The Unbearable Lateness of Being :: The Anatomy of a Bike Commute

The last thing I thought I’d do when I moved to Southern California was sit in a car all day trying to get to work and back home. Although I spent a few shorts months commuting from Altadena to Woodland Hills one or two times per week, and again a few short months driving to Toluca Lake a couple of times per week, I have escaped the Southern California Car Experience. The SCCE typically involves one hour or longer seated in the car to and from work. While Los Angeles hardly has a monopoly on rush hour gridlock, sitting in the car is a given– ask any Angeleno how long it takes to get somewhere, and the answer is always “one hour”.

Twice weekly I commute by bicycle to Pedal Spin Studio where I teach TRX and Spin classes. Pedal is around about 7 miles from home, and I typically give myself 30 minutes to get to work. It’s almost all downhill so I can spin lightly and make it in plenty of time.

Today was an exception. I left 6 minutes late, at 7.51 instead of the usual 7.45 am. 6 minutes late means 2 things. 1) I will have to ride faster than usual; and 2) heavier traffic.

Addressing number 1 first, this means I must ride an average of 20 miles per hour to get to work. It means I will have to sweat, and it means I will have to pedal the entire way. This is an inconvenience, for I would prefer to ride recovery pace today.

Number 2.

It is astounding how much difference 6 minutes can make in the number of cars on the road at any given time of day. In a car that means you’re faced with lines of other cars all trying to squeeze into the same spot. The number one thing I noticed when I moved to Southern California is using a turn signal will put you in last place. It was odd to me that being a courteous driver was punishable by rude and self-important drivers blocking you in and cutting you off. In most places, a turn signal is honored. And even other places, say, Oklahoma, if you use your turn signal, people will slow down to let you in front of them. Novel. However it seems that each and every driver has a burning desire to be in the place of the driver or drivers in front of them, instead of just having some patience, breathing, and allowing traffic to sort itself out.

The reason this turn signal idea is so important is because people drive faster during these times of day– faster in order to get to work on time which inevitably means faster to get in front of the car in front of them. While someone who leaves for work at 6.45am may meander along, a driver who leaves for work at 7.51am is under the impression he will be on time if he drives faster in between stop signs, weaves in and out of traffic, and drives 45 miles an hour up to each red light.

Think of the wear and tear on the car; the cold engine being revved unnecessarily, the brakes wearing out earlier than normal and the poor fuel economy one encumbers upon one’s car.

The funny thing about my ride:

I leave the house, down the driveway and I must wait for 5 cars to pass by (record number!) before turning left and dog-legging into the neighborhood behind ours. I note a car I’ve seen before, a white Mazda 5. As I approach the 3-way stop that confluences the cars and my back-door route, I notice the Mazda 5 sitting about 5 cars back in line. I turn right and continue on my ride. I take the next back-door road and meet back up with the normal flow of traffic around the corner next to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I sneak through the stop sign and pedal at about 75% to the traffic light ahead. It’s a long drag, and as I finally pull up to the light, I am passed by the same Mazda 5. It typically takes me 5-6 minutes to get tho this point depending upon my chosen rate. With traffic, it takes a car the exact same amount of time to get to that point.

I begin to realize, at this point, we’re all running late.

What makes us late in the first place?

One thing that happened to me when I moved to Southern California was my inherent habit of arriving early to every meeting, event and appointment disappeared. I instantly became perpetually late. For someone who has nightmares about being late, this was a turn of the tables. (I have to admit I have been better at arriving early or on time as of late!)

Is part of the SoCal psyche this need for drama and excitement so that we make ourselves late every day? I know this is not a problem reserved for SoCal, but there are days when I believe it to be so. Just read the LA Times versus the NY Times. the LA Times delivers short, low grade stories, mostly terrific in nature (there is always a story about a pedophile on the front page, followed by “a celebrity sneezed” story.) The NY Times delivers long, thoughtful and well-written articles of deep underlying importance for the most part. (I have ridden my bike in Manhattan during rush hour, so I do know there is not a correlation between drivers and newspapers. Perhaps the psyche of the towns are different… for another day.)

As a friend pointed out to me long ago– perhaps it’s too much sunshine. I might have to agree. But I love that sunshine, and I wouldn’t want to give it up. At least not just yet.

So here we are. Always late, always running, always running with blinders on so we can’t see those around us. I hate being late, but I hate even more being surrounded by angry cars revving and braking and trying to be on time when they could have left a few minutes earlier. Let’s try to break this unbearable lateness of being, yes? Spread some smiles, slow down, leave earlier and call in if you are going to be late. The world will continue to turn.

Alas, the show must go on, and it will whether or not we decide to try to do those things.




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