30 March 2008

One working week without a car

I've written before about getting to my new job without a car. Well, a couple of weeks ago, I gave it a shot.

Since I started my new job in January, my car use has gone up from about 7000km to about 12000km per annum. Getting to and from my new workplace constitutes 90% of my driving, but it is simply unrealistic to avoid it - or, at least, so it would seem.

I've thought a lot about getting to work without using my car. The rules were simple: get myself to and from work every day for a week, without driving my car, without getting a lift, and without calling a taxi. Sounds easy enough. This was the week that I decided that I would actually do it.

The difficulty is that there aren't too many other options where I work. The only bus that goes anywhere near my office runs twice in the morning (and one of these times is too late to be useful) and once in the afternoon. The nearest railway stations are a good half-hour's walk away. It's not so far that I couldn't ride, but I don't think any of the buildings near me are equipped with showers, so this would have to be restricted for the wellbeing of my co-workers. Oh, and nothing anywhere near my office is even remotely catered, so I have to bring my own food as well. If only to increase the level of difficulty, the bulk of our clientele works a few kilometres up the road, which "necessitates" driving rather than walking.

Really, I picked a real humdinger of a week to try this. Although it was a short week, due to the Adelaide Cup public holiday, South Australia is in the midst of the longest heat wave in Australia's recorded history. To make matters worse, the air conditioner in my building has blown a fuse, and it won't be fixed until next week. Somebody out there doesn't want this to work.

In the end, I settled for two approaches. On Tuesday and Wednesday, I would take the bus, getting to work at around 8:15 and leaving at around 16:15, working through lunch to squeeze in a full eight-hour day. On Thursday and Friday, I would ride my bike to my local railway station, take the train to the nearest station to my office and ride from there, riding all the way home in the evening.

It almost sounds like a plan. Let's see if it works.


It's a bit of a shock to the system to be up before dawn. I had set my alarm from 6:15 and, not being a morning person at the best of times, was far from impressed to hear it. Stocking some fresh sandwiches, a slightly bruised apple and my Akubra, I left the house at 7:00.

When you're embarking on something so inspiring to oneself (albeit so foolhardy to others), it pays to do a bit of groundwork before you start. For instance, I often feel sick if I eat too early in the morning, particularly if I haven't had enough sleep. As such, it's worthwhile knowing that both my local Woolworths and the adjacent Baker's Delight open at 7:00 during the week. Either choice would allow me my standard morning snacks of a croissant and a Farmers' Union Iced Coffee, so as long as I give myself a couple of minutes before the bus arrives, I'm set.

The outbound 225 bus is hardly the most convenient way to get to Salisbury Interchange in the morning. It winds its way east through Pooraka and what used to be Salisbury Downs (which was re-branded a few years ago as Gulfview Heights), turning what would be ten minutes on the road into nearly half an hour. The good news is that the same bus used for the 225 also makes the run to DSTO and the RAAF base, the latter being very close to my office. If you're catching both, you can just stay in the air-conditioning and wait for the connecting train from the city. (Come to think of it, that might be more convenient for me as well. That might be worth a look.)

In the end, we had a fair wait anyway. Thanks to some combination of rush hour and the fear of rails buckling in the heat, the trains were running a few minutes late. More iPod time for me, I suppose.

The net result of that was that instead of arriving at the RAAF base entrance at 8:06 and walking for ten minutes to get to work, it was actually closer to 8:30 that I arrived at the office. Great. If I have to leave at 16:20 to get the bus home again, I can't realistically get in eight hours at the office - eventually, someone is going to notice all these 10-15 minutes rushes adding up. You'd think having a good excuse to leave early would be every worker's dream. I guess it all depends on whether anyone notices.

That said, I did get to work, and I did get home again, although it did cost me a minute's job - seeing a bus stop from a distance, and finding the bus already there and idling, is still a little disconcerting.


I could actually get used to this 6am start business. It's dark when I get up, but it's dawn when I leave the house, and the suburb takes on a palette that so few of us ever get up to see.

Everyone keeps to themselves at the bus stop. Actually, at this bus stop, there is usually only one other person waiting - a young blonde, who looks perhaps younger than me, concentrating on a cigarette. She was here yesterday as well. For me, the cigarette is almost as much of a do-not-disturb sign as the headphones, particularly because my immediate reaction to smokers is to ask rhetorically, "you know those things'll kill you, right?", which is less than ideal as a conversation starter.

It's weird that it's been ridiculously hot - maxima consistently over 35 degrees, and not dropping below 30 until just before sunrise - and yet, I have no second thoughts about getting out and walking. My colleague and I are still walking at lunchtime as well, to which end I'm grateful to have brought the Akubra and not one of my legion of baseball caps. I remember being back in Townsville over Christmas and walking ten minutes to the local shopping centres. That felt a lot more uncomfortable than it does here; the higher temperatures are more than offset by the sub-10% humidity. Just get a long drink of water when you get to where you're going.

The bad news for is that the combination of low humidity and daylight savings time means that the hottest part of the day is about when I'm walking to the bus back home. I've hardly noticed the heat wave at 8:00, but at 16:00 it really grabs your attention. What I have noticed is how much of a difference it makes simply to be in the shade. As I'm often travelling on foot, I've gotten into the habit of tracking from one shady spot to the next, walking on the north side of the street, even sticking to streets through which the breeze is blowing, in an effort to cool off a bit. I've also started preferring sneakers to sandals when it gets really hot, as I've found that my reefs don't soak up sweat the ways socks do. You don't want your feet to slip around inside your shoes, and you can always throw sweaty socks in the wash.

