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On a Year Commuting by Train and Bike

On a Year Commuting by Train and Bike

For over a year, I have been commuting by train and bike from my home in Santa Rosa to South Marin County. This change in how I get to and from work has resulted in a moderately substantial change in my lifestyle; more importantly, it has allowed for reflection on what it means to construct livability in our towns and cities. The following are thoughts on how small changes can improve life for many in our communities and perhaps inspire others to take the plunge towards alternative forms of transport to better our neighborhoods, health, and communal life.

A City Not Just Made for Cars

Unfortunately, a question many have about getting out of the car and onto the bike has to do with the safety of picking up a medium that puts you at a distinct disadvantage with a majority of the vehicles on the road. We all have friends who bought SUVs because smaller cars just didn’t “feel safe” on the road. Now imagine buckling your feet into two wheels that can be launched off the road with those same automobiles not even registering the impact.

I wish it were possible to claim those concerns are unwarranted. Unfortunately, I have had more than a handful of run-ins with motorists that could have ended destructively for me.

Fortunately, I live in an area that has adapted its commuting space to those without cars. My daily commute has allowed me to reflect on how much good public planning impacts a community for a slew of reasons. Last year, the Sonoma-Marin SMART train began operation. For years, this transportation option seemed like a hypothetical dream, and much like the new high-speed rail system California has been developing to connect the north to the south of the state, it took longer than expected to complete. They would tempt me from traffic for months as test trains roared past my motionless car sitting on the 101. Then, almost by surprise, the train was open to the public. I would now be able to travel from Santa Rosa to my place of work by train.

On a Year Commuting by Train and Bike

Waiting for the SMART Train in Santa Rosa.

Well, not entirely by train. After examining a map, I realized I would still need to travel 10 miles from the San Rafael downtown station to my school in South Marin (it will eventually be 7 miles when the final southern leg of the track to the Larkspur ferry is completed, allowing travel directly to the city). I would need to find a way to get from the final train stop to my workplace in a manner that was efficient and didn’t cost me any additional money.

I charted my route by car, paying close attention to how much space was set-aside to cyclists. My interest in this new commute amplified observations of just how much thought went into making this space bike-friendly. It’s easy to appreciate urban planners in theory, but it’s not until you see their work in practical action that their value becomes abundantly clear. For the miles I am on the bike, I rarely wander onto roads not equipped with bike lanes or space for pedestrians. Even though it took decades to realize, the North Bay put sufficient time and money, invested with foresight, into building a city they understood would one day be commutable to those without a car. Surely there were detractors who thought that to build a half-mile tunnel for pedestrians to walk or ride from downtown San Rafael to Larkspur was a waste of time and resources. It surely wasn’t cheap to build and required a decade of planning to make real. Thankfully, city planners and taxpayers had the prudence to consider how these projects would benefit a community expected to grow. Highways can only be expanded so wide, and if we are serious about getting people out of their cars and into other options, we need to have the infrastructure that makes it feasible to consider.

Understandably, not every city is lucky enough for the infrastructure that makes cycling desirable. In fact, in my travels around America, it’s rare to find a place that actually makes it possible to get around by bike. Our suburbs have been built far from urban centers with few ways to traverse the terrain other than by highway and automobile. Our cities have allowed car-culture to dominate their spaces, making only traditional pedestrian walkways available.

In most parts of the country, you will need to be creative with the space to make cycling as your main form of transportation a reality. But it’s possible. More importantly, we do a disservice to working people to not construct feasible transportation options. On my morning 5:30 train, cyclists are working at mechanic shops and for construction companies. The bike paths along the major arteries in my area are populated with working men riding to staff restaurants and labor in agriculture. Whether for financial or legal reasons, many folks in our cities need a non-car option to get to work (one of my comrades on the train picked up DUIs and now travels exclusively by train and bike. Had the option not existed, he would have surely lost his job as well, only compounding his troubles). It has dispelled my view that cycling is for the middle-class set with the thousand dollar bikes.

Drivers Don’t Think About Those Without Cars

The greatest personal lesson I have learned while commuting on the bike is just how negligent most drivers are to anyone not in a car. While I am a pretty safe rider who sticks to marked cyclist paths and follows traffic laws, I have been nearly hit on a few occasions by drivers. Generally, motorists seem to forget those bike lanes are designated for cyclists, as I am habitually pushed even further to the side of the ride by drivers intent on taking as much space on the road as achievable. For many, they are simply ignorant of the fact that other types of commuters share their space. Unfortunately, I have also encountered drivers intentionally trying to make it difficult for cyclists. I had a driver push me off the street, honking and gesticulating furiously, simply for being in the bike lane. The commotion this boob created was almost enough to knock me off my bike while traveling at 15 MPH.

