Carbon-offset commuting

June 21st, 20135:30 am @


I love to ski. I’m concerned about climate change. And I have an old car with nearly 200,000 miles on it.


So what do these three things have in common? Not much — except that they are all related to a goal I set in March to commute by bike this summer the equivalent number of miles that I drove to go skiing last winter.

I teach skiing part-time on the weekends at our local hill, Eldora Mountain Resort. Between the job and a few days skiing with family and friends, I drove to Eldora 30 times from my home in Lafayette. Occasionally, I carpooled or rode the bus, but the majority of the time I drove alone. Even though Eldora is a lot closer to my house than all the other ski areas in the state, like Loveland, Copper or Vail, my skiing generated a lot of additional driving. Not only did this put wear-and-tear on my reliable but aging 1997 Subaru Outback wagon, but it also produced more pollution and carbon dioxide.

In part because of my love for skiing, I am concerned about global climate change. Skiing and snowboarding are lifelong sports that I want my children and grandchildren to be able to enjoy, not something they read about in history books. Like any good forward-thinking Colorado guy, I have been trying to do what I can about it — we have a clothesline to dry the laundry outside, I combine errands whenever possible, we purchase wind energy through Xcel, and I ride my bike to work as much as I can in the summer. With a family and other responsibilities, though, I can’t ride my bike every day. Plus, I’ve typically been a fair weather cyclist — I don’t ride in the dark or in the cold, and definitely not in the snow. I’d rather bike during the daylight hours and the pleasant Colorado weather in the late-spring-to-early-fall timeframe.

My goal to offset my ski driving miles with miles on my bike would definitely push me out of my comfort zone — I would soon find myself riding on days that I never would have in the past — days so cold my hands and feet were numb by the time I got to work, days when I had mid-day meetings and barely made it because of flat tires, days when I had to leave work early to pick up the kids from school. In the past, I would have used these circumstances as excuses not to ride. Now, I am looking for opportunities to add to my riding goal, despite these obstacles.

* * * *

I did the math and figured that I drove 1,950 miles to ski last winter (it’s 65 miles round-trip from my house in Lafayette to Eldora). My bike commute to my full-time job in East Boulder is 16 miles round-trip, which means I would have to ride about 120 days in 2013 to make up for the driving during the 2012-13 winter. This was a huge increase from the summer before, when I biked to work about 40 days. Could I do it?

While biking nearly 2,000 miles might not sound like a lot to those who ride all the time, I’m only counting commuting miles toward the total. So if I miss a couple of days during the week, I can’t make up for it by going for a long ride on the weekend; only biking miles that I would have otherwise driven count towards my goal.

Though I ride a bike, I don’t really consider myself a cyclist, especially in such an active town like Boulder. I don’t ride to Jamestown or Carter Lake for fun. I’ve never done the Triple Bypass or Ride the Rockies. I ride a 20-yearold, bright-orange, hand-me-down cross bike. “That is not a new bike,” a friend diplomatically commented upon seeing my bike for the first time. I wear a plain jersey and black cycling shorts, eschewing the flashier, sponsor-laden matching kits some other cyclists sport. With each passing mile and day in the saddle, however, I am becoming a stronger rider, laying the foundation for success in reaching my goal.

* * * *


Day One of Bike Commute 2013 was a warm day for mid-March, with a high of 71 degrees — so far, so good. I got three more days of riding in before Boulder saw its biggest snowstorm of the season to that point (10 inches on March 22), followed by four days of commute below-average temperatures, which curtailed my riding. Little did I know that that snowstorm was only the beginning of a long, cold and snowy spring, the snowiest spring on record, with repeated snowstorms in late March, April and even into May (82.7 total inches of comfortable riding on roads and paths slick enough to potentially cause me to slide out on my bike and risk an injury. if I consequently missed quite a few days week, of riding, shoveling my driveway and sidewalk and driving my Subaru to snow this spring). For safety concerns, I didn’t ride in the snow. I just didn’t feel work instead of pedaling the pavement.

With each successive snowstorm, I fell further behind the pace I needed to maintain for my goal. The snowy days I missed, however, only made me more determined to ride in the post-snowstorm cold weather. On days when the mercury read 38 degrees, and I would normally hop in the car, I bundled up with balaclava, warm mittens, down puffy jacket and windproof pants to ward off the chill of the early morning ride. Much of this apparel was borrowed from my ski gear pile and not necessarily bike-specific clothing. My wife thought I was completely crazy, but as long as the roads were dry, I needed to put the miles in. When I arrived at work, I was thankful for the hot shower in our office to bring the blood back to my numb hands, legs and feet.

