How TerraPass turned me into a bike commuter

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Can bicycles really make a difference in fighting global warming?

I had been pondering this question for several months, especially as I watched my colleague Tom bike to work from his home in Menlo Park to our office in San Francisco with an assist from the special bike cars on Caltrain. Tom was riding almost every day, rain or shine. He encouraged me to try it, but I didn’t think it was possible from my home in the Berkeley hills. My regular routine was to drive my 15-year old Honda Accord to North Berkeley and park the car in a lot, ride the train into downtown San Francisco, and walk the rest of the way to the office. The major hurdle to biking the Berkeley section was the 700 foot elevation change in 2.1 miles, which would be fine going down, but would require an arduous climb back up.

I also hadn’t owned a bicycle since I was in graduate school 20 years ago. After a little research, I bought a pretty basic Giant brand bike with hybrid tires, upright handle-bars, a cushy seat and 24 gears. It cost me $469 plus another $90 for a helmet, front and back lights, and a good lock. Nothing fancy, but the bike salesman said it would do the job.

I started riding in June. What a rush to go down the hill! Wind in my face, views of the City by the Bay, and no worries about finding a parking spot. I took the bike on BART and then rode from a San Francisco station to TerraPass. On the way home, I did everything in reverse. The hill was a bear, but I found that if took it slow and steady and used my gears I could actually make it all the way up without having to walk the bike. And it was an excellent workout. I arrived home drenched in sweat and pleased with my surprising accomplishment.

Thus began a major change in my personal transport. Having the bike in the city, I started using it to go to meetings in the middle of the day. I rode all the way out to the Presidio to watch Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) launch its Climate Smart carbon offset program. I rode to Mission Bay to hear Mayor Gavin Newsom speak about the city’s commitment to reducing its carbon footprint. Sometimes I rode to meet friends for lunch on San Francisco’s restored Embarcadero.

Along the way I learned some bike commuting tricks. I kept several sets of clothes at the office, including a suit and tie if important meetings came up unexpectedly. I installed a rack on the bike and used bungee cords to secure my backpack. I found seating areas on BART where I could put the bike’s kickstand down and read my newspaper.

After a month, I could feel my legs getting stronger and I wasn’t huffing and puffing up the hill so much. I looked forward to the ride home, both for the exercise and the chance to decompress from long days working at TerraPass. I also found that I could use the bike for errands, e.g., grocery shopping, trips to the library, or sporting events at the university. Each time I had to go somewhere, I asked myself: is there any reason I can’t go by bike? Some weeks I realized that I never started up my car.

Now it’s been five months of biking to and from work every day. I feel healthier and I’ve gained satisfaction from “riding” the TerraPass talk. This weekend I measured my gasoline usage from January to May (115 gallons) and June to October (55 gallons). My auto-related carbon emissions dropped from 2,249 pounds to 1,031 pounds over a comparable five-month period.

I’m not saying everyone can make such changes in personal transportation. But if 20% of urban dwellers in the U.S. would shift from a car to a bike as their primary way to get around town, it would add up to a lot of tons of real carbon reductions.

Update: I called GEICO today to see if they would lower my insurance rate because I’m driving less. They did.

Photo available under Creative Commons license from flickr user Payton Chung.

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  1. Anonymous - November 7, 2007

    This a wonderful creative expression of what can be done for our wonderful planet. I say ‘well done indeed’ and congrats on feeling so.o.o. healthy!! Val Ontario Canada

  2. Jennifer - November 7, 2007

    Bravo to you! My beloved bike was stolen a couple of years ago (moment of silence, please), and I haven’t gotten a new one yet. I would love to start commuting via bicycle, your article was encouraging!
    I pick up my two sons from daycare at the end of the day. Maybe I could get one of those bike trailers to tow them.
    Happy commuting! :)

  3. Dani Nordin - November 7, 2007

    Congratulations! I just bought a bike myself, but being in New England VERY close to the winter season, it’s been a challenge getting myself to ride it as often as I’d like (but, I also work from home, so I have virtually no commute). I have ridden it a few times, though, and I love it. I’m looking forward to attempting the trek to my gym (about 3.5 miles from my house!) sometime this weekend.

  4. Donna - November 7, 2007

    I have been commuting 6 miles RT to work by electric bike (with pedal assist) since Summer and absolutely love it. I feel cheated when it rains and I have to drive.
    I was going to suggest Adam modify his bike with a battery kit, but if he’s mastered that hill, guess there’s no need. I use battery-only on summer mornings so I don’t arrive at work sweaty, makeup-less and gamey, but pedal home where I can shower. In winter, pedaling both ways helps reserve battery power and keep me warm.
    Best of all, I can park in our building (instead of two blocks away) and can do it for free, since I’m not using a parking space.

