, running stop signs — really tempted me to say something.  However, I wasn’t sure how they, surely “seasoned, experienced cyclists,” would take something from a random lady on a bike.

Instead of risking an unpleasant verbal exchange, I decided to let my biking do the talking.  I caught up to them at a red light (was having trouble catching them previously due to their disregard for stop signs), and, once in front, had no trouble staying in front of them for the eight or so blocks that we shared the road, despite my [balanced] stops at the stop signs on our route.  Whether or not they were paying attention, I enjoyed thinking that I may have planted a seed about a “revolutionary new way” to experience the roads.

Multimodal transportation

This morning I had an interview in downtown St. Louis.  While many people who live in the surrounding suburbs seem to consider anything vaguely within city limits to be “downtown,” when I say downtown, I mean “within a few blocks of the Arch,” just so we’re clear.

Anyway, downtown St. Louis is a decent little hike from our place in south city — I estimated at least an hour each way by bike.  Given the time constraints with childcare, and the fact that I was not familiar with the destination building, in terms of facilities for making sure I was interview-presentable (nothing fancy needed, at least at this time of year,  but a restroom to duck into surreptitiously to give things a once-over/make last minute adjustments to assure at least a semi-professional appearance is always helpful), I more-or-less resigned myself to driving.  But the bike bug was still there in my head, saying, “Maybe .  .  .”

When Matthew decided to use a vacation day to take advantage of the amazing weather and get the garden started, planning to take Sir with him, the childcare situation changed, and I was no longer in a time crunch.

Further, if I took the car to my interview, Matthew’s trip to the garden would have involved his mom driving in to pick him up, and either my going out at the end of the day to get them, or her making another trip in at the end of the day.  My biking and freeing up the car for him to use would eliminate twenty-plus unnecessary car miles.

The last thing to overcome was my trepidation at making [what I was guessing to be] a ten-mile one-way trip, when most of my recent bike trips have maxed out at less than ten miles round trip.

The solution?  A bit of creative thinking, and a multimodal trip that involved car with bike rack, MetroLink (StL light rail system), walking, and biking before all was said and done.

Before heading to the garden, Matthew needed to swing by our old stomping grounds, the Salus Center, to pick up the seed potatoes he ordered, a stop that would take him very near the Grand MetroLink stop.  The MetroLink, would, in turn, take me within eight short blocks of my final destination, a distance that I could easily walk or bike.  For the return trip, I had the option of biking the entire distance, or once again taking MetroLink part way.

I chose the latter, disembarking with my bike at the Grand stop, and thoroughly enjoying the 5.7 bicycle miles on this crisp, sunny day.  Turns out riding the entire way would have clocked in at just under 9 miles, so I still rode a good chunk of the way, which increases my confidence for future trips downtown.

Bicycle beginnings — Part 2, in The Lou

College degree in hand, with my parents’ minivan and my compact car both bursting at the seams, my left-out-in-the-elements-for-four-years bicycle did not make the cut come moving day.  I removed my lock and left it at the bicycle rack outside my dorm for some lucky user.  In retrospect, I should have made a bit of an effort to find it a new home, but that didn’t happen.

I arrived in my hometown with five weeks to figure out my move to St. Louis (the biggest city by far that I’d ever lived in), including where the heck I was going to live.  For some reason, living close to school/work appealed to me even at that time, perhaps primarily for the savings on gas money.  At any rate, knowing relatively little about the St. Louis area, I discarded any apartments that were in the suburbs, and focused my hunt for housing within a mile or two of the Salus Center (which houses Saint Louis University’s School of Public Health), which served as the hub of my life for the next two years as a full-time grad student and part-time research assistant.

I settled on a room in a house (shared with three med students) almost exactly a mile east of Salus.  Prior to the move, my dad found a nice, sturdy 80s or 90s era Schwinn mountain bike for fifteen dollars at a garage sale.  My initial plan was that I would walk to school most days, but over two those two years, I can count the number of times I walked on one hand.  Biking was faster, and, while I felt relatively safe in my neighborhood, there were places and times where being able to move at speeds greater than those I could attain on foot enhanced my perceived safety.

