Friday, February 22, 2008

Commute by Bike!

I never have been able to do this, in any of my careers before. Biking to work in Northern Virginia is suicide. Not to mention too far, too hot, too scary and too cold. Traffic in Northern VA is terrible. The suburban sprawl has increased the number of houses to the west of the Washington DC area, but the number and quality of the roads have been slow to increase to match the population increase. It is said that there are three subjects that people can always small talk about. Politics, weather, sports. In Northern VA, there is a fourth: The traffic (or your commute this morning).

Everybody in Virginia has an opinion about traffic. "Oh, don't go on 28 between 7:35 and 9:30, you'll be in bumper-to-bumper!", "Oh you should take that cool bypass around Route 234." "Forget about getting on I-66 before the HOV lanes turn on." If you ask anybody who has lived in Virginia, they can give you detailed horror stories about how they hated their commutes, or at the very least, they all know the radio stations they like to listen to, as there is not much else to do in the car while sitting in traffic.

When I lived in Virginia, the location of the house was in South Riding, just southwest of Dulles International Airport. The office is in Sterling, northeast of Dulles Airport. There were two or three different paths to take to get to work. North in route 606, which is in places, an undivided highway of traffic going 96 kph (60 mph), giving me a very narrow 4 inches of real estate on the side of the road. Along this road drive 18 wheelers, and much worse: soccer moms driving their Chevy Suburbans primping their make up as they chat on their cell phones. I said suicide. I meant it.

The other path is north on Route 28, a 6 lane divided highway, a main thoroughfare between the Interstate I-66 and the Dulles Airport terminal. The traffic on this road, despite all the lanes, is usually stand-still in the morning, or at least creeping along at 32kph (20 mph). Still, there was a fatality of a poor guy on a bike a few years that I haven't forgotten about. Probably a soccer mom. By car, the commute is 16.6 miles (26 km) or 15.3 miles (24.6 km), depending on the route. The commute routinely takes 45 minutes during the morning, not so bad in the evening. That is an average of 20 miles per hour. For this suburban-sprawl induced traffic problem, I have sworn with words laced with anger and dripping with obscenities on a daily basis. If that is my average velocity in a car, I might as well have that commute on a bike.

So you must understand how excited I was when I came to Switzerland, and see people on bicycles everywhere.

Ever since we moved to Rüfenacht, taking the tram has been a source of impatience. I knew that the average velocity by tram was approximately that of me on a bike. So I started biking to the train station, to start my daily journey. My new commute consisted of: Walk to tram, 10 minutes. Wait for tram, 5 minutes, take tram to Gümligen, 10 mins, Wait for S1 to Fribourg, 3 minutes, 45 minutes to Fribourg, 5 minutes waiting for a bus, 10 minutes on a bus ride, and another 8 minutes walk down a hill to the office.

What an itinerary.

Well for the past 4 weeks, I have been taking the bike to the Gümligen train station, and sometimes even further into town, where i can catch a different tram to take me all the way to the central train station, Bern Bahnhof. The way to the train station in the morning is all down hill. If you drop the 10 minutes that it takes to walk down the hill to the tram stop, taking the bike is actually a shorter "door-to-door" commute time than taking the tram.

Since the way to work is all down-hill, and fast, I do in fact have a higher average velocity than the tram. One morning I got out late, and rode my bike past the tram as the passengers were boarding. What a perfect opportunity to test my theory that it takes about the same time on a bike as on a tram.

I peddled down that street as fast as I could. I was ahead of the tram. Whoosh! The tram passed me. Ah! but he's stopping. I peddled faster. Good thing this is down-hill. I pass the tram. I'm ahead! yay! The tram passes me again. We do this a few times, but his last two stops are close to each other, and I race by.

I had parked my bike, locked it up and was walking to the train platform as the tram shows up in Gümligen Station.

Since the S1 is a long ride, with many stops, and there are often no seats on the train in the morning (until we get to Bern), I have been doing an alternate course to get to work, which takes a little bit longer, but takes the InterCity train, which is bigger, nicer, quieter, and less stinky. This commute involves: bike to Eggholzli (which I think means 'little forest on the corner'), park my bike there, take the tram to Bern Bahnhof, and take the Intercity train to Fribourg that leaves every 30 minutes (on :04 and :34).

There are days that I wish I did not bike to work. The rain does not bother me so much, so those days I wish I did not bike don't happen to be the rainy ones. However, one day, after getting over a cold, and generally feeling spaced-out -- I was actually hoping that my bike had been stolen while I was gone. Most of the people here are trusting enough to lock up their back tire to their frame, and that is it. No locking up the bike to an immovable structure such as a pole, tree, bicycle rack, etc. This was a bit strange to me when I started the bicycle commuting. I am used to having those metal Kryptonite locks securely bolting the bike to something that would take a bulldozer to knock over. Once, I even locked my bike up, and forgot to take the key with me. The bike was not stolen.

It is clear to me that the bike I brought over was not well-equipped for commuting to work here in Switzerland. First of all, the gears are inappropriate at every speed. There has been times where I am racing down the hill to Gümligen at a very respectable pace, maxed out at the highest gear, and found myself being passed by a local Swiss.

Of course, since I am fat and pathetic, I am not surprised that I get passed going up-hill, either. But I did notice that even though I was going up-hill in the lowest gear, those who passed me had a faster rate of pedaling that did not match up with what I was doing. The only explanation for this must be in the gears. I find myself casually looking at the gears on the local Swiss bikes, and it becomes more apparent that these bikes are built for going up hills. The front gears are tiny and the back gears are huge. I guess I shouldn't feel too bad about not being able to climb the hill on the way back to home. (See how I gawk at other people's bikes in the next post, Stuff White People Like).

The return trip by bike has a modest up-slope which seriously reduces my return velocity. The grand finale is a terrible hill that might even have conquered me at my peak biking performance capabilities when I was 16 years old. I never get home without being out of breath and sweaty. I suppose it is better than getting to work out of breath and sweaty.

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