Archive for May, 2009

Diary of a New Bicycle Commuter in Atlanta

By Karen

I’ve been trying to find a way to come to terms with my daily grid. It’s not such a bad life, but at the same time there are things that need to fit into the course of a day so that there are reasonable levels of enjoyment, health, and free time. I was spending a lot of time in my car driving the 22 congested miles to work. If I could take a bus or the metro I could at least read along the way. However, I live in East Cobb, an area where there are poor commuting options. This is by design. There are also fewer people who demand those options, but I was among those who would prefer to let someone else drive rather than stressing through the crazy drivers and arriving home exhausted and uninterested in heading for the gym.

I ran through all of the public transportation schedules with a friend, just to make sure that I hadn’t missed something. The amount of time it would take meant that there really were no realistic options available. I mused that I could ride my bike to the MARTA station in Fulton County faster than I could get to it by car or bus and the idea was hatched. That is exactly what I decided to do. Beside the many other benefits. if I could incorporate my exercise into my daily commute, I could be sure that I would get it and that would then would free up time for other things. Perfect!

That was about a year ago while gas was climbing to the $4 mark. I was checking out routes and building stamina. I ruled out riding to the the bus station in Marietta because it was about the same distance as MARTA with the same number of scary intersections and passages, but the route had no stretches of pleasant view and few bike friendly areas. Then, once I got there, I would still be on a bus subject to traffic jams and route interchanges, rather than traveling a bit faster on MARTA direct. I was definitely headed to Fulton County. This meant that crossing the Chattahoochee River and that was a big challenge. Both places where this is possible are traffic bottle necks and quite intimidating. That wasn’t all I had to overcome. The commute and the 8 hours sitting at a desk had added extra pounds over recent months and I wanted to build up a better level of fitness before I embarked on the adventure.

Planning was going along nicely. A locker room and showers were available at work. I bought a second set of toiletries for the locker. The fit was tight, but I was able to put a weeks worth of clothes in the locker and drive only once per week to resupply. There were bike racks in the parking garage. It was a pretty friendly environment for what I wanted to do. I also hoped that if I eventually built up to riding the entire commute on my bike rather than taking MARTA half the distance that
I would get into good shape for the the fund raiser bike ride that I wanted to do at sometime in the future.

First Attempt
I’m in an in between category in several ways. Aware that some people thought I was crazy for wanting to ride my bike in Metro Atlanta, and also quite aware that for some people it was much, much less of a “big deal”. I’m not old, but I’m not still so young either, ugh middle age, and that combined with the desk job and long commute caught up with me. Shortly before I was going to make that first bike trip I stepped out of bed in the morning and nearly fell over in pain. I went to an orthopedic surgeon. He told me I had a pinched nerve and that I had to stay off of it. I’m sure that I must have looked very disappointed. He said “It’s not cancer. This is small.” No, it wasn’t cancer, and I am grateful for that and many other outstanding blessings that I enjoy. It was, however, the crushing of a coping mechanism that I had worked out for myself. There is really no way that I could have explained to him that this was, in many ways, about survival to me. It was about finding a way to make it through the throngs of people mechanically grinding through one daily commute after another. My interstate commute reminded me of a Disney cartoon from way back, a short that starred Goofy. Alien life forms observing from afar thought that cars were in control on earth and that people were the infecting parasites. The Dr. was in a hurry and wanted to go play golf. I didn’t explain the distress on my face, only listened to his assumptions and advice. I was a little indignant that he told me my shoes weren’t sensible enough. I thought I was the queen of ugly sensible shoes, but I listened to the doctor quietly.

