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comfort the lazy and get thee to work

By enelson
Friday, October 19th, 2007 at 5:40 pm in BART, Bicycling, Buses, Capitol Corridor (Amtrak), connectivity, driving, rail, Safety, trucks.


After being called a traitor to bicycling earlier this week, I got to thinking: What we commuters need is a little comfort.

That’s partly why 70 percent of Bay Area commuters drive solo. It’s more comfortable to be enclosed in your own vehicle, to be able to choose the radio station, to chomp noisily on that breakfast burrito and to engage in ghastly personal grooming habits that even members of your nuclear family wouldn’t tolerate.

Not to belabor a single e-mail, but this bicyclist named John who heard me on KQED’s Forum program had a point:

Sure it’s `scary.’ The point, obviously, is to make it not scary. That’s why the other cities have things like colored bike lanes, protected bike lanes, traffic calming, bike parking, bike signals, etc.

He was reacting to my comment that I’m not comfortable with my 1.7-mile ride from the train station to work, with 18-wheelers blowing by and the alternative of glass-strewn sidewalks.

I did, in fact, mention that there are efforts under way to make bicycle commuting more comfortable, including plans for a path that would get me past the scary part of my trip.

But there are many other factors that militate against bike commuting increasing much beyond what it is now. According to the most recent Census survey, only 4 percent of Bay Area commuters either biked or walked to work in 2005.

The Bay Area will never be Amsterdam or Copenhagen, which are both flat and not nearly as sprawling as the Bay Area.

Those cities have all of those amenities that towns need to be bike friendly, and the Bay Area could have those things as well.

If bicycling were better accommodated, with such improvements as extra BART cars during rush hour and clean bike paths for a half-mile in all directions from every BART station, I think bike commuting could double or triple here.

But that would still be a small number. This area still has hills and people who can’t afford to arrive at work all sweaty.

I have colleagues who ride down from the hills to work and huff and puff back up on their way home, and that’s great. If I lived up there, I’d do the same. But we live in a society that values comfort, and that arrangement will never be as comfortable as driving or even riding a bus.

Which brings us to transit. I’m constantly getting comments on this blog sniping between bus and rail commuters. Why do people who don’t have to ride buses prefer to commute via rail? Comfort.

One of the e-mailers to Wednesday’s show complained about rubbing elbows with babbling psychiatric out-patients on city buses.

You don’t often run into such situations on commuter trains and while it happens on BART, it’s not nearly as common as it is on buses in the Bay Area’s urban core.

If the choice is bus or car, most people, regardless of their socioeconomic status, will choose the car. You’re safe inside your little cage, and all day while you’re at work, you take comfort in knowing that it’s there whenever you need it.

Does this mean we’re all lazy. One of my commenters, Roderick, clearly thinks so:

The unwillingness of many people over here to ride bikes or exercise in general is because of the American system I might call a “lazocracy,” in which reducing individual physical effort is lauded. I don’t watch TV, but I’ve polled friends who do and they admit that there is never a single character on the tube who rides a bike. (Except for occasional crazy people!). And you can bet the car-company advertisers insist on that. Same reason you don’t see any transit riders either.

Sure, we Americans (especially used-car dealers) are fond of saying “wheels beat heels” and “why walk when you can drive?” preferably in the nicest car you can afford. A company car says you’re a successful employee working for a successful company.

But even before we run out of oil, which Roderick predicts will finally change our wasteful, self-destructive commuting habits, we may run out of comfort behind the wheel.

I ride a train whenever I can because I find its reclining seats, refreshments and free newspapers make my commute far more comfortable, even if it takes somewhat longer.

As traffic degenerates to four hours of gridlock every morning, the comforts of BART, the bus and the bike path may prove the laziest way to go.

Video from YouTube by Luke Lewis.

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12 Responses to “comfort the lazy and get thee to work”

  1. Greg Lieberknecht Says:

    Saw your article in Monday’s Tribune. I’ve got three points to make.

