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Lifestyle column: After commuting changed my life, life changed my commute

Posted by Cathy Hastie (Lifestyle Columnist) on February 4th, 2014 at 9:09 am

Lifestyle columnist Cathy Hastie.

I used to have a 100% human-powered commute. It was a point of pride to say I had made it 365 days without driving to work or even riding the bus: I ran the seven-mile round trip to and from my downtown office for a year straight.

At the end of the day, I would finish up my workout at the elementary school where I picked up my kids. I would casually mention my unbroken record amongst fellow parents as we stood on the playground watching our children play. When it rained, I entered the after-school program looking like a drowned rat, boogers and water dripping from my nose. I flaunted the obvious unpleasantness of my commuting experience like an in-your-face victory lap for all of the other families to see.

I was dedicated to my lifestyle and proud of it. Maybe a little conceited. Then, in 2010, I suddenly and painfully fell ill.

The doctors diagnosed me with a serious illness, something that could affect me my entire life. I immediately underwent a difficult surgery. Multiple surgeries and procedures followed. I started periodic treatments that continue to this day. Needless to say, my life changed dramatically. But once my stitches healed, I was able to return to work.

Today, no one can tell that I am "sick." I look the same, even better than before the illness. My medical condition doesn’t preclude me from running to work like I had been doing for the last 13 years. In fact, I still run, just not to work. I bike. And occasionally, when I’m feeling particularly uninspired, I ride the bus.

It’s not that I can’t run to work. I could load my work clothes into my backpack the night before, get up at 5:30 AM and change into my lycra and tennis shoes in the dark, tiptoeing out as my family sleeps. I could don my wool hat and gloves and set out into that silent, private place that darkness creates. Solitary, fresh, exuberant: I could still do it. I could still enjoy it. But I chose to move away from that once-idealized transportation option. I regressed.

At first, I wasn’t completely happy with the change. Guilt lingered. My pride suffered. My identity as a tough cookie sagged as if I were wallowing in spilt milk.

Doing something for the sake of saying that you did it was not enough for me anymore.

Then, one day, I was sitting on the bus as it carried me towards home, watching listlessly as traffic moved around us. I noticed a semi truck out the front window. The driver was awaiting the best moment to make a difficult move. As I watched, that moment came. He quickly executed an elaborate reverse turn into a tight loading dock that let out onto the busy street where we all waited. He decisively took the opening in the traffic and backed in fast and smooth, maneuvering his enormous cargo into the tricky slot with the ease of someone who knows exactly what he needs. I was impressed with the speed and confidence he exhibited. His bold reverse earned my respect.

As the bus started up again, I thought about my own reversal, going from avid running commuter to slow cyclist and sometimes transit rider. Heck, I even drove to work a few times when appointments dictated it. When I decided to give up my running commutes, I somehow knew it was the right decision. Although I couldn’t put a finger on why, I simply knew what I needed.

This realization diminished the importance of my less-than-perfect commuting score, of no longer out-suffering my friends and neighbors in the name of sustainability and independence. Living under the weight of something as serious as not living made me realize that bragging rights are solely for braggarts. Doing something for the sake of saying that you did it was not enough for me anymore.

When it comes to my commute, I am doing what feels good for me. And the truth is that most people do what feels good to them. We low-car eco-warriors have to be OK with that. Sometimes sitting in a dry, warm car feels pretty good. If we want commuting habits to change, we have to offer choices that feel better.

—Read Cathy's earlier columns here.

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Comments
  • Granpa February 4, 2014 at 9:45 am

    Riding a bike is not hard, but it is not easier than driving. It might be faster and cheaper. It might make one feel better. It may be better for the environment and it is gentle to transportation infrastructure but it is not easier. The parking at my office recently changed and I now ride every day. Every week there is a day when I want to slack and drive, but there is no place to put my car. Doing the better thing is imposed upon me.

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    • Huey Lewis February 4, 2014 at 10:05 am

      Easier is relative.

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      • q`Tzal February 4, 2014 at 11:15 am

        Depending on density and zoning laws finding a parking space can be a rage inducing trial.

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    • Paul Souders February 4, 2014 at 10:35 am

      “Riding a bike is not hard, but it is not easier than driving.”

      Wow, that’s like 100% the opposite of why I ride to work. I’m too lazy to bother with maintaining the car, parking hassles (work in NW), traffic etc. So much easier (& funner) to ride a bike which I’ve been doing 12 years longer than driving anyway. All that other stuff: cheaper, save the Earth, get fit etc.... bah I’d ride my bike if none of that was true.

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    • Scott H February 4, 2014 at 10:44 am

      You've got a funny way of looking at things if you feel imposed upon. There's no where to park your car because there are thousands of other people in this city with cars too and they're all jockeying for the same few spots. This is simply a consequence of living in a densely populated city.

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      • Granpa February 4, 2014 at 11:22 am

        We used to have free parking in the building, that has changed because of decisions from authority, therefore the writ is imposed upon me, it is not something I am feeling. There is plenty of parking, but one has to pay for it. That is one cross I will not bear.

