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Transit Diary: A week without driving a car: Can it work in the Piedmont Triad?

by Amy Kingsley

Monday

Miles: 14 (bike – work), 1.5 (bike – dinner), 1 block (feet – cat litter)

Cost: Nada

Greensboro stinks. And I don’t mean that figuratively.

Most of High Point Road gives off a musty smell – a moderately offensive funk that derives its industrial essence from some combination of hot asphalt and vulcanized rubber. Burger King, McDonald’s, Bojangles, Krispy Kreme, Biscuitville and Cook Out lay down a fog of fryer grease that blankets the two-mile stretch saddling Interstate 40.

And then there’s the roadkill – there’s a lot of it along this road. At least that’s what my nose tells me.

Funny how I never noticed in my car. The smells I mean. In the summertime I drive with my windows down because my air conditioner doesn’t work, but the olfactory subtleties of the city I call home rarely puncture my automotive shell.

I notice on my bike. Maybe it’s because I’m breathing so hard, practically stuffing my lungs with all that smelly air. It’s been awhile since I did any serious riding and not only am I crawling, I’m also huffing like a pipe organ.

Of all the forms of alternative transportation, bicycling is my favorite. I covered Austin and Dallas successfully without a car during college and for a couple of years afterward – saving myself thousands of dollars in payments and upkeep at a time when I genuinely couldn’t afford it.

When I moved to Greensboro in 2001, I buckled and upgraded to four wheels, reckoning that I might not make it in a strange city without a car – or that I might not make it out.

Two years later I moved to Carrboro, where I was able to bring my bike out of storage for the daily commute to school. And I ride in Greensboro now whenever I get the chance, or at least when I’ll be drinking.

But I’ve only ridden to work a handful of times, a routine that’s changing as of 9 a.m. this morning, when I hit High Point Road during a late morning lull in traffic. The ride to work is all uphill – mostly a gentle lift toward Adams Farm with two decent hills in the middle and the end. Enough to get the blood moving.

I borrow my boyfriend’s steel-frame Peugeot this morning because my Schwinn Continental is too massive a chunk of 1970s nostalgia to consider pushing up the seven-mile incline. After a 40-minute ride liberally sprinkled with water breaks, I get to work and change out of my sweat-soaked riding clothes.

The boost you get from a morning of vigorous exercise is nothing like the tweaky, speedy sensation that settles in after that third cup of morning coffee. It feels more fundamental somehow, like someone’s gone in and tweaked the very essence of my character. For once I don’t dither – I start working as soon as I hit my desk.

Unfortunately, there’s a less pleasant side effect of my morning ride that manifests itself when I change my sitting position. My ass hurts. The bones are so sore that my ride back – which should be a pleasant downhill drift – is actually pretty agonizing.

The traffic isn’t doing much for me either. High Point Road is no ride for the faint of heart, and the cars bombing past inspire me to steer onto the sidewalks, where I have to dodge panhandlers and stroller-pushing pedestrians.

I make it home intact, and out to dinner an hour later – another bike ride, but shorter. My evening errand, getting litter for the cats, is eased by the proximity of a brand new Walgreens whose construction I bemoaned as early as last summer. Never again will I complain about Greensboro’s abundance of drug stores. Not only do they carry cat litter, they also install sidewalks wide enough to accommodate both pedestrians and cyclists.

Tuesday

Miles: 4.6 (bike – haircut), 2 blocks (feet – Diet Coke)

Cost: Nothing

Today I’m playing hooky… er, telecommuting. That means I’ll be using all the newfangled communication technology at my home to avoid going into the office at all.

First I’ve got a conference call at 9:30 with the rest of the editorial staff. Every Tuesday morning, we thresh out our stories for the upcoming week. It’s an important, occasionally grueling part of the workweek. And since my coworkers can’t see me, I’m tempted to undermine it by slipping some whiskey into my morning coffee.

I don’t. Instead I wake up at the usual time, take my coffee straight and consume my usual diet of local papers and blogs. Then I do the inevitable: fritter away the better part of the morning on stupid websites. I make an attempt at bringing order to my day by drawing up a To Do list.

