Saturday, April 4, 2009

Spare Time

Commuting by bike takes time. It takes me two hours and fifteen minutes to get to work from the time I wake up. So to be at work at 8:00, I have to wake up at 5:45. If I were to drive I could sleep until 6:30 and on most days still get to work by 8:00. Multiply this difference by two and it amounts to an hour and a half of lost time every work day. Ouch!

Time is a precious commodity for most people who have both a job and a family, and I'm no exception. I can't count how many books I could have read or projects I could have accomplished if only there were more hours in a day. As my kids have matured I've begun to experience more free time, but it still isn't enough. How can I justify losing an hour and a half every day of the week just so I can ride my bike?

One justification could be that I'm in better shape because of it, so I feel better and have more energy, so it's not really that much time, blah, blah, blah. While there's some truth in that, it's far too fuzzy an analysis for my taste. Who's to say I couldn't come up with an equally good way to get exercise that doesn't take so much time? Like, say, join the Sound Mind & Body gym across the street and work out during lunch. Or do yoga while watching the 10:00 news.

Instead, I'm just going to start from the fact that I like bike commuting and I'm going to do it regardless, and then try to estimate the true cost in terms of free time, similar to the way I estimated the true financial cost of bike commuting. I maintain that I lose far less than an hour and a half, once all factors are taken into account.

I used to be a dedicated bus commuter when I worked in Bellevue and had a decent, transfer-free route to take.  This was when the kids were small and free time at home was nearly non-existent. It got so I looked forward to the bus ride because then I finally got to sit down and work on whatever project I wanted to for nearly an hour, uninterrupted. I intentionally avoided getting to know my fellow commuters, the better to read books, study whatever my latest kick was, and basically have two hours of total self-indulgence. It kept me sane.

When I became a full-time bike commuter I had to give that up, and it was painful. Though the ride was still cathartic, I got less reading and studying done, and I missed it. If there had been a decent bus route I would probably still be primarily a bus rider, but there wasn't, so I'm stuck with the bike commute.

(Okay, so I'm not "stuck" with it. I could drive, but driving is simply not an option at this point. Just jumping back into the rat race once a week so I can join my coworkers after work for golf at Interbay feels yucky. I could also ride a van pool, but I find even that doesn't allow me to escape the stress of the commute, because my fellow riders seem to be obsessed with finding the best way to beat traffic every day. It's nothing like the anonymous, care-free bus commute I gave up).

Well, then. After a couple years I decided to start listening to the radio during my commute. I found a nice over-ear radio that doesn't interfere with the helmet, and started listening to NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Eventually I realized that I was getting all my need for news fulfilled, and didn't get much out of the daily paper anymore. So I reduced my newspaper-reading to a quick skim, or sometimes didn't read it at all.  That's a half-hour saved.

Eventually the news got too depressing (starting late 2002 — you figure it out), and I decided two hours a day of this stuff was too much. Talk radio was out (how can anyone can stand to listen to that stuff?), and baseball wasn't on frequently enough. I started listening to music more. But I didn't really hit on the right solution until a year ago or so when I discovered audio books. Put them on an iPod and away you go!

In the space of a few months I had listened to Jules Verne's "The Master of the World," Chesterton's "The Man who was Thursday," Thoreau's "Walden", and Wodehouse's "My Man Jeeves," all of which are in the public domain and available for free from Librivox. OK, so the quality of the volunteer readers isn't uniformly excellent, but most of them aren't bad at all.

Later in the year I learned how to record streaming audio as an mp3 file using the excellent program Audio Hijack Pro (available only for Mac, sadly). I have it set up to automatically record A Prairie Home Companion from KUOW's streaming audio every Saturday from 3-5 p.m., and it takes just a minute to transfer it to my iPod. I've been adding the occasional podcast also — two shows I listen to regularly are This American Life and CBC Radio's The Vinyl Cafe.

As I've moved away from news and into podcasts and audio books, I find I'm reading the newspaper a little more frequently again, though it's not really equivalent. The newspaper is very similar in content and depth to what I read on Yahoo News at odd moments during the day. NPR gives me much deeper reporting. But in general I'm getting my weekly news fix partly during my commute and partly other ways, and still finding plenty of time for my podcasts and the occasional audio book.

So let's get scientific about this and compare the free-time cost of driving versus bike commuting. The bike commute takes about 15 hours/week and the car commute 7.5 hours/week. Here's how that time is spent:

Activity     Bike          Car
Preparation (changing clothes, etc.)3:000:00
Listening to NPR/other news4:006:30
Radio shows3:300:00
Audio books1:300:00

These are rough estimates, and it varies widely week to week. But I think it's clear that I make good use of the time spent on my bike, and my "lost time" is really only the roughly three hours extra preparation per week it takes — rolling up my work clothes into a bundle, packing up my bike trunk, filling the water bottle, changing three times a day. (You'd think all that would take less than 3 hours, but the stats don't lie).

Now we can talk about whether the sacrifice is worth it. Three hours a week to stay in shape, feel better, get ten hours/week of biking in the fresh air (hey, I like to do this), escape the rat race — well, what do you think?