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: 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.”

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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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Boiling the Frog: A Boston Commuter Journal

Words by Thom Parsons

Commuting through the winter by bike is like that anecdote about boiling the frog: if you throw a frog in boiling water, it will jump out immediately. This works much better metaphorically than it does literally. You throw a frog in boiling water—it freakin’ dies. Think about it. When you throw a lobster in boiling water what happens, does it hop out? Of course not. (And I’m glad, because that would be terrifying.) The second part of the saying goes: if you put a frog in cold water and gradually raise the temperature, it will hang out until it is boiled alive. “Well, this is rather nice; the warm water is helping work out the knots in my lower back. I should really learn to stretch prior to rigorous hopping, oh my, what the…Rosebud.”

It’s the same principle with bike commuting. If you stay on the bike through the fall and make the gradual transition to winter riding, that first 23° day isn’t going to come as such a shock, but, you take three months off the bike to focus on more important things, like getting fat and depressed, and that first really cold day is going to feel like you’ve been thrown into a pot of boiling water.

I live in a town 35 miles from Boston, a town full of giant red pick-up trucks. I work in Boston… in cycling advocacy, and up until a few months ago I rode my bike, or did a bike/train/bike commute 100% of the time. Because that’s what you do when you work in cycling advocacy and you’re not a total D-bag. And you don’t own a car. But, see, that is the thing: I bought a car. Not just a car, but a miniature van (like a van, only smaller). When that happened, scientists in a lab in Nevada saw the D-bag-o-meter go right off the charts. “Good God Phil, what the hell was that? Rush Limbaugh isn’t even on right now…I think some hypocritical loser from Boston that spends all day trying to get other people to ride bicycles just bought a minivan and decided to not ride his bike, ever.”

Then I spent over four months commuting to the city by car, hating every minute of it. I’d be sitting in traffic going: “GOD DAMMIT! WHY DID I DRIVE? I AM A STUPID, STUPID MAN.” And yet, I would get up and do the same thing again the next day. I think Einstein said that the definition of insanity is doing the same insane thing over and over again even though it makes you totally insane and expecting it not to keep making you totally insane.

I tried to be less of a loser in certain ways. When I’d stop at our local café in the morning, a quaint little place called, adorably enough, “Dunkin Donuts,” I would ask for an egg and cheese sandwich with no bag, just the wrapper. To the staff of Dunkin Donuts this was noteworthy and I quickly became known as “The No-Bag Guy.” I’m sure if there were a woman who always insisted on a bag, they would call her “The Bag Lady.”

If you’re going to drive a miniature van to work and get a cryogenically frozen puck-of-egg sandwich at a drive-through window, one way to salvage a shred of non-D-bag-ness is to ask for no bag. (You can make your own joke about taking the bag out of D-bag if you want—I ain’t goin’ there.) Of course, a better way to achieve this is to have oatmeal for breakfast and ride your damn bike to work like a man. A man in a leotard, but a man nonetheless.

After a few months of wallowing in self-loathing, one day I woke up from a dream. In the dream I was watching T.V. There was an ad on the T.V. for Weak Sauce—“Weak Sauce: Now With More Thom.” I walked down to the bathroom, looked at the reflection in the mirror and said “OH MY GOD, A VAMPIRE!” Luckily, just before I staked it with a dental pick, I realized that vampires don’t have reflections and that I was looking at a particularly sleep-deprived version of myself. That raccoon-eyed version of me looked the other me in the eye and said, “Hey, Thom, stop being a D-bag.”

I decided right then and there that I would start riding to work again. Even if I had to jump right into that boiling pot of water…that was, in reality, a freezing cold February day.

Illustration: Julia Green

Illustration: Julia Green

When I do actually commute to work by bike I have three options:

1.) Ride my Schwinn Varsity the five miles to the commuter rail during off-peak hours, throw it on the train, ride it the mile or so to work on the other end, and then repeat the process in reverse in the evening.

2.) Ride my commuter bike, a singlespeed road bike with panniers and duct tape on it that I call the “AThomination,” one way to the city, 35 miles, then take the train home in the evening.

3.) Ride my commuter bike both ways for a grand total of 70 miles.

The first one might sound nuts to members of the non-cycling world. The second one might sound nuts to some members of the cycling world. And the third one might sound nuts to all but about three people in the cycling world. Sad thing is…I used to be one of those three people. I’m not anymore, believe me. When I tell you that I once drank luminescent tequila in a national park in Utah, you don’t have to believe me, but believe me on this one.

The first day I decided to commute, I chose the 35-mile, ride-all-the-way-in-and-take-the-train-most-of-the-way-out version. My first thought when I woke up was: “I don’t want to do this.” It wasn’t a thought so much as something I said out loud and then followed with nervous-serial-killer laughter. My ride to Boston isn’t all that intimidating, really, it’s just 35 miles of mostly flat terrain. It’s not exactly like summiting Mt. Everest without oxygen while giving a piggyback ride to a Herve Villechaize impersonator you kidnapped from Vegas. (If it were exactly like that, this would be a much more interesting story.) Still, those 35 miles loomed in front of me like a fifth helping of tuna-macaroni salad at Old Country Buffet.

I’ve jumped into the boiling pot of water and I have neither hopped out nor died. Yeah, it wasn’t really a boiling pot of water, it was just a cold week in February, but hey…I wonder if we should try freezing a frog to switch up the metaphor a little, make it more applicable to this scenario. We don’t have to use frogs, necessarily; we could use anything that hops…wallabies might work. We’re gonna need a bigger freezer.

This story originally appeared in Bicycle Times #18.

Want to commute but feel like are too many roadblocks in your way? Stay tuned for tips on overcoming commuting obstacles later this week, right here on bicycletimesmag.com. 


 

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