Lessons from a Cyclist’s First Bus Commute

My workplace is on an outer edge of the Twin Cities, and since it is not readily accessible via transit I had never tried to take the bus there. It would be easy to drive (and parking is plentiful), but I decided a couple of years ago that I could no longer maintain a lifestyle that relied on driving a car. The high carbon footprint of automobiles is too high a price to pay, given our worsening climate crisis. I sold my car and began bicycle commuting to work, which has generally been a source of joy for me.

Snow-covered bike path with a large patch missing snow, like a messy snow angel

An imprint in the snow where I fell due to a thick layer of ice on the bike path.

However, some days are much harder to get around by bicycle than others. Thus far in 2019, I have cycled through snowstorms, freezing rain, -20 F weather, rutted ice, high winds and glare ice covered with powdery snow. Schools were cancelled, people worked from home, and I helped push a number of stuck cars out of the deep snow. I fell down numerous times trying to bike up an icy hill and pushed my bike through slush for a mile because it was too hard to pedal through it.

My shoulder hurt, the bike paths I usually took were not plowed, drivers kept parking in the on-street bike lanes, and I was especially tired of dangerous driving behavior from motorists who fail to comply with the 3-foot passing law (Minnesota Statutes 2016, section 169.18, subdivision 5, paragraph c).

I was exhausted by the idea of another snowy bicycle commute, but I still have to go to work, so I decided to try commuting by bus. Here are some ground rules that helped me:

  1. Choose what to wear and carry: As Amy Gage wrote recently, a lot of winter bicycling knowledge transfers well to winter walking. I track clothing vs. temperature on a spreadsheet for biking so I can dress appropriately by referencing the day’s weather. Of course, I don’t have walking panniers, so carrying stuff required an adjustment. What I learned: I used a backpack to carry my stuff and switched out my bicycling jacket for a longer, insulated jacket. I also packed a heavier hat in case my helmet-less head got cold.
  1. Find bus routes near your home: I spent a lot of time researching routes on the Metro Transit site and app. Three bus routes in my St. Paul neighborhood go within some proximity of my work location, with different pros and cons. One runs only once per day but gets me pretty close to work. Another has 20- to 30-minute departure intervals, but it’s a half mile of walking on either end, so that’s an extra two miles of walking per day. The bus route at the stop near my home runs only during rush hours but gets me within three-quarters of a mile of my workplace. What I learned: The safest choice seemed to be the most frequent route, with the longest walk.

 

Snow with various tracks through it, snow-covered trees and bushes in background

Most of my walk featured deep snow and picturesque trees.

 

  1. Determine trip duration and departure time: Each of these route options takes 45 to 60 minutes overall, which is comparable with my bike commute — though bicycling often takes extra time because I have to change clothes once I’m at work. Some routes involved more walking and one had a long layover, which made me worry I would miss the transfer. What I learned: I left at my usual departure time and chose the 56-minute option (as predicted by the Transit app), though my walk took longer than I anticipated due to deep snow and sidewalks that weren’t shoveled. On the way home, I walked to the transit center near work and took whichever bus came by first.

 

Large open air, covered, corridor with empty storefronts

This stretch of Sun Ray Mall is mostly empty storefronts but could be a semi-protected shopping space.

 

  1. Figure out what else you can fit into your commuting day: As I mapped out my routes, I noticed how many shops I would pass on foot or on the bus. I considered stopping at the coffee shop or deli on the way to work, but decided against it on this initial journey because I wanted a benchmark for how long the overall trip would take. Other nearby shops include a pharmacy, grocery store, hardware store, thrift shop, restaurants and salons. What I learned: On the way home, I got off the bus next to a delightful “creative reuse center” called ArtScraps. I found some nice darning thread to add to my mending kit, the white for a throw pillow and the metallic for a “visible mending” project on my gloves. I also got a spool of pink jute rope for a hanging planter. Then I walked the rest of the way home.

 

Four spools of thread, including one bright pink rope, one silvery thread, and two cotton threads in white and dark blue

My purchases from ArtScraps

  1. Reflect on your journey: I had not seriously considered commuting to and from work by bus before. It seemed easier and just as fast to bike. I didn’t like having to time out my trips so precisely, because I get anxious if I’m even close to late (I usually aim for 20 minutes early). I didn’t want to “waste the time” sitting on the bus when I could be exercising instead. What I learned: I like the bus. It’s great to have someone else in charge of navigating the road, especially on a stormy day. Sitting on the bus or waiting at a bus stop can calm the mind, looking at icicles and taking some quiet thinking time. I listened to an audiobook for a while. If I want more exercise, I can walk to a bus stop farther away. It was freeing to worry about nothing but my bag to. I like biking to work more than taking the bus, but I’m glad to have another option.

