Urban renewal is a thing that’s happening everywhere. Moving to a condo downtown, bicycle commuting, using mass transit, and occasionally using a zipcar are what all the cool cats are doing these days. None of those things however, are my thing. I like my big yard with big trees. I like having multiple vehicles so that if I’m maintaining or repairing one of them I can do it at my own pace rather than being rushed. I like having a largish “shed” full of all manner of outdoor adventure equipment, all of which gets used. I like silence when I’m outside. I like pitch black darkness at night. I also like to ride my bike and prefer to get to work that way. The question for me was can a low commuting carbon footprint and a house in suburbia co-exist? In my case, the answer is mostly yes.
The first step is to feel stable and committed to a single place of employment, so moving relatively close to work is easy rather than fraught with financial risks. This, of course, is one giant pitfall of the current societal trend towards shorter and shorter durations with any one employer. It seems that whatever gains are made in environmentally friendly transportation choices are evaporated with employment changes for many. One might think living close to mass transit is equally as good as living close to work. For some perhaps it is. For me, time spent commuting is time lost regardless of whether it’s a commuter train, bus, or single occupancy vehicle. The exception, of course, is when the commuting time also serves as exercise time.
In my case, Sportworks is 2.3 miles and 600 vertical feet from home. Between work and home there is not the usual awkward transition between an industrial area and suburbia, marked by strip malls intermingled with run-down residences. Instead the commercial zone ends abruptly at a valley edge, followed by a mile of uphill winding road through a forested ravine to my neighborhood. The contrast between commercial and residential is stark and current zoning plus the geography mean it will always be that way.
The next step, if you have children or may have in the future, is to be comfortable with local schools. If there is one thing that will expand a carbon footprint and kill quality of life as fast as a long car commute in horrible traffic, it’s carting children all over the place to school and after-school activities.
So why do people bike commute? Some common reasons are for health and fitness, because of an environmental consciousness, to avoid traffic, and because it’s economical. In my case, traffic and economics aren’t factors, environmental consciousness is a minor influence, primarily it’s an easy way to stay fit. When one is in their mid-fifties like I am, the difference between those that have put some effort into ongoing fitness and those that haven’t is dramatic. Dramatic enough to be fatal in some cases.
One key to bike commuting and most of you know this, is to fully integrate the bike into the daily habits of life. If you can stagger out of bed, pull on the bike clothes, eat some breakfast and find yourself in the shower at work before you fully wake up, you have succeeded. Another key is for it to be easy at your workplace. That consists of good indoor bike parking, a shower, a bike repair stand, pump, and tools, and a place to dry wet riding gear.
We didn’t always have a shower at Sportworks. Even at an employer making products that support cycling, the ownership was hesitant to spend the money that a proper shower installation would have cost. I designed and had built a self-contained shower system on a pallet. It consisted of a shower, an extremely small changing room, and a water heater mounted on top. We parked it over a floor drain and needed only to connect cold water and power. The owners approved the project knowing that if we ever leased a different factory location, the shower could come with us.
I’ve been lucky enough to have been bike commuting for 30 years without ever having an accident. Bicycle lighting is much better than it used to be and drivers are somewhat more aware of the possibility of cyclists being out in all weather. Riding has gotten safer. Still, my thinking has always been that a car approaching from the rear at night should not instantly be able to identify me as a cyclist. From a distance in the dark I want to look like I could be a cyclist, or an emergency vehicle, or a road construction site with flashing barricades. None of the roads I ride on have bike lanes, or even shoulders. There is no safe choice but to be a “take the lane” cyclist on my commute route. So far, so good.
I know what you’re thinking, 2.3 miles is too short to bike commute. You’re right, and because of that I never go the shortest route. I can make the commute as long or as hilly as I like by taking some meandering route. This has some big advantages. First, if I have a mechanical problem, usually I just push my bike home from wherever I am. Second, If I ever do need to get to work or home quickly, the short route is available. Third, sometimes I just walk to work. I’m increasingly making the walk on a day or two, part of my weekly routine. Most of the other bike commuters here at Sportworks live farther away. They ride fast, but frail bikes and get more flat tires. Wide tires with thick rubber are where it’s at for my commuting, sometimes I go a whole year without a flat.
So what about total carbon footprint? Well, I drive to go skiing or sailboat racing, have a riding lawn mower, and even an extremely evil 2-stroke leaf blower. On balance, I feel OK about the big picture though. I’m ready for the day gas costs ten dollars per gallon. That would fix a lot of problems here in the Seattle area, and it can’t come too soon.
I’m pretty sure that when I retire, I’ll be selling my house to some millennial who has had enough with urban condo living and realizes that the urban environment might not be the best place for the Seattle brand of eco-adventuring children to grow up. My hip urban friends think I’m living in the past, which means I’m five years ahead of the next trend.
Eric Rayl is a mechanical engineer who has devolved into doing a wide variety of management tasks at Sportworks. He has been with the company for the past 15 years. Eric's greatest joy at work is transforming some vague new product idea into that perfect blend of style, features, durability, and value. Eric and his family live in Woodinville, Washington, a once bucolic hamlet East of Seattle that is now home to more wineries than cows. Outside of work he might be found on some summit, or halfway across some ocean, but most likely can’t be found at all.