Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Stop for Lemonade

I brake for lemonade

That's a bumper sticker I have on my bicycle trunk; it's also a true statement. I have never, in recent memory, failed to stop at a trailside lemonade stand. I just can't get enough of that sticky, sour-sweet liquid goodness.

Actually, there's more to it than that. You may remember, if you were a trail-rider or just a follower of the local news, that in 2006 teenager Laura D'Asaro raised thousands of dollars selling lemonade on the Burke-Gilman trail just north of Matthews Beach, which went towards improving the local playground. I was a regular customer, and as the summer wore on she started calling me "trunk guy" because of the afore-mentioned bicycle trunk (sans the afore-mentioned bumper sticker, which came later). Besides getting a nice refreshment midway through my ride, my contributions were going towards a cause.

Then there are the young entrepreneurs that I feel good about supporting. It takes a certain level of initiative to put together a lemonade stand, and I want to reward that. Once there were two stands within a couple hundred feet of each other near the Ronald McDonald house on 40th. I stopped at both of them, had a couple of lemonades, and sloshed my way home.

But neither of these really get to the heart of the issue. I stop for lemonade because — well, because I can. If my life is too busy or my commute too rushed to take five minutes to enjoy a cup of lemonade, then my life is too busy, and my commute is too rushed. And that is not the way I want to live my life.

Some people ride the trail for exercise, decked out with heart rate monitors and whiz-bang computer gizmos that tell them exactly how much of a workout they're getting. I see them whizzing past, heads down, legs pumping, weaving around obstacles without slacking their pace (I plan to write a column at some point on trail types — these are the fitness junkies). Others are heads-down commuters on a schedule. I'm a commuter, yes, but I'm doing it to escape the rat race, not just participate in a different form of it. Stopping for lemonade is a way to prove to myself that I haven't back-slidden into commuter hell. The day I have to pass up a lemonade stand because I don't have the time is the day I need to take stock and figure out what needs to be changed. Lemonade stands are my personal canaries in a coal mine.

Sadly, there are precious few lemonade stands. Aside from the anomaly of 2006, when Laura's very reliable stand was a daily fixture, I doubt I stop more than half a dozen times in a typical year. What happened?

I'm trying hard not to use the phrase, "In our culture...," an overused subordinate clause that irritates me no end; as if everyone were some kind of anthropologist. But really, what's going on when a perfectly viable means means of earning spending money is not being taken advantage of? What else can it mean but that the kids that in former generations needed to earn cash are, today, just given everything they need by their doting parents?

Perhaps lemonade stands are coal-mine canaries in another sense. When they die, they are an early indicator of an unhealthy consumerism and materialism in a ... no, I won't use the word! Just end it there: unhealthy consumerism and materialism.

We've been hearing since the 1980's that consumer spending drives the economy, and that we're actually doing a good deed when we spend as much as we possibly can, because every dollar we spend cycles through the economy x number of times and increases the national wealth by a factor of ... yada, yada, yada. Evidence from the trail tells me that today's parents have taken that teaching so much to heart that their children no longer feel the need to work for their toys. Call me a fuddy-duddy, but I think that's a shame.

If this financial meltdown we're now in the middle of turns into a major recession or depression, things may change. When parents start scrimping and saving, and maybe even, perish the thought, skip one generation of Wii/XBox/PS, what will their children do for entertainment? Might they actually have to (gasp!) rustle up some spending money all on their own?

I've got my eye on the trailside lemonade indicator. I'll let you know.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Escaping the Rat Race

My dream is to retire to a small town that doesn't have a rush hour, preferably one small enough that I won't even need a car to get around.  Let's just call it Port Townsend, for sake of discussion.  But until that glorious day arrives, I'm stuck in a big city with a big traffic problem that will almost certainly not be solved in my working lifetime.  So I'll have to learn to make the best of what I've got.

For the most part, this is pretty easy to do.  I have a great job, a house that suits me and my family well, good neighbors, a good community.  Most of my shopping can be done within a two-mile radius of my house; my church is just a mile down the hill.  But there are times when I have to venture further afield, and that's when the reality of Seattle's traffic problem becomes unavoidable.

