Wednesday, March 31, 2010

My rides

I think after this post you will have a sense of how unassuming a blog this is. As stated in my first post, the bike I rode on my first commute was a cheap Sears brand bike. Well it still is! Yes, about two and a half years have past and the bicycle is still carrying me along. Actually, it's now my back up bike. I have another, an older ten-speed women's bicycle. It's a St. Tropez 440--a French bicycle made in Taiwan? I got it off of Craigslist for $30! I haven't done much to it either. It's my main bicycle, and has been for the better part of this year. It's faster than the so-called "18-speed" mountain bike from Sears, but both do the job.

The point of this post is to disspell the notion that a bike need be fancy or expensive, lest such stand as an excuse or impediment to bike commuting. A department store bike may not be the best, but it is serviceable. A bicycle is supposed to be a simple affair, and mostly it is. Any bicycle will need maintenance, and a bike is much easier to service than a car (if you're inclined to DIY)--a lot cheaper too! Unless you're really into speed, or you're an extreme mountain biker, a commuter's needs are modest.

Today bicycle frames are made from many materials, but steel is still one of the toughest and the cheapest. Tough is good for commuter vehicles. Trouble is, really cheap bikes also tend to be really heavy and bulky--avoid these. Steel=not bad, but too heavy is bad--you inevitably will have to carry the thing around in the city (steps, subway, etc...) and regret the weight. Naturally it affects speed too, but urban traffic makes excessive attention to speed dangerous. The other major problem is cheap components. Department store bikes usually have cheap components, but they are serviceable. They will need more maintenance for less performance, like American cars, but they do work. Of course, I also like to do most of my own work, so it's not a big deal. Eventually, I think a bike commuter should and would do similarly--it's part of the freedom and independence of biking.

Don't get me wrong, if you've got a nice ride, keep it! I'm just saying, if you don't, it's no biggie. Make sure it fits, make sure it's shifting pretty well, lube it up and off you go! Remember, safety first!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

My route

It might seem silly to write about something like my personal bicycle commuting route, but I don't see it as my personal property. It is a representative commuter route, and various useful lessons can be gleaned from it. Recently, I used Google Maps to check the distance of my commute, and discovered that this application now included "bicycling" as an option for directions, and I did not need to make many alterations. I typed in my location and destination and Google cranked out my bike route! This was not the case in the past, and suggests good things for the future of bike commuting. It also validates the thinking behind the formation of my route--not that I especially needed it, but you might.

The first thing I was looking for was a direct route--this is commuting, not sight-seeing. Much emphasis is placed on the scenic route for biking, but in many ways this is not the commuter's priority. The second and equally important feature I was looking for was a low traffic, back street route. Obviously, traffic doesn't affect cyclists in same way as motorists, so why is it important? The answer is simple, it affects motorists and motorists affect you, the biker. This is a discussion that deserves considerable space of its own at a later time. Just take my word for it. Time and safety, these are the greatest considerations. This does not mean aesthetics are insignificant, just not the most important concern.

This is important because the alternate route suggested to me by Google and also by a Brooklyn cyclist was not much longer distance-wise, but it was longer travel-wise. The difference as stated before, was traffic and also terrain. The streets were busier. There were many major intersections, so I had to stop and start much more often. The path I am accustomed to often allows me to ride as much as a mile and a half before I must stop. Some of this is down-hill, which speeds my way to work even as it slows my way home.

Bottomline is consult with a road atlas, not GPS, and practice finding the right path. Time is affected by intensity of traffic (busyness and speed) and flow. If the traffic generally moving your way, its all good. Lots of traffic lights are going to slow you down, even if you're not one to stop unecessarily for red lights. The lights are there for a reason. Safety is a complex matter, but also pretty simple--stay out of the way! Any main road you're going to use for any significant distance has to have space to accommodate you. There needn't be a bike lane or path, but just a little extra room on the right. More about safety later.

Friday, March 26, 2010

My first bike commute

My first bicycle commute felt like a big mistake! In December 2005, the Transit Workers Union (TWU), which represents the men and women who keep NYC's subways and buses, decided to call a strike. This was an unusual event. The last time there had been a strike was 1980. I was barely a teenager (not a commuter), but I remember it well. I am not anti-union, I support the workers right to strike and fight for their interests, but for all my sympathy, I still had to get to work. Most transit options being offered were a no-go. I wasn't going to pay excessively to suffer excessively--especially not at Christmas time. Nevertheless, the "crisis" awakened the intrepid in me.

I decided to break out my hardly used, Sears, Freespirit bicycle that I'd picked up for $60 on clearance and pedal my way to downtown Manhattan from Woodside, Queens. Under the best conditions it might not have been so bad, but these were not the best conditions. I was out of shape, my bicycle was not properly fitted to me, and then there was the real problem--negotiating NYC streets and traffic. Actually, they were all problems.

My first mistake was the path I chose. I went down Queens Blvd. to the Queensboro Bridge and into Mid-town Manhattan traffic. In virtually no time I was stopped cold. Not only was there heavy traffic, but it was compounded with the madness of a transit strike. I'd been forced off the road onto the sidewalks numerous times, which is not legal, but under the circumstances wasn't an enforcement priority. I quickly decided to bike towards the traffic-free promenade along the East River off the FDR Drive. This was fairly pleasant, but my commute was taking so much longer than anticipated. By the time I'd made it to work over two hours had passed, I was beat, and my knees ached!

A colleague who'd worked as a bike messenger back in the day when it was the equivalent of Wall Street's pony express was surprised it would take me so long to make the trip. In retrospect, it's easy to see what went wrong. First, my bike was poorly fitted to me, which is why my knees hurt so much. Also, my bike's front derailleur was not working and it was on the lowest, slowest gear! The other problem was the route I'd chosen. I checked that night on the road atlas for the best, straightest, low traffic, back street route I could take home, and I've been using it ever since. It took me about an hour to get home that night! Once I corrected the bike's functional issues I was down to 45-50 minutes. Now I make the trip in about 40 minutes! I don't think it'll get much better than that.

The moral of the story is pretty clear. Preparation is important, and urban bike commuting is no joke! Meanwhile, with the right prep it is very doable. I still bike to work every chance I get (at least three times a week). Why? There isn't just one reason. It's as fast and often faster than the subway. I don't get pushed around, or have to put up with delays, and since I enjoy biking I feel refreshed when I get to work. I've had some outdoor time, relatively fresh air (my route is also a truck route), and exercise. Oh yes, it doesn't cost extra and it fits into my schedule. The reasons are mental, physical and even spiritual. If you enjoy biking, and bicycle commuting can work for you, I highly recommend it.