As I load my bicycle into the back of my car I wonder if I’m ready for this. My trip was already delayed once by rain, or actually my lack of raingear. I haven’t ridden a bike much further than around the block in years. But it looks like a nice day for a ride.
I head to the Big Lake Transit Station to begin an experiment in bicycle commuting. I have never used the Metro Transit system before as a bicycle commuter. I am about to find out, first hand and as a first-timer, how to navigate the transit system on a bicycle.
I did not go out totally blindfolded. I did some research on Metro Transit’s (metrotransit.org) website. Not only to check schedules, but also to attempt to get a sneak peek at what restraint systems were used on the bus, LRT and Northstar Line. The website was somewhat helpful, but served more as a confidence booster than a source of knowledge.
Hopping on the Northstar, I’m a bit curious why there are no ramps for bicycles (and wheelchairs for that matter!) to be loaded on the train. There appear to be some ramps at either end of the station, but no way to board from the ramp to the train itself. I make the assumption that there is some system in place and simply lift my bike one foot onto the train.
After corresponding with Metro Transit’s Director of Public Relations, Robert Gibbons, I found out that: “The platform height is set by the service envelope of freight cars. For the platforms to equal the floor height of the passenger cars, the platform would be set back from the tracks to not interfere with the passage of freight cars,” Said Gibbons. “This option is used on some systems, but is very expensive to install and maintain and, in our case, not acceptable to BNSF Railways”
The conductor happens to be right there to ask me if I need any help, and while I say no, he talks me through it anyway. It’s easy enough, and time is aplenty.
I simply place a strap through the wheel and tighten a little spring clamp. The conductor recommends that I keep an eye on the bike (so that it doesn’t disappear.)
At this point I wish there was a way to lock the bike so I could go sit upstairs at one of the tables and work for the duration of the 51-minute train ride to Target Field.
Unloading my bike at Target Field Station proves to be a fairly simple matter. Bike commuters are asked to take the elevator to street level rather than the escalator or stairs, and I comply. As I back my bike onto the elevator it appears that it holds about three bikes and riders. I luckily shared the elevator with only one other bike commuter.
Boarding the LRT proves to be a hurried, but simple task. The racks are quick and intuitive. With 89% of LRT trips having at least on bike and an average of 2.5 bikes loaded per trip (according to a 2008 Metro Transit Survey) it’s good that it’s quick. Bikes stand vertically on the rear wheel. The panniers on my bike rack look like they’re going to fall off. Amazingly they don’t.
The only real difficulty is guessing which train car won’t have full racks (Each car can hold four bikes). If the racks are full it proves do be difficult to get to another car and board the train before the doors shut and the train pulls away.
I end up riding the LRT a number of times throughout the day and it gets slightly easier, but it was already easy to begin with.
Riding the bus with my bike proved to be a slightly more stressful task. If the rack on the front of the bus is empty, it needs to be unlatched and folded down. This can be slightly tricky with bike in hand. And on my first attempt to fold the rack back up it proved to be rather cumbersome to handle the bike and rack at the same time.
Once the rack was down, loading and unloading my bike proved to be very quick and efficient.
You may ask, as I did: Why aren’t the racks left down all the time? The answer, according to Robert Gibbons, is twofold:
“Primarily this is a safety issue. The bus operator is not able to easily see an empty bike rack when it is in the down position. If operators can’t see them, they might not remember that they have a several foot extension off the front of the bus.” said Gibbons,
“Secondly, we store buses bumper-to-bumper overnight in our garages. With the racks down we would store fewer buses per row in the garage, and garage space is very tight already”
Hearing these reasons, and realizing that only 1.6 percent of passengers use the racks; I decide to drop my never-begun crusade to leave the bike racks down. Although I figure the visibility issue could be easily solved with some small poles mounted on the rack so the driver could see them.
Overall, my impression of the Metro Transit System is very positive as a first-time bike commuter. The Northstar Link is easy and leisurely, and the staff is friendly and helpful. The light rail requires some speed on the commuters’ part, but the simplicity proved to counter most challenges I faced.
Riding the bus was a bit more intimidating, but certainly was not an insurmountable challenge. I did feel a little bad about the time consumed by loading and unloading the bike, but not enough to prevent me from using the bus again.
Metro Transit has certainly done a good job accommodating bike commuters, but I think in the end, unless a bike is absolutely necessary for your commute, leave the bike at home. Walking proves to be much easier.