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Looking back at my first season of bike commuting

Given the recent discussions about the bikepaths, I wanted to share my story of commuting by bike for the first time this year. Though I live in Providence, my office is not downtown, but in Warwick.

I did it! I set out to bike to work at least once a week during the warmer months, and I did – about 13 miles each way.

The Route

My office is located on a commercial-industrial 4-lane street. Though my company is a small team of (mostly) engineers, our location is in close proximity to many truck-intensive companies such as Waste-Management, UPS, Fedex, and Ryder. The primary means of accessing our location is from the highway. In fact, the northern end of our street (Jefferson Blvd) ends at highway ramps. Needless to say, the last mile would be the toughest.

Though there is a relatively direct route along route 1 (Elmwood Ave) from downtown Providence, this road would involve heavy traffic, many traffic lights, and an overall feeling of bad. This approach would also take me down Post Road which becomes the secondary path to the airport. Again, not a place I feel comfortable on two wheels.

Instead, I found a route that takes me primarily through residential neighborhoods and along the coast. Many of these streets even have bike lanes or at least share-the-road signage. Along this route, I found that for the most part I could avoid the busy streets (Elmwood, Post, 117) and simply cross them at traffic lights when necessary. Parts of this ride are truly spectacular. Narragansett Blvd, through Edgewood and Pawtuxet villages are quite beautiful and include views of Narragansett Bay.

Seriously, there is no better way to get to or from work.

The Fall-back

On a couple occasions, including my first test rides, I either wasn’t quite up for the return trip or the weather was unfavorable. On these occasions, I was fortunate enough to hop on the bus. Luckily in RI, almost all of our buses are equipped with bike racks able to carry 2 bikes. Another blessing is that there is a bus that follows my bike route pretty closely. I think if something should go wrong en-route, I could always hop on the next bus to or from the office.

The Challenges

There are certainly some challenges beyond pedaling 13 miles. The terrain can be a little unforgiving. By that I mean, potholes, debris, glass, and sand clog even the bike lanes. I can only remember one occasion this season where it was clear the streets had been swept.

I already mentioned the traffic I’m up against on the roads near my office. This is probably one of the scariest places, so for this stretch, I hop on the sidewalk. I’m not usually a sidewalk cyclist, but literally no one walks around here, so I have it to myself. Additionally, crossing the four lanes of traffic is so amazingly difficult that I stick to the intersection with the traffic lights and get right in line with the traffic to make sure I’m well seen. Unfortunately, this means I have to be on the sidewalk and on the wrong side of the road for the last mile.

To make things worse, this sidewalk sucks. This road contains a lot of surface parking and the lots abut the sidewalks, so naturally cars overhang into my travel space, and of course those pulling out of the lots never expect to see a bike coming towards them. The sidewalk is also covered in sand in places, and nearest my office, the curb cuts are not ramped.

Another minor challenge is that my office doesn’t have a shower. I wish it did… then again, I wish my office were downtown, too. To get around the shower thing, I basically make sure I shower really well before I leave. I bring a complete change of clothes to work and also something to towel off with. I get pretty sweaty, but I find if I’m clean, I get out of any damp clothes, and I dry off, I’m fairly unoffensive. Just need to brush out the helmet hair.

The Schedule

I commuted by bike about once a week from April until October. In total: 24 round trips; about 624 miles! And according to my iPhone app Cyclemeter, my last ride, both to and from work, were personal records with the ride in taking 53 minutes and the ride home 52 minutes. This was a great way to finish the season!

Unfortunately, October 26th was my last bike commute. Not so much because of the cold, but because of the dark. Though I have blinky lights, bright clothes, and reflectors, I had a scare on one of the last rides where I was moving along pretty well (around 20mph with traffic) when I went over an unseen rock. I didn’t fall, but my heart certainly skipped a beat.

If the roads were better lit, and I didn’t have to worry about potholes, sand mounds, sticks, and general debris, I’d be happy to bike most of the year. I know some people that continue all year, and maybe some day I will, but I still feel like a rookie, and I’m just not there yet.

The Rewards

It’s still pretty cool to tell people I bike to work in Warwick from Providence. Coasting through the city in the morning as people are just getting out is a great feeling. I also love the views just south of Pawtuxet Village. The leaves in the fall are magnificent, and the summer mornings with the sailboats on their moorings are spectacular. I feel pretty good, too. Some days, I just want to keep riding.

