cycling utah May 2000

Bike Advocacy

Bicycles, buses, TRAX form commuting alliance

By Steve Osborn

After the invention of the chain-driven "safety" bicycle in 1874, by HJ. Lawson and John Boyd Dunlop's pneumatic tire in 1888, a million Americans bought bikes within two years. The bicycle quickly became a popular commuting vehicle in the U.S., especially in big cities, enabling people to make longer commutes, and encouraging the expansion of the city. There were over 25,000 cyclist commuters in Boston alone.

However, the heyday of the bicycle was short-lived in a Gresham's law of transportation as the automobile became popular in the next 10 years. (Gresham's law is that bad or devalued currency drives good or more valuable currency from circulation because people hoard the more valuable currency.) The bicycle was doomed from then on in the U.S. because we could afford to take the easier, although more expensive and more harmful means of transportation.

The results have been costly for the country. In much of the world, the bicycle is still an important form of transportation, but is little used for anything but recreation here. Only at the end of the century have we begun to see the value of the bicycle as a commuting vehicle. With the cost of oil requiring a bank loan every time you fill up, the congestion on the roads and the increasing problems associated with sedentary lifestyles in the U.S., we ought to look more seriously at the bicycle for transportation and commuting.

The reasons for not driving a car are far more extensive than a short article allows. To begin with, bicycles are much more efficient than automobiles: a road bike is approximately 98 percent energy efficient compared to 33 percent for the average car.

And then there's the money. Even old cars are expensive to operate when all the costs are considered. Estimates range up to 50 cents per mile for all direct costs to the owner of driving a car. And these costs don't take into account the enormous external costs to society of road building and maintenance, pollution, time wasted sitting in traffic, injuries and accidents, the social dislocation of our suburban neighborhood planning, or the cost of poor health from riding in a car rather than walking. Brigham Young reminded the early settlers of Salt Lake that "it is far healthier to walk than to ride and better every way for the people."

The benefits of combining bicycling and mass transit are mostly obvious: you can get protection if the weather turns south; there's the bouquet element - you don't sweat as much on the bus or TRAX.

The major practical problem of riding Utah Transit Authority lines exclusively is that if your destination lies more than a few blocks from the bus or rail line, the walk can add quite a bit of time to your trip. The bicycle can make the trip to the bus or rail line a lot faster and bikes and mass transit can be a practical symbiosis, a fact which (UTA) fortunately recognized some years ago when it put bike pull-down racks on the front of their buses.

Now that TRAX is running, getting in and out of town is a lot faster than the bus ever was. With a bike, the trip doesn't take much longer than driving, and you don't have the problems of parking at the TRAX station. In Sandy the overwhelming response to light rail has filled the parking lot at 100th South to overflowing. UTA has expanded the lot but a bicycle could save a lot of commuters the problem of looking for a parking spot there or downtown.

So, here are a few pointers for those who want to save the world, or their wallets, by using their bikes and UTA to get there.

The Bus Rack

When bike racks were first introduced UTA required users to view a video tape and carry a user's card. I thought it silly to go see a video before riding the bus with my bike, assuming the rack couldn't be that difficult to figure out. But it wasn't quite as obvious as I thought when I stood in front of a crowded morning bus for the first time. As I tried to figure out how to get the rack to fold down, the driver finally yelled through the windshield to pull up on the chrome handle in the top middle of the rack. Then I had to figure out how the bike is held in the rack. After a long moment the driver told me to lift up on the hooked tube which fits over the front tire. I fumbled and got it, and was glad when the passengers didn't mob me for making them late.

The trick is to put your bike in the tray with the front wheel facing the hook which telescopes out and then over the top of the front tire. Try to look at one before you ride during rush hour.

And, remember, if yours is the last bike on the bus, return the rack to its upright position.

Finally, be prepared for the unthinkable - there may already be two bikes in the rack when the bus gets to you. In that case, you can either wait for the next one, or ride the way yourself. With all the stops buses make in traffic, you may not be far behind the bus in the end if you do choose to ride.


