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Lifestyle column: How I went over to the dark side

Posted by on March 6th, 2014 at 9:08 am

Lifestyle columnist Cathy Hastie.

In the end, the decision wasn’t mine to make.

The question: would I give up a major component of my lifestyle in order to advance my career? My employer was asking me to take a long-term assignment 13 miles away, in Vancouver, Wash.

I know myself. I absolutely cannot expect that I could continue biking to work at that distance.

I have lived in close proximity to my job for the majority of my professional life. The express purpose was freedom — freedom from dependence upon a car. I bought my first home in a close-in neighborhood (ironically, the urban location ensured a low price then — that was the 90s!). Since then, I have always been in a close-in location that affords the privilege of auto-independence.

Over the years, I slowly built up endurance and all-weather gear to make biking to work an enjoyable ritual, like reading the paper in the morning. It was an expectation, the simplest and most convenient way to get to work. And it was important. Over the course of 20 years and 6 employers, the accompanying bike commute had the final say in who I would work for and where.

Working in a client’s office in Vancouver makes business sense for my employer. I will make more money for the firm. But nobody thought to ask me if I owned a car. Compensation was not offered for the extra time and expense of driving to another state every day. There was no talk of how I would maintain my health and keep in shape when my only form of exercise disappears from my daily routine.

Businesses aren’t typically founded on employee lifestyle, health and convenience. And idealism doesn’t put food on the table.

Like the big-city stereotype of cut-throat competition, today’s business model assumes that employees will do whatever it takes to earn more money, build more prestige and climb higher on the professional ladder. They assume we live the accompanying middle-class, suburban, auto-centric lifestyle. But I don’t like to drive, let alone cut throats and climb ladders.

I value my time and how I spend it, maybe even more than my money. I bet there are a lot of folks here who think the same way. A look at the numbers, however, shows that more people don’t. About 80 percent of metro area commutes take place in cars. Indeed, the majority of the Portland Metro population live in a neighborhood where biking into the urban center is difficult to say the least. Those rare few who pedal 30+ miles a day must have iron butts and a will of steel. They are definitely the dedicated elite. I admit, I don’t have what it takes to be one of them.

My dilemma was eating me up. Ideally, careers improve with time, and my Vancouver opportunity was a stepping stone in the right direction. But how much was I willing to give up now for the promise of a rosier future? If I sacrifice this pillar in my moral structure, who’s to say the roof won’t cave in as I sink deeper and deeper into a materialistic pit, swimming in money while gasping for air?

“I accept my new label: “car commuter” (Oh, the shame!) I have gone over to the dark side.”

Perhaps this pebble is just the first in what could turn into a landslide of sacrifices, eroding the hard-fought lifestyle gains of flexibility, stress-reduction and being true to convictions. Would I start traveling too much, seeing less of my family, working 60+ hours a week? In other words, killing myself slowly?

I have successfully avoided being a slave to my job so far. With this new proposition, I was grappling with how I could best serve my family, my employer and myself, in both the short and long-term. Not being a hypocrite would be a welcome bonus! As it turned out, all of the mental gyrations were for naught. I was told I could take the assignment or risk a vague, unnamed negative consequence.

Notwithstanding the decision to go to Vancouver, I still believe that lifestyle counts as much as salary. I vow to find a creative work arrangement that honors my core values. The burden of dragging a car around, the cost of gas, the time spent sitting still – somehow I will counterbalance these factors. I’ll let you know what I come up with! I am sure there are lots of readers with great ideas willing to offer advice.

So, at the risk of losing a job I love, I will trade in my hot pink pedaling rain boots for high heels on the accelerator. I accept my new label: “car commuter” (Oh, the shame!) I have gone over to the dark side. Will my pride be able to stand the transformation? How about my thighs?

—Read Cathy’s earlier columns here.

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Comments
  • dan March 6, 2014 at 9:36 am

    Should be a pretty mellow commute on C-tran.

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  • Hart Noecker March 6, 2014 at 9:58 am

    “I was told I could take the assignment or risk a vague, unnamed negative consequence.”

    BikePortland recently covered the story of another individual who was fired for refusing to bow to the (likely illegal) threats of management.

    http://bikeportland.org/2013/12/13/want-unemployment-should-have-bought-a-car-state-says-98556

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    • Paul March 6, 2014 at 11:24 am

      Thanks for posting the link to that story. That’s exactly what immediately came to mind when I saw the above story.