The Future

As soon as the winter sand piles are cleaned up on the edge of the roads, I will be back on two wheels this spring. Hopefully this year I can step it up to two or more rides per week, but it’s the after-work schedule that often gets in the way. Not necessarily that I can’t bike to those engagements, but it’s nice to get back before dark, and be able to have a shower when I’m done with my ride.

I’d love to hear from more bike commuters. Does anyone else do a similar route?


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15 Responses to Looking back at my first season of bike commuting

  1. Matt Moritz December 17, 2010 at 1:19 pm #

    Excellent write up. Good on ya, to, I find Warwick to be the worst city/town in Rhode Island to try to navigate by bicycle since every road is high volume and high speed and there are very few residential cut throughs.

    As for your route, I find that the ups and downs of Narragansett Parkway/Allens Ave are annoying and provide a bit more workout than necessary for commuting, so I cut inland and use Eddy/Virginia/Pawtucket to reach Broad just north of Pawtuxet. I also alternate and use Fair street instead of the parkway south of Pawtuxet, for similar reasons.

    As to winter commuting, I’m starting my second year of winter commute, and having 2 lights, one for seeing the road and a blinky for oncoming visibility works well. Unfortunately, high-power “see the road” lighting systems are pretty pricey.

  2. Matthew Coolidge December 17, 2010 at 2:39 pm #

    Matt, thanks for the comments! Interesting idea using the Eddy route.

    Our previous office, a few years ago, was near the intersection of Elmwood and Park, so I used to take Elmwood the bulk of the way. I found that I was often going pretty slow to be ready to deal with cross traffic. Do you find that Eddy St also requires more “defensive” cycling?

    I’ll have to try Fair St, too. I love, love, love the views from the parkway, but there is a good climb in there. Does Fair get around that?

  3. Pupdadco December 17, 2010 at 10:38 pm #

    Not sure if you ever have come across this website.. lots of fun to read about this topic

    http://carfreepvd.wordpress.com/

  4. tom maloney December 18, 2010 at 10:03 am #

    thanks for this write up. Your story is motivational. I live on the east side and work in Smithfield, about 12 miles away. I made one commute on my bike last year but want to do it more often once the cold & darkness of winter is past. Knowing someone else is doing this successfully will be a big help. Fortunately there is generally a lot less traffic for me to deal with once past Branch Ave, and I do have showers at work. But the roads are in rough shape by and large and do not have bike lanes. I’m a relative novice at biking so I’m hoping to learn as much as I can to try to avoid known problems

  5. Matthew Coolidge December 18, 2010 at 10:06 am #

    @Pupdadco, Yes. I am a huge fan of carfreepvd, as you might guess by my “smugness.” :)

  6. jack December 20, 2010 at 3:18 pm #

    Great post Matthew – I really like the way you are easing into it. I think a lot of potential bike commuters can be intimidated by the sense that they have to one day become a “bicycle commuter”. As you have described, its not that easy; but the many little rewards have a way of building a habit – or they don’t, in which case it might not be for you. The other thing is you didn’t once mention your bike or any special gear which is also cool because, while nice gear is nice, riding your bike to work once in a while doesn’t require a bunch of expensive things. Good for you! Keep it up.

  7. Eric December 21, 2010 at 12:25 pm #

    Great post! About twice a year I get up the courage to commute from Warren to where I work in Middletown. It’s a nice adventure but absolutely not something you could do with any regularity. It’s about 18 miles each way. The whole first leg is the Easy Bay bike path which is beautiful and empty in the morning. The third leg is Burma road, an empty, wide road that snakes along the Portsmouth coastline, also very beautiful.

    It’s the middle leg where things get dicey. The Mount hope bay bridge has no sidewalk, isn’t very wide and has crazy metal jaws every 50 feet or so where the bridge segments connect. After that you’re on west main road, a two lane road with pot holes and no shoulder that everyone drives on like a highway. For a biker, it’s a death trap.

    If not for that middle segment I would do it more often. It’s a great way to start a day

  8. Jef Nickerson December 21, 2010 at 1:06 pm #

    Eric:
    As someone who has ridden his bike over the Mount Hope, do you think there is anything that could be done to make it more bikeable? West Main Road could be addressed, but the bridge is the critical link.

