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.
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.
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.
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.