When I do get behind the wheel, the road now looks different. Unfortunately, my car likely was an obstacle for a cyclist at some point in the past. I hope that it won’t be in the future.

It’s Easier Than You Think

I had my reservations when I first bought my bike with the intention of commuting by train and cycle. In addition to the hour ride by train in each direction, I would need to ride about 10 miles from my place of work to the station in San Rafael. Furthermore, there was a slew of hills I would need to overcome each day. Riding more than 20 miles of hilly terrain a day sounded great for my body but I was unsure how feasible it was to face the challenge consistently.

The gym has never been a second home. I generally hate exercising and would rather spend my time reading in a café with a few beers fueling a debate among friends and foes. It is important that you dispel the idea currently formulating in your mind that this reflection on cycling is from an athlete intent on bragging about their newest Everest conquest. Rather, see this argument as a surprising conversion of an active and dedicated couch potato to living marginally different.

The first few weeks were challenging. I would get home at the end of the day exhausted by a combination of the workday and commute. My midlife-muscles burned and ached; I almost always had to take a day off the bike following a successful ride.

On a Year Commuting by Train and Bike

Just one of the many fine views from my bike ride to work.

However, those pains quickly subsided. I was surprised how quickly I adapted to the ride. I then started to crave it; being off my bike for a few days made me feel anxious and irritated. Rejuvenated and galvanized by the purposeful exercise, I discovered new energy at work and home. Best of all, the amount of time I spent commuting remained about the same as it was when I was driving. Like most working people in the Bay Area, I can’t live where I work. Traveling from Santa Rosa to San Francisco, or its equivalent from every corner of the Bay is common for most of us lucky enough to be living in Northern California. To beat the bulk of traffic, leaving by 5:15 AM is necessary if one wants to escape a 2+ hour commute. It’s a rare occurrence not to spend at least 1.5 hours on the return back to Sonoma County, sitting in gridlock with countless other commuters trying to make a living in the Bay.

When cycling, I walk through the door, greeted by my children interested in the bike’s gears and switches at exactly the same time as when I drove by car. The difference is that no additional time needs to be set aside to hit the gym and work off hours sitting behind the wheel. I also find my diet has improved significantly as a result of my train/bike commute: knowing that I was about to spend an hour creeping towards Santa Rosa in my car, “treating” myself to cheap burgers was a trap I happily embraced. If traffic was going to be my life, at least I could snack to help pass the time. Cycling has removed this bad habit (almost entirely) from my life.

I recognize that I don’t have the endurance or patience to get really good at cycling. It’s doubtful that 100-mile races are in the cards for my future self. Having said that, I have taken to participating in fun races on weekends throughout Sonoma and Mendocino counties, and the pace with which I rout weekend riders is a reassuring development.

Getting to Know My Community

Like with any consistent travel by public transport, you end up getting to know a select set of commuters. As creatures of habit, we all take the same undesignated seat each leg of our trip. While travel by train allows for time to work, write and read I also enjoy the conversation with my fellow travelers. These are people that, if not for sharing space on a train, would likely never cross paths. As our lives become ever siloed by modernity, it’s pleasant to know there are ways for an introvert to still met their countrymen.

It’s notable how different the clientele are between the 5:30 and 6:30 AM train. On the few occasions I have been lucky enough to arrive at work after 8 AM, I took the later train. In this hour, nearly every individual wore the marks of middle-class life, from ties to clean dress shoes. It’s a different sight at 5:30, with most of the travelers in thick denim and steel-toed boots.

Final Thoughts

A combination of having children, a mortgage and a stable career has made me far more interested in my local politics. So I find arguments against public transport infrastructure on the grounds that they are not immediately popular irksome. We must not be foolhardy with our limited financial resources, but we must first recognize that the current commuter stalemate in most cities is unacceptable and options that go beyond expanding highways must be at the forefront of our planning. By rethinking our cities to better meet the needs of working people traveling without cars, we can develop our communities in ways that benefit both the body and soul of society.


