April 30, 2013

Anything Goes Commute Challenge: Score It

The time has come to wrap up the Anything Goes Commute Challenge, score it, and reflect on the results.

Solo CarCarpoolBike + BusSolo BikeGroup Bike
Overall Time (minutes)37:4627:4345:3198:1692:34
  Exercise Time008:2190:3787:51
  Reading/ Relaxing Time0036:2000
Bliss Factor0-1867
Funds for Charity001x2x2x
Time Wasted37:4627:430:507:494:43

Not surprisingly, there is no “one best way” to get to work.

The fastest way? Carpool. The downside: this is also the most stressful (for the driver). One alternative that I did not fit into the Challenge is to be a carpool passenger: fast and low stress. Cost is a wash, because I reciprocate.

The most freedom? Solo drive. This is costly (time and money), but sometimes necessary to fit a schedule or allow extra-curricular activities.

The best for exercise? Bike it, preferably with a group that pushes the pace. The cost should be a bit higher than the Challenge suggests, I think (fuel, aka food), but it would still be insignificant.

The best overall? Bike to the shuttle, ride the bus. Low stress, low cost, least time wasted. An additional benefit is having the bike handy for quick trips at work.

There are options I did not consider, such as mass transit. When the schedules align, I can walk to catch a public bus that will drop me off near the shuttle stop—a good rainy-day option. (While it would be technically possible to rely on mass transit entirely, doing so would be slower than biking to work: 2 hours, 30 minutes plus $10.75 to ride multiple buses, light rail, and Caltrain.)

I could walk to the shuttle stop (1.5 miles), but that would be time-intensive. When the shuttle stop was closer (1 km), this was my preferred approach—rain or shine.

I can drive to the shuttle stop. (It has been known to happen.) The cost is low ($0.85), but it saves little time (competing with commute traffic, school traffic, and the vagaries of six traffic signals along the way).

Finally, I would be remiss to exclude one occasional option: the “Solo Scenic Drive.” It takes about 90 minutes, 15-20 of which are wasted in traffic. Standard mileage reimbursement rates don't apply ... but the Bliss factor is 11.

April 28, 2013

Panoche Pictorial

Our club heads for the Panoche Valley twice a year, spring and fall.
I was disappointed to miss the last outing.

After struggling last weekend, I thought I might not be ready for such a long ride. It is an out-and-back route; I could always turn around. But I knew that if I drove down there, I would want to finish.

I hatched a plan, and the plan was this: bike to (and from) work this week. Not just once, but twice. If I could pull off two 40-mile days in one week, maybe, just maybe, I could make it to the Inn and back.

The bookshelf at Starbuck's in Hollister included a volume on C programming [this is not Silicon Valley]. A local was curious about my ride plan, and yet not familiar with Panoche Road. [You need to get out more, I thought.]

The fog touched down to ground level in Hollister; droplets condensed on my car. The fog zone ended abruptly a couple of miles from our starting point in Paicines, taking with it my regrets about leaving a jacket at home. It would be a hot day, and I quickly realized I could leave my vest in the car.

What better way to spend a few hours, than this? Mostly alone on a winding, little-traveled road. I could imagine that I was seeing much of the same landscape that settlers saw when they first traversed this pass on horseback.

I paused after a challenging pitch to admire the scenery; it was so quiet that I could hear my blood pulsing with each rapid heartbeat.

The road surface is in rough condition at its easternmost end. This is a good place to work on supporting yourself with your core muscles; if you keep a tight grip on the handlebars, the bone-rattling vibrations will make your head ache.

The Inn is up for sale; the proprietors are ready for a break.

The solar farm will taint the valley with industrial blight next year. This breaks my heart.

One of our co-leaders joked that we do this ride for the headwind—in both directions. It was a relief from the heat, but ... I had to pedal downhill.

Fifty-five miles of wondrous beauty and peaceful solitude, with a mere 2700 feet of climbing.

April 26, 2013

Anything Goes Commute Challenge: Group Bike Trip

There are many avid cyclists at my workplace—many commute daily, some over long distances. It has become a tradition for me to lead a group of riders to the office on Bike To Work Day, but that rolls around once a year. What if we biked together once a week?

On most Thursdays, a plan starts to form: who's in, where and when to rendezvous. Riders meet over the first few miles: four guys and me, today. They are stronger and faster and more fit; I rode my heart out to keep up. A sampling of our morning chatter: a fierce-but-friendly competition between two colleagues to establish who can complete more commutes by bicycle this quarter; the recent Boston Marathon (one of our riders had run it, luckily finishing well ahead of the chaos); bridging and nearest neighbors; the n Queens problem. [Yes, these are engineers; this is, after all, Silicon Valley.]

