The bike commute

There’s something wrong with my car, so I’m glad that today was a great day to make my first bicycle commute. It was relatively cool, less than 80 degrees, and cloudy. It was also a little rainy on the way back, but not too much.

The bike ride was exactly 20 minutes, which works much better logistically. A 40-minute round trip for an hour meeting is about the maximum I’d feel comfortable with. It also took me about ten minutes after the ride to cool down, but that coincides well with the amount of time it takes to get the meeting started.

I have to say that the 32 oz water bottle was the best bicycle-related purchase I’ve made. Even without sweating much in the cooler weather, I went through it all and felt much more human for it. The bike helmet, on the other hand, hasn’t been as nice. I can’t figure out exactly how to set the straps so that it doesn’t slide back and doesn’t cut into my throat. Nathan has had similar problems, so I don’t know if it’s the brand or if we just have oddly shaped heads.

The rail to trail isn’t as nice to bike as I’d expected because the gravel is so big that my bike (with its hybrid tires) bounces around a lot. Luckily, the closer parallel trails is much better suited for bike riding, with smaller rocks in the path. The drawback is that the path is pretty overgrown on our end, meaning that I get hit a lot with plants, which isn’t a big deal except for the briars. I’m less concerned with getting scratched than with puncturing a tire, but neither happened today so I might be okay.

I’m definitely not in great shape, but the ride was reasonable. I did have to walk the last quarter of one hill, but I expect I’ll be able to get up it pretty soon especially as the weather cools. Riding along the shoulder of the busiest street wasn’t as bad as I’d expected either. It was really busy, but I felt like I had plenty of room to keep to one side. Crossing the road to turn was more exciting, but it didn’t feel too dangerous either.

The biggest drawbacka of the bike ride are that I was starving afterward, so I had the unexpected urge for a second lunch, and I was pretty tired when I got back from the meeting. I probably should have taken a 15-minute power nap right then, but I tried to work through it. I crashed at around 5:15 and was worthless, so I just sat around for a couple of hours reading.

Since I didn’t take the late nap, I’m going to crash now. So far, I’d heartily recommend a biking commute. There are still some little kinks to work out (how do I take my laptop?), but I expect that I’ll figure it out before too long.

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A New Commute

A new commute

Up until we moved, I had the perfect commute. I’d get up in the morning (to be honest, sometimes in the afternoon) and wander next door to see if my business partners had anything to discuss.

Now that I live two miles away from them, it’s a bit harder. We only have to be in the same room twice a week for status meetings, so I’ve been working exclusively from home most days. On the other days, I’ve been exploring different ways to get to and from work. Eventually, I’ll bike, but I want to make sure that I don’t miss anything along the way until I have my route picked. I also needed a helmet that wasn’t a decade old, but I got that today.

So far, I’ve walked to and fro three times, once for each main route. The part closest to work doesn’t change, because there’s only one road nearby. In the order I walked them, here they are.

The scenic route follows a former railway turned into a small path (that mostly parallels the main rail-to-trail that the city is currently working on). It’s a small path, but very pleasant. Unfortunately, I have to go past the house and then back along a road, so it takes about 45 minutes to walk.

The short route is similar to the scenic route except that it exists along parallel roads. This avoids the switchback required by the scenic route. Although most of the walk is through pleasant neighborhoods, there are some places that aren’t as nice. It’s only slightly faster too, at 40 minutes.

The shopping route is the longest and least pleasant of all. Almost all of it is along the busiest street around so there’s no shade. It also goes even further past the house than the scenic route. It took almost an hour for me to walk this one. The advantage of this route is that there are shops all along it. They’re mostly restaurants and car dealerships, but there are other things as well.

Starting next week, I’ll try biking the scenic route. Once winter gets here, snow and ice will probably make it hard going, so I’ll switch to the short route. If even that gets too much, I’ll walk the long way around and stop someplace warm for lunch.

In a car everything disappears too fast for me to get a handle on it. Now that I have a real bicycle commute, I’m looking forward to exploring it!

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Biking in the Rain

Maggie on her (wet) bikeOf course I had to choose the week of heavy storms and muggy weather to get serious about biking. It’s hard to tell from this photo but this is me after riding two miles home in the soggy aftermath of a crazy 2″ rainstorm. I’m not sure whether I got more wet from biking through puddles or from being smacked by soggy branches along the sidewalk. On the plus side, it was quite refreshing on a hot afternoon.

Earlier today I was unhappy biking because it was really hot and I was feeling a little sore. (I am definitely building up my leg muscles but it just isn’t happening FAST enough.) I biked over to Maggie and Nathan’s house feeling rather sorry for myself and then there was an enormous storm. It had already rained quite a bit over the last couple of days with an impressive display of thunder and lightning but this was a torrential downpour.

Nathan and I stepped out of the house after the worst had passed and discovered a river flowing across their front yard. It was only a few inches deep but it was five feet wide and had a powerful current. We waded through it and I suddenly flashed back to many happy childhood memories of playing in puddles. I really love creeks and rivers and lakes but storm water is accessible to everyone and it is loads of fun, especially on a hot day.

We waded around the yard and watched the kids next door hitting golf balls into the stream, trying to get them to float away. Of course, being grown ups, we spent a little time lamenting how the water had carried about fifty pounds of gravel off the driveway into the front yard, but we still were excited and invigorated by the storm. When most of the rain had passed, I hopped on my bike and headed home. However, I only went about three blocks before I discovered that the roundabout along my route was flooded under two feet of water and there were almost thirty people just standing and gawking at the sight. It was incredible and I loved just being there with a bunch of people who stopped their daily routines to be amazed for a moment.

