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.


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