On not commuting by bike

Well folks, since my epic whinge last week I haven’t been commuting by bike and to be honest haven’t overly missed it. Basically I crossed the line from being battle-hardened to being shell-shocked and at the moment I just can’t face the prospect of cycling in the midst of the motorised masses. So I’ve been commuting in other ways, and thought I’d do a little compare-and-contrast of my experiences.

This is of course utterly subjective, using a sample of one person and a tiny number of journeys, but I think it nonetheless sheds some light on the evergreen question of effecting mode shift and reducing car use.

In an attempt to provide some vague comparability, I have scored each mode using the following metrics, each one out of ten with reasons given:

  • Speed: time taken from front door to office door (in-bound journey described for brevity, similar values assumed for return trip unless otherwise stated);
  • Cost: how much each journey costs (for return trip purchased at peak time);
  • Time active: how much exercise the respective mode provides;
  • Pleasantness: how appealing it is to commute this way;
  • Sustainability: grouping together environmental and social factors, how kind this mode is to the world around us.

That should be enough so as not to overcomplicate matters. Of course, there are always the comments if you think I’ve missed anything critical.

So, let’s have a look, shall we?

1) The bicycle

In case you were in any doubt, this is my default mode, not only because I like cycling, but because I’m fundamentally lazy and want to minimise the time between getting out of bed and getting to work.

  • Speed: my ~5-mile commute takes roughly 25 minutes door to door, whatever the traffic conditions, whatever the weather. It’s as reliable as you can get, with overall speed dependent on one’s own athletic ambitions. I’m scoring this a 9.
  • Cost: once you have the bike, it’s virtually free, so I’m scoring this a 9.
  • Time active: You’re active the whole time you’re pedalling. However, given the fundamental efficiency of the bicycle, it’s somewhat less intense exercise than, say, running (see below. Yes, really!), so I’m going to score this an 8.
  • Pleasantness: Now. This is the tricky one. On a good day, it’s definitely a high score – 7, 8 – if the weather’s fair, the roads are quiet and the drivers are subdued. On a bad day, pleasantness plummets to probably a 3 (because it’s still better than nestling in a stranger’s armpit for the duration of the trip). I guess under current conditions we split the difference and give it a 5. If we manage to get Beelines up and running, especially across my commuting areas of Bury, Salford and North Manchester, it rises to around an 8.
  • Sustainability: Doesn’t cause emissions, doesn’t cause congestion, keeps the commuter healthy, doesn’t cause potholes, poses a very low risk to other road users, doesn’t require vast areas of the city to be purposed as car parks etc. Conversely, there is a small footprint from bike manufacture and spares/repairs, so a 9.

Total: 39 out of 50.

Commute

My cycle commute in via the best mix of quiet roads and bike lanes, albeit with some inevitable stretches on busy roads.

2) The tram

Or, to give it its proper name, the Manchester Metrolink, an urban light rail system that’s been being gradually expanded for the last couple of decades. This has tended to be my fall-back option because I prefer rail travel to (motorised) road travel, but I’ve never properly measured trip times before. This is how it panned out:

The walk from home to the tram stop took 9:47. I then waited 2:22 for a tram, which took 13:12 to get me to to Victoria. From there I walked for another 14:46 to my office building. Total travel time: 40:07. 15 minutes more than by bike. All for a peak-time return ticket costing a princely £5.80.

  • Speed: If it takes half as long again as a cycle ride, then surely that warrants a 50% deduction, right? So: 6.
  • Cost: £5.80 is unnecessarily steep. So: 4.
  • Time active: Ironically, I was walking for about as long as I’d usually cycle, albeit at a lower intensity. 24 and a half minutes is a lot for what’s supposed to be a mechanised journey, so I’ll give this a somewhat surprising 5. That’s what happens when you start measuring stuff.
  • Pleasantness: This is where the tram really falls down. It’s crowded, you never get a seat at rush hour and you spend the duration of the journey uncomfortably within others’ personal space. On this occasion I was a little too close for my liking to a couple of young chaps in jogging attire, from whom there emanated a distinct herby odour. Perhaps some kind of natural performance-enhancer for whatever sporting activity they were about to hurl themselves into? I’ll give this a 4.
  • Sustainability: The tram definitely has its good points here. It transports hundreds of people, takes cars off the road, much of the network uses old branch lines and is thus away from roads, it runs on electricity which can be generated by green sources (some info on their environmental profile here, including an interesting breakdown of the emissions across various transport modes in Greater Manchester). However, given it’s not emission-free, I’ll score this a 7.

Total: 26 out of 50

Empty seats on a morning tram are like hens’ teeth.

The bus

Usually my least favourite transport mode, the bus commute actually pleasantly surprised me. The journey broke down as follows:

The walk from my house to the closest bus stop took 2:40. I waited a mere 2:32 for a bus (although this can take up to 10 minutes or more). The actual bus journey took 30:20, again to Victoria Station. Engrossed in a book (Lindy West’s fierce feminist polemic “Shrill“, if you’re interested), I was surprised how the time flew by. From the bus stop at the other end I walked 11:44 to my office, taking the total to 47:16, almost twice the time needed to cycle the same distance. Cost: £4.80.