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  • Corey Holton March 6, 2014 at 10:01 am

    I love my NE Grant Park to Vancouver bike commute. There is even a brand new columbia slough trail to bypass the horse track area of delta park. Would be happy to show you the route one morning.

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  • Paul March 6, 2014 at 11:41 am

    If I were into the car-free lifestyle, I don’t think a 13 mile commute would be insurmountable. To address “iron butt”, or the lack thereof, a recumbent bike would be a brilliant alternative. If the distance were an issue, an e-assist could be an option. Or, as someone else mentioned, how about taking a folding bike on the C-tran?
    I suppose the added expense of a car can be rationalized if it comes down to retaining a job, or having no job. Still, I think the solo-occupant auto alternative could have been avoided.

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    • Trikeguy March 6, 2014 at 4:21 pm

      Yup – 10.5miles each way over the west hills and no “iron butt” required :) A reclined mesh seat makes for a happy butt!

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    • Beth March 7, 2014 at 11:17 am

      I used to feel the sMe way about longer commutes by bike. “Not Insurmountable”, or something like that.
      Then I got older.
      Along with increasing aches in my joints when the weather turns, in the last year or so I have also experienced dizzy spells and blurred vision that are believed to be connected to either a preexisting condition (whose symptoms intensify with age), or possibly the onset of peri-menopause. Finally, I find that I am less able to regulate my body temperature in extremes of heat and cold. Yet, the prevailing mentality is that bicyclists somehow, magically, do not age like the rest of the [more sedentary] population. Worse, bicycle transportation policy and advocacy seems heavily skewed to favor those bicyclists who somehow do not age and/slow down.
      On another note, those of us in the 50-and-over set (of which I am now a proud member) find ourselves stymied by ageism in the job market as well; if you show any signs of losing productivity at your job you will eventually face some “vague, unamed negative consequence”.
      So when one has to make difficult choices that challenge their sense not only of lifestyle but of identity as well, they don’t need crticism, but support. Cathy, it’s tough all over. I applaud your honesty and support the thoughtfulness with which you’ve made your decision. thanks, and best of luck.

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      • Trikeguy March 10, 2014 at 12:30 pm

        I can see that – at 47 I’m still feeling more than strong enough for my commute (and my weekend training rides), and good gear keeps me comfortable.

        I figure as I get older I can always add a fairing and an e-assist to protect me in the weather and help me over the hills if I need it.

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  • Evan (@evvywevvy) March 6, 2014 at 12:36 pm

    Don’t a lot of people in this community avoid labels like “cyclist” or “driver” and instead refer to people performing those activities? You’re not a “car commuter,” you have to drive to Vancouver for work.

    And 13 miles isn’t nothing. She says, “I value my time and how I spend it, maybe even more than my money.” If she lives near her work now, she probably spends less than 10 minutes commuting each way. 13 miles is closer to an hour. Would you rather continue not having a car or lose 2 hours out of every day? Everyone is entitled to make her own choice.

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    • Trikeguy March 6, 2014 at 4:32 pm

      To each their own, certainly. But a true analysis of the actual times is necessary for an informed decision.

      How long is the car commute?. Add in time in the gym to replace the lost workout. What about the the lost money to having to have a car?

      I live in Beaverton and work in SE Portland.

      - My trike commute is under 50minutes each way.
      - A TriMet commute takes … wait for it …. just about 55 minutes.
      - I’ve occasionally gotten a ride home from a co-worker on Mondays at 3pm – the car commute takes 35minutes (I MAX into town and walk over on Mondays to carry my clothes and lunches). That’s non rush-hour traffic. All the rest of my homeward bound trips are at 5pm.

      So – compared to a car I spend 30minutes/day more commuting, but don’s have to spend much time in the gym (a bit of lifting). The cost savings of not having a car is massive.

      Compared to TriMet I actually save time by combining my commute with my workout and I save $5 every commute day :)

      For me it was a no-brainer. For others, it doesn’t work out as well.

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  • wsbob March 6, 2014 at 12:47 pm

    A 13 mile one-way trip, 26 miles a day, isn’t bad, and if I’ve got it right, the terrain for you would be mostly level, no hills. You could maybe make the trip in 60-90 minutes.

