The going-to-work workout
It’s good exercise, it’s good for the environment, and it’s a good way to save money. What’s not to like about cycling to your job?
March 29, 2004, Monday, p. F1
by Pam LeBlanc, American-Statesman staff;
Copyright 2004 The Austin American Statesman, reprinted with permission
I’m tearing along the Shoal Creek hike-and-bike trail, splashing through creek crossings and pumping the pedals to get through a bog of gravel – another risk of the daily commute.
But here atop my mountain bike, the traffic isn’t bad. In fact, I’ve passed maybe a half dozen pedestrians and cyclists since I left Town Lake behind. I’m a little muddy, and I still bear the scars from my most recent mishap (the imprint of the chain ring on my lower leg), but this is exhilarating. Especially when the trail pops out of the creekbed and I glance over at Lamar Boulevard, where cars are stacked up like pancakes on a breakfast buffet.
I’ve been riding my bike to work once a week for about five months now. It’s eight miles from my home in the Allandale neighborhood near Shoal Creek Boulevard and RM 2222 to the American-Statesman office here at Congress Avenue and Town Lake. The ride takes about 45 minutes each way, but besides avoiding road traffic, I squeeze in some exercise (something different from the usual swim practice), save a few pennies of gas money and get out in the real world.
Besides, it makes me feel virtuous. If one of every 100 people in Austin scrapped their car just one day a week, think how much less congested our roads would be. In fact, I checked with the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, which estimates we’d save 6,676 gallons of gas and 140,156 miles traveled each day in the Williamson-Travis-Hays county region.
Rob D’Amico also rides his bike to work. As executive director of Trans Texas Alliance, a nonprofit agency that works for effective transportation for all Texans, with a focus on bicycling and pedestrian safety, biking is a big part of his job. He’s worked for years to persuade major employers in Austin to make their businesses bike-commuter friendly.
It’s been a difficult battle.
“One major employer said they don’t promote bike commuting because it’s too dangerous and if we promote it at the work site, we could be liable,” D’Amico said. “There’s that attitude. And employers are like everyone else – they’re tied into the car culture and don’t understand the need to accommodate and incentivize employees who want to ride bikes.”
He’d like to see employers offer “guaranteed ride home” programs to their workers who ride bikes. With such a program, companies would provide bike commuters with vouchers for cab or bus fare if they needed a ride in an emergency.
D’Amico is also promoting May as bike month. The alliance has planned a slate of activities, from a cyclist happy hour to a bike-in movie. On May 21, Bike to Work Day, some local restaurants will provide free continental breakfasts to bike commuters.
Biking, D’Amico says, offers benefits beyond fitness and saving money. It’s a great time to think, and you notice things on a bike you don’t notice in a zooming car. “That and you’re commuting through our city without destroying it – you’re not spewing harmful emissions, clogging the streets or causing – in most cases – safety risks for pedestrians.”
Another bike commuter, Colly Kreidler, notes that you don’t have to ride both ways. He sometimes loads his bike on the rack found on the front of Capitol Metro buses if it’s dark or the weather is bad. He also encourages bike commuters who encounter rough roads to call 311 or report the problem to him at 974-7046.
And if lack of shower facilities is your excuse for not riding, consider this: The city’s bicycle program has received roughly $400,000 in grant money from the Federal Highway Administration to install shower and locker facilities at some city offices and private businesses. The city is still working to develop the criteria for which the money will be distributed.
It’s a joy to ride to work. Remember that feeling you had as a kid, when you’d take off on your bike and ramble through the neighborhood? I get that every time I commute. And I arrive at work with the satisfying feeling that I’ve already got some exercise under my belt. It’s tougher in the afternoon, when my ride is more uphill than downhill. But I’m training myself to look forward to those hills, because I know they are what make me stronger.
“People set aside all this time for recreational activities and cycling clubs, and on the weekend they get up and go for a ride. The whole thing about bike commuting is you don’t have to wait for the weekend to get that feeling,” said Tim Cookingham, who runs Planet Earth Adventures, a travel company specializing in cycling trips in Ireland. “If you have the time to do it, why would you ride your car when you could ride your bike?”
Indeed. There’s cool stuff to see along the way. Once, we spotted an owl in a treetop. You get to know the people who use the trail.
It’s true, I’ve had mishaps. The second time I rode in, I accidentally locked up my front brakes (rookie mistake!) and executed a perfect “endo,” sailing over the handlebars and slamming into the pavement wrist first. Luckily, there weren’t any cars nearby, the bleeding stopped by the time I got to work and the X-rays were negative. Another time, I tipped over in slow motion while crossing a creek, and the chain ring on my bike cut into my lower leg. I’ve got scars.
My husband’s been commuting by bike once or twice a week for about five years. I resisted until last fall, convincing myself I couldn’t make it work with my schedule. Getting to work hot and sweaty? Yuck. Now we ride most of the way together. Sometimes we’re joined by Tim Cahalan, 40, who has been commuting for about five years. We meet him at his halfway point. In all, his commute covers 15 hilly miles.
“It’s my quiet time,” Cahalan said. “Some people go walking, some people do other things – I like riding my bike. I get to work, take a shower and I’m wired for the day.”
We’re lucky to have a bike-friendly route. We ride Shoal Creek to Lamar Boulevard, where we pick up the Shoal Creek hike-and-bike trail. That takes us all the way to Town Lake, where I peel off, head east and cross the First Street bridge to the paper, and they bear west toward Bee Cave Road.
The first few times I rode, I stuffed my clothes in a backpack, arriving at the office with a sweat-soaked back. Now I have a rear rack and “trunk” (swiped from my husband’s bike), which holds a lock, my cell phone and a small towel. I keep a change of clothes, shampoo, makeup and a hair dryer at the office, and shower in the company locker room.
Yes, there are risks, and you should take precautions. Wear bright clothes and use reflectors and headlamps after dark. While in motion, try to maintain a steady line.
“You have to be a confident rider. You need to be assertive,” says Owen Fowler, 33, assistant store manager at REI, who rides nine miles each way to work, even if it’s raining. “The biggest danger is not being willing to establish yourself in the flow of traffic. Don’t shy away from taking the lane. It’s a lot more dangerous if you’re way over on the edge because it’s harder for cars pulling out to see you, and cars think they can squeeze by,” Fowler said. “And obey all traffic laws. If I want to get respect from drivers as a bicyclist, I need to show them equal respect by obeying traffic laws and being courteous.”
Fowler commutes so regularly that he and his wife gave up their second car.
Me? I’m not quite ready to give up my Volkswagen Passat, but I’m definitely hooked.
Think you have an excuse not to bike to work? Think again. We give you options. Also, gear you’ll need, safety tips and Web resources, including one that calculates cost and calories.
How much can you save – and burn?
Go to www.trekbikes.com, click on “explore cycling,” then go to the commuter section. Plug in a few numbers into an online calculator, and it will tell you how much money you save and how many calories you burn by cycling. According to the site, I save almost $4 and burn about 331 calories every time I commute.
On the Web
For tips on biking to work, links to other bike commuter sites and product information, check out these Web sites:
For suggested bike routes in the city of Austin, go to the City of Austin website [and BicycleAustin.info]. Roads are rated green for easiest for cyclists to use, blue for more difficult and red for most difficult. But before you ride, drive your route, looking at shoulder construction and street surface.
GRAPHIC: Tim Cahalan has been making the ride from home to work for the past five years. ‘It’s my quiet time,’ he says.