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    • Brian February 4, 2014 at 10:47 am

      Totally agree. It is hard. Damn hard. Getting up at 4:51am. Rain. Cold. Both. Neither. Getting things packed and ready. Cleaning the bike every few days to keep it running smoothly. Taking twice as long to ride 17 miles over the West hills than it would be to drive. I reach for that snooze button many days that I plan to ride, but something tells me not to. And I'm usually happy. Usually.

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    • e2pii February 4, 2014 at 8:36 pm

      Biking is easier than driving for some of us. Driving can be stressful (look out for cyclists without lights biking erratically! & etc.) which makes it harder. That's a big part of why I don't drive, and bike instead. When I was on crutches for six weeks after a bad streetcar track bike crash, I chose to pay for a bus pass and bus + "walk" a mile each day instead of driving -- and that was with free parking and a car that cost less than my bike. (Priorities!)

      Wonderful article.

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  • e February 4, 2014 at 10:50 am

    "... bragging rights are solely for braggarts."
    Thanks for saying that! I don't ride every day, especially not in winter. The bus is my alternate transport and I am ok with that. I refuse to feel guilty for taking public transportation to work! Don't get me wrong, I love my bike, and when we are stopped in traffic and the bikes go whizzing by, yeah, I wish I were on mine. But there are many choices and I'm ok with what works for me on any given day. At least I'm getting there.

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    • Cathy Hastie February 5, 2014 at 8:29 am

      I am trying to embrace humility as I age.

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      • Carl February 5, 2014 at 11:30 am

        I can't identify with running 7 miles to and from work but I CAN identify with making that decision to hop on the bus now and then -- to do what's best for you and not what's best for your reputation and bragging rights. This is your best piece yet, Cathy. Nice work.

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  • Dan February 4, 2014 at 10:59 am

    Even on days when riding a bike feels hard, it's still fun. FUN! Even people who don't commute by bike will concede that point -- bikes are enjoyable, and something you can do with your family with a smile on your face.

    Car ads have to constantly promote how 'fun' cars are, because if they don't you might dwell on all of the time you spend sitting in your sterile environment waiting for the car in front of you to move.

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    • John Lascurettes February 4, 2014 at 12:59 pm

      Never ceases to amaze me how much I might be dreading a ride (because of cold or wet) that once I get to my destination I'm very happy I rode. I can't say the same about the bus.

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      • Mossby Pomegranate February 4, 2014 at 5:06 pm

        I'm the opposite after I ride public transit...I *am* happy. Happy I wasn't assaulted or harassed.

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        • q`Tzal February 5, 2014 at 9:18 am

          Implicit on your tone is an implication that time on public transit is a dangerous choice.
          While it may be a more dangerous choice than cowering in fear at home because that's what TV news tells people to do it is by far much less hazardous per mile or person than biking, walking or driving in Portland's developed areas.
          While I'd love to be able to point to hard scientific figures to back up my supposition really try to recall the last passenger who died on a TriMet vehicle. Some people have recently been run over and killed or injured but how does this compare to the death toll of Portland drivers? I suspect even Portland metro cyclists death count is higher than TriMet in a similar time frame.

          The late 1980's Crocodile Dundee era NYC subway crime reputation is a myth today perpetuated by Hollywood for sloppy writing and b1gots to justify their choices.

          Don't fear "the other", they're human too and just as irrationally worried that everyone is out to get them.

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          • John Lascurettes February 5, 2014 at 10:04 am

            They 80s version of the NYC Subway was quite a bit different than it is today as recently documented: http://lightbox.time.com/2014/01/22/grit-grime-and-graffiti-chris-morris-on-the-new-york-subway-1981/#1; but I digress.

            I'm with you otherwise. My aversion to the bus or Max is not the physical threat of it's denizens, but its often cramped conditions, particularly during inclement weather, with everyone breathing their sniffly germs upon each other.

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            • wsbob February 5, 2014 at 10:28 am

              "...My aversion to the bus or Max is not the physical threat of it's denizens, but its often cramped conditions, particularly during inclement weather, with everyone breathing their sniffly germs upon each other." John Lascurettes

              Not just cramped because of a lot of people on the bus or MAX, but because the seats are so puny, and hard. Sitting on the seats of either, is close to the displeasure of sitting in the worst of church pews. No wonder people would rather drive...or bike. Rider experience of the bus, with its noxious diesel fumes that seem to somehow get into the bus, is far worse than the MAX, which, even with its hard, cramped seats, is a smooth, quiet ride.

              And then of course, like you said, cramped public transit, for those that like to consider the odds, is a better place than usual to pick up some unwelcome virus. Again...no wonder so many people would rather drive their personal car, with its many comforts of home.

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            • q`Tzal February 5, 2014 at 1:09 pm

              To transit-aphobes that justify it as germaphobia:
              Restroom door handles
              ATMs & Debit card PIN entry keypads
              Grocery carts
              Children
              Dogs
              Any high traffic restaurant

              CASH: made of not just paper but also cotton cash is uniquely designed to be our currency but would also be an optimal disease vector. Abrasive enough on the surface to collect and retain particles from surfaces including skin, skin oils and moisture paper has well earned its reputation for always having trace amounts of cocaine but the natural organic irregularities of paper and cotton fibers are uniquely suited for retaining a hidden cache of microbes that can multiply in to any fresh source of moisture be it a hand not quite dried or a food preparation surface.