My day overall:

  • Total time on bus: 75 minutes
  • Total time walking: 100 minutes (half of which was directly related to the bus trip)
  • Total time waiting at bus stops: 25 minutes (mostly at the transit stop in the afternoon, due to poor timing on my part)
    Transit Center

    Sunshine helps the wait at any bus stop.

 

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33 Responses to Lessons from a Cyclist’s First Bus Commute

  1. Kasia McMahon
    Kasia February 18, 2019 at 9:54 am #

    I wish transit options were better in the cities, but for many, driving is just a much more sensible option (if you live or work in a suburb–transit options are slow). The average commute time for a person in the Twin Cities is 43.5 minutes round trip. As a mom, spending almost 3.5 hours traveling to work would just be ludicrous. I admire the commitment to the environment, but couldn’t a person’s time be used more productively (rather than just burning less fossil fuels, maybe volunteer with an environmental advocacy org?). I had a bus commute this long for about 3 years and I will never do it again.

    • Jenny Werness
      Jenny Werness February 18, 2019 at 10:01 am #

      In this case, the 2.5 hours that my commute involved were extremely productive. I was able to exercise, enjoy the outdoors, do some reading, run some errands, and get to/from work. For me, this far superior than 45 minutes a day in a car.

      • Kasia McMahon
        Kasia February 18, 2019 at 10:10 am #

        I calculated the total commute time as 3.3 hours based on the figures you provided but maybe it was less for you on subsequent trips? Yes, being outside and getting to walk and bike everyday would be really wonderful. But spending that amount of time commuting is a privilege that not everyone can commit to. And for many people, public transit is the only option they can afford and it is a burden rather than a luxury.

        • Jenny Werness
          Jenny Werness February 18, 2019 at 10:27 am #

          As I noted, only about half of my walking time was directly related to the bus trip: 75 min + 50 min + 25 min = 150 min = 2.5 hours.

          On a subsequent trip it definitely took me less time, as I better timed my departures and there was no heavy snow to walk through. That trip was ~1.5 hours total.

          • Kasia McMahon
            Kasia McMahon February 18, 2019 at 10:56 am #

            1.5 hours is a lot more reasonable! All commutes are longer in bad weather. That is roughly double the average time of a commute by car which is consistent across many cities (transit takes twice as long). BUT if you are getting your 30 minutes recommended daily exercise (or more) through your commute, that can even out the difference (versus driving to a gym or something). Getting exercise shouldn’t be considered a luxury, but again, to many people it is not something they can budget into their schedules.

            • Jenny Werness
              Jenny Werness February 18, 2019 at 11:17 am #

              Yep, that’s essentially how I’d look at it too. I prioritize lowering my carbon footprint and increasing my exercise, so I don’t heavily optimize for a short commuting duration. But even aside from those factors, I’m still getting more value out of my commute this way than I did when I was driving and saving myself half (or more) of my commuting time. I save money, am happier, have more productive workdays, and know my community better. It’s a different lifestyle than I had when I was a car-reliant commuter.

              • Kasia McMahon
                Kasia McMahon February 18, 2019 at 11:30 am #

                I would actually love to see more of these “first time bus commuter” articles. Along with an assessment at the end, “would you do this again and why.” As a freelancer I chase every minute and consider a long commute time to be a waste. But you attribute a lot of value to community and environmental commitment. Not that most people don’t have those values but they might prioritize time with friends and family, or time spent on a passionate hobby. Everyone has different values and preferences. I would love to see how other first-time choice riders experience public transit, along with an assessment of their experience. Could be very interesting and helpful for Metro Transit.

                • Jenny Werness
                  Jenny Werness February 18, 2019 at 12:01 pm #

                  I agree, it would be great to see more articles like this! Doesn’t even have to be limited to “first time” – I’d love to learn from some experienced riders. Transit is also great because you can use the time on the bus to do something that requires a meaningful amount of attention. I wrote much of this post on the bus, and sent several emails. Those aren’t things I can do in a car.

      • Melissa Wenzel
        Melissa Wenzel February 18, 2019 at 10:37 am #

        Did you really end up walking for 100 minutes? I would gather that’s extremely rare rare based on unshoveled sidewalks.

        • Jenny Werness
          Jenny Werness February 18, 2019 at 10:42 am #

          I did, but only half of it was directly transit-related (and even that was my choice – I could’ve taken a closer bus but preferred walking).

