Sunday, July 25, 2010

Cargo By Bike: Christine Gets Her Worm Farm

Yesterday, I came part way towards my goal of extending my cycling habits to include more cargo hauling. Living high in the Oakland hills has made bike commuting a challenge but I manage so long as my payload stays under 15 pounds. A cargo bike could help with larger cargo but the hills under my house are so steep even a cargo bike would be a challenge. Nevertheless, an opportunity arose to try hauling larger loads even on my regular bike.

More frequent buses and trains with space for bikes would really boost adoption of all these alternatives.

My wife has used a worm farm to produce compost from food scraps for years now. My friend Christine decided she wanted to try it. Soon after, a "Wriggly Wranch" arrived at our house for Christine. However, Christine lives on the other side of the bay. We should have just shipped it direct but didn't. What to do?

I typically use the bike and CalTrain to get to the peninsula but  the weight (25 pounds) and size (16 inches x 24 inches x 16 inches) of the Wriggly Wranch had me thinking I'd bite the bullet and drive. Nevertheless, after a few minutes with my mountain bike and some bungy cord, I had the Wriggly Wranch resiliently, if not firmly, fastened. The weight was the maximum my minimal bike rack supported but with most of the distance covered by train, I thought the rig I set up would make it. And since the course for the cargo was all downhill, I felt I would make it as well. I simply had to get the cargo one way. The return trip would just be a typical ride home. Given all this and the PlanBike mission, I had to give it a try.

The strategy with the bungy was to allow some teetering but not a full-blown release. 4 bungy cords criss-crossing the box and hooking to the rack and the rails under my seat did this beautifully. I tested this by jerking the bike side to side by 2 feet. The box teetered but always returned squarely to its position on the rack. Beautiful.

The trip down to the subway station was pretty typical. I cruised down hill at 25 MPH. Banked turns as usual. Having the box 24 inches off the rack presented no problems.

Getting to the subway platform required the elevator. Lifting the bike over the stairs felt unwieldly since the bike was over 50 pounds at this point, not counting pounds on my backpack. The only tricky part about the elevator was ensuring you pay properly. It's possible to go straight to the platform on the subway (BART) elevator. I had to double back to pay and then head up.

I got off the subway (BART) in downtown San Francisco, then rode over to CalTrain south of Market Street. The two train systems actually meet at Milbrae but their schedules don't. This is yet another challenge for public transportation users. CalTrian travels at hourly intervals so depending on when the subway (BART) arrives you can wait an hour for a connection that takes you down the peninsula.

Nevertheless, commuter cyclists have a second chance to synch with the CalTrain schedule by getting off the subway in downtown SF before Milbrae and then darting over to the San Francisco CalTrain station. Pedestrians would struggle to pull this off because it is over a quarter mile between subway and train stations in downtown San Francisco. The pedestrian travel time would be a significant portion of the hour you might wait in Milbrae.

On this trip, the subway/CalTrain connection worked out perfectly. A train was waiting when I biked over. I had to hoist the bike up a few stairs which was a challenge. The train was off in minutes. The whole trip down took 90 minutes. That's triple the time a car would take but still reasonable, especially for a Saturday. Even so, these travel times could and should improve. Cities more serious about public transportation infrastructure have trains running every half hour and subways running every 5 minutes. With those intervals, the travel times become much more competitive with cars. Doubly so, if you factor in traffic jams and parking delays.
More frequent buses and trains with space for bikes would really boost adoption of all these alternatives.

Regardless, the Wriggly Wranch made it down to San Carlos intact. Here's a picture of Christine opening the box and the fresh container of worms my wife donated to Christine's new project. Thanks to both of them for helping with this post. This excursion has boosted my confidence biking with cargo. My repertoire for cycling as serious transport is forever expanded.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

900 Vertical Feet Bike Commute: pack few clothes and no excuses

Lots of excuses help justify not commuting by bike. One of the goals of this blog is to dispel all of them: for myself as much as anyone else. Previous posts have shown how folks deal with the rain, the dark, the traffic, the subway challenges, and the lack of bike ways. Today I'm profiling myself to dispel yet another excuse for not riding: hills. Wind, rain, and darkness come and go but a hill is a motivational challenge that is the most consistent if not the most formidable.

My ride starts at the top of the Oakland Hills. It drops 900 feet in less than a half mile to the subway (BART) station I take out to the valley. This makes for an exciting but death-defying ride down. Of course, it also makes for a brutal climb back up at the end of a work day that can haunt your decision to ride. When I first started riding it, the hill alone was a sufficient excuse. "I'm just too tired to face the climb today", I'd say. After a while, I would combine this with another excuse:

It is unacceptable to employ a 4000 pound machine to haul 15 pounds of groceries

  • It's raining and it is too dangerous
  • Now that it's daylight savings it's too dark
  • I ate lunch too late in the day and I'm too full
  • There's frost on the road and it's too cold

Nevertheless, for the last year, I have managed to press through all this B.S. at least 3 times a week on average. I've biked up this hill in driving rain with heavy wind in the dark and enjoyed doing it (thanks to great lights and raingear). I've ridden it with frost on the road with mittens and 2 sets of leggings. I've ridden up the hill right after drinking 2 beers and a large burrito. After all that, the hill is not so intimidating anymore.