Which brings me back to my job.  I live in Lake Forest Park, and I work in Fremont.  There is no good bus connection.  On days when I do drive, I'm drawn unavoidably into what I call the rat-race mindset.  I rage at drivers who accelerate too slowly or drive too slowly or cut in front of me or do anything to stymie my intentions.  On those days when southbound Aurora backs up past the zoo I sit helplessly, knowing that any alternative route I might contemplate will only be slower and more frustrating.

I've gotten better at adopting a fatalistic equanimity in the face of the fates thrown my way by the capricious traffic gods, but it takes constant effort to maintain it and I frequently fail. Fortunately the Burke-Gilman trail offers a stress-free alternative that never fails to satisfy:  bike commuting.  I've been a regular bicycle commuter since 2001.

When I first started commuting by bike I carried my lunch and a change of clothes in saddle bags and just enjoyed the scenery.  Eventually I grew so accustomed to the scenery that I needed some distraction, so I bought a radio that would fit with my helmet and started listening to NPR during the ride.  Recently I've discovered the joys of listening to podcasts and audio books on an iPod while riding.  But whatever I'm doing, one thing that I don't experience is the stress of the rat race.  It simply is absent from the trail.

I've done some thinking about why this is.  I believe the primary source of stress in traffic is an inability to be able to drive where you want, when you want.  If you want to drive a steady 40 mph, it's stressful to be forced by heavy traffic or ill-timed red lights to slow down or stop.  Some drivers react to this by driving aggressively, which according to some psychological studies is enhanced by the anonymity of the automobile.  Rude behavior of others adds to the stress.

On the trail, by contrast, you can almost always get around obstructions — slow bikers, pedestrians, or roller-bladers (which for some inexplicable reason seem to have nearly disappeared from the trail this year).  You may have to wait for a few seconds for an opening, but then you're through and biking where you want, when you want again.  Stress-free.

There was only one occasion I can remember where the rat race intruded on the trail.  As I approached the south University of Washington campus, I encountered a large group of charity riders.  I mean large.  The trail was backed up at the 15th Avenue traffic light so far that I had to wait through two red lights.  I was stymied.  The group was too large to pass, and they were slow.  I felt the surge of adrenaline signaling increased stress levels caused by the inability to go where I wanted, when I wanted.  I sucked it up and got through the U district eventually, but there were still hordes of trail rookies in front of me, blissfully unaware that trail etiquette called for them not to cluster in big groups that prevented us regulars from passing.  I finally escaped down to Northlake Way and raced westward along the street, working off my frustration in a burst of speed much greater than my normal trail pace.

Once in awhile a stressed-out biker will tarnish the trail with a rat-race attitude, aggressively weaving through congested spots rather than waiting a few seconds for an opportune time to pass.  The rarity of this occurrence makes me think it's likely a trail novice who hasn't yet learned that the Burke-Gilman isn't his private velodrome.  I like to believe that the trail exerts a calming influence that will eventually win over the most hardened road-rager if given enough time.

But in case I'm wrong, let me end this column with a plea:  please do not bring the rat race to the trail.  The day may come when the traffic has increased to the point where congestion is a real problem, and then even the most zen-like of us will be back in the rat race.  But let's not rush it.  Let it develop in its own sweet time, and who knows, maybe Seattle will keep building new trails quickly enough to handle the increased traffic that we all expect, and we'll never have a bicycle rat race.  We bikers could have our own little Port Townsend right here in the middle of the big city.  Now that's something worth dreaming about.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Cost of Bike Commuting

When I tell people that I ride my bike to work, invariably their first response is, "Oh, think of all the money you're saving!"  Although money isn't the primary reason I bike to work, I always smile and nod and say something like, 'Yes, I suppose I do.'  But I've always wondered whether I'm really saving as much as everyone seems to think.