    1) I live 9 miles from my work in downtown Oakland, up in the Oakland hills. I’d love to be able to ride a bus to work but there aren’t buses that run regularly through my neighborhood. When I went on AC Transit’s site, they directed me to a bus stop 2 miles from home.

    2) I’d love to ride a bike sometimes but two things stop me. The first is the huffing and puffing back up the hills. That’s too much for me. I’m exploring getting an electric bike to help on the uphills but they’re hard to find.

    3) And there are the hazards of riding a bike in downtown Oakland. My main fear, people opening their car doors into traffic just as I’m approaching them. The few times I’ve ventured downtown on my bike, that’s happened every time.

    I’d love to have more options for my commute.

  2. FTSandy Says:

    I’m self-employed with an office at home. While I could make more money (when I include the cost of buying my own health plan) more consistently with a “real” job, I realize how fortunate I am to have my freelance life every time I listen to my friends gripe about their commutes.

    I’m also fortunate in that I live within 20-minute walking distance of BART, several grocery stores, and two downtowns (Castro Valley and Hayward). I walk as many of my errands as possible, and have come to appreciate the slower pace that this offers.

    I’m not car-free, but the car often sits for days undriven. This, in the most suburban of suburbs.

    The other night I decided, at the last minute, to go to the SF Opera. Door to door, walking to BART from home and to the Opera House from BART, took an hour and ten minutes. It might have been a little faster by car, but I didn’t have to pay for parking or experience the stress or cost of driving.

    The point of this all is that change is possible but involves choices and an adjustment in lifestyle and attitude. We often assume change is automatically bad, but it ain’t necessarily so.

  3. MikeTeeVee Says:

    “My main fear, people opening their car doors into traffic just as I’m approaching them.”

    The solution to this fear is to ride outside the “door zone”. That requires getting over the “hit from behind” fear.

    It’s counter-intuitive, especially in our culture, but riding to the left of such hazards, being firmly in the travel lane, is the safest way to ride a bike. This is especially true at intersections.

  4. elliot Says:

    “You’re safe inside your little cage”? 36000 Americans die in their cars each year, making it the leading cause of death among the young and middle-aged.

    That “babbling psychiatric out-patient” is a lot safer than your average mainstream Jane or Joe babbling away on their cell phone while driving in the lane next to you!

  5. sxa-roo » Blog Archive » comfort the lazy and get thee to work Says:

    [...] more here This entry was posted on Friday, October 19th, 2007 at 7:40 pm and is filed under nuclear family. [...]

  6. james van dyke Says:

    This comment needs a reality check: “The Bay Area will never be Amsterdam or Copenhagen, which are both flat and not nearly as sprawling as the Bay Area.” For one, you’re comparing individual cities with a broad, diverse region, and there are cities within the Bay Area that are flat with high density, such as downtown San Jose. The greatest problem is that the incentives are all oriented to cars: lousy paths, cheap oil, poor mass transit, etc. Yet one advantage of the Bay Area was not mentioned, which is that our weather makes it far more favorable to cycle here. Bottom line, the author of the comment in question is simply making a personal choice, and explaining it away doesn’t make the problems of pollution, obesity and national security disappear (yet bicycling can help).

  7. Eric Schatmeier Says:

    The falacy in this article is the notion that commuters weigh alternative modes for relative comfort, speed and convenience. Transportation planners dream of raising the consciousness of potential users enough to get them to compare the virtues of driving alone with the benefits of ridesharing. Their problem is that most commuters don’t weigh anything. They automatically drive. A tiny few of us assume that we will be commuting by public transportation. We choose our jobs and our home locations with convenient transit access as an essential attribute. But to most, this kind of access is irrelevant because they expect to drive. And nothing in American life discourages them from this expectation. By contrast, the transit customer is constantly faced with service cuts, fare increases and unreliable service that tell him he’s either an oddball or a fool for choosing buses, trains or boats.

  8. timote Says:

    Running out of oil will not solve the issue. It is likely that we’ll just find another source of portable energy to power our little (ha) cars – be it ethanol (corn or other), hydrogen (fuel cell), electricity (battery), etc. Of course, how we generate those portable sources of energy may be as problematic as oil anyways if we’re not careful.