The biggest challenge now is managing all the temperature differences. Some days I start above the fog in freezing cold air, arrive at the subway under the fog where it is virtually raining, then cycle the remainder of my ride in the valley under a hot sun. Dressing for all these temperature changes without freezing or sweltering is the trickiest part now. I literally do not worry much about the hill anymore. I never thought I'd say that.

Once down the hill, I catch the subway out to the valley. Here's the subway station on both a sunny and a rainy day. In the rainy day picture, you can see how the cyclist count plummets. The "it's raining excuse" is obviously in full effect. I honestly don't know why anymore. Folks think nothing of going out in a snow storm to go skiing or snowboarding. With the right gear it's doable. The same is true for cycling so what's the deal? Rainy days are when we really need folks not to drive.

Here's the subway station out in the valley. There's often 10+ degree difference in temperature out here so I strip down on the train on the way out. On a good day, there's a lovely view of beautiful Mount Diablo. Here's a pic on a misty day that had a neat quality to it.  From here it's off for my morning cappuccino at Peet's.

After my cappucino, I head off to one of the great bike trails in the bay area and one of the great things about my ride: the Iron Horse Trail. My ride has remarkably few cars on it. In fact, a route will soon exist that allows me to leave my subway station in the valley and arrive at my office without riding near any cars. Extraordinary. I wish it wasn't but I'm savoring this wonderful experience regardless.

Here's the first bridge I cross. I've almost stashed on the frosty redwood planks in winter but otherwise I just love crossing this on my way to work. A lovely creek flows below. I often pass folks doing tai chi or playing soccer on the lawn. It all makes for an uplifting start to my day.

Here's the next bridge I cross. I am not positive but I believe this is an old steel bridge left over from the days when this trail was part of a railway system. Regardless, it has a lot of charm for me.

Here's the last bridge on my route in. Not as quaint but it impresses me on a number of levels. First, it gets me over the fast moving boulevard I would have to take if the dedicated bike path didn't exist so I love going over this rather than going through what you see here below. Second, the age and design of this bridge is such that it cannot possibly be a hold over from the railroad days. That means the voters of this area agreed to spring for the cost of putting it here when there are so many other priorities competing for the funds. For that, I am eternally grateful. I average about 22 MPH on this path which would be too slow for cars on that boulevard below but too fast for pedestrians if I were on a sidewalk or smaller trail.

Once I'm over the bridges, the rest is a pretty mellow straightforward bike trail. Here's a shot of rush hour. These guys draft me in their jeans while I'm in spandex. I'm impressed but I pity them for the chafing they must endure.

Naturally, the end of the day is just this path in reverse with a few exceptions. One is that I am occasionally blessed with views like this tree with the moon and Mount Diablo in the background. Another is that I often stop off for a second coffee or tea at Cole's Coffee for the ride up.

I started out going straight up after getting off the train because any pause would risk a loss of will power and a call to friends for a ride up the hill. I would just power up the hill before the excuses took hold. However, I had to stop doing that because it meant my after work quality of life suffered. When I drove to work, I often met friends, ate dinner, ran errands, or otherwise lingered down the hill before heading home. It was something I enjoyed and something I missed when I skipped. Consequently, now I often cruise over to Cole's for coffee, or Lanesplitter Pizza for dinner with friends and I don't let the onset of fog or dark worry me when I do. I just finish what I'm doing then put on my jacket, flip on my light and pedal up the hill.

Cargo Challenge

Mentally conquering this hill has taken me a long way towards viewing cycling as the rule for transport rather than the exception. The last hurdle is hauling significant loads of groceries or other stuff up this hill. If I've got to haul more 15 pounds of cargo, I still wind up using my car.

Time Challenge

The one hurdle I can't find a way around is the time it takes to climb. It adds 20-30 minutes to my trip on the way home. I've been surprised by how many time-sensitive appointments await me at home: home service calls, parties, etc., that have me scrambling to get up the hill in time. Unfortunately, this causes me to bag the ride more than I'd like.

I'm not a bike purist. I don't believe it has to be bikes all the time in all cases. That's why I combine bikes with trains. That's why I consider car use when I have serious hauling to do. Nevertheless, it is unacceptable to me to employ a 4000 pound machine to haul 15 pounds of groceries. "Right-size your ride" is my motto. If it is just me going somewhere, use the vehicle that is just enough to haul me. Likewise, with me and a little cargo. To fill the gap between car and bike, I'm considering a little scooter. Something that can let me feel better about darting down the hill for a quick run to the grocery store. Regardless, most of my trip's down the hill are just me, a few clothes, and fewer excuses everyday.