  9. carfreepvd December 27, 2010 at 8:46 pm #

    Congratulations on your first season of bike commuting! 13 miles is a serious commute and certainly puts my 1.5 mile, 7 minute commute to shame. I’ve taken a similar route to your commute when I feel like a casual 20-mile weekend ride. It’s hard to tell from your map, but were you taking Allens Ave? It has bike lanes, which are nice in theory, but as you mentioned, they are often full of sand, broken glass and various other bits of debris (as I outlined here) I usually skip Allens and go straight to Eddy street. Even worse than the debris are the railroad crossings. The one time I went down Allens at speed, I had white knuckles from all of the railroad crossing because I was terrified of getting sucked into the rails.

    You’re right – it can be a beautiful ride especially down past Pawtuxet Village. I’m kind of jealous of your commute although I don’t think I would want to do it on a day like today!

  10. Matthew Coolidge December 28, 2010 at 8:49 am #

    @carfreepvd, Thanks for the kind words! Yes, Allens Ave does suck. I like how the asphalt company touts their green-ness, but lets much of their product wash down the street and into the bike lanes. I really think the worst stretch of Allens is in front of their site. The tracks haven’t been too bad to me; if they were parallel, we’d have a much bigger problem.

    I’ll give Eddy St a shot, but I find that cross streets introduce more traffic anxiety for me with more places for cars to dart out and cut me off. I was considering getting an air-horn or a coach’s whistle, but I’ve been trying to be a little more passive.

    I’d actually love to know how many people do try to use Allens on a bike. It really could be an excellent avenue. At the intersection at Eddy St, it gets a little nuts, but from there on, it’s just city riding. At the south end, you end up on a very nice bike lane, but that main stretch needs something. Maybe some trees? I don’t think there’s a single tree from Cactus Grille to Davol Square.

    Here is a link to a bigger map of my route. I actually made this to share with coworkers in hopes that I could talk some of them into joining me once in a while. I start near Providence College and make my way down Douglas Ave to Canal Street. On the way home I get to choose which way I want to tackle Smith hill.

  11. BikerDave December 28, 2010 at 7:45 pm #

    Hello all. Just stumbled across this site doing some research about how realistic it is to commute on a bike without a shower. I used to bike all the time, but I changed jobs in October, and though my commute distance will drop from 18 to 13 each way (on nice scenic roads too!), my new building has no shower facilities. Any thoughts on whether a “bird bath” will cut it?

  12. carfreepvd December 28, 2010 at 8:47 pm #

    @Matthew Coolidge: I’ve considered buying an air horn, usually after I had a honking incident/confrontation with a motorist. There’s something called the Delta Airzound horn that recharges with a bike pump. It looks pretty cool, but I feel like I’d just be turning into a jerk like the motorists who honk at me.

    I have only been on that stretch of Eddy street on the weekend, so I’m sure the traffic was much different from your weekday ride. Yeah, that main stretch of Eddy is pretty desolate.

    @BikerDave: my commute is too short for me to get sweaty on my way in to work, but I’ve heard of a few different strategies that people take. 1. Ride Slower. Easy for me to say, I don’t have a 13 mile commute. But if you keep your speed down around 12 mph, you’re going to be less sweaty. 2. Use a rack and pannier bags instead of a backpack. You might already be doing this, if not it’s a great way to keep the sweat off your back. 3. As you suggested, a “bird bath” at work followed by a change of clothes can really do a lot. I know a few cyclists with long-ish commutes who do fine with just a bird bath and a change of clothes.

  13. Matthew Coolidge December 29, 2010 at 8:11 am #

    @BikerDave, It’s been working for me. My trip is 13 miles, and I find that if I take a good shower before I leave and wear good wicking clothing, bring a change of clothes, and towel off a bit when I arrive, I’m good. I agree with CarFreePvd, a backpack can keep sweat on you, panniers are key.

    Yes, I sweat a lot, but if I stay clean, I don’t think I get too stinky.

    I’ve read that it’s not the sweat that smells, but bacteria, so keep clean and dry off (with a clean towel). Sure, I’d prefer to have a shower when I got to work; I could get out of bed a little later, and probably feel a bit refreshed, but it’s not a deal breaker.

    Good luck and let us know how it goes!

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