Monday, January 27, 2014

Deciding not to renew the bus pass

For years, I’ve tweeted every transit trip I took, continuing a tradition I began in the 1990s of logging each transit trip in a paper notebook. Since I began seriously using the bicycle as a commute mode, I wondered if I was still getting my money’s worth out of the bus pass, like I used to when all I did was bus. To that end, I downloaded all my archived tweets, tallied up every transit trip in 2013, and crunched the numbers.

Short answer: No, not even close. The bus pass cost me $1,608.75, but I only used $1,230 in equivalent, full cash fare. In only one month, March, did my cash equivalent fare exceed the $146.25 cost of a Zone 2 monthly pass, and even then, by less than two days' riding.

My son as well has a ConnectCard fare card, but has only ever had cash equivalent fare on it. It did not take long for him to burn through the $50 or $100 he had on it. During the year, if we were both paying attention, we would arrange for him to borrow mine with its unlimited riding annual pass on it, and I would take the bicycle (or motorcycle). But this too had its drawbacks, as the next day I would go to get on a bus, only to find I did not get the pass back from him, and he had no travel plans for that day.

After crunching the numbers, we arrived at a decision. The solution is to let the annual pass expire at the end of February. Instead of slapping down the equivalent of 11 monthly passes all at once, we will put 1/3 of a monthly pass on his card right now, $50 in non-expiring cash-equivalent fare. At the end of February, we will put the other 2/3 of that monthly on mine, also in cash-equivalent fare. He does not travel daily, and I have the bike and motorcycle, so this should allow us more flexibility in travel. $100 will get me around town for at least a month, and every day I bike saves me $7.50.

In addition, this allows my wife and me to travel around town easier, as she can borrow his pass. For example, on Saturdays when he works (up the street, within walking distance, not needing the pass), she and I can travel around the city to visit museums and other attractions.

Twitter has thus helped us make a significant household business decision, which may actually help us ride transit more, not less, and save us hundreds of dollars in the process. In a larger sense, though, I've gone through yet another transition, from four cars to two cars, to primarily transit usage with car backup, to using the bike some, to using the bike a lot, and now to using the bike as primary with bus as backup.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

A cold day for a motorcycle ride

How cold is too cold to take a 20-mile ride on the motorcycle? 50? 40? 32? 25? How about 15?

I'm sure it's been done by somebody somewhere who lived to tell about riding in even colder weather than 15 Fahrenheit, and for longer distances than 20 miles each direction, but for me this was a first. I knew that a motorcycle trip was do-able, from discussions with others, but as the day approached when I might actually need to make the trip, I thought I'd better get ready.

The matter at hand was a semi-annual Toastmasters convention involving participants from about a 100-mile radius of Pittsburgh. I motorcycled to last January's event, too, but that was on a day when it was 40 to 45, not 15, even if it was twice the distance. This time, it was a simple 21-mile ride straight up Perry Highway, four right turns from driveway to driveway. But how to prepare for that kind of cold? The weather forecast all week changed remarkably little: a bit of snow overnight, with a low of 12 to 15. The snow might be a deal breaker, but the cold was not, so I got ready.

First thing, a week out, I made sure I could get the bike started. The last I rode it was just after I got the tire fixed around Thanksgiving, so last Saturday, I made a short trip into West View. Three out, three back. It ran fine. Next, twice during the week, I rode it into the city, about 10 to 12 miles each way. This was to test riding in chilly, though not frigid, weather. I wanted to see what got cold. Gloves were an issue, as was some exposed skin around face, wrists and ankles. Getting feet and hands wet was itself a deal breaker, even in five miles. It was good that I practiced.

Saturday morning, I got up very early, prior to 5:00, and set to work getting the bike ready. Even before breakfast, I wanted to make sure it would start. No new snow since last evening, so the (one) road would be fine. Overnight temp: 14F. The engine turned over, but even on a good day it's hard to start. It wasn't long before the battery gave out, so again, even before breakfast, I dug out the long extension cord and battery charger, and got that humming. Only then did I have breakfast, shave, and so forth. It started easily enough with a good hour on the charger. I let it warm up while I set out my riding gear.

Getting dressed properly was paramount. I would be in a high school all day among casually dressed professionals, so figured on it being rather chilly but prepared for overheating. Schools can be like that. So, layers, but look nice. What I wore to work on Friday would be fine for the publicly visible layer.

Under that, I donned long johns top and bottom, with three pairs of socks. Innermost was wool, so as to wick away any moisture from my feet, particularly perspiration. Next was a tall pair of socks, possibly belonging to my wife or daughter, which went nearly up to my knees, for the earlier concern about wind exposure around my shins and ankles. Third, just another layer for warmth, but also to secure the bottom of the longjohns. Getting all this into my shoes took more than the usual amount of loosening laces, but it got done.