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Roland Dodds is an educator, researcher and father just north of San Francisco who writes about politics, culture and education. He spent his formative years in radical left wing politics, but now prefers the company of contrarians of all political stripes (assuming they aren't teetotalers). He is a regular contributor at Harry's Place and Ordinary Times.

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53 thoughts on “On a Year Commuting by Train and Bike

  1. Good for you!

    So how much of the struggle for the bay area was NIMBYS not wanting a bike or rail corridor in their neighborhood, or the unwillingness of the political class to exercise eminent domain in places where it made sense?

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  2. That’s great for you. Of course, you live in an area that has decent weather a lot of the time.

    My commute’s an hour each way when school’s in session and 45 mins in the summer. It’s on back roads as freeways a jam packed and would take longer–and it’s less direct than the back roads,, and it’s all single lane roads. I’m not going to be biking in 4 inches of snow or pouring rain 60 miles round trip. Mass transit would take hours IF the routes connected, and I doubt they do.

    I had a friend once who took transit over driving. He went from west of Chantilly VA all the way around the capital beltway to the other side. Took him 1.5 hours via Metro and buses vs 45 mins in a car. It cost him more in parking, metro, and buses than driving, but he choose that so he could read and not drive. The transit in this area is all designed to funnel folks into major cities (north to south) not move them East to West. So I won’t be using transit ever.

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    • True about the weather in certain spots. I imagine my general point still stands about the need for better public transport even in the icy north, but using a bike year round probably wouldn’t work (hell, I didn’t ride at all in December because of a little rain).

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      • The icy north has some of the best public transit in the United States because the cities were older and grew big enough to build transit systems in the pre-car era. The Sun Belt cities that exploded after the car era are the ones with really sucky transit and a sprawling geography that makes building an effective system really hard. Transit requires a density, probably around 5000 people per square mile, and a mixed use land use that many places lack.

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        • Well, the mid atlantic has a combo of good like the North and crappy, like the sun belt. The Metro goes in and out of DC. That doesn’t work well if you move around the capital beltway clock. Baltimore has light rail and buses, but the light rail is much less developed.

          I worked for a company for a few years that was right on top of a metro stop and was once asked why I didn’t take metro to work. I didn’t feel the need to commute 30 mins from my house, pay to park at a metro station, pay for the metro, spend another hour getting to work, and then doing it all again in the evening, when I could drive in in under 60 mins.

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        • It’s not often icy here in PDX, but it is cold, and it is often rainy. Nevertheless, I see dozens of people a day commuting to work (going from east to west, often across a bridge) on bikes. Some of them wear bike clothing and others wear what seem to be work clothes which I assume they partially protect with galoshes or something.

          The city has put substantial effort into converting certain through-fares into primary driving streets and others into what it calls “greenways,” intended for bicycle primacy. Speed humps slow cars on the greenways and through-fare blockades stop cars from going more than about ten blocks of through traffic on them, which encourages all but actually local traffic to stay on the main driving grid pretty effectively.

          There is also a pretty substantial use of the other transit vectors: a well-staffed bus system and overlapping streetcar and light rail systems. I don’t know how subsidized the fares are, but some thought has gone in to making the routes easy: the route maps are integrated into my Google Maps system if I can’t figure them out on my own, and I can buy a fare with my cell phone, which knows when I’ve purchased enough fare to qualify for a one-day all-transit-system pass.

          I see all this despite working at home: these are folks I see when I’m out taking my own exercise — typically on foot but I’m considering getting a bike to explore more of the city and local environment than I have so far. In the rain, after dark, I am quite paranoid while driving, as despite a number of visibility enhancement techniques — flashing head and tail lights, light strips on the body and wheels of the bike, and illuminated helmets being the most common — they’re still hard to see. Seeing all this, I know that when I get my own bicycle I will also need all of these other things — I have zero pride about the bike looking silly with light strips attached to it compared to the diminished likelihood of a collision with a car.

          Portlanders complain about how bad city traffic has become in recent years, though I’ve only noticed bad traffic around rush hour and a lot of that is due to the need for a lot of traffic to move through the limited number of bridges (or the tunnel to the western suburbs) and also in part to a San Francisco-like inability of the urban planners to find ways to link up all of the input-output roads converging on the downtown area without dumping some of them into surface streets.

