Secrets of an Oakland super-commuter

Words by Morgan Fletcher

Morgan Fletcher lives in Oakland, California, in the hills above the city. He works in San Francisco’s Financial District, as a manager at a software company. The 46-year-old Philadelphia native is in the office about eight hours a day, but he’s in front of a computer, or a mobile phone, working the shoulder hours of the day. It’s probably a nine-hour day, on average. His daily commute is a phone-free, laptop-free zone. So is the ferry. —Ed.


When I leave the house for work is often impacted by other duties, as father and husband. I’m a parent to two teenagers, and my wife works. In my perfect bike commuting day, I’m up at 6 a.m., on the bike at 7:30 a.m., down the hill eight miles and 1,000 feet to the Jack London Ferry Terminal. I’ll ride the ferry with my friends to the San Francisco Ferry Building, arriving around 8:45 a.m., and get to the office by 9 a.m. My office is a short distance from the Ferry Building, less than a mile, but traffic and architecture in that part of San Francisco are dense, so it does feel like a bit of a journey. I’ll step away from my desk at 5:15 p.m. After socializing on the ferry—I always sit outside, and I always see some of the same friendly faces—I’ll be at Jack London Ferry Terminal by about 6:20 p.m. From there it’s anywhere from 50 minutes to an hour and 20 minutes home, depending on whether I go the short or long ways. My morning commute takes me through narrow, hill-side, quiet roads down to big, busy streets, and the pattern is reversed in the evening. I have some grass and dirt options, to escape the asphalt, and my route to the ferry in the morning is creative.

The primary challenge of bicycle commuting—like anywhere else—is safety. The Bay Area has a very dense population, separated from most destinations by water. Everyone is in a hurry at commute time, distracted and late and completely self-centered. This all makes sense. No one’s looking out for the other commuters, and most of the cars have a single occupant and you, whoever you are, are in the way. As a bicycle commuter with over thirty years of experience riding to school and then work, I’ve developed a sense for how to safely navigate my commute. I’m a law-abider. It’s rare that I’m so late for work or home as to feel the need to not stop at a stop sign or red light.

The secondary challenge is darkness. I do not like bike commuting as much during the winter, and I hate Daylight Savings Time. I spend a lot of time cold, dark and wet on my bike, in the winter. “Real bike commuters” keep riding through the winter. Bleh.

karencommute-2 (1)

Photo from the Bicycle Times archives.

The benefits of commuting are so many. I get great exercise, I get to train for my favorite activity, which is bicycling! I have time away from screens, grumpiness, drama and doubt, where my body and brain are energized and moving with a purpose, so that my thoughts can flow for tens of minutes at a time uninterrupted, and I can think and feel the wind on my face.

I’m burning the good food I ate, and not the dollars in my wallet, and I’m not making my expensive car an even more depreciated asset when I’m bike commuting.

I’m not frustrated in traffic, but flowing through two great, big cities efficiently and with style while I commute. I see things that others might not see, moving at just the right speed, with no walls around me.

I get to take a boat across the most beautiful bay, below bridges and among container ships, and I get to talk and laugh with friends while I’m doing it. I sometimes take the BART train; the ferry is vastly superior. I arrive at my destination happier and more refreshed than when I left. The sunsets are incredible.

Since I’ve never been a car commuter, I tend to be very economical with my bike spend, while at the same time being an absolute bike snob. I love bikes, and I’m always one bike away from having the right set of bikes. I buy parts used, do my own mechanical work, and take advantage of deals when available. We still drive enough, with kid transport and my wife’s commute, that I’m keenly aware of what a car costs to maintain. I’d guess I’m ahead by maybe $5,000 – $7,000 a year. Hard to say.

I’m always happy to have company, but there are very few people with whom I can share the bulk of my commute. I roll out from the ferry in the evening with a group of friends, and also some strangers. This “critical mass” of three to five riders provides some safety we wouldn’t have as single riders, especially when it’s dark and we have lights on. This first mile from the ferry is a good time for conversation, providing we’re paying full attention to the cars, pedestrians and bikes around us. Sometimes I’ll run into a friend on the longer climbs and the longer ways home, and we’ll ride together. I like the time alone on the bike.

I’ve hit deer twice on my bike commute home. Both times were at night. The first time, I stayed upright and the deer went flying. The second time I wasn’t so lucky, and we both crashed hard.


This article originally appeared in Bicycle Times 36. Check out more of our commuting content here and sign up for our email newsletter to get fresh stories delivered to your inbox every Tuesday! 

 

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Overcoming Commuting Obstacles: It’s too far and I’m too out of shape!

Ed. Note: The Overcoming Commuting Obstacles article was originally published in Bicycle Times #15, and offers solutions to common commuting roadblocks, written by a variety of people in a variety of places. I’m publishing each obstacle/solution as its own short post on the web. You can find the other posts in this series here.


Words by Karen Brooks (former Bicycle Times staff) 

Setting yourself to work under your own power can be a daunting prospect. The fact that showing up to one’s job each day is generally considered necessary for continued employment adds an element of urgency to what might otherwise be a pleasure cruise. If your commute is longer than a few easy miles, and you’re not sure of your ability to cover it in a timely fashion, bike commuting may seem too risky.