Between the snow and the other limitations on my riding (particularly traveling for work), I soon came to realize that I would not be able to reach the 1,950-mile goal only by commuting to work; I would have to replace other types of driving with biking as well. I started riding bikes to school with my son in the spring — the ride to school didn’t count (because he would have otherwise ridden the bus), but riding my bike to pick him up at the end of his after-school program does count (because I would have driven the car to get him). I have also started riding my bike around Lafayette for various errands — returning library books, small grocery store runs, a quick trip to the liquor store. Even though these trips are short, they count because I would normally do the errands in the car, and the miles add up towards my overall goal.

The small shower at our office has been essential on both cold mornings and for later in the summer when the temperatures rise quickly, even early in the morning. I carry my work clothes and lunch in a messenger bag, and shower and change at work. It’s also helpful that my office is right on the main Boulder bike path, making it a pretty straightforward and easy commute. From Lafayette to Boulder, I ride Baseline Road, which has a wide shoulder, relatively little traffic, and a reasonably low speed limit, all of which makes it a pleasant road to ride. This section of the road offers great views of the Flatirons, Indian Peaks and even the Mummy Range, bathed in the pink and orange light of the rising sun. I then pick up the bike path at Baseline and Cherryvale and follow it north and west to my office.

Early in the spring, all kinds of people would pass me on the road: not only the hyper-fit professional wanna-be on a bike more expensive than my car, but also a guy in cargo shorts and flip-flops riding a mountain bike and more than one silver-haired grandmother. By late May, about the time the irrigation ditches started flowing, I was getting in better shape and riding faster. On a ride back home, near the top of the gradual but long uphill eastbound section of Baseline Road, I passed two pretty fitlooking guys, albeit riding mountain bikes. As I passed, the guy closer to me muttered, “showoff.” I was surprised to hear another rider vocalize the words I had always thought when someone else overtook me on the road — the combination of jealousy and frustration when someone else passes you, even though it’s only a commute and not a race. I was also a little gratified to realize that, for that moment at least, the roles of passer and passee had been temporarily reversed.

To keep track of the miles I use the RunKeeper app on my iPhone, which allows you to categorize your activities into various buckets (running, cycling, mountain biking, walking, even swimming and skiing). I categorize my rec reational riding under “mountain biking” to keep those miles separate from my commuting miles. To keep track of my progress, the app also has a function to set goals for achieving a total distance by a certain date. As of June 17, I have ridden 596 miles, or 30 percent, of the way to my goal.

* * * *

I’m not naïve enough to think that my biking offset is going to make a huge difference in global carbon dioxide output. Indeed, in late May the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere reached 400 parts per million, a significant number that indicates our collective failure to curtail one of the primary global warming gasses. At the same time, I also know that every one of us has a role to play in making changes that, over time, will have a positive impact on our environment, our planet and our future.

In many respects, Bike and Walk to Work Day, on June 26, is about just that: getting people to try something new, get outside their comfort zone, think about the alternatives, as well as get some exercise. The safety tips, commuting maps, breakfast stations and other activities and promotions are primarily geared around getting people to start bike commuting for the first time, as well as celebrating those who are regular bike commuters. Not long ago I was in the former category, unsure how long it would take or what to wear. Now, I consider myself solidly in the latter group.

While the environmental benefits are the primary motivation for my carbon-offset goal, other reasons for bike commuting include financial, physical health and mental health. As my neighbor says, “Every time I ride to work it’s like putting six bucks in my pocket.” While biking isn’t free (I recently replaced a rear tire, shifter cables, and handlebar tape — around $90), the maintenance is orders of magnitude cheaper than a car. The fitness aspect is also an important benefit, as the daily commute and exercise are combined into one activity.

Many other cyclists I have talked to mention the benefit of decompressing and thinking while riding — alone time that many of us don’t get in our otherwise connected and multi-tasking world. Just having time to think and see the world while getting some fresh air and exercise is a significant positive outcome from biking. It has certainly given me a mental respite, providing time to think about, among other things, ideas and thoughts for this article. Upon arriving home, I have frequently jotted down on a notepad a few of my reflections, while they are fresh in my head and before the hustle of kids and dinner makes me completely forget the thoughts forged during my solitary evening commute.

Anyone who rides a lot will probably relate to some of the other experiences I have had while on two wheels: numerous times getting caught in the rain on the way home (and a few times on the way to work as well), fighting crosswinds so strong that the drivers on the road probably thought I was drunk, and getting two flat tires within 10 minutes while on the way to an important daytime meeting (I was only two minutes late). I’m sure most other frequent bike commuters have many tales of challenges and eventful rides as well.

I still have a ways to go to reach my goal, but I’m quite motivated to complete that 1,950-mile objective. Regardless of whether I make it, I’m getting in better shape, reducing my carbon output, saving money on gas (and wear and tear on my car) and getting some alone time just to think. By the time the snow starts flying again in the fall and my thoughts turn to the ski slopes, I am hopeful that Mother Earth will thank me for my efforts. I know my Subaru will.



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