If you have to drive to work by yourself, Wednesday, Aug. 13 is not the day to do it.
That's "Don't Drive Day." As long as you don't do it, you can win stuff from Mecklenburg County -- stuff like an iPod touch, an electric lawnmower, and so on. Riding the bus, the LYNX blue line, carpooling, vanpooling, walking, telecommuting, or riding a bike all count here.
It sounds like I'm giving out a homework assignment.
The county wants you to e-mail details about your August 13 commute to email@example.com. That gets you entered for the prizes, provided that you send that e-mail by noon on August 14.
Here's the website for more information on this: www.airquality.charmeck.org.
Good luck, and happy biking/riding/walking/carpooling/telecommuting/bus-riding.
Life in the Fast Lanes
July 21, 2008
In ten years, you could get around Charlotte's already congested traffic. That is, if you're willing to pay for it.
City and state transportation folks are already in the midst of a study on Fast Lanes. When we finally get new lanes on parts on I-77, I-85, I-485 and so on, a few of them would turn exclusively into carpool lanes. If you're driving by yourself, you could just pay to use them instead. The heavier the congestion, the more you'd pay. There wouldn't be any toll booths; rather, you'd have a little EZ-Pass sort of thing on your windshield or dash (Anyone who's been on a turnpike up north knows what this is).
Today, NCDOT told me that we'll find out where those toll/HOV lanes will go in December. CDOT and NCDOT are studying it now. Basically, the busiest areas would have carpool lanes. Areas that aren't quite as slammed with cars could get the toll lanes. NCDOT also wants to make sure it'll be able to bring in enough toll money to help pay for it all. That'll factor in as well.
Important stuff? Yes. Highly boring? Yes.
Here's what's new: versions of Fast Lanes are popping up across the country. In Miami, they haven't even started charging TOLLS yet, and already, people are confused. They're darting in between those white plastic stakes meant to keep carpooling or paying drivers apart from the masses on I-95. That's causing accidents. Miami transportation higher-ups say they'll add more signs. And more stakes.
Seattle added "Good To Go" lanes a few months back. About a thousand people are using them per day. DOT folks out there are expecting that number to grow to 5,000, but it could take a few years to get there. People are complaining that they're being overcharged (the cost is anywhere between $0.50 and $9), and that they're having a hard time getting into and out of the lanes.
Bottom line though, Washington DOT folks say "Good To Go" is good for shaving about 5 to 15 minutes off of a rush hour commute. Doesn't sound like much. But imagine taking an hour long drive on I-77 and knocking 15 minutes off. That's a half hour per day of not listening to your radio, wishing you were at home.
Again, this is still at least ten years off in Charlotte. So for now, have a little patience, because later on, you'll need to have a little extra money to get help get rid of your road rage.
Taking a horse to work
Last week, I wondered aloud whether anyone actually rides a horse to work.
I'm not talking about cowboys or ranch hands or other people for whom a horse is part of the job. I was looking for somebody who, say, lives in the 'burbs and rides a pony to their job in some nondescript office park somewhere.
That same day, our NBC sister station in South Florida did this story on a woman who works as a cashier at an Asian restaurant. She rides her horse Calypso to work every day. She parks him under an oak tree.
"My mom's going back to school," Emily Menendez said, "so we can't even afford the gas, it's just too expensive."
I get it. Fuel for your CAR is too expensive. But remember, you've got to fuel the horse too, and feed prices aren't exactly going down (let's not get started on ethanol). Plus, what happens if your horse breaks down on the side of the highway? I don't think AAA's roadside assistance program covers a tow to the veterinarian.
I'm sorry. I just ruined a fun story.
But here's your chance to make it up: Think you can top a horseback commute? Send your stories to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor's Note: Below are several blog entries from producer Jeremy Markovich about his 5-day experiment in commuting to work. Scroll down to read previous days' accounts, and click here for more about his project.
Summarizing A Long Week
It's been a long week.
Regardless of how it looks, it's not easy to videotape yourself riding several different modes of transportation. I had a major problem with my audio. My tape editor, Willie, had to edit around possibly 200 utterances of the words "uh" and "um." It was capped off this afternoon by an on-set interview where I explained what I thought worked best.