It’s almost 10 a.m. when my editor rings me from the main offices in Adams Farm. He’s got our art guy Chris and the news editor Jordan on the line, and even though we’re in the same county, it sounds like they’re in Kandahar, all quiet and echoey. If we’re going to make this a regular thing, we’re going to have to invest in better speakerphones.

I can tell they’re having a lively conversation about the Buracker report, but I’m a little hesitant to jump in. Believe me, this is not a common problem for me, but my debut as a disembodied voice has me wrestling with some anxiety.

The meeting is a little awkward, but we get through it. I return to my computer, to my list, and my pointless internet surfing. At some point I waddle to the kitchen for a snack break.

My first day as a telecommuter is turning into a total bust.

I have a hair appointment at 1 p.m., which will sap at least another unproductive hour from my day, so I set some goals. Almost 100 words later, I take my extended lunch break.

Sometimes, when I’ve wasted part of the day, I convince myself it happened because I’m following the natural rhythms of my initiative clock, which really doesn’t get going until the early afternoon. Today that means chaining myself to the computer for the better part of the evening.

I work on-and-off until 11 p.m. By then I realize that saving gas doesn’t necessarily require any kind of environmental heroics. As long as you’re willing to be distracted and unproductive on the boss’s dime, you might be a candidate for a weekly telecommute.

As for me, I think I’ll insist on a hard separation between my work life and my home.

Wednesday

Miles: 59 (PART bus – work), 3.6 (bike – bus depot), 1.8 miles (bike – grocery store)

Cost: $4 (PART fare)

PART – which stands for Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation – is a revelation. It’s not just the luxury, reclining, upholstered seats that I’m talking about either. Although the seats are nice and covered in material that looks like the backdrop to a 1988 school picture, they’re not the only thing worth celebrating.

I’m sharing my morning coach with Terri Marks, who lives in High Point and attends Winston-Salem State University, where she is a junior studying English education. She doesn’t own a car.

“The PART bus is a very relaxing ride,” she says. “Sometimes it comes late, but…”

She shrugs with the zen complacency of a veteran rider.

The 9 a.m. bus pulled into Slip 16 at the Galyon Depot five minutes before the hour. I got on my bike early – because I ride like an old lady – stopped at the Green Bean to grab a paper, and puttered toward the depot with the rest of the late commute.

Bus tip #1: The scrolling labels on the PART buses can be hard to decipher, so if you’re unsure, ask the driver where they’re going.

The bus I’m on lopes up Florida Street, circles Four Seasons Mall and gently delivers my fellow riders and me to the PART transfer station on NC-68. The PART compound consists of a small, square building, a fat lightning bolt of pale concrete and a vault of arcing sheet metal. Compared to the handsome Galyon Depot, the whole thing seems a little… wanting. But it does it’s job connecting express buses from the Triad’s three major municipalities and as the place where Marks and I board the bus to Winston-Salem.

The bus deposits me a few blocks from the office at around 10 a.m. I make up for yesterday’s sloth by getting to work almost immediately.

The last bus for Greensboro leaves Winston-Salem at 6 p.m. I leave the office at a conservative 5:45 and arrive at the bus station in time to catch the 5:30 bus – which happens to be running 20 minutes late.

The grumbling from riders – mostly professionals by the look of their pressed pants and sensible shoes – resolves into a murmur as riders tuck into Soduku or iPods. Rain slaps a windshield big enough to be a movie screen as we relax in the soft cocoon of our new-wave thrones. It’s easy to forget about traffic up here, and easy to imagine that I’ll never be a part of it again.

Bus tip #2: Listen to the drivers. Before they leave the station, some will ask where everybody’s going so they can skip stops and save time. If you want off before the end of the line and you don’t speak up, you might miss your stop.

The bus drops me in Greensboro at 7 p.m. sharp, and I’m home 20 minutes later.

Thursday

Miles: 2.6 (bike – grocery store), 2.6 (bike – meeting), 17 (bus/bike – office)

Cost: $2.40 (bus fare)

The first hint that my body might be breaking down wakes me up at six in the morning, when a charley horse twists my left gastrocnemius into a stubbornly painful knot. I try everything in the muscle cramp playbook – stretching, leaning, hopping – eventually work out the kink and tumble back into bed.

But the interruption causes me to oversleep my alarm, spoiling my plans to bike to the office for a few hours before doubling back for a downtown meeting at one. All the extra transit time would have given me an hour – at most – at my desk before I had to leave again.

