Several days ago I had an eye exam. I've gone to the same optician for 25 years (shameless plug: James E. Hill, O.D.; 412-373-4433), and though I've moved several times, he's always been in Monroeville. Thursday I got the call that my new glasses were ready, so Friday morning, off to Monroeville I went.
The day of the exam, I drove, 25 miles each way, for a total of about $7 in gasoline. Friday, I wasn't about to drop another $7 to contribute to air pollution, traffic congestion, and continued feeding of oil companies, so hopped on the bike to make the trip -- with a little help from Port Authority of Allegheny County.
The trick was to not only catch four buses (south then east, west then north), but to catch buses that had bike racks. To do this, I had a little inside information: Harmar and Ross Division buses are the most likely to have bike racks, and as it happens, I live in the Ross area, and Monroeville is in the Harmar area. Those who live south of Pittsburgh, with buses that come out of West Mifflin garage, are least likely to encounter bike racks, though every new bus will get one. All of the last order (the 5500s) are so equipped.
The first leg of the trip involved a brief errand (depositing a paycheck! yay!), so I didn't try to catch a bus near my house, but simply continued on into West View, served by the 11D Perrysville or 500. The 500 came along first, and had a rack, so off we (bike and I) went. I don't think I stood still more than five minutes waiting for that bus.
The second leg of the trip was made more interesting by a seat-mate, a woman roughly my age who boarded in Bellevue. We got to talking, and that always makes a bus ride more interesting. She exited Downtown but I stayed on well past Oakland, wondering how far east I could get before the 500 and 67A parted ways. I exited where the 500 turned north off of Fifth Avenue, at College Street in Shadyside. From there, I knew it to be maybe a half mile to Penn & Dallas in Point Breeze, which brings us to ...
Leg 3: The first in-city bike ride. This was a bit daunting, as Fifth Avenue at that point was narrowed to a single lane because of construction. I was sandwiched between a large delivery van in front, and a 71D bus behind, with nowhere to go besides the sidewalk. More irritating than scary, I had to endure the stop-and-go behavior of the delivery van, which takes a lot of energy. Fortunately, this only lasted a block or two. The bus passed me; I passed the bus; the bus turned (more accurately, the bus stayed on Fifth which bends left where I bent right onto Penn Avenue); and I zipped along unimpeded for the few more blocks to where I could board a 67A. However, I was having enough fun, and knew that I was 15 minutes ahead of the 67A, so simply stayed on all the way into Wilkinsburg, where I waited on Sawyer Way, by the East Busway, for the 67A to catch up with me. This was probably the longest pause in the trip, 10 minutes.
Leg 4 was the 67A, which as I guessed did have a rack. Riding the 67A is a known quantity for me, as I used to work at a couple different places in Monroeville. At least I thought I knew the route. As we went past Miracle Mile Shopping Center, I was a bit taken aback when the bus got in the left lane, as I expected it to loop around a couple of banks by Routes 22 and 48. Nope, it headed left -- north -- on 48.
Leg 5: I exited at the first stop, again an area well known to me, as I actually used to have to walk this road on a daily basis a few years ago, when I first became second-car-less. Those who find McKnight Road in the North Hills daunting have at least a clue what dealing with 48 in Monroeville is like. It's five lanes of hell, not at all tolerant of bicycles. The trick is to let the flood of cars pass you at a light, then make the best use of the relative calm. It only is 3/4 mile from 22 to Northern Pike, which hardly took two minutes. The difficult part was figuring out how to make a left at that intersection, what with the company of 45 cars, a dump truck, and a school bus. Answer: Don't try. I stayed far to the right, turned right onto Northern Pike, made an immediate U-turn, hopped onto the sidewalk, and rolled up to the pedestrian crossing light. When the light changed, I just rolled the bike across the intersection as a pedestrian. This, too, was a bit chancy, because, as is common in the suburbs, ped-Xing lights do you no favor. The ped-Xing light comes on, and you step right into the path of a bunch of cars making a right turn from behind you. By the time the flood of cars got out of the way, I only had a couple of seconds to hop back on and ride across, before car traffic again took over, and so I again hopped out of the way, onto what passes for a sidewalk. From here, it was easier just to walk the bike, since there is no shoulder, traffic is incessant, and there are just too many entrances and exits to figure out. All that for 100 yards of suburban travel.
