Cyclist Mark Fraser isn’t surprised that he almost beat the bus in this week’s commuter challenge.
In fact, he’s pretty sure he would have beaten the car, too, if it hadn’t been for the snow and the headwind.
“Had this been springtime when the roads were clear and I had my bike with the skinnier tires, I’m pretty sure I had a pretty good chance of beating the person in the vehicle,” he says.
Fraser, 53, has been commuting to work in downtown Edmonton from St. Albert eight months out of the year for the last 10 years.
He used to drive to work back when he was stationed at the International Airport. That meant 45 minutes of dodging construction, snow, trucks and traffic jams.
One time he even had one of his windows blown out by rock from a gravel truck.
“I found glass in my shirt later at work.”
Now, he wakes up at about 5 a.m. every morning and bikes to work at Canada Place.
“The morning commute wakes me up,” he says, and it’s great training for his triathlons.
“You feel energized.”
By leaving early and sticking to bike paths, shoulders and residential roads, Fraser says he’s able to avoid most of the traffic. He also gets to see a lot of sunrises.
It’s relaxing, he says, especially since he’s often the only one on the road at that hour.
“For me, it’s kind of a personal time, a quiet time.”
Fraser says he and his wife, Cindy, bike or bus to work whenever possible and each drive less than 5,000 kilometres a year. They save a bunch on gas and parking as a result, and even get a discount on their car insurance. Several other people in his office bike to work as well.
While he could take the bus to work, Fraser says he’d much rather take the bike given the chance.
“Sitting on the bus for 40, 45 minutes versus can I ride? I’d rather ride.”
The fat bike
Fraser borrowed a specialized bicycle called a fatbike from Cranky’s Bike Shop to take part in the commuter challenge.
A fatbike is a mountain bike with super-wide tires for riding on snow, says storeowner Andrew Phelps. A relatively new item in Edmonton, they’re fast becoming the bike of choice for winter cyclists.
“It’s definitely a growing trend that we’re seeing,” he says.
The bikes themselves have standard drivetrains but specialized frames to accommodate the four-to-five-inch wide tires. The tires provide plenty of grip – especially if you use studded ones – and can absorb most bumps without the need for shock absorbers.
“It’s a whole new cycling experience,” Phelps says.
It’s expensive, though – Phelps says a starter fatbike runs for about $2,000, or about as much as a high-end bicycle.
Phelps says he uses a fatbike in winter because it’s more entertaining than riding a stationary bike indoors.
While he knew of a number of winter cyclists and about 50 bicycle commuters in St. Albert, Phelps wasn’t sure how many of them commuted during the winter.
Winter cyclists should consider insulated cycling boots and mufflers for their handlebars, Phelps says. Layers and a windproof shell are a must, as are ear-covers. Some cyclists prefer to use downhill-ski helmets because they cover their ears, he notes.
“The big thing with winter is you’re going to run out of daylight pretty quickly,” he notes. Lights and reflective vests are a must.
Anyone who wants to try commuting by bike should start slow, Fraser says. Plan your route ahead of time and do a test run on a weekend.
This was actually Fraser’s first time biking to work during the winter – normally, he takes the bus.
“I enjoyed the ride, very much so,” he says.
“I might even consider doing it more often.”
Which is best?
The car came first in our commuter challenge, but does that make it the best way to get to work?
Maybe not, from a financial perspective.
The Canadian Automobile Association’s online Driving Cost guide suggests that an SUV-type vehicle like the one used in this challenge costs about $0.63 a kilometre to run, once you factor in fuel, insurance, registration and maintenance costs.
That means the 14.8 km trip from St. Albert Place to Edmonton City Hall will cost you about $9.32, or $18.65 for a round trip. Assuming 22 round trips per month, driving to work will cost you about $410.26.
Add in $20 to park from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Canada Place (about $300 per month), and the SUV would cost $38.65 for one round trip or $710.26 for a month.
This same run on St. Albert Transit would cost $11.50 ($5.75 one way). A month’s worth of trips would cost $111 if you bought a monthly pass.
Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute estimates that a bike costs about $0.06 per kilometre to run, based on a 10-year lifespan for a bike plus maintenance and accessories. This does not include the cost of food, as it assumes you’d be eating that anyway.
This suggests that this commuter run on a bike would cost $0.89 one-way ($1.78 round trip), with a month’s worth of trips running at about $39.07.
Note that these examples do not account for any health benefits from cycling or the cost of lost time at work due to transit. The New Zealand Transportation Agency pegged the health benefits of cycling at about CAN$1.25 per kilometre back in 2008, for example, meaning that this round trip on a bike could earn you a net $35.22.
The bicycle is the clear winner from a greenhouse-gas perspective.
Although usually thought of as zero-emission, bicycling actually produces about 21 grams of greenhouse gas emissions per kilometre once you account for the emissions created by making the bike and fuelling the cyclist, reports the European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF).
A similar life-cycle analysis of a bus suggests that it produces 101 g of CO2 per passenger per kilometre. A car does 271.
A cyclist in this challenge would produce about 311 g of CO2 emissions by the end of it (twice that for a round trip). A bus passenger would produce about 1,495 g, and a car driver would create 4,011 g – about 13 times more than cycling.