You can tell I'm not on TV very often. I have no idea what to do with my hands.
What worked for me:
At the end of it all, I decided biking and driving are the best ways for me to get to work. Quite honestly, I don't spend that much money traveling the 5 miles between south Charlotte and WCNC. It's quick. It's effortless. And it keeps me dry. Just ask me how happy I was to have a car handy during this week's thunderstorms.
The bike also works well. I've been pedaling to work for months now. It only takes a little more than a half-hour. It's free. And I get my daily exercise. Thank goodness there's a shower at my station. My co-workers appreciate that more than they know.
What works for you:
That's really up to you to decide.
There are few theories I have: If you live REALLY close, you can walk. Within 15 miles, you could give biking a try. If you live WAY out, you can take an express bus into town and save a lot of cash. Park and Rides make it easier. And if you want to completely leave your car behind, your bike makes it much easier to get to your bus stop, and then on to work. And, of course, carpooling makes a lot of sense. You may have people in your neighborhood who are headed to the exact same place you are. Ask around work. Check some websites.
I'm not the only one who went looking for a better way. Marisa Wheeling works for Pfeiffer University in Misenheimer. She commutes there from her home in Myers Park. Even in her Honda Civic, she pays $60 to $80 a week for gas. "I have cut down significantly on quick trips to the store," she says. "I have to save money and gas for my daily commute."
Marisa says her bosses have cut the work week down to four days over the summer to save on gas money. She's waiting to see what'll happen in the fall.
Paul Carr left his car behind. He says it took six months to do it. While living in Fort Lauderdale, he sold his car. He lost 40 pounds by riding his bike. That was more than two years ago.
When he moved to Charlotte to work for US Airways, Paul rented an apartment near the airport. It's also near a bus line. "I ride my bike to and from work every day," Paul says. "I wave at two gas stations as I pass by."
He's now 53 years old. "I will continue this plan until I am physically unable to do so," he says. "I know this plan isn't for everyone. It works for me."
If you see a guy flying down the Billy Graham Parkway on a 200cc scooter, it may be Al. He didn't tell us his last name. He fills up every week and a half for $5. It used to cost him $50. You may want to say hi. But don't spook him. He's on a scooter, after all.
We even got an e-mail from a guy named Mitchell Mittower, who found the answer to his commute -- in China. He ordered something called an E-bike for a little less than $1,000. It's an electric-powered bike that you can plug in. He says the electricity cost works out to about 2 cents per mile.
So my five days are over. But it doesn't end here. We want to stay committed to the idea of this -- that there's got to be a better and cheaper way to get to work. It may take some planning. You may have to invest some time. Or even money. How much you'll invest is up to you to decide.
So for now, keep sending us emails about your commute, unusual or not, to email@example.com. Who knows? We may show up along your way to work.
At least you won't have to videotape yourself.
Day 5: Walking
I'm not walking to work again. Ever.
The other four ideas I came up with (biking, bus-riding, biking and carpooling) sounded at least REMOTELY practical to me. This one never did.
Instead, I just wondered how long it would take me to walk the six miles between my condo and our studios. That's the only reason why I did it. My guess was around an hour and a half. It took me two.
One of the things I didn't count on was the boredom. I figured I'd occupy my time with the handheld camera that I was using to videotape my travels. After about ten minutes, I'd shot more than enough footage. A barking dog amused me for a split second. A real estate flyer for a home along my route gave me nearly two minutes of enjoyment. I read it twice and decided I wasn't in the market.
My route took me up sidewalks. Then up more sidewalks. Then up a stretch of Nations Crossing Road where there were no sidewalks. All the while I passed some of Charlotte's most ubiquitous landmarks. A Walgreen's. At least five gas stations. Four Mexican restaurants. Two churches.
I also saw more than my share of beer cans. It's a bit frightening when you stop to think about how they ended up in the gutter along South Boulevard.
I stopped about every ten minutes and checked myself for ticks.
I'm not joking.
See, during day two of my experiment, I had to walk the remaining mile from the closest bus stop to WCNC. During that morning's meeting, I glanced down and saw a tick, head burrowed into my arm and sucking feverishly. Later, I found two more that hadn't burrowed in, but were instead just hanging out, waiting for the party to start. A co-worker suggested that even though I hadn't walked through any woods or tall grass, I had walked under a tree and maybe the ticks had seen me coming and launched an airborne assault. You know, like tiny ninjas.
After my last self-examination, I rounded the corner into the parking lot tick-free, but late for work. I arrived just in time for the general manager to see me. He asked what I was doing. I said I had just walked six miles. "That's great," he replied before walking inside, probably to shake his head and ask human resources if they knew about some weirdo working downstairs named Jeremy.
I knew even before I started my trip that only a weirdo would walk that far to work daily. I'm not alone in the aversion to commuting on two feet. Charlotte ranks near the bottom in a survey of cities where people walk to work.
Three words may change that: mixed use development. The trend lately has been to build homes and offices and shops all in the same spot. That way you can live where you shop where you work. You can have a career and buy the finer things in life without so much as having to walk around the block. Uptown Charlotte is obviously an example. But mixed use developments are popping up everywhere from Ballantyne to Huntersville and beyond. The city is also looking at ways to make Charlotte more walkable. I'd suggest they start with sidewalks on Nations Crossing Road. A guy could twist an ankle out there.
At the end of it all, I suppose I can't complain about my walk to work. It was a nice day. I got some exercise. And I made it in one piece. What more could a guy ask for?
Oh yeah. A ride.
Day 4: Carpooling
Believe it or not, it's not usually in my nature to ask for help.
Seriously. At heart, I'm a quiet person. "It's ok," I'll often say to people. "I can do it myself."
Maybe that's why carpooling just seems soooo... not me. My original plan was to go to a carpooling website, find somebody who was headed in my direction and ask them to ride with me. In my mind, that person would then show up at my door. After I explained that I wasn't a creep and the camera was actually for a series of stories on WCNC, that person would then take me to work. Game, set, match.
It didn't quite work like that. I joined one site and sent out one request. It was to a guy who was driving from SouthPark to Billy Graham at Tyvola.
It felt like I was back in fifth grade, asking a girl if she'd want to go to the dance with me. I don't remember exactly what I typed, but it certainly seemed like this: "Sooo.... Are you, uh, going my way? Cause if you're not, uh, that's ok. I'm uh, just wondering if, um, you'd like to, uh, ride with me. It's cool if you don't want to. It's cool. But if YOU'RE not riding with anybody, and I'M not riding with anybody, well, um, you know. We could, like, ride together. If it's cool."
I got no response.
Other routes made it seem like the driver would need to go out of the way to pick me up. There were a lot of people looking to share rides, but nobody was headed my way. It seemed as if everybody was waiting for somebody else to ask them to the dance.
I decided to go another route, and ended up catching a ride with Steve. He's one of our commercial photographers. He also happens to live about a mile away from me.
"How'd you like to take part in my experiment?" I asked him one day last week.
"Uh... ok," he said.
For one thing, since Steve was driving, I was at his mercy. He showed up around 7:30 in the morning. That's an hour before I normally left to drive to work. He told me that I'd need to find another way home, since he had somewhere else to be afterward.
I asked how far Steve would have driven to pick me up. Five miles, he said, after prefacing it with, "Depends on how good of a friend you are."
I did get something out of my carpooling experience. Steve showed me a back way to work that he swears I'm not allowed to reveal. It saves a lot of time, he said. If too many people know about it, Steve will have to wait on more traffic. And then it won't be a short-cut.
I also, quite obviously, saved money. Carpooling cuts your costs in half. Or by a third, if three people share the driving. I don't think I'm saying anything you didn't already learn in second grade math class.
I was going to bring Steve 50 cents to cover the cost of gas. I left in such a hurry, I forgot the quarters.
In the end, you already know the benefits of carpooling. It saves gas. It cuts down on traffic. It can save the environment. This much you know.
Plus, if you can get nine to 14 people together, you can get a van from the Charlotte Area Transportation System. That would be like taking a field trip to work. Every day.
And, if you just need a ride for a few days, sites like Craigslist can help you find that as well.
I'm sure I'll carpool again. But co-workers, be warned: The next time I need a ride, don't be alarmed if I pass a carpooling note to front of the newsroom, asking you to check yes or no.
It's just how I operate.
Day 3: Biking to work
Admittedly, riding a bike is not the coolest looking thing in the world.
There are some people who make it look good. Lance Armstrong, perhaps. The rest of us tend to wear shirts that are way too tight.
Let's not talk about the shorts.
But don't be afraid of functional fashion. I'm not. Biking to work has become a bit of an obsession for me. When I don't do it, I feel guilty. Hopping in my car feels like a cop-out.
I started riding after I bought my bike from an engineer here at the station. After a few rides around the neighborhood, I wondered if I could take it to work. So I did.
Then I wondered if I could do it two days in a row. I thought maybe it'd be easier if I swapped out my knobby mountain bike tires for slicker street ones. I convinced myself that an athletic, albeit tighter shirt may make my ride more comfortable.
Before long, I'd developed a routine: pack my lunch, pack my clothes, round up shower gear, throw it into a backpack, fill up my water bottle, and start pedaling. A half-hour later, I'd walk in the back door of the station, put up my bike and helmet up, then jump in the shower. Some study I read said 85% of bike commuters in Chicago don't shower after rolling into work. I'm sweaty. I have no earthly idea how they do it.
I began bike commuting mostly by accident. It wasn't a goal that I'd set out to accomplish. I just woke up early one morning and wondered if I could do it. "I bet I'll save money on gas," I thought. Those were the good ol' days of $3.50 a gallon.
Charlotte has quite a few people who ride. A lot of those folks are willing to help out the people who want to try it out, but aren't quite sure where to start.
That's how I met Ed Moyers. He's part of the Bike Commuter Mentor Program, a bunch of guys (and women) who pedal to work and want to share what they've learned. Sometimes they'll even ride with you, if you really feel like a lost puppy out there.
He and fellow bike commuter Joe Frisco invited me uptown to their monthly dinner. We all arrived on bikes. We started throwing stories around. Some were about close calls with cars. Others dealt with slogging it through treacherous weather. Seemingly nothing keeps these guys from biking it to the office.
There are hazards, and nobody's completely comfortable right off the bat. "You're not going to ride twice and say, 'Wow, I'm a biking stud,'" Ed told me during a recent ride. "It's not going to happen."
The more you do it, the more you get it. I'd been riding for months when a co-worker (and fellow biker) suggested a different route -- longer, but shadier and through a neighborhood. My old route featured a ride through a rather foul-smelling stretch of Old Pineville Road. Cars came perilously close to me as I whizzed along in my bike lane.
My new route was a mile longer, but miles apart in comfort.
Sure, you can't use your bike every day. Some days, you just have somewhere to be after work. Maybe there are too many errands to run. And, like me, there are days when the weather is horrible and I just don't feel like it.
But if you're curious, do what Ed suggests: Take a bike ride to the office on the weekend. Test it out without as much traffic. See if you can do it. Ask others for help. Check online for resources.
And forget about the fashion. You can buy better clothes with the money you save.
Helpful Biking Links:
Day 2: Riding the bus
First thing: Don't exclusively believe anything you read on the Internet.
When I went to plot out my route to work via bus and light rail, I went to ridetransit.org. The best it could do was drop me off a little less than a mile away from work.
The ride was far from direct. The first bus would take me from the end of my street to the light rail line. The train would take me to the last stop before Uptown. Then, a block away, another bus would pick me up and drop me off at an intersection in the middle of an industrial park.
Look at my route. It closely resembles a hairpin.
If you're lucky, VERY lucky, transit will take you directly to your destination. If your destination is Uptown, you're lucky. If you're leaving from the transit center, you're lucky.
If you're in most other places in Charlotte, you've just got to have patience, especially if you're headed crosstown. Ridetransit.org told me it would take an hour and six minute to arrive at my destination. It took me every bit of that.
I was lucky enough to have Larry Kopf from the Charlotte Area Transit System riding along with me in the afternoon. With one simple change, Larry turned a commute of more than an hour into one that took half the time. You'll see what it was when you watch the video.
• Tell us about your commute. What's it like? What has changed? What do you wish you could change? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Taking transit takes thinking. In most cases, you can't just hop on a bus and figure out how to get across town without asking anyone. And if you do stumble upon a route that works, it may not be the best one.
I didn't do that. I figured I'd catch the next bus that came down the road. I naively thought that maybe it'd be early.
I waited 25 minutes at my stop. The bus was on time. I wasn't.
Larry is big on time. As we sat at the first bus stop, he threw a flurry of numbers at me. If we get to this stop at this time, he said, then we can get to that stop at that time, then we can catch the next bus at the next time.
I wish I'd taken notes on that part.
One thing I didn't need notes to remember is this: the farther away you live, the more sense the bus makes. An express bus pass is $1.75 to $2.60 each way ($2 to $3 starting in October). It's cheaper if you get a monthly pass. If you get one of those, CATS will get you back to your home or car in an emergency. They'll get a taxi for you free of charge.
Bottom line though, less than $3 always gets you from point A to point B, no matter what the distance is between. Try that with your car. It won't work.
The problem is always time. Larrry says transit is comparable to taking your car or truck time-wise, but that, of course, depends on where you live. It will probably take longer than you think. But since you're not driving, you can read the paper, or peck away at your computer keyboard. Larry gets work done. He's read more than thirty books on the bus. He rides it nearly every day.
As for more cross town routes, "We still have a long way to go," he told me, "but we have started that part of the network."
CATS won't replace your car. It's not a taxi. But just like everything else, it's worth your time to do more than just a quick check on the internet. You might not believe what you find. But it's worth a ride to try and change your mind.
Day 1: Driving is easy. Or is it?
I like driving to work because it's such a no-brainer.
I like to sleep late. I drive on those days.
I drive on days that I don't pack a lunch (which are usually the days that I sleep late). I figure I'll be able to jump in the car later to go get something to eat.
I drive on days when the weather is bad, on days when I have to run an errand, and on days when I have to get to my other part-time job as a raft guide at the U.S. National Whitewater Center.
And, I drive on days when I just don't feel like figuring out another way to work. Click here for a map of all the ways Jeremy gets to work.
In today's case, I drove to prove a point. It costs a dollar for me to get from my place in south Charlotte to WCNC. I pay another dollar to drive home. I figured this out by calculating my Cavalier's fuel economy, the distance to work, and the (for now) $4 price of gas.
In short, driving is the fast food of commuting: quick, easy, and seemingly cheap.
Driving to work rarely requires any planning, except for the occasional day when you need to find a way around an accident. It's usually the most direct way to my job. And, at least for me, it's much more convenient than any other form. I don't need to print out a bus schedule. I don't need to pump up my bike tires, and I don't need to call my friends to coordinate a carpool. I just put the key in the ignition and turn. Done.
• Tell us about your commute. What's it like? What has changed? What do you wish you could change? E-mail us at email@example.com.
The problem is that when you actually start to think about this no-brainer, you find quite a bit to think about. Gas is expensive. You already know that. But calculate how much it costs to get to work every day and you realize just how much you're spending on that routine round-trip. For me, it's $500 a year. And I'm probably one of the cheaper ones out there. I'd hate to think of what some of you are paying to drive in from Mooresville, Concord, Rock Hill, Monroe or (gasp) Hickory every day. It adds up.
Plus, there are hidden costs to driving, like insurance, maintenance, washings, license plates, taxes, and so on. AAA estimated that the average North Carolinian now pays 63 cents to go one mile by car. By that rationale, my drive to work just went up from $2 a day to nearly $7 a day. That's now more than $1,500 a year to make my short drive.
And again, I'm probably one of the cheaper ones.
It's not so much that driving is an inherently BAD thing, it's that there's so much room for improvement. Think of what you could do with that extra money. I'd buy a big screen TV with my $1,500.
I get it. There are just some days when you can't avoid the fact that you'll have to drive to work. Kids need to be picked up from soccer practices. You need to make a stop at the grocery store on the way home. Ironically, I had to drive back to work several times to assemble the footage I'd shot by taking the bus or bike to work. Some things are just unavoidable.
But if you're willing to put a little thought into your commute to work, or at least into the WAY you drive, you may find that it's not such a no-brainer after all.