              Once you go down the Howard Hugues rabbit hold you may never come back. This OCD exists in my extended family; it's funny until it's sad.

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              • John Lascurettes February 5, 2014 at 3:45 pm

                Fair enough, but nobody every coughed or sneezed on me while I was riding but me.

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          • Mossby Pomegranate February 5, 2014 at 6:58 pm

            What a load.

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            • q`Tzal February 6, 2014 at 11:39 am

              I'm rubber, you're glue,
              whatever you say sticks to you.
              :-P

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      • davemess February 5, 2014 at 1:14 pm

        Yes, I always have a romanticized vision of my trip via the Bux or MAX, and then I'm sitting on it and just thinking "I could be biking there so much faster" for the entire ride!

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  • Gumby February 4, 2014 at 11:01 am

    Usually biking to work is more enjoyable than driving and I always feel better for having done it. But face it, some days it just sucks. When the rain is falling sideways or it's 100+ in the shade it sucks. I agree with Cathy's ethic of doing what is right for me and not being Greener than thou.

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  • Beth February 4, 2014 at 11:12 am

    Thanks for this article. Even when faced with a serious illness (or a chronic condition, as is my case), it's hard to scale back the riding when so many of your friends are still hard-core about it. But it's far more important to listen to your body and adjust as needed, sometimes on a daily or even hourly basis. Don't forget that age can take a toll on the hard-core stance as well. I am not the bicyclist I was ten years ago, and that's okay. These days it feels less important to note how far or hard I've ridden and more important to simply get out and ride when I can.

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  • wsbob February 4, 2014 at 12:07 pm

    "...When it comes to my commute, I am doing what feels good for me. And the truth is that most people do what feels good to them. ..." Cathy Hastie

    A basic cycle track system, and more connecting pedestrian esplanades throughout the city could go a long way towards many people that could, and know they need the workout, feeling good about walking or biking, rather than driving or busing it where they need to go.

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  • Charley February 4, 2014 at 12:21 pm

    Excellent essay. A real statement about human values over idealism. Keep em coming!

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  • Joe February 4, 2014 at 1:19 pm

    Very interesting read I must say thanks for sharing it. :) I myself have never bragged about my rides but only wish someday we have better connections and more respect for those that live the 2 wheeled dream.
    * Ive lived in 3 diffrent states * Oregon is awesome but we have work to do still...

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  • BIKELEPTIC February 5, 2014 at 1:25 am

    Thank you for sharing your story. I can definitely say that I understand where you are coming from. Last year, I made the statement that 2013 would the year I wouldn't have any more surgeries. I ended up having two major ones. Sigh. So much for my big mouth. My neurologist told me that they want to get me to a point where I will "one day be able to drive a car" as if that's a sign of normality. I'm just thrilled these days when I feel comfortable riding my bike, because as a 365 day cyclist, I've only ridden my bike twice since October, because of fear, exhaustion, surgical recovery and various other reasons. It sucks when you're used to having that freedom and sense of self and are reeled in and confined to others to drive you around or trimet's schedule. It's like being a clipped, caged bird.

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  • spare_wheel February 5, 2014 at 10:23 am

    i've also never bragged about riding a bike from point A to B. doing this seems (to me) kind of like bragging about walking to the corner shop. i do occasionally brag about my athletic exploits but they have very little to do with the tran in transport.

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  • Pat McManus February 5, 2014 at 10:31 am

    Thank you for sharing your story. I am certain many (most!) of us can identify to some degree. Once upon a time I hiked, backpacked, and skied downhill 20-30x/year. A serious accident changed all that very abruptly. Bicycling did not restore those activities to me but instead filled me with a new love, gave me a fantastic way to come to work happy, and revived a thrill left behind in my 20s. I am 61. I know that coming years will mean more changes, more limitations, but I sincerely hope that I have learned that I'll be able to face them and, when needed, devise a new lifestyle that will work with those restrictions. Afterall “It's always something” ― Gilda Radner

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  • Bicycling Jewel February 5, 2014 at 10:39 am

    Cathy, Thank you for writing this article. It's a good reminder regarding balancing one's enthusiasm about running, walking, bicycling, etc., with the understanding that not all people are able to get themselves from point A to point B that way, and with public transit offering a good option for those who have health or other limitations.

    Being mindful and understanding, rather than judging others from the surface is key.

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  • Anne Hawley February 5, 2014 at 2:15 pm

    The Bike Commute Challenge got me started on the 100% "bragging rights" thing several years ago, and yes, it was a concession--if not a blow to the ego--to have to choose Tri-Met or my car instead. But I've realized that age, weather, health variables, and darn it, just plain preference, are valid reasons to let go of my rigid hundred-percent-ism.

    Great article, Cathy. Thanks for writing it.

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