Maybe that’s my favorite thing about storms and really¬† weather in general. It is constantly unpredictable and although it can cause terrible disasters it can also be simply a reminder of how beautiful and amazing nature is and how important it is for us to just take a moment to appreciate, and to let ourselves be impressed.

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When is walking worse than driving?

MilkDon’t you hate it when someone takes something you’ve said out of context and uses it to support the exact opposite point of view? Chris Goodall, British environmentalist and author of How to Live a Low-Carbon Life has found himself in that situation. Recently, in How Virtuous is Ed Begley, Jr, John Tierney of the NY Times mentioned that Goodall had calculated that it’s worse for the environment to walk 1.5 miles to the store and replace those calories with a glass of milk than it is to just drive there. Most of the commenters assume that Goodall is encouraging people to drive and lambast him under that assumption.

Like many assumptions, it’s totally off-base. Goodall isn’t using the numbers to say that driving is good; he’s trying to show that the current state of food production is terrible. When driving a mile and a half is better than drinking a glass of milk, something has gone terribly wrong. In Goodall’s view, it’s the whole factory farming system.

This analysis, and the similar one about biking at BicycleUniverse.info assumes that you’re buying into that system. If you’re buying local organic milk (or beef, for that matter), then you cut out a lot of carbon emissions (for pesticides, etc.) and reduce others (transportation).

As an aside, the assertion made on the BicycleUniverse.info page that cost implies energy (“Since the costs of water and energy for laundry are much lower than [the cost for driving], they can’t possibly use more energy than driving.”) drives me crazy. There’s almost no relationship between cost and energy density. Maggie and I have this argument all the time when we’re bemoaning the price of fuel. I’ll complain that gas is $3.30 a gallon and then Maggie one-ups me by saying that diesel is up to $4.50. Once you take into account the fact that diesel is more energy dense, though, Maggie spends about half as much as I do to go as far. As a more extreme example, burning wood that you cut yourself is very cheap but very polluting. It’d be much better to use solar to heat your shower water, even though it’s much more expensive.

But back to the original question. When is walking worse than driving? When your food drives out to meet you.

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How to Travel Sustainably

I have been contemplating a trip to Washington, D.C. to visit a couple of friends but am having trouble figuring out the greenest way to get there. At first I thought maybe I could combine it with a trip to Raleigh for Will’s brother’s wedding but it sounds like that’s not going to work out. (Will and I are planning to drive to Raleigh either in my mom’s Toyota Prius or in my greasecar and from there I would only be driving about five hours on my own.)

The other obvious option is flying, which has remained oddly affordable despite rising fuel prices. My gut feeling is that flying has a really bad environmental impact but I have read very mixed studies about it. Laura forwarded me a great article from Salon about air travel and their conclusion is that it’s probably a better environmental choice than driving but that the bottom line is that the world would be a better place if we traveled less. He did mention that it’s difficult to evaluate the full impact of jet exhaust since it is released very high in the atmosphere and is suspected to have different effects than, say, car exhaust.

He also suggested that train travel is the most efficient option but alas, it is a challenging proposition from Bloomington. The nearest train station is in Indianapolis and pretty much all the trains go to Chicago, except that mostly they have been replaced by buses. (I guess it’s become a pretty common trick for Amtrak but it always shocks me a little when I pull up a train schedule and it says “Bus.”) So I would need to drive to Indianapolis, take the train to Chicago, hang around for a few hours, then take the train overnight to D.C. with a total travel time of about 24 hours and a total cost of over $150 one-way. Not very encouraging.

So I’m continuing to weigh my options. Perhaps it would make sense to fly and purchase some carbon offset credits, or perhaps I could justify the trip by hauling some more of Laura’s furniture to her, or maybe I’ll just make my friends come to me (although that’s really just another way to pass the buck). I do feel pretty blessed that most of my friends and family are within biking distance so I can probably justify the odd plane trip or two a year. And maybe one of these years I’ll get really hardcore and buy myself a horse and buggy. Maybe.

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Where is Your Dream Home?

I love looking at real estate. There is something immensely exciting about driving around town, checking out the “For Sale” signs and asking “Wow, what would it be like to live there?” Thanks to the Internet, I can even sit around in my pajamas and cruise the Bloomington listings.

It seems like there are hundreds of houses for sale right now and yet all the searching has not helped me figure out what my dream home looks like. In the end, it boils down to two simple options.

1. Buy a house in the country where we can grow our own food and live close to the land

2. Buy a house in the city where we can live car-free and share resources more easily

They both have their appeals. I’d love to have a big garden and a few fruit trees and some chickens. I might be able to do that in the city but I’m pretty sure I couldn’t also have my own stream and a little bit of forest and maybe a goat. Of course, living out in the country on a big piece of land would leave me isolated from my neighbors and dependent on my car to go grocery shopping or visit friends. How self-sufficient could I be out in the country and how enjoyable would it be? Living in the city, I’d have stores and friends close by and could arrange to bicycle or walk most places I wanted but it would be more crowded and less natural. I probably couldn’t put in a composting toilet (although Will isn’t too excited about the idea anyway).

I’ve spent some time searching for that happy medium, a small house on a bit of acreage that’s still bikeable from downtown. I haven’t found it yet and we probably can’t afford to buy a house just yet anyway so for next year, we’re looking for the perfect downtown spot. It will be the grand experiment to see if I really will put that bike to good use and get my feet used to pounding the pavement. I sure hope I’m up for it. And maybe with the right landlord we can smuggle in a couple of chickens.

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