January 15, 2010

Punching the core

The last couple of weeks, to be blunt, have been the most difficult in my commuting history. 
A little history to bring you up to speed:

Kansas City and the surrounding suburbs generally have a fairly set winter pattern.  It's mainly cold, windy, and dry.  We do get snow, yes, but, in general and in recent memory the day-time high temperatures and sunshine generally melt off whatever we get in short order.  A few inches here and there, soon becomes groundwater, and we move on with clear roads, clear trails.  The roads are treated, plowed as needed - but generally, winters here are more about the wind and the cold, rather than a full-on "here's winter" socket of continued snowfall and temperatures that stay below freezing for weeks at a time.    

This year, however, timed perfectly with my winter vacation from work, we got smacked with a pretty significant snow event.  With sustained winds at 25mph and nearly continuous snow for three days, places in Overland Park, KS., received a foot of snow.  The winds, often gusting above 35 mph, caused drifting, and plows struggled to keep up.  The National Weather Service bulletins of the period read like survival guides:  don't go out, pack this, pack that, charge your phone, etc.  Days later, another storm system brought another two days of snow - though lighter than the Xmas event, it simply added to the prroblems.  All the while, in atypical fashion, the temperature after the two events stayed well below freezing, and the winds brought record-breaking wind chills to the area. 

 With kids on break from school, and me on vacation, the timing was perfect.  With regards to my car-free-to-work streak, if I'd had to work through this period I'm not certain what I would have done.  Buses metro-wide were hours behind schedule on a daily basis, the bike trail fell very low on the priority list as cities struggled to keep only the main roads open.  Non-arterials and side-streets were clogged, narrow, and rutted with car trails.  Even with the studded tires on a few recreational forays out and about, it was rough going.  When I finally returned to work, the roads were still jammed, the trails still covered with over 16" of snow in places, and a third snow event the week I returned made things worse all over again.  High temperatures were in the teens at best, and the sun was no-where to be found.  All told, from December 23rd through January 10th, it was above freezing for a total of four hours.  For Kansas City, that's not normal.  For the period in question the average daily temperature was about 20 degrees F below normal.  In any given part of the country, that's significant.  

Returning to work on January 4th, which feels like an eternity ago at this writing, marked the hardest commute week of my life, so far.  Roads were horrendous, most clogged with brown "car-snot" - an amalgam of salt, sand, and slush that has no form, washes out the best bike tires, clogs tread, redirects anything travelling through it, and provides almost no traction for anything weighing less than 1,500 lbs.  On lighter-travelled roads, going was better - but was often hit and miss.  The snow events were preceded by periods of freezing rain and sleet, so the underlying areas were packed hard, and there were plateaus of extra-hard pack that were jarring at best, hard to see and anticipate.  Very difficult to stay "to the right as practicable".  If it was just plain packed snow, going was easy -- but those areas were becoming more rare as the days wore on.  I was reduced to walking on so many occasions, I often wondered why I'd brought the bike along at all.  

In danger of being late to work, I modified my route onto the main roads, and simply left the house earlier and earlier each day to stay safe.  Unfortunately, this only worked in the morning.  Come afternoon, traffic coming through the major part of Overland Park was making things stressful.  Normally sheltered on the bike trail, perhaps I am a little out of practice in traffic - but combined with narrowed streets from "best effort" plowing, and impatient drivers having a hard enough time navigating with only cars to contend with, I was putting myself at risk more-so than usual.  Even major roads were still offering nothing but two rural-looking paths where the majority of car tires wore through, and many drivers were nervous to stray outside of these exposed lanes of pavement.  With each passing mile on Monday afternoon, I knew I was rolling the dice - my final leg home happening on 151st street, which is two-lane, 45 MPH.  Yeah, I survived --- but I don't like that road on a summer day:  that day, it was simply the only thing navigable by bike.  My alternative was standing outside a parking garage in single-digit temps and high winds, waiting for a bus that would later prove to be 90 minutes overdue.  Upon arriving at home, the bus was looking mighty good.  Yeah, I suppose I've had worse, but I was rattled. 

