Friday, November 5, 2010

Mom Tries Carfree Commute, Wins x1000!

I got up before dawn today and did something I've never done before: helped my mom commute via train and bike.

My mom, Laurene, lives quite close to a train station in Orange County, and some time ago I tried to convince her that she should try riding the Metrolink to work in Santa Ana. Her office in Santa Ana is a little under two miles from the train station there, which takes about forty minutes to walk or fifteen minutes to bike. No bus routes shorten the length, unfortunately. For a while we talked about her getting a bike and trying it out, and I made a map that showed a good route for the Santa Ana portion, but it fell by the wayside in the crush of our busy lives.

Enter CicLAvia and some unexpected back pay! My mom and my little sister cut short a vacation to make it to CicLAvia, and they walked the whole length of the route, starting with me at Hollenbeck Park in the morning and reaching the bicycle district right at 2:30 pm. Like everyone else who made it out that day, they got infected with the smiling disease and felt great about the whole thing. So great, in fact, that my mom invited me to go bicycle shopping with her. Yowza! When our earlier conversations about getting her set up with a bike stalled it was partially because she does not have the luxury of thumping down hundreds of dollars on a new bike, and I didn't have time to find her a good used one. Recently, though, she received some years of back pay, and decided that a bike would be a worthy purchase.

So we took a trip to her local bike shop, Buy My Bikes, and decided that a folding bike would be best since she needed something lightweight for lifting on and off the train. A folding bike could also be stowed under her desk as needed. Even though she works for a large organization, only one other person is bike commuting as far as she knows, and there is no bike parking or other kind of support available.

Last weekend while I was out of town I started receiving texts about how she'd bought the bike! My older sister took pictures and sent them to me, and my mom was just beaming up a storm in her new helmet. The new bike, a Giant Expressway, coordinates easily with everything because it is black, unlike my folder, a Dahon Speed that is grey and blue (perhaps this is unimportant to those who do not compulsively match, but it matters to me).

We looked at our schedules, and decided that this Friday would be a good time to try out the carfree commute. I went down to her house yesterday afternoon, and we got up in the darkness of 5:30 am to get ready. She needs to be at work by 7:30 am, so we got on a train that would leave us at Santa Ana station by 6:50 am. As I drowsily put myself together, I had to keep reminding myself that unlike other mornings when I've gone to work with her, we would not be getting in the car and we would not be sitting in traffic.

And then the fun began, by which I mean I realized anew that there are lots of little movements that I've learned that meld my body with my bike. Little movements that are hard to describe, and that I didn't think to mention until I'd look behind me and realize that I'd left Mom in some awkward tangle. Pedals, for example, do not automatically return to your preferred position for starting off again when you've stopped. In fact, if you're rusty as a cyclist you may not even know how to get going again as soon as a signal changes. Fortunately we didn't need to stop at any signals on our short ride to the train station in the cool, still morning.

Getting on the train stressed my mom out, she said, because we had to quickly lift and maneuver our bikes. How did I even know where to get on with my bike? I explained that I look for the bike symbols on the train doors, and position myself in the middle of the platform so I can see how many bikes are on each car before deciding what car to get on myself. Hmm, I thought to myself, this is kind of a lot of information to absorb in one morning.

We rode on up to Santa Ana and got our bikes off the train without incident. It was time to start some more serious, if still light, vehicular cycling. I briefly noted the sunrise streaks to the east over the mountains as we walked our bikes to the intersection where we'd be joining traffic. Nobody was waiting to go our way, so I got out in the lane and positioned myself to go when the light changed. All of a sudden my mom seemed surprised that we were going to ride in the street, and confusedly came out near me, but couldn't get herself going fast enough to catch the light. A very short signal cycle it was, designed not for a novice bike commuter but for speeding cars. I waited on the other side of the intersection, and she made it through with no problem the second time around. Then we headed up through a few four way stops, and made a left onto a low traffic street.

Strategically, I'd planned a route that crossed major streets with signalized intersections so my mom wouldn't have to deal with asserting her right to cross traffic. I shared tips as we rode along, and a teenage boy on a fixie flew past on the wrong side of the street just as I was talking about things to avoid. Nice and instructive, little dude! The route passed lickety split, and we'd made it to her office.

I left pretty immediately to get back to the station so I could come home to LA, and on my ride back I noticed a lot of things that made me feel frustrated. Drivers cutting off children in crosswalks, confused drivers assuming I would run stop signs, poor street conditions, traffic calming that makes it much harder for pedestrians and bikes to flow through into a wealthy neighborhood. And yet my mom is willing to join us bike commuters in our fight to make our roads safer for all.

I'm so proud of you, Mom!