I’m really not sure of my ratio of biking to driving in those early days, but it was certainly skewed in favor of biking.  I absolutely refused to pay for a parking pass, and, while there was some [free] street parking available, that served as a disincentive to driving.  I was mostly a fair weather biker, and I certainly didn’t have any fancy gear.  No fenders, cargo racks, or lights, I rode with my books and lunch in a simple backpack, often with the addition of a small duffle slung across my body on the days I hit the gym (fortunately, there was a small, but completely functional fitness center in the basement of the Salus Center).

Seven months after the move, I met a fellow student and bike commuter.  Hearing that he had three miles to ride after class on a chilly, rainy night in January, I offered him a ride home (bike and all, since I’d purchased a truck rack for my car).  He declined, but that was not that last I’d see of the man who I’d later marry.

Matthew’s longer commute encouraged me to push the limits as far as where I could travel on my bike, and, in addition to school/work, I was soon making many of my weekly Soulard Farmers’ Market trips by bike, returning home on Saturday morning with my backpack full to overflowing, with the overflow hanging in bags from my handlebars (classy, I know).  Eventually, I followed Matthew’s lead and upgraded to an internal frame backpack, which eliminated the need for me to carry two bags on “gym days,” and, with the hip belt, helped take some of the weight off of my shoulders and back.

Fast forward a bit (May 2007), and, with a Master of Public Health degree in hand, I was planning my next move.  My housing had served me well for two years, but I was ready for a change.  With job status uncertain, I hedged my bets on finding employment in St. Louis (and ideally near SLU), and found a new rental house (this time with only one roommate).  My new digs in the Tower Grove South neighborhood were closer to Matthew, but a bit farther from the Salus Center (where I did end up taking a full-time position two months after graduation).

Shortly after graduating, I won a bicycle in Trailnet’s Bike Month commuting promotion, so I had a new ride to go with my new, longer commute (around two miles instead of the previous one mile), the hybrid Schwinn Voyager.  By this time, I had added front and rear lights to my set-up (Matthew insisted when I was biking to and from a night class), and, after seeing the benefits of fenders for wet-weather riding, I added those to my set-up as well.  We continued to push each other to “go by bike” rather than car.

Summer of 2008 – another year, another move, or, rather, two moves, back to back.  First, I moved to yet another rental house, a move that changed my commute route, but only slightly increased the distance, to about 2.5 miles one-way.  However, immediately on the heels of that move, my employer moved from Saint Louis University to Washington University (specifically, WashU’s North Campus near Skinker and Delmar).

This made my commute nearly six miles each way.    I adjusted to the new distance rather quickly, and I felt a sense of pride every afternoon when I made it up the never-ending hill that, for local readers, is southbound Macklind coming from Manchester.  It only took me one day of my new route to realize why they called my then-neighborhood The Hill.

However, if you’d suggested two years prior that I use a bike to cover that distance and those hills, I probably would have looked at you like you were crazy.  But with over three years of bike commuting experience under my belt, I was up for the challenge.

Justifying the purchase by looking at what I was saving in gas and parking by biking instead of driving, I upgraded to a lighter, faster bike (Baby Jake) after five months of the new commute. With this upgrade, I also ditched the backpack for a rear cargo rack and panniers (milk crate added later).

I rode that route for almost a year-and-a-half, until I traded my bike commute for a car commute and a job encouraging other people to ride bikes more.  This was a tough transition.  Over the two-and-a-half years that I worked in Jefferson County and commuted by car, I continued to use my bike as much as possible for other trips – grocery, library, events in Forest Park, music at the Botanical Garden, and, on a couple occasions, to our commuter garden.  In the meantime, I became a much more educated cyclist, increasing my already-substantial comfort and knowledge operating my bicycle on the road.

That more or less brings us up to the present, minus the whole “adding a tiny, loud, fussy human-ish thing” to the picture, and figuring out how to transport said thing by bike.  You can read more about that here.

The point is, I didn’t just wake up one morning and start biking instead of driving.  Whether you’re in a dense urban core, a less dense urban area (like St. Louis), a suburb, or a smaller city/town, there’s a good chance that you can turn at least one car trip into a bike trip.

Sit down and make a map with your home as the center.  Now map destinations you visit on a weekly basis – how many are within two to three miles?  That’s a relatively easy distance to cover on bike.  At a moderate pace, you can bike three miles in twenty minutes (or less).  You’ll have saved money on gas, enjoyed the health benefits of physical activity, and helped to lessen your impact on the planet.  Just like that.