The Stats:

Route: surface streets, bike/pedestrian trail
Distance: 19.9 miles
Elapsed time: 92:34
Average moving speed: 13.7 mph
Exercise time: 87:51
Reading/relaxing time: 0
Bliss factor: 7
Cost per trip: $1.00
Enables: Exercise, camaraderie, Plus3Network and company-sponsored fundraising for charity, two breakfasts.
Yogurt with granola. Shrimp with grits. Slices of melon, and roasted tomatoes. I burned more than 600 calories on the way to work; if I fail to refuel, I will fade before lunchtime.

Here is a common question from solo drivers: What happens when you have an urgent, unexpected need for a car, but you did not drive to work? Today was such a day.

In the event of an emergency, many employers (mine included) will provide a ride home. But this was not my emergency, and home is not where I needed to go.

Mid-day, a colleague reached out for help: Her husband had suddenly fallen ill, she was following the paramedics to the local hospital. She could not leave their dog in the car (for who knows how long); could I meet her and take him? Of course—I did not hesitate to say "yes."

Now what?

Three of my four nearest neighbors had not driven to work; the fourth, with a dog-friendly car, said "Let's go." Dogs are a common sight at work—they are welcome, so long as they are well-behaved. This dog knows the drill; after some reassurances, he settled right in.

Next challenge: This was an open-ended commitment. I had expected to bike home around 5 p.m.
  1. I always have a bike headlight with me; it isn't powerful, but it is serviceable. If I had to finish the ride after sunset, I could.
  2. The last commuter shuttle home would depart around 8 p.m. I could load the bike onto the shuttle, leaving me with a short ride home in the dark.
  3. Later than that, I could bike to the light rail and get most of the way home, finishing with a few miles on the bike in the dark.
Don't worry about me or the dog, I said. We will stay at the office as long as needed. [Till 5:45 p.m., as it turned out.]

Contingency plans are highly recommended.

April 22, 2013

Anything Goes Commute Challenge: Solo Bike Trip

Biking to work is a commitment. Even though I have the luxury of loading myself and my bicycle onto a shuttle bus at the end of the day, I prefer to cycle home. The round trip translates into some 40 miles and 1,000 feet of hill climbing.

To while away the time, I usually count my fellow cyclists along the way: kids on their way to school, adults on their way to work or just out for a nice ride. Today was unseasonably warm; for the first few miles, I saw surprisingly few cyclists. By the time I rolled up to my building, I had counted 60—that’s higher than I remember for a morning commute (with the exception of Bike to Work Day).

The Stats:

Route: surface streets, bike/pedestrian trail
Distance: 18.6 miles
Elapsed time: 98:16
Average moving speed: 12.4 mph
Exercise time: 90:37
Reading/relaxing time: 0
Bliss factor: 6
Cost per trip: $0.93
Enables: Exercise, errand, Plus3Network and company-sponsored fundraising for charity, two breakfasts.
I needed to pick up some photos today, and when more neurons started firing over breakfast I realized I could do that on the way to work, with barely a detour. With no place to secure the bike in front of the store, I rolled it inside with me.

I have optimized my route over the years to make it safer and more direct. The Bliss factor would be higher if I did not have to contend with a few busy stretches of roadway, and if there were fewer clueless joggers, dog-walkers, and cyclists on the trail.

Once at the office, the first order of business is my second breakfast. Without that, I would bonk later in the morning. The next order of business is to shower and change into street clothes; I keep an extra pair of shoes at the office to minimize what I need to carry on the bike. When I get to my desk, I am energized for the day. More and more research has shown the beneficial influence of exercise on the brain, explaining why I feel more alert (and definitely not tired) after propelling myself to work.

Our company has a generous “self-powered commuting” incentive program. Each time I cycle to work, I earn credits that turn into dollars donated annually by the company to the charity of my choice. Last year, that amounted to more than $200 ... but I can do better.

Note to self
: Must bike to work more often.

Bike Lane 0, Hillside 1

Where has all my fitness gone?
Five weeks slacking.
Where has all my fitness gone?
I miss it so.
[Apologies to Pete Seeger.]

I miss the bike lane, too. In theory, it makes my commute to work safer. In practice, it started shrinking as soon as it was created. This morning I mustered the courage to document the problem, so I can report it. The speed limit on this stretch of Highway 9 is 45 mph (which means, of course, that the traffic is moving faster than that). When I am in good shape, I sprint as fast as I can. [Which, in my case, is not all that fast; it's uphill.]

Whenever I bike to work, I see many other cyclists. On the trail, there are joggers and dog-walkers, too. But the person who impressed me most today was an elderly woman, crossing the Heatherstone bike/pedestrian bridge in Sunnyvale at a steady pace. Up the incline, over Highway 85, and down the other side. Pushing her walker.