The whole shoe adventure was a series of indignities that would have been laughable if they hadn’t actually happened. I looked for shoes that were better for my feet. My Keen sandals were the only shoes I had that the doctor had given approval, but finding something that matched the Keens in fit, something that had a big toe box, yet would stay on my heel while also being appropriately dressed for work was a real challenge. In addition to the pay check I spent on medical costs, I spent a pay check trying to find acceptable shoes over the short term, and more as things went on. Spending a lot on shoes is supposed to be for fashionistas right? Au contraire, many shoes seemed to feel good in the store and began to hurt or slip and rub blisters after half an hour of wear. Once a month we have casual day at work and I wore the sandals then. There was no pain on those days. I guess the doctor was right about my shoes, but I was reprimanded for not meeting an unspoken casual day dress code. In an old traditional company I was experiencing a gap in policy and expectations. For the doctor, my shoes were not practical enough, but for my workplace… Damned if you do… How could one person’s feet be such a bother? I did additional research and bought toe socks to separate my toes. I behaved. I waited, eventually the pain and the twinge that preceded the pain had mostly disappeared.

Second Attempt
I found a commuter van while healing, but I had to choose whether to use the van exclusively for an entire month at a time. May was the month this year. The first was on a Friday. I started in May for the weather. I decided to dispense with the build up of stamina on the bicycle this time, partly because of the commuter policy, and partly so that I would have a greater chance of getting at least a few bicycle commutes accomplished before the foot pain returned.

The morning commute went smoothly. I intended to get out at 5 AM and it was more like 5:45. I had a headlight and a flashing rear light and I wore a reflective safety vest. Part of the ride went through neighborhoods, part through Chattahoochee River National Park. The crossing of the river was not as intimidating as it might have been at this early hour. I was not happy with the location where I had to cross over Hwy 400 and the ride took longer than I expected, but all in all it was OK and I made it in to work just fine. Once I got down town, the streets actually seemed safer than in suburbs and there were other cyclists on the road. I felt great all day and had a lot of energy.

The ride home was less optimal. I chose to test a different overpass crossing Hwy 400 and it put me on Roswell Road, a very busy 4-lane artery, much sooner than before. Several vehicles came terrifyingly close to me. It was the large industrial vehicles that really did it, not the average car or truck. Riding in the area is doubly difficult because bike lanes simply disappear without warning. As a cyclist I feel like the road just disappears out from underneath my wheels when this happens. For the motorists…well, they don’t have cause to even notice until they come upon me, and then there isn’t really much adjustment time. In rush hour traffic, the vehicle in front will often block view of a bicycle. I walked my bike much of the way home to get off the road. While walking I thought a diary telling how the good and the bad had all worked out for me over time. I thought that how I adjusted to things along way might be interesting or helpful to someone like myself who was considering something similar. I began to think of things I might share. It was getting dark. It was becoming Friday night, party night, and I was exhausted. I didn’t want to unpack my headlights and flashers to put them back on the bike. I brought home more than I expected on that first day and I wasn’t sure I still had the strength to zip the bike bag back up if I opened it. I was pretty close to home, but I called a friend and told him that I would wait in a local fast food restaurant. He came, we had supper together and we packed the bike.

It rained for all of the following week. I was mentally running through potential routes that might be safer. I was planning to drive through a neighborhood that had the potential to keep me off of Roswell Road until shortly before I needed to cross the river. I never got that far though. I received notice in the middle of the week that the negative growth at my company had finally caught up to me. Short cycling diary! I’m glad made the ride though, if only for a day. In some respects it seems like it was the bike ride into unemployment. There was a lot of preparation for a single commute, but I’m glad I did it.

The fund raiser I want to participate in, organize and run actually, is for Patch Adams and can be seen at this E2EFundraiser. While the ride across England seems a dream of the past, I would still like to be able to begin at Marietta Square near a clown shop and ride my bike to Patch’s campus in West Virginia. It should be something that could be accomplished on a two week vacation. We will see what the future holds. For now I’m back at the base of Maslow’s Hierarchy.

Update: Russ and I have been spending a lot of time out on the Silver Comet. On the day we made 50 miles, we realized it almost as an afterthought. Riding to Anniston, AL for the weekend is our current goal. I had thought we’d make it this fall, but the cold weather is right around the corner and I think it will be spring. Appreciating the irony, sometimes you can attend to the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy while waiting for the bottom to resolve itself.