All in all, two nearly successful days of taking the bus to work. I'll probably dock myself a few minutes because the buses have been a bit later than I'd hoped, but it's not so much that it can't be recovered when I have my own transport all the way home. It's been a while since I used the bicycle, so I made sure the chain was oiled and the tyres pumped, ready for tomorrow.


After two days of 6:15 alarm calls, I certainly appreciated sleeping in until after 7:00. Once I'd gotten a change of clothes together, as well as my typical packed lunch of sandwiches and yoghurt, my backpack was pretty full - and I hadn't had breakfast yet! This might take a bit of tweaking; it may be possible to leave clothes at work, for example.

I didn't even leave the house until well after 8:00 and I still didn't feel as though I was in a hurry. In the end, I had to stand around waiting for the train to come. I caught up with a friend of mine from DSTO, who I hadn't had much to do with since I quit my old job in June. She was glad that I'd landed on my feet. I was glad to hear that things at DSTO were still much the same as they had always been - yes, I know I shouldn't laugh, but I still do.

When I got off the train at Elizabeth, I had hardly crossed the bridge towards the Defence sites when my front tyre blew out. Strangely, I hadn't noticed riding over anything untoward. I pulled over to have a look, but when I pumped more air into it, it receded within just a few seconds. Briefly, I thought about the discussion I'd had on the train and how glad I was to be out of DSTO... and that if Schadenfreude is real, its timing is impeccable. I decided to brave the rest of the journey, wondering along the way how exactly I was going to get everything home that night.

Looking at the Yellow Pages from work, it turns out that there's a bicycle shop just across the road from where I got the puncture. Very suspicious, no? Well, not really. A colleague drove me to the shop so that I could buy a couple of replacement tubes, which was nice of him. I didn't get to look at the tyre until it was time to go home, but I got the tube changed easily enough - and, in case anyone was wondering, a Swiss army knife and a set of house keys are hardly the ideal tools for such a job.

It was well after 18:00 when I left. A former colleague passed me in her car, for which I later berated her on Skype for the sense of panic and danger that I told her I had had but hadn't. (To be fair, I did include lots of sarcastic :P emoticons.) I was already ravenous with hunger, so I promised myself dinner on the way home. I stopped in at Red Rooster for a chicken dinner, although I later regretted the blackcurrant Powerade that went with it. In all good conscience, though, I should have been sorry enough for knowing such a beverage existed, long before handing over the money.

What followed is sure to be my favourite memory of this bicycle for a long time. By the time I had dragged myself away from the air-conditioning, the sun had almost set below the line of the buildings in the west. Between the weakness of the sunlight and the motion of the air as I rode, it actually seemed quite cool riding home. The rush hour traffic having all but vanished, I was alone with only my ambition and the satisfaction of achieving it. To ride such a distance was not a new experience for me, but to do so with such a purpose made it all worthwhile.

I returned to the hothouse I call my room, to prepare for one last day. Well, actually, I just checked my email and watched TV, but that's hardly in keeping with the theme, now, is it?


The last day of the week. I was all geared up for the home stretch. I didn't want to wake up so early, but I was on a mission. Quick shower, work clothes, new sandwiches, fresh apple, water bottle. Up goes the garage door, and I'm ready to go.

And the front tyre on my bike is flat. The tyre I changed yesterday at work, the one I pumped up and upon which I rode home quite comfortably, is dead flat. Usually, my tyres go flat with a sudden thud and a telltale flap-flap-flap sound as you come to a halt, and I'd gotten home on it yesterday without noticing any such problems.

Desperate, I dragged out my housemate's floor pump to see if it had just leaked, but I couldn't get it to stay up. I could hear the air hissing as it escaped. It doesn't look good.

Resigned, too late to catch public transport or to replace the tube again, I went back upstairs, changed into my work clothes and took my car keys from the bedside drawer. I had failed.

Okay, so the anticlimax wasn't really that dramatic. I've since had a look at the tyre, to find a thorn not unlike those on plants we've had to prune in our own front yard. I suppose this is the problem with not sweeping up your garage. That's taken the edge of the disappointment that I felt that Friday morning. I came so close, and I enjoyed doing it.

It was an experience that I felt that I had to do, just to see for myself how viable it was. It's difficult to overstate the importance of the end result: that I'd do it again, and much the same way, in a heartbeat. I don't have an ideal system, but I'm sure it's a workable one. What may be required is little more than fine-tuning - a straw hat, a more reliable bike, and perhaps some other things that are similarly minor. If I've made any progress by this experience, it's the recognition that the hurdles are so minor. There might not be an easy answer to this, but the variety of not-quite-right answers that I tried this week might be a viable result in combination.

That in itself may be progress enough for now. At least I've proven to myself that getting to work, which would be an unthinkable commute without a car, is in fact more than accessible without a car. There are so few places that I go for which I really need a car, and travel to and from work was by far the most significant. From here, I can make progress towards bigger goals, and I feel great for knowing that the things I can do to make progress towards them aren't so bad. That is my reward.

That, and I finally bought that iPod Touch. For the bus ride, of course.

[Updated 2008-04-06: There is a shower at work - just one, in one of the adjacent buildings, but there it is. Also, the Adelaide Metro has just released some new bus timetables, to take effect at the end of April, that will mean I can take the bus and still get in a full eight-hour day. See this blog entry for details.]

No comments: