Thursday, March 3, 2011

My new identity: UnicycleInTransit (Dec. 7, 2006)

Current mood: accomplished

I finally decided on a URL: UnicycleInTransit

This combines my two transportation loves, unicycles, and public transit. Rare is a day when I do not ride one or the other, or both. In fact, I'm more likely to do one or the other, or both, than drive my car. I've even been known to take the wheel with me on the bus. Some explanation is in order.

Unicycles have been part of my life since Christmas 1973, when my sister got one as a present. Even in the snowy Buffalo ski hills where I grew up, I managed to master the thing before springtime, and in May 1974 rode a marathon-length bike ride. (Note: I never did that again ... by choice! Ouch!)

Soon I was riding to and from school each day (four miles each way), and in May 1975 a Buffalo TV station did a brief feature story on me. The wheel went to college with me in 1976, and in the five years I was there, I estimate that I put several thousand miles underneath me, wheeling back and forth among classes, major activities and my room. This included winter, and remember, we're talking Western New York here. There always was snow.

Buses are a more recent development. In mid-1990, when my commute consisted of a 25-mile ride straight through Downtown Pittsburgh, I owned four cars, two of whom were 1970s-era behemoths with huge V8 engines. Saddam Insane's invasion of Kuwait caused a brief spike in gas prices (from roughly 85 cents to roughly $1.40), making me pay $5 daily in fuel alone, in addition to waiting in traffic to pass through two tunnels, 55 minutes each way. I sought a better way to get back and forth. Carpools existed, but didn't really work out.

Then I found the bus system. This wasn't difficult; there was a bus stop directly in front of the house, and I often followed the bus into town each day. Granted, it took a long time to go point to point, 90 minutes on average, but it was kick-back-and-relax time, not white-knuckles-on-the-steering-wheel time, with a built-in chance to run errands en route without adding to the net travel time. Also, the two-ton-tin-cans-on-wheels now needed a refill once every three weeks, not weekly. The buses quickly became a habit.

Not long after this, I had a residence change. Unlike past moves, this time I seriously considered being near a transit line. More specifically, I only looked at houses that were within walking distance of a bus stop. One evening early in the hunt, I sat on the floor of a nearby school's gymnasium, surrounding myself with every bus schedule for routes that went near the area I was moving to (northern suburbs of Pittsburgh), and a map of the area. On it I marked every road that had any sort of bus service.

Without getting too scientific about it, I tried to note the difference between roads with any service versus roads with plentiful service. One house under consideration was just towards town from where there was a three-way split in a particular route. Beyond the split, any one fork might get six to 10 trips a day; within it, close to 30. OK, easy choice. That house made the short list, and eventually we chose it, moved there, and it's been home ever since. In fairly short order, too, we got rid of three of the four cars and invested in an annual bus pass. With the thousands of dollars I saved each year, I weathered a major downsizing at work, and paid for a masters degree.

To this day, I find I can go a lot of places on foot alone (drug store, grocery), frequently assisted by unicycle. Where feet or wheel can't get me, the bus usually can. And if all that fails, I still have the car.

I'd like to think I live by example, or maybe it's lead by example. How many other people even think about buses when choosing a house? How many make transit a primary condition when making a choice? If they do, the decision is usually not to, and that is guided by it seeming to be a long way from house to bus stop. Well, that's why we have wheels. Granted, not many people use a unicycle, but bicycles are fairly common, and someday maybe the Segway will catch on, too.

The point is, anyone can decide to be near a transit line, and can decide to use transit to get around. It saves incredible amounts of money, and while often taking longer, the ride offers enough benefits to provide balance.

Having the wheel in hand, or a bicycle at the bus stop, seals it for me. I see it as quite likely I will still be riding both as long as I am able.

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