Ow my back -- Bikes on VTA (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source, Science, and Nature.

Thu, 19 Aug 2004

Ow my back -- Bikes on VTA

Going to Toastmasters today, I decided I'd try taking light rail. There's a light rail station a few blocks from Coherent, where the group meets, and on this end the Children's Discovery Museum station is about 10 minutes away by bicycle.

(I'm trying to use bikes more and cars less -- more exercise, less pollution. But it's not always easy in most parts of California.)

I tried to use VTA's trip planner, but it's hard to use if you're planning a bike trip: the maximum walking distance you can specify is a mile, and it's a lot farther than that to the closest light rail station. The trip planner prefers buses, which adds a lot to the trip time. If you want to use it for bikes on caltrain or light rail, you have to do your own research to figure out the nearest stations, and use those as your source and destination. You can't just use VTA light rail schedules to plan your trip, because while they have a list of expected arrival times at each station, it's not listed in columnar format like most timetables, so there's no way to tell what time the 10:45 train in San Jose is likely to arrive at Tasman.

Biking to the station and purchasing a ticket went without a hitch, and a train came by maybe 7 minutes later. The web site said to use the middle door of the car, so I did, but there were no bike storage facilities obvious, so when the train lurched into motion I sat down. Eventually I saw a "Bikes ->" sign, so at the next stop I followed it to the end of the car and found the bike storage area.

The way VTA light rail's bike storage works is that there are tracks on the wall of the car, and a hook up near the roof. The hook is way up high and it's offset so you can't stand under it, so I can't just lift the bike straight up like I do when I store my bike on hooks at home. (Maybe really tall people can do that.) There are instructions on the wall that say to get the bike wheels in the tracks, then push on the frame and the seat to walk the bike up the wall, then hang the wheel on the hook. This doesn't work at all; you have to hold on to the front wheel somehow (the handlebars probably work better if you're over six feet all and can reach that high) to keep it from turning, but you have to push against the back of the bike because it's too far in from where you have to stand to be able to hold on to the down tube. Holding on to the seat and top tube doesn't give you enough leverage to swing the bike vertical.

Of course, this would all be easy with a nice lightweight bike. I guess everyone should be commuting on a 24-lb aluminum or titanium wonder. (I have a lovely 24 lb mountain bike, which I don't use for commuting after my previous lovely lightweight bike was stolen. And yes, it was locked, which isn't an option on light rail.)

(Bikes on Caltrain are a lot easier. There are bike racks near the doors, and you just wheel your bike into them and secure them with a bungee cord.)

I eventually did get my bike hooked, and settled down for the ride, covered in sweat (much more so than I had been from the bike ride) and watching the alarming swaying of the bike, wondering whether it might come off the hook (they're more secure than they look). I exited at Tasman, rather than going to the end of the line (Baypointe) and transferring to the Tasman line to get closer to Coherent. I was running late and figured it would be faster to bike it. As it is, I made a wrong turn after I got off the train, so I was late anyway. It took me an hour and a quarter for the whole trip, but that includes ten minutes lost to my navigational error. The trip takes about 25 minutes by car in average traffic. A little over double car-time seems fairly typical for public transit.

On the way back, I decided to take the Tasman line to see how much difference it made. It was a 12 minute wait for a train, but even so, the trip took an hour and ten minutes, about five minutes longer than when I rode the Tasman section. Probably worthwhile.

But it was on the return trip that my problems started. The bike section had three bikes in it already, so I didn't have much room to work with struggling to get my bike up, and managed to wrench my back in the process, and couldn't get past that to get the bike up where it needed to be. A nice fellow rider helped me.

I rode the rest of the trip in pain. I got the bike down without too much trouble when I got to the transfer station, but when transferring to the Santa Theresa line again I couldn't lift it high enough -- it hurt too much. Again someone helped me.

I sat near the bike, trying to find a position that didn't hurt so much. Every so often someone else came on with a bike, struggled with it for a while, eventually got it up, then looked at me, we exchanged sympathetic glances, and the other rider would say, "My bike is heavy" or "I used to have a lighter bike, but it got stolen". Apparently it's not just me -- lots of commuters have this problem with the VTA bike racks, because they're set up for fancy lightweight bikes and lots of people use cheap heavy bikes for commuting.

(That made me feel better. I don't normally have back problems, and I'm fairly strong for my size. I have no trouble lifting a bike, even this heavy klunker, over my head to store it on a normal hook. It's the unusual angles on the VTA cars, the inaccessibility of the hook, and the lack of space in which to work which caused problems for me.)

I'm home safely now, with ibuprofen and a comfortable chair, wondering how long my back is going to be sore and whether I'll have the courage to try VTA again.

Certainly not without a regimen of abdominal and back exercises first. Or a much lighter bike.

[ 16:19 Aug 19, 2004    More misc | permalink to this entry ]