owning my commute (not the other way around)

An integral part of not owning a car is knowing how far away from home I can logistically expect to do certain things. When I was looking for teaching jobs, for example, I didn’t even look at districts that were more than 20 miles away, because I knew I didn’t want to bike that far every day. It was never a matter of finding a job, any job, and then figuring out how to get there; transportation comes first for me. If I can’t get there in a way that makes me happy, I’m not even going to consider it.

Is that limiting? I see how someone could think that–it did cut down on the number of jobs I applied to, for example–but no, I’ve never actually felt limited. In fact, it’s liberating: I live a life in which I have carefully chosen what I do, and it’s based on what I am willing to do, not on what happened to be available. That is, I try never to be a victim of circumstance–especially not transportation circumstance. I never lament my rush-hour commute, the time spent in traffic, the way I have no choice but to endure the commute. I do have a choice: don’t take a job that far from home.

Despite all that, today I found myself biking to Wilsonville, a good 25 miles away, because I’d forgotten the check-how-far-away-it-is-first principle when I got really excited about an outdoor education program in the West-Linn/Wilsonville school district. They’re trying to start up a new educational farm that I want to be involved in, and even though it’s West Linn/Wilsonville, I only really thought about the West Linn part of it. And that’s not too far away from Lake Oswego, which is far but not ridiculously far from my house. And especially for something that sounded so cool, I was willing to bike somewhat far.

Sadly, once I emailed the man in charge, set up a time to meet, and then got the address from him, I rather harshly realized that Wilsonville is, in fact, much, much further away than I was imagining.

So today I found myself on an exploratory ride meant to determine if an educational farm in Wilsonville, even if it’s the coolest thing in the world, is something I can actually commit to. The verdict? I’m not sure yet. It took me about an hour and fifty minutes to bike there, a little less to bike back. I’m sure I could do it faster, especially now that I know the route, but still, a 3-3.5 hour investment in commute time is a lot, even if it does double as a lovely bike ride (actually, the route I took wasn’t that lovely. I’d have to tweak it a bit).

On the other hand, it’s not something I’d have to do every day. It sounds like I could help with field trips and other educational opportunities on a case-by-case basis, or one day a week, or really however I want to. It all seems very flexible. I think I could handle a once-weekly 50-mile commute, so maybe it’s feasible after all. It’s not like it’d be a real job, an every day for 8 hours, have to get there by 9 kind of thing. If I have autonomy in how I set it up, it might work out.

Which gets me back to the idea of trying to craft my life according to what I’m willing to do, not what happens to be available. There are certain circumstances in which I am willing to bike 50 miles to get somewhere and back. They’re contextual: I have to not have so much else going on in life that it seems like too much time to devote, I have to be able to get there a little later (since I do not want to leave at 5am or anything crazy), I have to be able to not do it every day.

So I don’t know what I’m going to do about it yet, but I’m thinking about it. And in the meantime, it’s nice to reaffirm that I am in charge of my transportational options. I know my limits; I own and create my commute. It will not own me.


  1. Congrats on the new blog. The project sounds cool and I hope that you are able to make it work.

    I’ve been thinking about you, James and the “car-free” lifestyle just now. I can imagine that it is liberating to limit your life choices to a circumference that you can easily navigate and reach within biking distance. You cast aside the notion that it is limiting, but I would argue that to be a bit of a misnomer. You are certainly limiting your sphere of options. But in doing so, you have found the resulting lack of complication to be liberating.

    But in order to make that lifestyle work, you have to do one very important thing: locate yourself in a community that has a wealth of businesses, opportunity, and alternative transportation options within a 20-mile radius. I think that Portland is definitely at the righthand of the bell curve when it comes to those features. If you lived in Monmouth, OR or Tucson, AZ, things would likely be very different. And to do that requires money, luck, and opportunity.

    Moreover, it takes money, luck and opportunity to be able to choose to commute for four hours while working only a few days a week.

    My question for you is this: how feasible do you think this lifestyle is for other people given these external constraints? When you advocate the car-less lifestyle, is it something you can see catching on everywhere? Or do you think that given the current infrastructure of the US, it’s only feasible in progressive urban communities?

    I hope you don’t take any of this as snide: it isn’t intended to be. I’m just curious about your goals as an advocate for bike travel.

    • Hey, thanks for the comment! Don’t worry, it doesn’t seem snide at all–in fact, after I wrote that post, I told James that I felt like I should have written an addendum too, addressing what I knew someone would think if not actually say out loud (thanks for stepping up:)

      So yes. I am lucky to live in Portland, where bike infrastructure is amazing and things are relatively dense. It would definitely be less awesome–though still possible–to live in sprawly Sacramento; it would probably be impossible to live somewhere totally rural. In that sense, I’m certainly privileged to be here. Of course, I chose to be here instead of Sacramento, Tucson, Monmouth, or somewhere out in the middle of nowhere, so I kind of still chalk it up to making choices that put me in the position I want to be in.

      And you’re right: it takes money and opportunity to commute for hours and only work a few days a week. Like I said, I don’t think the Wilsonville thing would be sustainable, and I certainly wouldn’t have even considered it if I had a real job right now. It’s not the model of car-free-ness that I want to hold up as an example. But in most non-extreme cases, I think people don’t realize that it doesn’t really take that much longer to bike places than it does to drive. Honestly. And in the cases that it does, it’s just a choice I’ve made: I know that it takes 40 minutes to get to Lewis and Clark, for example, just the same way that someone who drives is might know that it takes 25. Because I’ve decided that I’ll bike it, though, I don’t even think about the 15 minutes I could “save” by driving. Instead, I enjoy the ride, the exercise, the not-being-cooped-up-in-a-car, and the feeling of being healthy (which to me is certainly worth 15 minutes of my time).

      So I don’t know. I certainly think that driving less is feasible for basically everyone. I think that driving not at all is feasible for more than those who currently pursue it. I don’t need everyone to give up their cars entirely (though that would be awesome;), I just want people to realize that they don’t have to be as dependent on them as they think they do.

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