    It may be interesting to think about whether that new velo-trike, the ELF would serve someone like you well, for a trip like this. Expensive, but it’s got a roof and a windshield, protection from the elements, and maybe easier room to stow gear than bikes tend to have. For me, being stuck in a car in the daily I-5 stop and go traffic across the bridge would be the worst part of the deal.

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  • Davd March 6, 2014 at 1:12 pm

    Be a subversive car commuter–try to always drive at 5mph below posted speed limits especially if you have to drive arterial surface streets over here in Vantucky. Speed kills, speed is stupid. Vantucky drivers are generally real stupid–try to set a good example for us.

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  • IanC March 6, 2014 at 1:14 pm

    All the more reason to advocate for MAX going to Vancouver. I took a job in Hillsboro and do a Bike -> MAX -> Bike commute to work. It’s going great… with the addition of Podcasts and good books for the long train ride.

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  • Ty March 6, 2014 at 1:26 pm

    That is a challenging ride, but you might find it not so bad if you ease into it. Try driving to the max at expo center (not sure, but i assume there is an I-5 bike crossing) and ride in from there, or some location to make the distance shorter. Then slowly park further away as you get used to it. Having a longer commute gives lots of time to reflect on things, although I think not spending valuable time commuting is always a valid choice.

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  • Cathy Hastie March 6, 2014 at 2:51 pm

    The thing that stood out for me during my first few days of car commuting was the inconsistency. On a bike, my commute is always roughly the same duration, unless there is a bridge lift. But in a car, the range has been dramatic!! The unreliable factor is more stressful than the sitting still. I hate being late!

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  • John Liu March 6, 2014 at 6:11 pm

    You’re crossing the I5 bridge? Daily? That traffic is horrendous, in time elapsed in addition to mental health. I would be surprised if you don’t do it in fairly similar time on a bike. If you can’t arrive sweaty, how about an e-bike ride to work (under a stylish check panel rain cape) and an honest, gym-mooring pedal back (in proper bike gear)?

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    • LESTER March 9, 2014 at 4:06 pm

      - It’s a “reverse” commute, so usually not so bad a drive. Sometimes rough if you have to pass by the Fremont Bridge area on your way back through Portland in the evening. If you’re north of that then usually pretty good flow.

      - Could do a multimodal commute. Max up to PIR or Expo, then ride across the bridge, maybe ride all the way on occasions where you’re up for it.

      - You could always move to Vancouver. Houses are reasonably priced and you might like the idea of not paying Oregon Income Tax, I know I did.

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  • Paul in the 'Couve March 6, 2014 at 8:43 pm

    I’ll have to weigh in on this one Cathy. I understand your dilemna and your choice. 200 days a year it is not very easy to commit to riding. Dec. 10 to Feb. 15th is usually the worse period with the combination of Cold, Dark and Rainy. It is very difficult to get motivated to get organized for a rain ride leaving 45 minutes earlier and arriving in cold wet gear. That distance is why I get tired of the people complaining on these threads about “drop bar road bikes” being like pre-evolutionary vestigial appendages. Drop bar road bike rule on a 8 mile straight shot into a head wind.

    Anyway, I encourage you to give it a shot one day soon. 1) no winter /rain/ wind / dark commute has ever been as bad as my mind told me it would be before I got out of bed. 2) It really feels good, it isn’t a bad ride, really, 3) the time is consistent (except for flatting – tire choice and slime filled tubes help. 4) MAX is an alternative especially for bad days or when just needing a break. 5) Biking is still faster than MAX.

    Finally, I do agree that only, maybe, if your job location is right in Downtown Vancouver, could you consider not owning a car with this commute. I really encourage you to bike it, but unfortunately transit is too slow and poorly connected to Vancouver to rely on for any regular car free trip. Unfortunately for you the part of the trip that could best be done by bicycle or car is the part at the far end from your home.

    P.S. I have never actually biked to the MAX and ridden. I have started to do it. I have set out from home and ridden to the MAX at both Gateway and at Expo and when I got there, decided “aw heck” it isn’t that bad and just kept riding.

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  • GlowBoy March 6, 2014 at 11:08 pm

    Spending ten hours a week commuting is not for everyone. I’m not going to condemn Cathy for her choice to drive.

    I say this as someone who spends 10 hours a week commuting myself. My trip is over the West Hills, and generally MAX-assisted in the morning. Driving is generally faster, but brutally unreliable, with the evening Ross Island Bridge backup taking anywhere from 2 minutes to as much as 45 minutes (the latter absolutely clobbering my mpg, BTW).