But on the other hand, riding your bike to work can be an easy way to incorporate some regular exercise into your schedule. Think about this: the time you spend in your car driving to work is essentially wasted, as far as fitness is concerned. If you convert that time into riding time, and then add some more time for the fact that you’re going slower on a bike, it probably adds up to less time than you’d spend traveling to a gym, or even scheduling a fitness ride on the weekend. Each way, it takes me half an hour to drive to work, and an hour to ride; when I bike commute I’m getting two hours of exercise for the price of one. Some of you who live in metro areas perpetually snarled in traffic may even find that you’re saving time by riding.

When I first started working at Bicycle Times, I was not all that fit, and the thought of riding the 12.5 hilly miles each way was intimidating. The key was to start small. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. To scope out the route, I rode in one morning with a coworker that lived nearby, and then caught a lift home with another that evening. Next I added a full day’s commute once a week. Then two. Currently I average three to four days a week. You may be able to take advantage of public transportation to cut the distance, or perhaps find a convenient location mid-way to park your car and ride from there.

Pedaling a bike happens to be a great low-impact way to exercise that is easily tailored to your fitness level. But it’s a good idea to get a general medical checkup before you take on a challenging commute. Also keep in mind that what you eat becomes more important, since that’s now your fuel. Make sure to have plenty of healthy options for lunch. You will be more hungry, perhaps a lot more, so bring some extra food for snacking, especially for after you arrive and before you leave. You also may need to sleep more. Just try to tune in to what your body is telling you.

Inertia works both ways: it can be tough to get going, but once you get used to the routine of riding, your body will adapt and consider it “normal.” In fact, you’ll grow to miss riding on days you drive. I’m not going to lie—there are days when the distance still seems far, particularly as I step out the office door into a cold and dark winter night. But that lonesome feeling dissipates in the first half-mile as I pedal away the day’s stresses and worries, and I arrive home relaxed and rejuvenated.

Photo: Marci Chamberlain

Photo: Marci Chamberlain

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Overcoming Commuting Obstacles: There’s no good way to get there by bike!

Ed. Note: The Overcoming Commuting Obstacles article was originally published in Bicycle Times #15, and offers solutions to common commuting roadblocks, written by a variety of people in a variety of places. I’m publishing each obstacle/solution as its own short post, one or two per day all week. 


By Winona Bateman

My friend looked at me like I was nuts; she knew Santa Fe, New Mexico, like the back of her hand. “You’re riding your bike around Santa Fe? Nobody rides a bike in Santa Fe.” I paused and thought about the other cyclists that I would pass while meandering around town. Then it hit me: perhaps she wasn’t seeing many cyclists in Santa Fe because she wasn’t looking for them, or perhaps as a diehard motorist, she was missing them because she took all the best routes for cars.

I’ve commuted and ridden in several large cities and communities: Minneapolis, San Francisco, Santa Fe, and now Missoula, Montana. Looking back on that conversation, I realize that, for the most part, whenever I have thought about how to get from point A to point B by bike, I have basically thought about routing in a similar fashion to our cartographers here at Adventure Cycling Association, who create bike-friendly (and enjoyable) routes for bike touring. What quiet, low-traffic roads are available to me? What delicious cup of coffee might I score on my way to work? Can I take a scenic route such as our pretty river trail, even if it’s slightly out of the way? How can I combine all three?

At times in my life though, a very direct route was better for me, especially when I first started commuting by bike. (I was really worried about “wasting time” back then.) However, the most direct cycling route can often be a major thoroughfare for motor vehicles as well. In this situation, I would time my commute just before or a bit after the major commuting hours to avoid a rush of cars.

I’m also a big fan of taking the lane, and have always done so. Heck, when I first started commuting by bike, I just assumed I had to act like a car—nothing else really made sense to me. But now, if there are several major arterials to choose from, I will generally take the one with a bike lane or “sharrows.” Still, in my experience, taking the lane is an especially important skill for roads with a higher volume of motor vehicle traffic—it helps you to be seen better in certain situations or establish enough room to ride, and is critical when making a left turn.

Many cities produce bike maps, detailing the local bicycling routes and trails. These can assist you in creating routes that combine quiet, bike-friendly options in combination (or not) with more heavily trafficked thoroughfares. Scouting your route by car might also be helpful—be sure to do it at commuting time as traffic volume can vary greatly throughout the day. A quiet road at 10 a.m. might be roaring at 5 p.m.!

Other great resources include local bike organizations, bike clubs, or shops. Why not get some tips from people already riding in your community?

Online resources that may be helpful include:

Google Maps (Get directions” button, then click on the bicycle icon): The bicycle-friendly routing still in “beta” and not always accurate, but it’s getting better as user input is accepted. When I input my daily Missoula commute Google routed me onto the most direct—but busiest— streets. In practice, I take an alternate route that follows our railroad tracks and includes my favorite coffee spot.

Ride the City: This site includes info on over 20 metro areas in U.S., plus cities around the world. One incredibly cool feature is the ability to choose a “safer route” or a “direct route.”

bike firering

Illustration: Julia Green

Stay tuned for more tips for overcoming different commuting obstacles, including rain, cold, kids who need to be at school, and being out of shape!

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