  • Speed: Taking almost twice the time of a cycle-commute, this scores 5.5.
  • Cost: I bought a day ticket entitling me to travel on this firm’s buses all day in the GM region. At £4.80 at peak time, that’s not bad, provided your unlimited bus travel isn’t thwarted by sitting in an office all day. In any case, it’s certainly a better deal than the tram, so I’ll score this a 6.
  • Time active: Again, this isn’t a door-to-door service, and the almost twelve minutes’ (drizzly) walk to the office gave me a little fresh air and moderate activity, so a 4.
  • Pleasantness: Certainly an improvement over the tram, with a seat easily secured and half an hour’s dedicated reading time. An easy 6.
  • Sustainability: A full bus will transport around 70 people, taking a whole traffic jam off the roads. At the same time, they run on diesel and produce just under twice as much CO2 per passenger as the Metrolink. So again, around a 5.5 until we get cleaner engines.

Total: 27 out of 50

The bus in the distance is already carrying more people than the cars blocking its progress.

Even so, it was empty enough to bag an upstairs seat.

Running

Yes, believe it or not, I even tried jogging to work. Partly as part of this little experiment, but principally because I’m training for a ten-thousand metre run for the Movember Foundation in November (anyone feeling generous can sponsor me here) and this is a good way to slot a run in without having to make extra time in the day. So, what was this like?

Well, given I was going to shower at the office, it meant I could set off a little sooner than usual. I warmed up by walking for 5 minutes and then ran 15-minute intervals with a minute’s walking in between. Even at the pace of my glacial trudge, I was outside my building within 49:17. I then took around 10 minutes over a shower. So overall we’re looking at about an hour, unsurprisingly the slowest of all the modes.

  • Speed: At the same time, an hour is only a little slower than the bus and certainly quicker than some vehicle commutes I’ve heard reports of over a similar distance, so that’s surely worth at least a 4.
  • Cost: £0 for the run, so potentially a 10. However, I do have to get the tram back, so I’ll score this an 8.
  • Time active: All of it, at relatively high intensity, so 10.
  • Pleasantness: This is low, maximum 2. It’s really not something we can realistically expect to take off in a large-scale way and will only ever be limited to the running enthusiast. So: 2
  • Sustainability: Again, a 10 as we even save the small footprint we accounted for for bike manufacture/repairs.

Total: 36 out of 50

Running in involved a lot of preparation, requiring a whole day’s outfit to be brought in the day before in order to limit the luggage carried during the run to this tiny pouch.

I’m very fortunate to have showers like this at the other end, else running wouldn’t be an option.

The private motor car

I’m not even going to consider the private motor car here. I’m an able-bodied office worker living five miles from work and have all of the above options available. I am further painfully aware that I live in one of the most congested regions in the country, with some of the worst air pollution, a burgeoning inactivity crisis and a road network in a dismal state of repair due to the constant pummelling by motor vehicles. Beyond that, we live in an age where man-made climate change is starting to make itself felt and where we measure the availability of our primary source of fuel, oil, in mere decades. Any trip made by private motor car that could be made another way exacerbates these issues; every trip made by the modes described above helps alleviate them. So why on earth are we still designing our cities around it?

Conclusion

In my fuzzy analysis, where we factor in environmental and public health aspects, cycling and running (or realistically, walking) come out top. Public transport also performs reasonably strongly, marked down due to to overcrowding, price and environmental factors that don’t affect the victorious active modes. The private motor car would score zero on sustainability, low on cost, low on speed/reliability of journey time, uncertain on physical activity, and low on pleasantness. We’re not going to solve any of the problems caused by excessive traffic by increasing traffic. Instead I suggest we start looking at the options available to us, working out their respective pros and cons, and choosing the best tool for the job, the best mode for the journey we’re making. This little exercise has been a real eye-opener for me: working out what is a reasonable journey to walk, how much exercise you get even if you get the bus or tram and so on.

And if we’re honest and rigorous in assessing how we can optimise the trips we make, that will, with a little luck, decreasingly frequently be the private motor car. It’s incredible to think that the kindest and (potentially) funnest form of transport is the quickest and cheapest: the mighty bicycle.

What are your experiences? Let us know in the comments.

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7 Responses

  1. Wedzx says:

    You didn’t walk it! We demand a recount!

  2. David Cohen says:

    I gave up my cycle commute about 9 months ago, cause I was having a few saddle problems, and thought once solved, I would go back to it, which I haven’t yet, but still intend to do.

    Living in London, but from Prestwich originally (I instantly recognised the above shot of Bury New Road), I’ve been getting the bus in to work, and a combination of bus / tube / overground home depending on mood etc.

    Travel is free for me.

    The main advantage has been time to read – this has been a real plus.

    The main disadvantage is loss of exercise.

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