Finally: Accomplishment. I am in my eye doctor's parking lot. Next problem: Where to put a bicycle. As is typical in the suburbs, there is noplace to park a bike, nothing to hook it to. I scoured the main floor of The Polidora Building for someplace I could wedge it out of the way. Nada. So I rolled it around back, out of sight, whereupon I find a sign saying -- get this! -- No Skateboards or Bike Riding. Aha, I thought, what better place to park a bicycle! I just wish I had a camera with me!
Leg 6: The return trip. I opted to keep my old glasses on for the bicycle part of the trip, since they were a bit bigger and made a better windscreen. Making it the 100 yards back down Northern Pike wasn't too difficult, once I had a break in traffic, then even Route 48 was OK. I just waited for the flood to go by, then gunned it as best I could. My bike is essentially a racing bike, so I can get up a good head of steam, probably 25 to 30 mph, in a sprint. Getting across 22 was the next problem, one that could not be done from the curb lane. I just got in the center of my lane at the stop light at 22 and made sure I had a little extra space between me and the car in front, in case I needed to dash out of the way, but the car behind stopped with plenty of spare. When the light turned green, I started moving before the car in front did, so as to be able to have a leg up on the car behind. Bicycles accelerate from a stop faster than cars, at least for the first few feet, and if timed right, a strong cyclist will be able to keep up with traffic that doesn't exceed the cyclist's top speed.
Once across 22, the next problem was in not getting on the Parkway East. Cars coming off the Plum exit were not too difficult to deal with; but trying not to get run over by cars getting on the on-ramp required some thought. Looking more behind than in front, I hugged the curb until I saw enough of a break that I could dash to the left curb while I still was not fully committed to getting on the on-ramp. If I had to do it again (which I might), I might be a bit more bold and not hug the curb lane in the first place. In any event, once I got past the on-ramp, traffic thinned out a lot, and all I had to do was make a left across 48 to the southbound bus stop.
Leg 7: In about five minutes, a 67A showed up, and though it was a different bus from the outbound trip, true to form it had a bike rack. Yay for Harmar Division buses! I got on board and took a long nap, since I knew I'd be riding most of the way Downtown, which takes close to an hour. Somewhere after Oakland I woke up. Hint: CMU and Pitt add 30 people to nearly every trip, so the noise level increases markedly, not that it's ever real quiet.
Leg 8: I checked the timetables, and saw that I only had three minutes between the 67A's arrival and the 13A's departure. Well, OK, I didn't have to ride the 67A all the way to the end. Somewhere after Duquesne University, I exited the bus, grabbed the bike, and headed toward the Allegheny River side of Downtown. The plan was to continue on Fifth Avenue to Sixth Avenue, right on Grant Street, then left on Seventh Avenue, where I would join the 13A's path. In actuality I had about eight minutes between exiting the 67A and meeting the 13A, so I was in pretty good shape in terms of time. In terms of traffic, dealing with Downtown is at least a known quantity, if not close to easy. Of course cars are everywhere, but unlike the suburbs, most times they do not exceed 30 mph. In a Downtown, cars and bikes can co-exist reasonably well. I just joined the flow of traffic, made my lane changes and turns, basically followed the rules, and easily enough pulled up at Seventh and Smithfield to await the 13A.
Leg 9: Within five minutes, the 13A appeared, complete with bike rack. Yay! Four for four! This bus would get me all the way to Perrymont Road, so I'd lucked out on all four major pieces of this trip in terms of bike racks.
Leg 10: Exiting at Perrymont, the only difficult piece left was crossing McKnight. This, too, is a known quantity, since I get off a bus, minus a bike, here all the time. Five minutes later I was in my driveway.
Mission accomplished! Total time: About five hours. It would've taken at least two by car. I started a little before 11 a.m., was on the 500 about 11:15, changed to the 67A around 12:40, was at the eye doctor by 1:15, was back on the 67A around 2, the 13A by 3:15, and home by about 4. Most bus waits were for five to ten minutes, which seemed reasonable. I didn't eat, though planned to take a lunch break if I had to wait for another bus that had a rack. Usually I stuff a bagel and a yogurt in a bag if I know I'm going to be out on the road.
I also tried to perfect the loading and unloading of the bike. I can do it in 10 seconds or less most of the time. I figured out that the fastest way to get the bike off is to hold it in my left arm while I put the rack back up with my right. Previously I'd tried to park the bike and use two hands on the rack. Turns out this is not necessary, and avoids the problem of the bike falling over. Practice makes perfect!