Tuesday I worked from home.

It was never really about the cold, it wasn't really always about the snow or traction -- it was the traffic.  I longed for a plowed and groomed trail, single track, a snowmobile trail, anything - things I'd read about on other year-round commuter blogs.  Anything to get me out of the traffic stream.  Thawing temps were no-where in sight in the forecast and it was too cold for the chemical action of road treatments to begin to work.  

Wednesday, I left the bike at home, and walked to the bus stop.  Two miles on foot proved more relaxing than two miles of riding through brown snot, even though I knew in my head that it was taking three times longer to get anywhere.  An hour and a half after leaving the driveway, I was still seven miles from the office.  The bus came, roads finally in good enough shape to support the schedule (and the AM routes are better at this anyways), and I made it without incident.  That afternoon, however, more snow came - to the tune of another 4-6 inches, and temps that were still not cooperating.  Within an hour, the roads were set back a full week.  The only thing I had to look forward to was a late bus, and a 2 mile trudge home on foot.  That night, I was offered a ride home, which I graciously took.  At that point, it wasn't about the snow, the cold, or the car-free-to-work streak - it was about getting home safely, and in time to see my kids to bed.

For those reading from different areas of the country, the county here provides a really good bus service - but compared to other major metropolitan areas in the US, it is not quite up to par.  I blame sprawl, budget, car-culture of the area (we have more lane miles of highway per capita than any metro in the USA.)  The entire Johnson County metro has about the same amount of buses that one ROUTE in NYC would have, perhaps.  My route has two buses come through in the PM.  Two, spaced about 1.5 hours apart.  Compare to 81st and Central Park West, Manhattan, where you can catch a bus every six minutes, nearly round the clock.  Standing and waiting for a bus here is a real concern:  Did I miss it?  When will it get here?  Can I go back inside?  I've been there before.  Toss in wind chills of -30*F, and a concerned family wondering when you'll get home.  I love what I have, and I know I could lose it in a heartbeat the way local budgets have been - but, for those wondering what the deal is, there ya go.

That night, winter break for the school kids was coming to an end - but it was quickly replaced by the biggest rash of school closings and service suspensions in recent memory.  My kids school district is fairly hard-core when it comes to weather, not closing for mere meteorological trifles; but this was different.  Winds came up again, snow was drifting again, sidewalks and school bus stops were choked with plow berms exceeding five feet of hard snow and ice, and a wind chill warning was posted.  This was madness.  Thursday, I worked from home again.

Thursday afternoon was full of thought.  Personal stress, personal safety, my wife, my kids, why I'm doing any of this by bicycle, how severe this winter was compared to the last, and the one prior, and the one prior to that.  I remembered 2008, where I completed an R-12 in modest temperatures with barely a mention or memory of snow.  When was the last time it was like this?  When was the last time school had closed?  It seemed that generally since my kids started at school we couldn't BUY a "snow day".  Looking across the city's website of traffic cams, and seeing side-street conditions on the MAIN roads, knowing the bus would be late, knowing that I'd be rolling the dice again with each passing car if I tried the main roads, no-one expecting to see a cyclist on the roads regardless of safety gear.... what was I doing??  

A long conversation with the wife, a longer conversation with myself, and I elected to let myself off the hook.  
I don't owe anyone an explanation, and I know I'm far harder on myself than anyone else could ever be,  and even though this is a blog and not "Newsweek.com", it is in the guise of honesty that I must admit, I caved in and broke the car-free-to-work streak on Friday, January 8th.  Struggling with it for days prior, not sleeping well, stress induced by no-one but myself, and taking great risks to prove (what exactly?) -- you see my point:    My attempt to continue was getting out of hand, and this quickly became a proof-of-concept of what it takes to get someone OFF of a bike in a car-centric city.

Having not driven to work since June 14th, 2009, it was initially difficult to swallow, but I slept much better Thursday night.  In the rare case that our school district cancels classes, it's a good indication that it's pretty much downright rotten and unsafe outside. Some local media outlets indicating this was the worst the metro has had in two decades, I think that's a fair mark to call "my limit."  Even my boss at work, who knew of the streak and its importance to me, comforted me (after the shock wore off that I'd driven), that "it's not exactly like you chose an 80*F day, and decided to be lazy."

Yes, parallels abound and my situation is far less grand, but thoughts of ship captains steering into the squall on Lake Michigan, storm chasers punching right through the core of a violent storm without data or radio contact, airline pilots ignoring flashing lights on instrument panels, battlefield generals suicidally ordering troops into clearly lopsided skirmishes - all to come to their associated historic demise:  one benefit of education is learning how not to repeat these glorious mistakes under some foolish guise of glory, honor, or purpose.  Lewis and Clark prevailed where others had failed because of patience, knowing when to winter, knowing when to push on.  If you'll excuse the gigantic rift in significance, so too must I learn to say when enough is enough:  for myself, my family.  This streak simply isn't worth it, at a certain point - which in Kansas, in winter, seems to come once every couple of decades.  Live to ride another day.

Just as quick as you like, however, re-focused and looking towards the forecast of this week, I proceeded to forgive myself and look towards continuing what is - after all - my preferred method of transportation.  Sunday brought the first peek above freezing, and the beginning of the metro-wide thaw.  Chemicals began to work on the streets, the sun came out, and plows retraced the streets and opened them back up to their full width.  Monday the 11th proved FAR better than the previous Monday, and revealed some mistakes from the previous week.  So attached had I been to the local trail system, when it closed off I began to forget some of my own core rules;  one of which being, it's better to add a few miles to a commute than it is to try and navigate a main traffic artery.  While the previous week's snow-choke prevented these choices, I decided this week to stop trying so hard to follow along the roads that skirt my preferred trail route (which were proving rather busy), and add a few miles to preserve my sanity and go around it all.  Back to the maps, I added 30 minutes to my afternoon commute, and the result feels more like I'm on a "ride", instead of a "slog" - which is precisely what I needed.

This is a tough time of year.  Looking back at past years, I have caved in and driven in far warmer temps, with far better roads, just to get a break.  The lack of warmth, dressing and layering which takes three times longer than "normal", the single-speed winter bike and it's patience-teaching gear ratio, the mind-warping haze of grey and white and glare, riding to work in the dark, riding home in the dark, over and over, and spring seeming years away -- it gets to a person.  So, the scenic addition to my afternoon routine is helping.  The trails have even been plowed at this point, so some shelter from traffic and a return to "normal" will be nice as well.  

So, in closing, I still consider what I've accomplished a personal best - while it's not the continuous year-long streak I'd hoped for, it's been the longest streak of commutes in my history, and was only stopped by a record-breaking weather event - more accurately the byproduct of that weather reducing any safe or reasonable route to work by anything other than a motor vehicle.  Even then, I took just one day to regroup, and was back on the bike the next working day.  Looking back at Januarys past, I see weeks of non-riding, in one case only six rides in a January with much better conditions.  So, all in all, I'm happy with what I've accomplished.  The counter started over, yes, but if next winter is any better than this one, I don't see any reason to discount giving it another solid try.
To those that HAVE managed to remain car-free through this winter, HATS OFF to you!  

Thanks for reading!  


philosoraptor said...

As you said, you don't owe anybody an explanation or justification for doing what I would have done weeks or months ago, myself! You are STILL a powerful inspiration to people online (and, I'm sure, to people offline).
Taking one, two, or a hundred days off the bike when it's physically unsafe for you to ride it in that climate and with that traffic, seems to need no defense, as far as I'm concerned.
Stay safe!

Darius said...

Shouldn't there be some sort of "margin of error" or latitude... say 1-2%? That would allow the streak to stand....