Thursday, September 13, 2007

Commuting Dilletante

I've been riding the Atlantis to work (when I ride, which honestly isn't every day). It's the Queen of the Fleet, my nicest bike, but when I built it up I economized in a couple of areas. One of them was the wheels where I bought a $129 wheelset from Harris. The front wheel was subsequently replaced with one built on a Phil Wood front hub I bought in 1977 but the back one soldiers on, some low-end Shimano hub (C-205?) and I couldn't tell you the rim's make. Not that I've minded; I don't fool myself that a better hub will make me faster, stronger, more attractive to the ladies, etc., and actually this hub runs virtually silently so that the Atlantis is so completely silent running right now that you wouldn't be able to appreciate it because your bike is too noisy.

Anyway, what you do give up when you buy the cheapo wheelset is durability, and last night I went out and had a broken spoke and a corresponding wheel wobble. I rode the bike home (and my commute's only 5 miles) but the rim at the wobble was hitting the brakes, so she's out of action until I can get it fixed.

So, today I rode the Chatsworth, my name for the big blue bike that started out life as a Schwinn World Sport. What was intended as an ugly cheapo bike to leave in front of bars and movie theatres instead evolved into quite a striking machine; I had it powder-coated, replaced everything so that the only thing original from the bike as I got it is the steel of the frame, and run it most of the season with a Nexus 8-speed Red Band hub (I switch this to a Sturmey Archer AW three speed wheel for the Three Speed Tour). That hub alone was much more than the Atlantis wheelset. Last year, busy with my father and things in Des Moines and before I upgraded this bike, I actually rode it more miles than my Atlantis since it was what I'd ride to work. This year, the ongoing pesky fitting issues have limited its mileage. Time for that to end.

I like this bike quite a lot but it has infuriatingly tight clearances on everything. The Atlantis, you could run anything from sew-ups to tractor tires on it and still have room for fenders. This Schwinn, despite being a huge rangy frame (68cm, 27"), barely manages to fit a rear fender. And the fenders are exquisite, 43mm plain aluminum Honjos I had powder coated (along with the chainguard) the same as the frame, it is very striking. The fenders are an extremely tight squeeze and actually required me to go from 700C X 32 tires to 700C X 30. I had to tighten all the off-side spokes a half turn on the Nexus wheel to pull the wheel over to clear the fender as well. This thing came with 27" wheels and now has 700Cs, it must have been impossible to put fenders on it originally. Why oh why didn't they mount the rear brake bridge 1/2" higher and add 1/2" to the chainstay length? Life would be great! Anyway, several times this season I've set off on the Chatsworth only to turn back and switch bikes because of tires rubbing or something.

What's the point of a backup, even a beautifully built-up backup, if it never works? Not much. Last night after choir I went out to the garage and fiddled with the bike until it was functional, and I rode it in this morning. It would have been too lame to say, well, I own four bikes but had to drive because they're all out of service at the moment (my winter bike just needs air and a new chain, my 1975 Motobecane is in pieces).

I expected to be slower. The Chatsworth is real upright, Albatross bars and a Brooks Champion Flyer (think sprung B17) saddle I bought the first time Brooks went out of business, but this morning there was a brisk southerly breeze and I sailed on in over 2 minutes faster than I did yesterday. I locked up to the new bike rack out front and came in.

Later, after getting coffee, I noticed a huge dark bank of clouds and thought, I should bring the bike in. For some reason, just after installing a new bicycle rack I'd lobbied for, my employer decided I ought to be able to park the bicycle in the underground garage, used by VPs and Directors (but not me) for their cars. We think of it as the Batcave, since you go around the side of the building, scan the security card, and up it opens. It could stand a cool Bat logo or rocks that slide out of the way and maybe access from the top floor down a firepole. I haven't been using it for the bike, instead parking on the new rack out front as an advertisement that it's ok to ride. Public service you know, advancing the cause, Critical Matt and all that. A couple of people have noted that I'm always so well-dressed (pressed wool trousers, dress shoes, ironed cotton shirt and silk tie, dressier than 90% of the people in the building) even though I ride. Well, public service be damned, it looks like it's going to rain and I think once this has gone through it's supposed to get colder too. Much better to pack up and leave from the nice warm garage than out in blustery rain! So I went and moved it into the garage for the first time, the VPs, Directors and me.

Funny thing is, the garage access is only enabled until November 15. Really, that's about when I need the access to start, not to end! They said let us know if you need it longer. I have ridden during the winter before though not to work, but if I have heated underground parking there's not going to be much excuse!