          In my former SoCal high desert exurb, this sort of thing would have been unthinkable. This is for two reasons: first, as the OP notes, there has been basically no investment in infrastructure and not a lot of repurposing of the infrastructure that is there; and second, a lot of strong, dusty wind (whether very hot or very cold matters little) represents a significant safety and mobility challenge to the bicyclist.

          And that’s the lesson, I think: Portland has a thriving intra-city bike commuting culture because it invested in creating it; Portland has a well-used intra-city and inter-city transit system because it invested in creating it. My old home in the desert did not do these things, and if you don’t have the use of a private car there (for economic or legal reasons) you’re kind of screwed. Both places have weather challenges, but one found that despite those, if you build them, a critical mass of people will use alternative to private cars.

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  3. I’m glad to hear that’s working out well for you.

    It made a big difference for me when i started riding through the winter – before that I’d feel good in summer, then within a few days of putting the bike away for the year, my energy levels would drop off.

    The transformation in my own city over the years has been dramatic – from a place that seemed outright hostile to getting around by any means but a car 15 years ago, to building a really useful network of physically protected bike lanes in the past couple years.

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    • I’m a year round cycle commuter in Chicago. Door to door my commute time is the same driving, taking the train, or biking, so I bike. I have a desk job, and I’m not a huge fan of exercising in place, so my commute doubles as a workout.

      The last 5 years or so have cycling infrastructure really blossom here in the city. I haven’t really seen any overtly malicious drivers, but inattentive drivers abound. Ride share drivers are the true scourge of the roads during my trip. There’s a deep and fiery circle of Hell reserved for them.

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        • Huh, poison/poisson, I guess.

          I really think what the rideshare guys bring to the table is unpredictability, which is terrifying to this cyclist. Constantly staring at their phones looking for a fare, or at the map when they don’t know where their fare wants to be taken, really makes me worried when I’m around these cars.

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  4. One of the big mistakes of BART was allowing Marin County to ditch out. BART should have been built to include Marin County. The other mistake was not building the Peninsula line to go down to Palo Alto as originally envisioned. A BART system that goes up to Novato and down to Palo Alto and reaches east to Livermore would make the bay area more living.

    Cars spoke to something in the American psyche that other forms of transportation did not. The wholesale destruction of mass transit after World War II wrecked havoc on our cities and towns. Same with strict zoning laws that separated commerce and residential land uses. Yet, the suburban impulse is going strong.

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    • Cars spoke to everyone’s psyche, all over the world. There is a reason most people opt for the car and that is versatility. I can leave work early or late, swing by to pick up groceries or the kids. It works on my schedule, not me on it. It allows for the commute that I want to take.

      And yes, cars put a knife right into the heart of mass transit, due to the fact that we were, and are a wealthy nation. We can afford to live away from work, where there is less pollution and noise. Very few people like living in apartments, especially once they start having kids and no longer go to bars or eat out so much. The car allows us to carry more, so we don’t have to buy single servings from the Dollar Store. It allows for vacations that aren’t bus rides.

      One only has to look at car sales in the post-war era to see this in other countries. Or see the suburbs and exurbs that spring up in those countries. England had to put a special central London permit to try to limit the numbers of cars that people were using to enter the city. Why? Because using a car is just better.

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      • Nearly everybody loves driving even if they hate traffic. However, most other developed countries did not let mass transit fall into the way side even though people preferred driving. This includes countries with a heavy car culture and big car economies like Germany, Italy, Japan, and Korea. At least Germany and Japan quickly became wealthy enough to afford mass car ownership after World War II. The Japanese were referring to MyCarism as a phenomenon by the 1960s.

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        • This might be generational though. I meet a good number of “young people” (20s, some 30s) who really don’t aspire to car ownership because they see living downtown in a city where they can get to work and recreation easily as the ideal. The side benefits are saving money and getting exercise. I imagine they’re the group driving (pun intended) mass transit initiatives.

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          • Anectodally, I had a bunch of friends move to SF after high school, either just to live or to go to school there. All but one cited not having to take care of a car as being a primary reason. Within a few years, all bitched about MUNI, started driving again, and later moved out of the city. Often because they were sick of having the car broken into.

            Then again, one friend moved back in his late 30’s (he grew up there) and pretty much walked or bused until his child was born. Once the kid was born, he started to drive again.

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      • San Francisco doesn’t have the same critical mass of jobs in its’ metropolitan area that Manhattan has in New York and New Jersey, where something like slightly over half of the jobs in the metropolitan area are located in Manhattan. It still has a big chunk of the jobs though. A BART line into Marin would help with traffic.