    • Sarah February 18, 2019 at 2:08 pm #

      If only volunteering in environmental advocacy were actually able to offset fossil fuel use (it can’t). It’s a nice idea, but I think if we want to talk about climate change and shrinking our carbon footprints here in a meaningful way, we need to be real about the choices and trade-offs. There is no real way to offset the effects of carbon-producing activities except possibly by actually buying offsets (but even that’s of debatable effectiveness).

      I completely get and sympathize with how totally unfeasible transit is in the suburbs (heck, I live in the city and find it maddening here too). But I think the right way to capture that unfeasibility is by saying, “There is no way for me, a suburban dweller with children, to sanely commute by transit the way the system is set up currently. We need a better system and better options if people like me are going to meaningfully reduce their transit footprints.” Pretending that you can choose to drive and make up for it through volunteer work a) is just that, pretending, and b) obscures the real issue of how just insanely crappy and insufficient our regional transit system is. I know this site is very focused on how great it is to bike/walk/not own a car/etc., but I think it could do a better job of discussing – productively and in a solution-oriented way – the very real barriers that keep people from doing these things.

      • Jenny Werness
        Jenny Werness February 19, 2019 at 11:30 am #

        Thank you for saying this, Sarah. I agree with you entirely, and I would love to see more posts here about the reality of climate change. The point you made about the discussing the barriers to sustainable transportation is important. I have been trying to discuss more of those things, but it’s typically in the context of another positive experience I had while biking or walking.

        Have you thought about writing for streets.mn? I’d be happy to help you put together a post if you have any interest. Your comments are helpful and insightful.

  2. Lou Miranda February 18, 2019 at 9:57 am #

    That sounds like quite the expedition. Your trek points out our need for better bike path maintenance year ‘round, better & more frequent transit, and better land use (getting jobs closer to people).

    I agree that when we take transit, we tend to re-think our day, and it becomes more convenient (and, sometimes, warmer!) to stop in to do errands on the way to/from other places. Which also would encourage denser development along transit corridors, especially high frequency ones.

    And I, too, experienced life a little differently when walking & taking transit—the slow pace and freedom from driving or biking means we notice more things, have time to think about things.

    • Jenny Werness
      Jenny Werness February 18, 2019 at 10:33 am #

      “Expedition” is the right term for it! Being on foot makes it so easy to stop and enjoy a view, or pop into a shop, it really makes the entire experience pleasant.

  3. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke February 18, 2019 at 10:27 am #

    Art Scraps is awesome. But wow the Sun Ray mall is a long hike. I guess it shouldn’t be. I’ve had a lot of frustrating transit trips lately, some blame going to the snow. It should be much easier to get from one side of down to the other, and I am optimistic that aBRT will make transit a lot easier for people if / when we build it out…

    • Jenny Werness
      Jenny Werness February 18, 2019 at 10:39 am #

      I agree, rapid transit would be a significant improvement (especially since the whole timing issue is what makes transit so unattractive to me). Snowy weather can definitely make it more frustrating.

      Sun Ray mall is sort of an odd place, but it’s convenient to the transit stop, and there’s not much else in the area.

      • Melissa Wenzel
        Melissa Wenzel February 18, 2019 at 10:59 am #

        It’s going to improve with the green line. In the future, if you work at the same place, you can bike downtown and take the rapid transit bus to your worksite. Also, the Sun Ray Transit Center will undergo some improvements then too. If only we had it now….

        • Jenny Werness
          Jenny Werness February 18, 2019 at 11:05 am #

          You are so right, the new Gold Line will be great. I’m glad to hear the transit center will be improved, too – I hadn’t paid much attention to that part.

  4. Scott Walters February 18, 2019 at 3:38 pm #

    One big plus…the part where you sold your car. The average cost of ownership of a car is about $8,500 per year assuming 15,000 miles driven per year. Eliminating that expense and replacing it with mostly biking or walking, with some transit and sparing use of Lyft for emergencies or unscheduled trips to inaccessible places can make a massive boost in one’s ability to accelerate retirement as well as improve your health.

    That’s an easy $100,000 in the 401(k) in probably 7 years (pre-tax dollars go in the 401(k), after-tax dollars buy the car). That’s huge.

    • Jenny Werness
      Jenny Werness February 18, 2019 at 3:44 pm #

      Yes, the financial gain is huge! I did the math when I first considered getting rid of my car, and I was astonished at how much money I was spending on it. Now that it’s been almost two years, I have good data on my actual savings over time and plan to put together a post about it sometime.

      • Rosa February 18, 2019 at 7:20 pm #

        I really want to see that post.