One reading of all of the above is that I'm something of a dilletante. When I ride to work, it's on a lovely Rivendell Atlantis built out just the way I want it. If that's got a broken spoke, I defer to an oddball but surprisingly nice internal-geared bicycle. Winter comes, and I can ride my winter bike, on the small side, but at its base a pretty nice, light hardtail mountain bike. I can park them in the garage or out front. If it's raining, or it's golf night, or I've got errands to run, or just because I'm lazy, I can drive. Not everybody has these options. There is an article in the Wall Street Journal today about Arlington, Texas, the country's largest city without a transit system. They are looking at starting one because high gas prices are starting to bite. Here are a couple of snippets:
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Truck driver Mark Soliz, 32, began walking his five-mile commute to his company's offices this summer because he couldn't afford the high cost of gasoline. Tired of hoofing it in 90-degree heat, he applied to a local charity for a donated bicycle and now cycles the distance.

"Anything to get there. Anything other than walking," he says.

Climbing gasoline prices have hit low-income workers as never before, and that is particularly evident in this city sandwiched between Dallas and Fort Worth. Though Mr. Soliz owns a car, for him and many other cash-strapped residents here, high gas prices have made driving a last resort. And taking a bus or train isn't an option.
As I said, Arlington's the largest city in the nation without public transportation. Although they are considering it, the city's designed for cars:
In some parts of the country, commuters have begun relying more on public transportation as gasoline prices have climbed. National public-transit usage has jumped 30% since 1995, says Rose Sheridan, vice president of the American Public Transportation Association. But southern cities were designed for cheap gasoline. Urban sprawl here developed around a car-and-freeway system rather than subway and train mass transit.
The article draws the distinction between people like me, who can accomodate higher gas prices and have options, and people who don't have that flexibility.
When gas prices rise, middle-class commuters in areas that don't have convenient public transportation typically compensate in various ways. They can switch to a more-fuel-efficient vehicle, telecommute, or cut back on luxuries such as restaurants and movies. "They leave their Suburban at home and take their Prius," says Dan Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Low-paid workers have fewer options. As they are already living on a shoestring, cutbacks can mean going without groceries and utilities. They also often drive older, less-fuel-efficient cars, Mr. Sperling says.

Melinda Daniel, 39, drives a 1988 Cadillac El Dorado that gets very low gas mileage. After breaking up with her boyfriend in Fort Worth, she could no longer afford the gas to commute to her job in customer service at Alliance Funding in Arlington, and she temporarily moved into a Salvation Army shelter while looking for an apartment nearer where she worked. "In Arlington, if you don't have a car, you're really stuck as far as trying to find a decent job and make a decent living," Ms. Daniel said.

Car ownership can be a real mixed blessing.
Sharon Whittington, 42, who has a six-year-old daughter and a husband who is unable to work because of an accident, drives an older-model Oldsmobile Intrigue. "It's been horrible, if I want to drive across town, I know I need to have at least a $5 bill," says Ms. Whittington, who voted for previous Arlington transit initiatives.

A couple of times the opposition worries that transit will bring in a rougher demographic. Meanwhile, one mission is using bicycles:
Mission Arlington, the nonprofit offering help to low-income residents, now gives away four or five bicycles a day, compared with only a few every week three years ago, says the executive director, Tillie Burgin.
Along the same lines, Bicycling magazine ran an article a couple of years ago called Invisible Riders, about the poor who use bicycles to get around. They're easy to miss, except when they come the wrong way up the bike lane, but there are those who don't ride nice bikes and park in underground garages. You can read the article on the Utne Reader site here.

I think these riders will become more common. If Arlington's seeing residents stressed enough to consider transit when oil is $65 a barrel, what's it going to be like now that it's nuzzling $80? There's plenty of us commuters who do it because it's fun, we like bikes, we're actually doing something to support our troops, we're cutting CO2 and pollution, reducing congestion, getting much-needed exercise, dislike the alienation of car culture or other high-falutin' reasons. Soon there'll be more people doing it because they don't have viable alternatives.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Not only am I also a dilettante (also ride an Atlantis). I'm a snobby one who's afraid to use his bikes.

I've gotten my bikes so nice, I won't leave them in public for the day.

I'm about to switch jobs, and have a couple of options. I can ride all the way some days, but a more attractive option is to bike to the light rail station and leave the bike there.

But I won't leave either the Atlantis or my Bianchi Milano-xtracycle locked up for the day in public. I have the strongest locks available, but the thought of someone using power tools for several minutes and making off with the Atlantis makes me feel physically ill -- as if someone kidnapped my child.

It has me thinking about snagging a beater bike on Craigs List just for the light-rail commute.

What does it say about me that I'm afraid to actually use the beautiful things I've acquired?

Does this make me a bike fop?