Actually, it's easy to show that I'm not saving anything.  I have been recruited into a van pool, which I sometimes take.  The cost is covered 100% by my company.  So I could reduce my commuting cost to zero if I felt like walking the 1.3 miles to the van pool pickup every day.  Even bike commuting can't compete with zero.

Unfair comparisons aside, what does bike commuting really cost compared to driving?  I woke up feeling bad one morning and called in to work sick.  Later in the morning I was feeling better, so I decided to settle this question once and for all.  The true cost of riding a bike needs to take into account fuel (I eat more if I bike to work), maintenance (I'm no bike mechanic), and depreciation (I've worn out several bikes in my years as a bike commuter).  This column is a summary of my findings.

I decided to compare bike commuting with driving our nice new (2003) Honda to work and parking for free in the neighborhood.  This is kind of a best-case scenario, stacking all the odds in favor of the car.  But it's a realistic scenario; I don't think I'd be able to stomach actually paying for parking in the company parking ramp, and some of my coworkers manage to find neighborhood parking every day, so that's most likely the choice I'd make.  My wife probably wouldn't be happy being stuck driving the 1974 VW Beetle to all her appointments, but if I were to car commute I would be the primary driver of the family, so taking the Honda would make the most sense.

The most difficult calculation to make is fuel.  Just how much more do I spend for food when I'm biking?  From standard charts I determined that I expend about 1,000 calories a day biking the 28-mile round-trip to work.  I know I eat a bigger breakfast when I commute (call it one extra bowl of cereal:  220 calories, $0.40), that I get a snack more often mid-morning (call it a piece of toast with butter and honey:  250 calories, free), and that I have a handful of dried fruit and crackers before I head home in the afternoon (270 calories, $0.50).  Adding all that up comes to only 740 calories.

Since I'm not slowly wasting away to nothing, I guess I must eat a bigger dinner at home when I bike.  I dug out a bunch of grocery bills from the recycle bin, added up a month's worth, and divided by the number of calories our family most likely consumes in a month.  Result:  $0.002 per calorie.  Multiplying that by the remaining 260 calories comes to $0.52, resulting in a total daily operating cost of $1.42, or about $0.051/mile.

As I write this, gas is down to about $2/gallon.  So driving a 35-mpg car costs about $0.057/mile.  Not much more than biking!

Next is maintenance.  As I mentioned already, I'm not much of a bike mechanic.  I can change a flat tire, oil my chain, and even change my chain once in awhile (I try to change it every thousand miles), but I couldn't true a wheel or keep my disc brakes in adjustment if my life depended on it.  So I have to take it into a shop several times a year to get it whipped back into working order.  And eventually pretty much everything wears out.  I've had to replace my rear wheel and drive train many times in my eight years of commuting.  What does this cost?

Fortunately I keep all my receipts.  It was a simple matter to add up all the costs on my bike since I bought it in May 2005.  Result:  $975.  Divided by my total mileage over that time (14,500 miles) the average maintenance cost is $0.067/mile.  Working the same calculation on our 2003 Honda resulted in a maintenance cost for the car of only $0.042/mile.  The car wins!

It's not looking good for my bike commute.  Only depreciation is left:  will that be enough to rally it to victory?  In short, yes:  the capital cost of a bike is far less than that of a car, even when taking into account the fewer miles that a bike typically covers.  Here are the details, taking straight-line depreciation based on how long my previous bike and my previous Honda lasted:

Purchase cost$17,500$700
Expected life span140,000 miles20,000 miles
Cost per mile$0.125$0.035

The bike is much cheaper to purchase. That's really where the win is. So here's the summary:

Operating cost$0.057/mile$0.051/mile

Not exactly a slam-dunk for bike commuting, is it?

It's never been about the money for me. It's about the fresh air, the exercise, the escape from the rat race. It's nice to know I'm saving money, too — a little money — but I'd still be a bike commuter even if it came at a premium. So next time someone exclaims about how much money I must be saving, I've got the data to set them straight. But I probably won't. I'll just smile and nod.