The usual stats for my round-trip: just under 40 miles and 1,000 feet of climbing. Fitness is important at every age. I will find mine, again.

April 20, 2013


Today, I rode almost exclusively on state highways. If you think that sounds unappealing, consider the meandering scenic byway in the photo at the left. This is California State Highway 35; along its southernmost stretches there is no center line, as the pavement is often no wider than one lane.

Given that 3000 feet of climbing felt okay last weekend, why not aim higher this weekend? When I finally crested the top of Highway 9, I was greeted by a cold wind and two steadfast cycling buddies (who reached the top long before I did). I was immediately grateful that I had chosen to wear my vest.

The last couple of miles along Highway 9 were less painful after a colleague unexpectedly passed me, then matched my pace so we could chat. Of course, many riders had passed me on my slow grind to the top—most were local racers, so I felt a bit less decrepit. I am, however, alarmingly out of shape.

The top of the hill was my first decision point: Turn back, or ride 10 miles along the ridge? I turned left, past the orchards and vineyards and Christmas tree farms. I felt good at the next decision point: Turn back, or head downhill to loop back to town? I preferred the longer route to the loop, which includes a few miles along a busy, rutted dirt trail.

One cycling buddy had stayed with me, and she was a trouper—waiting patiently for me to haul myself up the hills. When we hit the first steep (but short) pitches, we both wondered why we didn't take the easy way down. Cyclists are a common sight on that section of Skyline, which is beautiful and little-traveled. The surprise of the day was seeing many other women up there.

My cycling day ended with some 4,450 feet of climbing over 45 miles, which translated into near-total exhaustion. Must ride more ...

April 19, 2013

Anything Goes Commute Challenge: Bike + Shuttle

My typical commute involves riding a shuttle bus to the office. Sometimes the bus stop has been within walking distance of home; it is always within biking distance. While I don’t mind walking on a rainy day, I am a fair-weather cyclist. Fortunately (or not), we don’t see a lot of rain in these parts.

For the cycling segment, I started the clock just before I began rolling, and stopped it before I folded my STRiDA to load it on the shuttle. I then re-started the clock when the bus started rolling, and stopped it before I stepped off in front of the office building where I work.

Along the way I marvel at the daily clog of solo drivers on the freeway. I have a clear view of the drivers (illegally) texting, (illegally) holding their phones to their ears or in front of their faces, eating breakfast, and applying eye liner in the number two lane.

Riding the bike is fun, but slightly stressful as I cope with morning traffic and pass lots of parked cars—always on the alert to avoid being “doored.” Riding the shuttle is totally relaxing; I listen to my favorite podcasts (Car Talk, Wait Wait ... Don’t Tell Me!, Science Friday, Fresh Air). I might check my email and get an early start on the day, but I will suffer from motion sickness if I do much reading. At the end of the day, I have been known to doze off on the way home.

The Stats:

Route: surface streets (bike), freeway carpool lane, surface streets (bus)
Distance: 1.4 miles (bike), 17.71 miles (bus), 19.11 (total)
Elapsed time: 9:11 (bike), 36:20 (bus), 45:31 (total)
Average moving speed: 10 mph (bike), 39.4 mph (bus)
Exercise time: 8:21
Reading/relaxing time: 36:20
Bliss factor: 8
Cost per trip: $0.07 (bike), $0.00 (bus), $0.07 (total)
Enables: Exercise, Plus3Network fundraising for charity (bike); entertainment (podcasts on bus).
The very first time I rode the shuttle and arrived at work relaxed, I was ready to hang up my car keys. The chief downside is that I generally decline most after-work social gatherings. One upside is that I am a free ticket to the carpool lane for a solo driver looking for an express ride home: people woo shuttle riders every afternoon via a mailing list.

It is easy to “need” your car every day, to run an errand or get to an appointment. It just takes a little planning to align commitments to fall on a single weekday, or two.

April 18, 2013

Anything Goes Commute Challenge: Carpool Trip

After work, I will head up to the city for a performance by the world-renowned San Francisco Ballet. Which means I need my car. Technically, I could devise a mass-transit solution that entails less driving, but it would be ridiculously complicated and prohibitively time-consuming.

With back-to-back early meetings, I also need to get to the office before 8:30 a.m. I started the clock in my driveway, then cruised over to the shuttle stop to pick up a carpooler. Most people would actually prefer to board the wifi-equipped shuttle, but I got lucky. A colleague was happy to join me, and we had a nice conversation on the way to work.

Driving in the carpool lane is stressful (see Bliss factor, below). You are traveling at nearly the speed limit in the leftmost lane, constantly scanning the lane of (stopped) traffic to your right: Will that driver suddenly swing out in front of me? How about that one? That one?