    So no thanks, I’d rather bike+MAX. I do try to remind myself that it saves gym time. And I’ll point out that for a lot of riders (including myself) Bike + Mass Transit is often faster than either mode on its own.

    Actually, although I find my commute more reliable than driving – for now – I am finding MAX to be increasingly undependable. Now I’ve been riding the train daily for over a decade: until the last few months I felt I could always count on it unless a car crashed into a train somewhere.

    But since around last fall, it seems like mechanical problems are shutting down the line once every week or two, making me late to work or getting back home. It’s not bad enough yet to push me back to the horrors of driving, but I’m starting to believe the critics who say TriMet isn’t spending enough on preventive maintenance.

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  • Jimmy March 7, 2014 at 2:04 am

    It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

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  • Dan March 7, 2014 at 10:01 am

    The reason I don’t do much biking in the dark cold & rain has little to do with the conditions. It has to do with drivers’ ability to see and avoid me in those conditions. Separated infrastructure would be a big help there.

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  • Granpa March 7, 2014 at 10:34 am

    Cathy
    Look into E-Bikes
    Good luck

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  • ED March 7, 2014 at 1:16 pm

    I can sympathize. SE Portland to Vancouver is my commute as well. I took C-Tran for years and have tried biking about once a week for several summers. Now I generally drive or work at home. All the options have drawbacks. The C-Tran express buses are nice if you can get your schedule to match theirs, but they run limited hours, and generally involve transfers to/from TriMet and C-Tran that can dramatically lengthen the trip time. I tried to convince myself that the 2.5 hours a day I was spending biking was efficient compared to driving plus exercise time, but the problem for me is that I would much rather run for exercise. When I biked, I had no energy or time for running, which combined with general aggravation of riding in traffic and trying not to get killed on the narrow sidewalks on the I-5 bridge to further discourage me. My opinion about the bike ride is that the last stretch–from Hayden Island to downtown Vancouver–is the worst, so perhaps a combination of a bike ride to the Expo Center, and then connection to C-Tran to get over the bridge would be an acceptable option. Good luck figuring out an option that works for you!

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  • Gumby March 7, 2014 at 6:50 pm

    I was faced with the same dilemma a few years ago. I had a perfect five mile commute with great bike facilities the whole way. Then I took a job with a 15 mile commute which includes the notorious Barbur blvd. At first it was an hour and a half bike commute each way. That was just too long. I tried taking the bus part way. That helped the commute time, but was unreliable as the bike rack was often full and sometimes I missed the bus. What I finally did, was bought a e-assist motor from Ecospeed (a local company in Milwaukee). This allowed me to cut my commute to an hour each way (and I have a recumbent to make it a comfortable hour). I still get plenty of exercise because I still pedal. My advice is to get a folding bike (Brompton) so you can take it on the bus or get a motor. Most of all, don’t give up. Where there’s a will there’s a way. Maybe you only ride two days a week and carpool the other three.

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  • Jeff March 7, 2014 at 9:02 pm

    E-bike seems to be the perfect solution …its faster and less physical exertion but your still getting some excersize in as well

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    • GlowBoy March 8, 2014 at 8:24 am

      E-bike might well be a good option here, or for anyone with a commute long and/or strenuous enough to take a lot longer than driving. I would have to look into it again, too, if MAX got much more unreliable. Personally I’m impressed with the Clean Republic conversion kits, but some may prefer a purpose-built e-Bike.

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  • Jim March 8, 2014 at 12:19 am

    Drive half way and ride the 2nd half.

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  • BIKELEPTIC March 10, 2014 at 9:11 am

    Doing advocacy work is not only my career, but passion. I recently turned down a job because I would have had to drive daily to Aloha and transport clients. After the interview, a long discussion and thought – then calling to let them know I took another job offer (I eventually did within that week) because I just couldn’t trade a better job for driving. Priorities. Like half my paycheck for gas.

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  • RJ March 10, 2014 at 11:04 am

    Sorry Cathy, that is a tough trade-off. Hope your job finds you back in Portland on a regular basis soon.

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  • Taylor March 10, 2014 at 2:30 pm

    It Might sound crazy, but you could move to a NE Neighborhood like killingsworth or Alberta and turn your 13 mile commute into a more manageable 4 or 5 mile one way commute. That is if you can really see yourself at this company for a long time, It could be a possibility.

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