So I work from home for a few hours, hit up the grocery store and plot my afternoon. The meeting is happening less than two miles from my house, which is easily bikeable, but it presents what I call the “Superman Conundrum.”

I’m going to need a change of clothes appropriate for the occasion and a place to change. Since cell phones have eliminated the need for phone booths, my only option is the bathroom.

I pack my stuff and hit the road. I’m cruising down Lee Street when it happens – I have my first close call of the week when an SUV makes a hard right just a few feet in front of me. I reach for the brake, drop both my feet to the pavement and brace for impact. But somehow I avoid the collision. By inches.

I make it to the meeting, slip out of my sweaty things and into my journalism clothes. That’s when I notice three-and-a-half days of smudged chain grease tattooed on the back of my right calf.

After the meeting, I ride to the depot and hop on the High Point Road bus. With its molded plastic seats, tacky overhead ads and squealing air brakes, it’s a letdown after PART. It drops me at the end of the line, which is still several miles from our far-flung offices.

Bus tip #3: Taking your bike on the bus is a good idea. Reminding the driver that you need to remove your bike from the rack on the front of the bus is an even better idea. Ending up pinned between the retractable bike rack and the curb is a terrible way to go.

By the time I get to the office, my head throbs and pain radiates from the muscle knot under my shoulder that grows like a cultured pearl every time I add something to my overloaded messenger bag.

On the bus ride home, I meet a motivational speaker who tells me he’s writing a book tentatively titled Identity Crisis. Before he can motivate me into getting back on my bike, he gets off.

When I get home, I jump into the shower. A dozen small bruises decorate the length of my legs – the byproduct of lugging a bike and all its sundry trappings around town for a week. Road dirt is everywhere. For the first time this week, I miss driving.

Friday

Miles: 63.2 (bus/bike – office), 1 mile (bike – assignment)

Cost: $4 (PART fare)

This morning the alarm rings at 7 a.m., and I’m on the PART bus by 8 – along with 20 or so other commuters.

I haven’t had my morning coffee, and the only available cup in the Galyon depot comes from a hot liquids vending machine. Greensboro doesn’t have a lot of coffee carts, but I’m having a hard time imagining that no one saw any profit potential in this place – which is essentially the last stop before work and school for hundreds of Greensboro residents.

It’s a perfect day for a bike ride – warm and clear with no sign of storms. And my bike – my boyfriend’s bike – gets a lot of looks.

“I’ll trade you,” shouts a man with a European accent and a white sedan.

When I slow down, he reconsiders.

“You can use that as a down payment.”

This happens again on the trip back to Greensboro. To get to my afternoon assignment, I board the 3:30 bus out of Winston-Salem. As the bus pulls into the PART transfer station, I spot two men giving the Peugeot the kind of eye usually reserved for Italian sports cars.

All the PART drivers I encounter this week will be courteous, professional, even friendly. But the man taking my ticket today is so congenial he seems almost genetically predisposed to taking strangers across town. Turns out he used to drive school buses.

“And I thought kids were hard to keep control of.” He shakes his head. “The schedule’s so tight that if I get off by a half a minute, it just snowballs.”

I’m still bruised and greasy, but yesterday’s frustrations have vanished, and I’m actually putting a few extracurricular blocks on the Peugot before I turn it back over to its rightful owner.

If this week has taught me anything, it’s this: A good bike, a plan and some patience will get you across the Triad just as well as any car will.

For the five years that I’ve lived in Greensboro, I’ve felt like a cyclist trapped in a driver’s body – a car, that is. I invented a fiction that my automotive ways were a byproduct of my community, but I was wrong.

Some of the changes I made this week are going to stick. I’ll be riding to work on Mondays, weather permitting, because I spend all of that day in the office reading pages. I’ll use PART at least once a week to get to Winston-Salem. If I ever get my act together enough to confine assignments to a couple of days, then I plan to restrict my driving to a minority of weekdays.

All this attention to moving has given me an appreciation for sitting still – which is exactly how I spend an exhausted Friday night. The traffic tapers off on the street outside my house, and the windows let in night air laced with the smells of vegetation. I breathe in deeply.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com.

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