        We’ve always been a one-car couple, and I KNOW it’s saved us a ton of money, but going back and figuring out just how much seems really daunting.

        • Jenny Werness
          Jenny Werness February 19, 2019 at 11:32 am #

          Thanks! I hope to have the post done in the next month or so. I started a spreadsheet to track the savings over time, but you’re right – it’s a lot of work to figure it all out!

    • Brian February 18, 2019 at 4:35 pm #

      Giving up a car entirely means your entire life is limited by how far you can go on transit, bike, or walking.

      A lot of trips via transit would take so long that I would probably end up staying home. A similar thing with taxis. The cost would be so high for the taxi I would again just stay home.

      The good thing is staying home would save money.

      • Melissa Wenzel
        Melissa Wenzel February 18, 2019 at 4:41 pm #

        You’d think so but for some of us, that’s actually not true. I sold my car in 2008 to buy an electric-assist bike and I was hoping that decision would slow me down a bit (I volunteered and socialized quite a bit). It really didn’t. I took the bus more than I previously did but biking actually didn’t slow me down. It just made me change or rethink my trips. Instead of driving to big-box stores for stuff, I frequented smaller, independent stores more often. There’s a saying that “bikes mean business” (used by Saint Paul Smart Trips, now Move Minnesota) because people on bikes actually spend more in many urban areas. Less each time but more frequently.

        Not everyone can bike everywhere. I get it. I have asthma and arthritis and love the freedom that my e-bike gives me. While I’m dreading my work commute later this week with yet another large snow storm looming, I too can take the bus or carpool with co-workers instead of biking.

        • Jenny Werness
          Jenny Werness February 19, 2019 at 11:38 am #

          Yeah, I agree with you Melissa. I have found that I spend more time out and about on the bike than I did when I was mostly driving. Bikes definitely mean business! I wouldn’t have stopped at Art Scraps on this trip if I were in a car, and wouldn’t have even noticed some of the smaller shops I now frequent by bike.

          There was a heaviness to my car-oriented life, where going anywhere seemed like a chore and it was all about “why aren’t I there yet.” Going by bike feels light and the journey is part of the fun, so the whole trip becomes enjoyable.

          • Adam Miller
            Adam Miller February 19, 2019 at 12:51 pm #

            People don’t believe me when I talk about how unpleasant I used to find it to drive to and park at (mostly suburban) parking lot retail, especially when you work and have to do it at the busiest weekend times.

            Meanwhile, stopping somewhere local by bike on the way home just doesn’t have that sort of baggage.

            • Jenny Werness
              Jenny Werness February 19, 2019 at 2:13 pm #

              I believe you! Same for me, and it’s gotten even more so since I sold my car. It’s like I no longer have the tolerance for driving that I used to, so even small car trips seem unpleasant.

      • Adam Miller
        Adam Miller February 19, 2019 at 9:53 am #

        If you live closer to stuff, you can get to stuff by transit, bike and walking.

        • Rosa February 21, 2019 at 11:07 pm #

          and no matter where you live, if you start walking, biking, and taking transit you learn where all the stuff is that is accessible those ways.

  5. Ted February 19, 2019 at 9:50 am #

    Kudos to you, Jenny, for riding in foul weather. Sorry to read that you fell on the Commercial St bike path; it was better today, Feb. 19, after the sun cooked off the ice yesterday. You may like to try a more aggressive studded tire, and lower tire pressure, to increase grip on ice. Half of winter cycling is planning; preparing, and cleaning, the bike, charging bike lights, etc. I paid off a 30 year mortgage in 11 years by riding my bike everywhere.

    • Jenny Werness
      Jenny Werness February 19, 2019 at 11:41 am #

      It was indeed better today, thanks sunshine! They plowed it the day after I took that photo, so it’s been improving since then. I’ve mostly been taking the road instead, since it’s totally clear. Just in time for some more snow tomorrow 🙂

      Congratulations on the mortgage payoff, that is fantastic! What a good illustration of the money saving realities of biking.

  6. Christa Moseng
    Chris Moseng February 20, 2019 at 10:26 am #

    I have experienced the same phenomenon that a bus trip takes about as long as to bike through the city to the same place. I guess that gives me a good picture of the average speed of a city bus, since I know my average speed on my bike!

    Too bad our mass transit has to share infrastructure with cars, and in most cases isn’t given any higher priority, it could be a heck of a lot faster if those details changed, and arguments about cars being efficient would go away.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller February 20, 2019 at 12:38 pm #

      You can further confirm this by playing hopscotch with the 5 in the Chicago Avenue bike lane… (to their credit, the drivers are always attentive, aware and careful).

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