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  5. A practical question

    What kind of clothes do you wear when bike riding and how are they compatible with work?

    I could bike in mostly protected bike lanes from home to downtown Houston (ten miles). Heat and humidity would not allow me to do it in anything resembling even the most casual of work clothes, nor without a shower before getting to my desk

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    • Every building I’ve worked in around the Denver metro area for the last 30 years had small locker rooms with showers and lockable baskets for the people who bicycled to work, ran at lunch, etc. One of them provided a huge stack of clean towels, maintained by the company.

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          • There’s also a product I learned about because it’s a ex-Seahawk player’s post-football business venture. They basically sized up and strengthened a wash-n-dri to the point it can do a whole body without tearing or drying out.

            I’ve yet to use one when actively sweating, but they work well enough to cut through the manly stench hours after missing a shower. Expensive as hell, comparatively, though – wouldn’t want to use one every day, but I do have an emergency towel in my bag for touch-up purposes.

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    • There are very few days when I can’t ride in office clothes – either as a base layer under my warm clothes, or on their own with the sleeves rolled up. I can ride at a leisurely pace to avoid overheating and it only adds a few minutes to the ride.

      My building just this year as a gym, a nice bike lockup that doesn’t feel like a squat, and showers.

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    • I keep a bunch of suits and a couple pair of dress shoes in the closet at work. Roll up a shirt and tie, put it in my bag, and I’m good. I keep baby wipes and some deodorant there, too, as, sadly, there is no shower. The key is to wait a few minutes to stop sweating before I go and change.

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  6. I can see both sides of the matter from my position in Minneapolis. As a result of my husband teaching himself to be a coder and starting to get actual coding jobs he’s had to take custody of the car while I make my commute to work, the gym and home again via bicycle in the summer and bus in the winter. In the summer all those new bike lanes are quite handy but in the winter those same bike lanes, utterly bereft of bike traffic, look damned idiotic from the clogged automobile lanes.

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        • Yeah we’re largely afraid of winter riding. I suspect it’s because we see so few people do it we assume it must be a big deal.

          Thing is, it’s not nearly the big deal we make of it. There are a few cities that have winters that make yours and mine look balmy, and with huge year round bicycle mode share. Oulu Finland is one that’s often cited. Build and maintain good infrastructure, and it gets used. Every city has its own special reason why it couldn’t possibly work, until they do it and it works.

          I’ve never spoken to anyone who started riding in winter and then went “that was harder than I expected.” It’s always easier than expected.

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  7. Good piece. I totally agree, you get a much different view of the city as a bike commuter than a car one.

    I commuted by bike frequently towards the end of my last job. (Had full gym facilities during warm days, but during cold days, I could just close my office door and towel off)

    I have the usual complaints that suburban roads are traffic sewers. Going through the city itself was somewhat more roundabout but with better bikable tranpo infrastructure. (Going through the city also meant going through ‘bad neighborhoods’ but that was never a problem – particularly at 7 in the morning.)

    The only non-fixable problem is that between my residence and my work were two ridgelines that required crossing no matter which direction. (Ridgelines that were taken advantage of for Civil War defensive fortifications). Getting a lighter bike helped with that somewhat.

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  8. I will say that the electric bike has made a huge difference in my desire to bike to work. I can avoid getting sweaty on the way in, and it helps with the 400 foot elevation gain on the way home.

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    • Before I got my road bike (the one pictured above) I considered an electric bike. It just seemed like I would need to drop at least 2 grand for a decent one and I wasn’t ready to put that kind of money down. I am glad I didn’t as I realized I could do without the extra assistance.

      Having said that, I might get one some day if I can no longer physically handle the hills.

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      • Aside from the very dramatic hill climb during the last 2 miles of my ride home, I don’t need the electric assistance. But those last two miles are a solid pain in the ass. Having a powered assist helps when you are just all out of steam at the end of the day.

        And $1500 was worth it.

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  9. My commute overlaps with Roland’s, but both begins and ends further south, starts with a short drive to the ferry and continues with a boat ride to SF. The project to extend the train to the ferry has taken up much of the parking there, so that on the days when conference calls mean I’ll arrive at work after 10 AM, the drive turns into Lyft. When the train finally goes through, I’ll be able to avoid using a car at all (walk->train->boat->walk), which I’m really looking forward to.

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