I stopped the clock when I parked the car at work and breathed a sigh of relief.

The Stats:

Route: surface streets, freeway carpool lanes
Distance: 18.86 miles
Elapsed time: 27:43
Average moving speed: 40.9 mph
Exercise time: 0
Reading/relaxing time: 0
Bliss factor: -1
Cost per trip: $10.66
Enables: Cultural performance after work.
Later, the trips to and from San Francisco will not be solo drives—a friend joins me for the ballet.

April 16, 2013

Anything Goes Commute Challenge: Solo Car Trip

A kindred spirit and bicycle commuter par excellence, Ladyfleur, recently wrote a series about her alternative transportation options for getting to the office. She wrapped up with an open challenge to her readers to do the same. I'm in!

Let's start with my least favorite option: driving to the office during rush hour.

I volunteer for a non-profit organization once per week after work, which means I need my car—any of my transportation alternatives are so impractical that I would just stop volunteering.

To avoid the rush hour crawl, I spent an hour at home in early morning video conferences with colleagues in Europe. I started the clock in my driveway, and stopped it when I parked at the office.

The live traffic map looked promising, so I headed for the first freeway; traffic was flowing nicely. From an overpass, I glanced at the traffic on the next freeway ... and bailed out for the local expressway when I saw three lanes of stopped cars stretching into the distance. For a while I was stuck behind a driver who repeatedly and erratically slowed without braking; when I was finally able to pass her, the reason was clear: SHE WAS TEXTING.

The expressway route is less direct than the freeway and has traffic lights—but they’re synchronized. Given that it was now nearly 10:00 a.m., I exited onto one final freeway and suffered through the expected-but-short traffic jam shown above.

The Stats:

Route: surface streets, freeways, expressway
Distance: 20.12 miles
Elapsed time: 37:46
Average moving speed: 32.92 mph
Exercise time: 0
Reading/relaxing time: 0
Bliss factor: 0
Cost per trip: $11.37
Enables: Volunteer activity after work, followed by grocery shopping.
I will use the same quantitative factors to score my commutes (car: $0.565 per mile, bike: $0.05 per mile) as Ladyfleur, but my qualitative factors are somewhat different:
  • Reading/relaxing time:
  • Motion sickness dissuades me from reading, but if my attention is not required I can listen to podcasts or doze off.
  • Bliss factor:
  • A happiness score on a putative scale of 0-10.
  • Enables:
  • The benefits of this transportation choice.
Do I need to explain the Bliss factor for this trip? [There is no joy in a solo drive in traffic.]

April 14, 2013

Led Astray

Following my five-week hiatus, I knew I would be slow. I loaded shoes, helmet, water bottles, snacks, and the rest of my gear into the car. I chose a local ride on familiar roads, knowing I could easily turn back.

I did not expect to turn back before I reached our starting point, however. As I rounded the ramp onto the freeway, it occurred to me that I did not hear my bike rattling behind me. And there was a reason for that: it was still in the garage. Five weeks of inactivity had obliterated my regular pre-ride routine. Thanks to the ubiquitous California cloverleaf, I immediately circled back and managed to meet up with the rest of the group on time.

The ride took an interesting turn when the group deviated onto Soquel-San Jose Road. Our route for the day included a loop that can be completed in either direction. The route sheet detailed the clockwise loop, but a pair of locals had persuaded the ride leader to change the plan (unbeknownst to me). It seemed prudent to follow the renegades; besides, I much prefer the counter-clockwise version, with its meandering climb through the redwoods.

Of course, I also much prefer the smooth descent on Soquel-San Jose. When the locals pulled aside to wait for the group, I flew past. I surmised that they wanted to ensure that no one would miss the (now undocumented) turn onto Stetson. I know the turn. I also know that my downhill speed will carry me most of the way up its initial steep pitch.

Merrily I rolled along, deep in the shade of the forest. The redwood sorrel is blooming; California Quail skittered into the brush, and a noisy pair of Steller's Jays darted from branch to branch. I stopped at the little white church where we planned to regroup, and waited. And waited. Surely they would catch up to me soon?

One, two, three, four, five ... which rider is missing? Our leader! The same pair of riders who altered the route "didn't see me make the turn." [Which was not visible from their vantage point.] They convinced our leader that I had missed the turn, and she set off to find me. "I hope she isn't going all the way to Soquel," I exclaimed. [Sadly, she did.]

Ironically, she was not looking for me. I would later find a broken-up message on my cell phone, asking me to lead the rest of the group back to the start while she searched for the newbie rider she believed to be lost. I regretted not having the stamina to chase after her.

Twenty eight miles and 3,040 feet of climbing. What a day.