  5. Anonymous - November 7, 2007

    I’ve been a year-round bike commuter in the Midwest (where it gets cold) for thirty years. I ride in all but the worst snow/ice conditions. My ride is a twenty-mile round trip and at age 60 I’m healthy and fit and loving life. My car commute would be about 50 minutes and the bike takes about twice that, so I get 100 minutes of exercise for an extra 50 minutes a day. (Think about that as you drive to the spinning class.) By the way, I’m female. Girls can do this too.
    I’d be happy to share ideas about bike commuting and vacationing.

  6. HooHah - November 7, 2007

    The one drawback about riding bikes here in Seattle — and I would guess in San Francisco too — is the danger of getting hit by a car. It just happens all too often, and the injuries can be very serious.

  7. Monty - November 7, 2007

    I started commuting to work by bike last year here in Kirkland/Bellevue (Seattle area). I do hear comments from folks all the time about why they would not do it, and here are my general responses:
    1. Yes, there are a lot of hills, and I go over two major ones both to and from work every day that get me quite sweaty. However, as long as you have a place to shower where you arrive, that is just the bonus of exercise. The first few weeks can be difficult, but after that, you actually look forward to the hills. (Especially on cold days.)
    2. There are plenty of automobiles out there, but as long as you wear bright clothing, have lights on your bike for dark riding, and ride defensively at all times, you will be fine. If you treat the bike like an automobile and try to ‘correct’ an automobile driver by showing you have the right of way is when you will get into trouble.
    3. Don’t worry about trying to bike every time instead of riding a car. Just biking once a week is reducing your commute emissions by 20%, and is a fantastic step forward.
    4. There are advantages of biking, such as always having a change of clothes at work. You will also have more energy when working, and I feel you are likely to be more productive.
    I highly recommend giving biking a try if you are able. One last note — my first year I used a $100 mountain bike for my commutes, but upgraded to a road bike early this year. If you are able, make the investment in a good road bike since that will dramatically reduce the amount of work in getting started on this.

  8. Joelle - November 7, 2007

    I was a bus/bike girl for most of my twenties and thirties in Portland, but then moved to the country where I had to use a car. I’m happy to say I’m back in a biking environment and my husband who loves bikes rides every day now. We have been on the same tank of gas for weeks and it’s almost half full still.
    One thing I wanted to mention to the person who got their bike stolen, if you have homeowner’s or renter’s insurance, you can almost always claim a stolen bike and get a replacement. Of course, it has to be a reasonably expensive bike because of the deductible (obviously this won’t work for the poster since it’s been years, but it’s good to know in general).

  9. En Ville à Vélo - November 7, 2007

    Right on to the other cyclists who have responded. Here in Madison I get to admire the weather on a river and two lakes on my way to my work, rather than construction bottlenecks, trucks and SUVs; I get to smile at dog walkers and parents with kids waiting the school bus, rather than curse at idiots eating sausage bicuits yakking on the cell. I ride as the crow flies which takes me through historic districts and “recycled” railway corridors.

    to the writer who fears getting into an accident: use side streets. when you do have to mingle with the big dogs, Have courage! but ride as if no car can see you. It is the reason given by drivers most often why they hit a biker: “I didn’t see him.” Make eye contact. When you need to switch to a left turn lane, make your intentions known early. Big dramatic hand signals. Then command your lane; yes you own a whole lane. Though Monty is right some drivers will want to dominate and you are better off yielding. Otherwise stay at least three feet from anything on the right and stray as little from a straight line as possible. Ding your bell and yell “don’t hit me.” they have amazingly bright lights for bikers now, and a helmet might smush your do some but it too adds visibility. don’t wear headphones.

    winter is difficult but you learn to dress in lycra-content things with wind protection. Big mittens, wind pants, neck covering. I use clipless mountain bike pedals set loosely for easy escape, and my shoes are a little oversize so I can fit thick socks inside (keep your nice shoes at work) . Pedal at a low gear to warm up especially if like me your knees wake up late.

    But I still drive sometimes. which is why I got a terrapass.

  10. Adam Stein - November 7, 2007

    By the way, a good (but long) post on cycling safety can be found over at Grist:
    http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2007/10/8/143547/109
    The nickel version is that biking does pose some risks, although probably not as large as many people think. Biking also offers tons of health benefits. But the most important thing by far is that individual cyclists have a lot of control over how much risk they want to take on.

  11. Anonymous - November 7, 2007

    I loved riding my bike to work when I lived in Japan (and the fact that I could use public transportation when the weather turned sour). Unfortunately, here in the midwest, it is extraordinarly difficult. The distance is longer (7 miles one-way vs 5), but it is flatter. However, that is not the issue. The real problems are safety (6 miles would be on narrow two-lane roads where everyone zips by at 60 mph), weather (too cold in winter, too hot in summer, and lots of rain), lack of public transportation if I am at work and the weather turns, and the fact that I would have to take a shower after arriving at work and again in the evening, which eats up lots of time.
    Biking is a nice option in places with fairly mild climate and good public transportation. But it becomes increasing more unrealistic in sprawled cities and places with more extreme weather. We can do something about the former, but not much about the latter.