The most heavily used bus lines have a 20-minute wait, and many routes are 30 to 60-minute waits between buses. With the additional delays of heavy traffic, buses often run behind so that the 30-minute wait often stretches to 45 minutes or longer. At night there is often an hour between buses. TRAX trains run every 15 minutes through the day Monday through Saturday and every half hour after 7 p.m. Because TRAX isn't affected by traffic congestion, or by stop lights (except downtown), riding TRAX is more pleasant and more certain, which may be one reason ridership is 50 percent above projections.

Carry a bungee cord. TRAX backed off their early promise to put bike racks on the outside of the cars. You have to carry your bike up three steps onto the train, and then you are expected to park the bike out of the aisle.

The locations where bikes are allowed are in the middle of each car where no seats are placed (there's a pivot there so the long cars can turn) or in the back of the last car.

The bike must be kept upright according to UTA rules. And except when using the back of the train, you are expected to use the doors towards the center of the train, not those on either end. Lean your bike against the side of the train. But, the bumping and swaying of the train may cause the bike to fall. A six-inch bungee cord can keep the bike standing when hooked to a hand grip.

At rush hour or other heavy use periods, TRAX can fill until there is barely enough room for a standing rider to get a hand in a pocket. I found that out the hard way when I parked my bike in the middle of a car in Sandy and then watched as the train filled up on the 6:00 p.m. ride downtown.

By the time I reached my stop at 1300 South there were so many Jazz fans on board that I would have had to convince a dozen people to get off the train in order for me to get my bike down the aisle. I decided not to push the point and rode the train to the Delta Center where they all got off.

But then new riders started piling on heading south out of downtown again, and I began to hear in my mind the refrain from the song popularized by the Kingston Trio in the 1960's, "... he will ride forever beneath the streets of Boston, he's the man who never returned." Fortunately, a few standing passengers were willing to move for me at my stop.

The point is this: if you anticipate the train will be crowded, then put your bike on the back end of the last car. I am told that UTA will allow you keep your bike there, and at that spot, you're next to the door, and should be able to get off when the bodies start to crowd in. UTA expects a bicyclist to let other passengers get off first.

Leaving the Bike

If the train is too crowded, you may have to leave the bike at the station. UTA has provided a lot of bike racks at all its stations and is experimenting with "bike lockers" - a plastic, lockable cocoon with a single bike rack inside that can be locked down over a bike and other things. UTA says is quite secure against theft and weather.


If you're lucky, your bus or train will have a schedule of the route you want, but your chances of getting it are often better at the local public library, or on line at www.RIDEUTA. com. UTA has an office downtown on Main Street between 100 and 200 South, near Lamb's Restaurant. Schedules are also available at the ground floor lobby of the ZCMI mall downtown.

Transfers and Tickets

The standard adult fair on the bus and TRAX is $1.00. The tickets are good for two hours from the time on the ticket or bus transfer (you should ask your bus driver for the transfer when you pay), and you don't have to continue in the same direction to reuse it. That means for a short trip downtown for dinner, or for a short stop at a store en route, one ticket will get you all the way even though you get off and then get back on.

TRAX tickets can be purchased at automated machines. Select which ticket you want before inserting your money (e.g., adult one-way pass, senior citizen fare, $2 all-day pass). I have seen several people leave frustrated because they kept inserting their money and the machine kept spitting it out when they hadn't selected the ticket button first.

And TRAX train drivers don't wait for rushing passengers the way bus drivers often will. I have had the train pull out more than once even as I pushed the button to open the train door. But, with trains running every 15 minutes, you don't have long to wait.

In case you were wondering, the transit police on TRAX will issue a $64 citation if you don't have a current ticket. They don't check every train. I have been checked about half the time when I ride TRAX.

So, if you are thinking of commuting on your bike, consider utilizing UTA in your plans. It can make the trip faster, safer and more enjoyable.

Steven C. Osborn is an attorney with the Sandy City Attorney's office and a long-time bicyclist and commuter.

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