What’s the best way to get around London?

A couple friends and I have relatively the same commute, living and working within a kilometre of each other and got to talking about which of us has the best commute. Each of us is using a different mode of transportation to get around town – thus the commuter challenge was formed!

I asked my car driving and, bike-pedaling compadres Bill Needham and Ben Cowie to make note of their commutes for a week, recording times from door-to-door, and other interesting tidbits and tales from the road.

Our challenge ran from January 21 to the 25, during bone chilling temperatures, rain and snow. We really did run the gamut on weather conditions.

DISCLAIMERS

  1. This is not a double blind academic study produced by an ivy league university – rather, it’s a human interest story dreamt up by someone waiting at a bus stop.
  2. I tend to get to the bus stop ahead of schedule because I would rather be early than watch a bus go by. A more daring person could have a slightly quicker commute time or miss a bus and have a much longer commute time.
  3. I think Ben and Bill were pushing themselves to get downtown faster, and they both slightly altered their routes during the week. But, I think having options is still reflective of their commutes, thus making the data valid.
  4. Although we all start work at approximately the same time we do not always end at work at the same time and so I enlisted my husband to help with home time commutes. Even with this assistance, our commutes start times varied to some degree.

Costs/Benefits

In every way the car costs more, whether it be carbon footprint, financial costs to the driver, or cost in municipal and provincial taxes to maintain the infrastructure. Bill spends roughly $35 a week on gas, and $36 on parking. CAA estimates the cost annually to own a car is $9,500.

Cozy but costly - Bills car commute is the most expensive option.
Cozy but costly – Bills car commute is the most expensive option.

The cost of a bus pass is $972 annually or $20.25 per week. From a purely financial standpoint, it’s an extremely cheap way to get around.

Ben used two different bikes during the challenge and the costs varied between approximately $21.75 dollars a week for a higher-end electric bike to under $5 dollars a week. Even with the occasional maintenance and new tires, cycling leaves the rider with more disposable income to spend.

Biking also has health benefits which carry forward into other areas, including increased productivity at work, school, home, zero emissions, and no money spent on gas or parking.

Reflections on the Ride

What do you love about your commute?

Colleen: I like the people I meet on the bus and the chats – there is a sense of community. We may not have an “established neighbourhood,” but anyone who rides is familiar with the sound of several people yelling in unison “BACK DOOR!” or “Someone is running.”

The ability to just sit back and enjoy a book or catch up on social media and news events while someone else worries about the road is great. By the time I get where I’m going, I am relaxed and ready to face the day or night.

Colleen's bus transit may take the longest but someone else is doing all the work.
Colleen’s bus transit may take the longest but someone else is doing all the work.

Ben: Virtually everything about it. I get to be outside and connected with the world around me. I see friends along the way and get to stop and chat. I get a little bit of exercise while I pedal, and I get some time to think about my day ahead. I also love bringing my dog with me. Hector loves to ride in the bike, and I like having him with me, too!

Bill: The time I get to spend with my youngest son driving him to and from school.

What do you hate about your commute?

Colleen: Inconsistency of buses means that commutes can be maddening. Compared to other municipalities, London under-funds it’s transit and it shows in late buses, missed transfers and standing-room-only on buses during peak times.

Ben: Mixed traffic. Riding with cars is stressful, and a network of protected bike lanes like other cities have would make it much easier. My commute in Calgary was three times as long, and three times as pleasant because of their protected bike lane network.

Bill: The indirect route I take to avoid the train.

Would you consider another form of transportation and if so why?

Colleen: Although I don’t think I would want to bike in -24 degree weather I would absolutely bike more frequently if safe infrastructure existed and was properly maintained. I wouldn’t own a car but I would be lying if I said I wouldn’t take a ride. Still, I really do like riding the bus and hope that the city invests in making transit better because it can be really beneficial.

Bikin' Ben saves money and improves his health with every ride to work.
Bikin’ Ben saves money and improves his health with every ride to work.

Ben: Nah, I like my bike. Sometimes I walk my dog to work, but only when it’s a nice day and I want to spend more time outside. If I could bike in 12 minutes, why take 45 to walk?

Bill: I would walk. In nice weather you can beat the bus downtown by five minutes.

How stressful is your commute?

Colleen: The most stressful part of the commute is getting across the street to the bus stop but the ride itself is pretty stress free. There have been times though when I had a longer commute and an employer who was not as understanding and that made it much more stressful.