  12. kim - November 7, 2007

    i would love to ride in the midwest where it’s flat. i live in seattle. we go up/down enormous hills. i only shower once a day tho.

  13. MNWalleye - November 7, 2007

    Good for you Adam and good for Tom. I always encourage people to ride a bike as much as possible. I’ve racked up 2,700 miles this year commuting. Maybe 3,000 by the end of the year?
    En Ville à Vélo has some good advice on safety but I would like to add that it’s important to bring attention to yourself with the flashing LED’s on both front and rear of the bike. Always ride like cars don’t WANT to see you. There are so many good bicycle lighting products now, quite a change if you remember the old Wonder Leg Lights from the 70′s.
    Adam, I think you can ditch the car, Martin did; http://www.tcdailyplanet.net/node/7572
    Now if we could only get Al Gore and John Edwards to commute on a bike, I’d stop picking on them.
    Take Care,

  14. JD Howell - November 9, 2007

    Hi Adam,

    I read your post and was completely enthused by it. I am a bike commuter and have been for many years. I sell Bike Friday bicycles, including their new ‘last mile bike’ the tikit. This little bike folds in about 5 seconds and sits right at your feet while you ride the bus or train. I couldn’t help but think how well it might work for so many people like yourself who want to make a difference, and now with higher gas prices – save money.

    If I can help any of your readers and supporters with ideas on commuting by bike or for bikes themselves, I hope they’ll be encouraged to write to me. I’ll do everything in my power to assist and encourage others. Good luck, keep it up, and always manage to keep the rubber side down !

    Greenfully,

    JD Howell
    http://www.Cut20.blogspot.com

  15. Anon - November 9, 2007

    Thanks for the inspiring article! I live in MN and don’t get out of work til after dark these days so don’t really feel safe biking. But…I do walk (with a flashlight on the way home) most days. I live in a small town and figure there is no real reason I can’t walk most of the time. It clears my head and gives me a bit of a work-out to boot! I look forward to biking in the summer, though!

  16. JD Reeve - November 11, 2007

    Nice article. I’m a TerraPass customer who has also switched to bike commuting. For folks worried about steep hills and sweating, I recommend an electric bicycle. I converted my hybrid Giant to an electric with a kit (BionX). You can set the assist level to either get some exercise or none at all, and steep hills are not a problem.

  17. Laura - November 11, 2007

    More Power to All Bikers!
    For folks in the Bay Area, did you know San Francisco is considering a bike share program (yup, PUBLIC bikes!!) similar to ones that are well underway and spreading fast in cities across Europe?
    For those interested in recent talk about bringing the trend to our side of the Atlantic, I recommend checking out a snazzy blog at http://bike-sharing.blogspot.com/
    Also, the San Francisco Planning + Urban Research Association will be holding a forum on the subject shortly before Thanksgiving, and everyone’s invited!
    http://www.spur.org/
    11/20/2007 12:30 PM
    A noontime forum, held at SPUR, 312 Sutter St. (at Grant), Fifth Floor, from 12:30 to 1:30 pm. We are located close to the Powell St. BART station and several Muni lines.
    Feel free to bring a lunch. SPUR Forums are open to the public, free for members and $5 for non-members.
    “After decades of well-meaning but poorly implemented free bicycle schemes in cities around the world, major media companies have finally made bike-sharing popular. While Paris’s Velib system is the most famous, other cities are in on the act. We’ll hear from José Farran, principal at Adavant Consulting, about the scheme in Barcelona, where 1500 public bikes have surpassed the most optimistic expectations for integrating bicycles into the public transportation system. Oliver Gajda, Bicycle Program Manager for the Municipal Transportation Agency, will discuss the potential for Clear Channel to operate a similar program here in San Francisco.”

  18. Elmo the Electric Bicycle Guy - December 26, 2007

    Electric Bicycles and Electric Scooters
    Elmo The Electric Bike and Electric Scooter Guy
    This is an excellent blog for electric bicycles. There are not too many around like this. Thanks for making this such an interesting subject. Oh, by the way, Wired Magazine has a great article on hybrid cars this month. (Jan 2008 issue).
    God Bless,
    Elmo

  19. Tom - April 23, 2008

    Great story man.
    A truly organic change from old ways to a newer, healthier, even enlightened way to get around.
    I wonder, do you still commute up into the Hills every day?
    I am actually considering moving ionto a house up by Grizzly Peak Rd., and am in fairly good shape. But I’m not sure if after long days at work/school I’ll be up to the arduous climb. Your story is certainly encouraging.
    Let me know if you have been able to keep it up.
    Tom

  20. Adam Stern - April 25, 2008

    I’m still doing the bike commute both ways. Soon it will be a full year of following my new found habit. If you live on Grizzly Peak in Berkeley, the key to making the bike manageable is to ride up a gentle grade like Euclid Street (instead of Cedar or Marin). I actually look forward to the evening workout. Once in a while if it’s really late I’ll put the bike in the trunk of taxi and get a lift that way. I plan to write more about my biking experience soon.

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