Top half, just the usual T-shirt, LJ top, and dress shirt, but then also a thick vest. I looked for my motorcycle rain gear to go over everything but managed to misplace it, so donned a set of waist-to-ankle bright orange waders with suspenders, which held everything together quite well. Over the top went my motorcycle rain jacket, which does an OK job of being a windbreaker as well. Add a knitted gaiter and balaclava, and I was just about ready.

Final things: helmet, gloves, and plastic covers for my hands and feet. Being pure ghetto, I went for plain old grocery bags for the feet (again, could not find my motorcycle rain boots) and the long bags newspapers come in to go over my hands and arms up to my elbows. With everything tied in place, out the door I went. The last I looked at the thermometer, it said 15F.

I knew in the first half mile that things were going to work, not even needing adjustment. Nothing even chilly a mile out. Two miles out, I could tell that I wouldn't last 100 miles on the very ends of my fingers, and there was a bit too much breeze around my eye sockets, but I could make it 20. Around mile 10, my fingertips were uncomfortable, but not dangerously so, and I was beginning to feel like I'd like this to be over soon. The last mile, I was still in much better shape than wet Wednesday night when my hands froze four miles out of downtown with seven to go. I arrived, parked the bike, pulled off my foot and hand covering, and walked in like I owned the world.

Once inside, I found a nice corner and peeled off all the extraneous layers, which rolled up into a ball I could stash in my helmet. I might have been an orange and yellow astronaut going up Perry Highway (oh, the looks on some people's faces, some of whom followed me into the parking lot), but inside, I looked normal enough.

I was cold, but not dangerously so. Two cups of hot coffee, the first chugged as quickly as I could get it in me, got me stable enough to conduct business. I wasn't late, but I would not have minded getting there 30 minutes sooner. Stupid battery.

Six hours later, it had only warmed to 19, and true to form, the bike wouldn't start. I had gotten back into the riding gear quickly enough, but then got overheated trying to push start it in the parking lot. Twenty minutes of frustration. Eventually, with a little help, it was running, so I re-donned the bags and was on my way. One of the grocery bags sliced open in the cold, so was troublesome in trying to stay on my feet. This was a bit of a problem, as there was still some standing snow in the driving lanes, and I really did not want my foot to get wet. I finally threw in the towel about three miles from home and stuffed it in my right hand to finish the last five minutes. Other than that, the trip went fine.

Back at home, I parked the bike and went in, feeling quite normal, not chilled beyond what one cup of something hot would serve in recovery.

Mission accomplished. If I had to do it over again, I would make sure I had proper hand and foot coverings, but I could surely handle 20, and likely a lot more mileage, and/or a lot colder.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

2,500 bicycle commuting miles in 2013

I never left metro Pittsburgh. I never went on a long trip. Yet by the end of 2013 I'd racked up 2,554 miles under my own power, but like the guy in the double rainbows video, I find myself asking, "what does it meeeean?"

It means that a regular working guy can just about go without an automobile for purposes of commuting and regular around-town travel. If I lived in the city proper, that would beg the question, why have a car at all? With some deft planning and proper equipment, even grocery shopping could conceivably be done by bike and transit. That isn't my exact situation, though, so let's stick to script.

I live in the suburbs and work downtown. Transit service exists but is not convenient, most of a mile walk to a bus at rush hour, and almost two miles to the bus at off-peak and weekends. Alternatives exist at distances of three and four miles. To utilize any of these, I employ the bicycle. That 0.86-mile trip, some 17 minutes on foot, becomes a mere six on bicycle. The 1.62-mile off-peak trip takes about 10. The three-mile trip takes about 20, four about 30. Since all buses have bike racks, I take the bike with me on the bus for a seamless trip.

Once downtown, I ride a half mile through city streets to one of a couple of bike racks. The preferred one is a specially built locking station which opened only a year or so ago, accommodating about 50 bikes in a parking garage. Another is at the City-County Building only a block away from my office, but a decidedly less secure old iron rack of 1950s design that isn't even bolted to the floor. With the bike secured to either rack, however, chances of theft are minimal.

Many days, I biked the entire way into the city. This wasn't that much different, in terms of time, from walking to my usual rush-hour bus. The exact path varied, but was about 10 to 11 miles, exclusive of errands and experimentation. Not as many days, I biked home, as well. More often, I bused home, for a total of about 14 miles for that day, but 22 to 25 if I biked both ways. If all I did was bike to the bus and back, it was more like 3 or 4.

I biked all year. As would be expected, I biked less in winter than summer, but it was spring and autumn when I biked the most.

But again, what does it mean? It means I have some experience from which to discuss the topic of road riding intelligently. It means I have dealt with a lot of things, both good and bad, from which others can learn. It means I know when not to ride, when to adapt to conditions, and when to just jump on and go. I've carried items from kayak paddles to high chairs. I've pulled knotweed that was blocking the trail. I've dealt with my share of stupid drivers who insisted I not be there. I've identified permanent hazards like drain grates with slots that eat wheels. I've assisted on several organized bike rides.

All this is to say, if I can do it, it can be done, and others would be advised to listen.