    As for biking, there is a chicken and the egg issue going on here – I think it is patently true that commuting via bike is not easy and is scary in the majority of the Bay Area. Whether that is because the infrastructure doesn’t exist or if the infrastructure doesn’t exist because people don’t do it is besides the point. It just is, and the better question is how do we get from point A where we are to a mythical point B where we want to get to?

    Investing heavily in infrastructure (whether that be bike lanes, buses and/or railway) that people don’t use is a difficult sell, even in the Bay Area. We’ll need a fundamental shift in individual behavior, and that will only be accomplished by either appealing to people’s self-interest or by a concerted effort ala smoking. However, the risks are not as obvious as smoking, so I think that one’s out at least for the moment. That leaves self-interest: commuting via car will have to be painful enough and commuting via public transit easy enough for people to want to do it. As long as we continue to invest heavily in expansion of roads and bridges but not nearly as much in public transit, this is unlikely to occur anytime soon.

  9. Doug Faunt Says:

    re: what timote said, but we need to make non-automobile travel easier to attract users, that’s the carrot; motorists are being their own stick.
    We need to get non-automobile facilities into the same upwards spiral that automobile facilities are in (and have been in for a long time, but it’s flattening). Of course, there are a LOT of people who are invested in the existing upward spiral- oil companies, automobile companies, service stations, builders of roads and parking structures, CALTRANS, etc… How many people in government are involved in servicing the existing automotive infrastructure?

  10. Brian T Says:

    “I don’t watch TV, but I’ve polled friends who do and they admit that there is never a single character on the tube who rides a bike. ”

    So true, I never did see Jerry Sienfeld ride that mountain bike hanging from his apartment ceiling.

  11. Capricious Commuter Says:

    I think Greg L. and FTSandy illustrate the two main types of commute situations, with Greg’s being the more likely one. Sandy lives conveniently near transit, so she uses it regularly. Greg doesn’t because it’s not close enough to be practical. Of course, there’s another type, the person who lives and works near transit and decides to drive anyway because it’s more convenient to have the car close at hand all the time (the main reason, I think), because the car is so expensive and/or pimped out that it would seem a waste to leave it parked or because the person simply can’t stand to ride transit among the unwashed masses.

    As for the whole bicycle-open door-lane of traffic debate, I really can’t imagine that a significant number of rational human beings are going to embrace the “it’s safer to ride out in front of the SUVs” philosophy. I’ll take my chances with a stationary car door any day over an 18-wheeler going 60 mph. On the other hand, I became quite happy scooting past rush-hour traffic in downtown Oakland on my way to the Jack London Square Amtrak station. The traffic was almost always as slow as I was, and often lined up for a red light. Now I’m faced with fewer red lights, faster traffic, more tractor-trailer rigs. I may not be the world’s biggest wimp, but I am not ashamed to say that I do about 40 percent of my riding beetween work and the Amtrak station on the sidewalk. One of these days i’m going to start packing a whisk broom, making regular stops to sweep the glass…

  12. MikeTeeVee Says:

    “I’ll take my chances with a stationary car door any day over an 18-wheeler going 60 mph.”

    Doorings are far more common than hit-from-behinds. The simple reason is that the people behind you are looking in your direction. The people opening car doors are not.

    My personal, daily cycling experience is that if there’s traffic behind me, they WILL adjust for me. They have no choice, really.

    “I really can’t imagine that a significant number of rational human beings are going to embrace the “it’s safer to ride out in front of the SUVs” philosophy.”

    The “rational” person knows the real risk factors and rides to minimize them, even if the least risky way to ride is the least obvious.

    The concept is simple: Act like traffic and you will be treated like traffic.

    I know this is counter-intuitive. I know many cyclists would rather be separated by paint or segregated onto paths. And most people have as much interest in cycling as I have in playing tennis (none).

    But if you like cycling and you want to cycle-commute, it’s worth knowing what the real risks are, it’s worth knowing that the risks are relatively low, and it’s worth knowing the best ways to integrate into the existing traffic.

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