Ben: Depends on the day/time, and which part of the route. Most days it’s pretty easy, but sometimes drivers can be aggressive. I’d like to take the TVP, but King Street is unsafe to ride right now, so my route takes me weaving through Old North, Picadilly, and downtown instead. I think if a novice rider came along with me they might find it stressful, but I’ve normalized the crazy drivers more or less.

Bill: Mildly stressful. Mostly due to drivers that shouldn’t be driving.

How did weather affect your commute?

Colleen: The weather can affect bus times greatly, which I saw when a typically 28-minute commute ended up being over and hour in length.  I also find that, while it’s great that drivers are more careful when the road conditions deteriorate, this seems to have an unintentional consequence of making it harder to cross the road. There is a crosswalk not far from our house but cars rarely stop at it, and at the lights nearby there are BEG buttons for pedestrians which freeze over and stop working in extreme weather conditions.

Ben: We had a really ugly day on Wednesday, and it wasn’t too bad. There’s a saying in the bike world: “There isn’t bad weather, only bad clothing.” Until it’s middle of summer, and then it’s only socially unacceptable to take so many layers [off]… on Wednesday I wore my rain poncho and stayed dry. On the other days I wore my insulated layers and stayed warm.

Bill: Minimally impacts me. Mostly slows you down.

What effect, if any do other commuters have on your daily travels?

Colleen: I have to be pretty vigilant at road crossings. Sometimes drivers don’t notice you as they are turning, and again – trying to cross a road that doesn’t have adequate pedestrian crossings can leave me standing on one side of the road for 10 minutes or longer only to see my bus go by.

Ben: Drivers, particularly the impatient or distracted ones, impose 100 per cent of the risk on me during my commute. Riding a bike is incredibly safe, it’s only motorized traffic I have to worry about. I’m an experienced rider which helps me predict behavior of other people on the road, and use lane position to prevent people from passing me when necessary. You’d be shocked how many drivers try to pass mid-intersection if you let them, it’s crazy!

Bill: Not too much. For the most part other commuters are courteous.

What, could the city do to improve your commute?

Colleen: Designated bus lanes. The changes proposed to the Route 1 would decrease overall commute time as well. I would love to see the removal of all BEG buttons in the city and an increase of safe places for people to cross busy roads.

Ben: Build protected bike lanes. A network of connected, safe, and maintained bike lanes is the only thing that has ever encouraged more people to ride in any city. Build it, and they will come.

Bill: The main thing would be to make sure the arteries remain in a consistent flow.

Best memories of the commute?

Colleen: I like just watching the city as I don’t have to concentrate on the road even though I have taken this route for a few years now I feel like I am constantly noticing something new.

Ben: Seeing friends, and connecting with the community. You see so much from a bike that you don’t see from inside a vehicle.

Bill:I enjoy the end of the day commute home since I can leave as soon as I am done work for the day. My commute home is less stressful and a pleasant ride.

Unexpected results

I was surprised that all three modes of transportation were within 17 minutes of each of each other. I was also surprised – considering the wild variance of weather conditions – that Biking Ben’s commute was not only the fastest but also the most consistent.

Ben’s best time was 10:20 minutes and his worst 17 (caught by the train) but overall the average commute time clocked in at 12:26.

Most days the bus commute clocked in at between 26 -28 minutes. One homeward commute was more than an hour because of a late/early bus combo that resulted in a missed transfer.

Motorist Bill clocked in at an average of 20:13 minutes, which includes time spent walking to and from parking spaces and clearing snow. Most days, he was going out of his way to avoid potentially being stopped by a train. However, when when he took the direct route was able to improve his travel time by four minutes.

Final Thoughts.

In the end I think there are benefits to all forms of transit, but I can’t help but notice all three of us noted areas where the city could make improvements.

Bill’s biggest drawback was avoiding the train and council is in the beginning process of rectifying this issue. However, it feels like cyclists and busers have to wait longer to see the same improvements.

Both Ben and I seem to be more connected to the community in our commutes and I think that has real value. Our commutes seemed to be about more than just the journey.

That said, if it’s -24 and Bill offers me a ride I am probably going to take it. With safer infrastructure I’d bike most days (although I’m not sure I would on cold rainy days or -24 degree days). In the meantime you will find me reading a book, catching up on the news or just enjoying the views of this city on the LTC.

**Unbeknownst to Bill I timed the shovelling out of his driveway whilst looking out my front window sipping a delicious coffee before heading out to my bus it was ten minutes which was added to that day’s commute.

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