It takes a village to become a bicycle commuter
After four months in my new, inside-the-beltway job, I'm firmly entrenched within the ranks of DC-area bicycle commuters. The local bicycling and transportation community deserves much of the credit for giving me the information, support and confidence to bike to work every day.
With nearly 500 miles of riding to and from work under my belt to date, I've saved money, benefited from a great new workout routine and developed an appreciation for some additional daily outdoor time. And, keeping my car off the road means that I've also made a drop more room on crowded transportation routes for traditional car users.
Looking back, I know that none of this would have been possible without an extensive and multifaceted network of resources available to bicyclists, and bicycle commuters, in particular, throughout the Washington region.
Last year at this time, I commuted by car 22 miles each way from Glover Park to Fort Belvoir. My three-day-a-week compressed shift schedule took me along the Key Bridge, Route 110, Route 395 and Route 95. There was rarely any traffic driving outbound for most of my oddly timed shifts, but on my return trip when shifts ended at breakfast or dinner time, I participated in and contributed to congestion on both Route 110 and the Key Bridge.
My work at Fort Belvoir consisted of three, one-year mobilizations by the Army Reserve. Some time ago, the temporary need for my expertise and labor started to wind down. I started my job search with a basic requirement to work inside the Beltway. Ideally, I wanted a position in downtown DC or Arlington where I could at least bicycle to work once in a while. At the time, riding a bicycle to and from work everyday was only a dream.
When the pieces fell into place and I accepted a challenging position in Arlington along the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, I wasted no time breaking the news to my wife: with this change, at the very least, the car would become a last resort for my commute. In fact, I decided that the bus and Metro would play second fiddle to my leg-powered two wheeler.
My wife's concerns mounted as she peppered me with questions of safety and "What if?" scenarios at the dinner table. I had a number of concerns of my own. Luckily, the bicycle community in and around DC was integral in making me a smart, safe and road-ready bicyclist.
The initial inspiration for trying my hand at bicycle commuting came from a blog, of all places. With great admiration and awe, I started reading Brian McEntee's Tales From The Sharrows and following @SharrowsDC for his tidbits on Twitter. He didn't portray his daily rides as always easy or relaxing. Brian identified problems, some caused by others and some by him, and how he overcame them. I figuratively took notes as I plotted changing my commuting method.
I took my remaining questions to Gil Nissey at the free bike clinic he provides to patrons of the Glover Park-Burleith Farmers' Market. Beyond basic bike maintenance, I needed to know what it was like to rely on a bike for work everyday. Gil put my concerns to rest with one simple fact.
In a soft voice, and without an ounce of bragging, Gil stated that he had biked to work during every day of Snowmageddon except for one. I think that at least 10 times I asked him to recount his technique and equipment so that my novice mind could digest it all.
I obtained free printed bike maps from the District Department of Transportation and Arlington County. I also spent considerable time with Google Transit working through bicycle and WMATA routes. I needed to know all my options.
For better or worse, one of my shift rotations would begin earlier in the morning than Metro buses started to run. That meant that the bike would serve as my only choice for transportation to work during those times. I also mapped out several different routes because I knew that some of my rides would occur along side commuting traffic and some during the darkness of night.
On the DC side, it was a no-brainer straight route from Glover Park to the Key Bridge through Burleith and Georgetown. In Arlington, I selected two routes mostly based on bike accessibility, hills and scenery. Going to work, I take the Custis Trail uphill, pass through some neighborhood streets parallel to Wilson Boulevard and finish on the Fairfax Drive bike lanes. Coming home, I return on the Fairfax Drive bike lanes and turn onto the Clarendon Boulevard bike lanes.
After several rides, I had more questions than answers. I consulted the Washington Area Bike Forum to work through what I did not know about biking etiquette, traffic laws and rain gear. This supplemented what I had learned last year in WABA's Confident City Cycling part 2 course.
To address my wife's numerous "What if?" scenarios, I signed up for Capital Bikeshare and the free Guaranteed Ride Home program. I also carry a WMATA SmarTrip card and taxi fare. I have taken my bike on Metrorail a few times when I have had to run more distant errands after work.
I religiously track each trip with the free My Tracks app. This has enabled me to reliably predict the end-to-end time for my entire routine. Depending on weather, time of day and route, I know how long the bike ride should take give or take a couple minutes. I add in sufficient time to put on and take off all my gear.
For winter biking, I have up to seven thin layers for my upper body laid out and ready to go to compensate for the exact temperature. I also purchased inexpensive rain gear and a back fender for wet days. I'm close to purchasing studded bike tires to help me safely traverse winter hazards.
We have retained my car for now, which I still need for my monthly Army Reserve service. Its motorized four wheels remain as backup transportation, though the vehicle now sits unused most days. And, as my biking experience continues to broaden, with every workday, I can swap stories, good and bad, with the bike commuters in Glover Park who continue to encourage me with their many years of biking to and from work.
This transition into the world of bicycle commuters was a combination of luck, research, inspiration and encouragement. My small payback so far has been to coordinate a bike and pedestrian safety program at our local elementary school.
I'm almost beyond being a newbie among bicycle commuters. My gratitude towards the bicycle and transportation community grows with every pedal.
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