Running as Transportation Running as Transportation


By Steve Clark, Bicycling and Walking Program Manager


More and more I am becoming a run commuter.

Blame it on my dad, who grew up on a farm, and ridiculed any form of exercise that wasn't productive. Want to build some muscles? Chop some wood, he'd say. Take a walk? Sure, let's see if we can get ourselves a rabbit. 'Running around in circles' didn't really make sense to him. And my bike touring trips, sans fishing rod, also seemed to him like a waste of time.

So perhaps it was inevitable that my love of bicycling became converted into bike-commuting. And now, the same thing is happening with running.

And I've decided running to work is indeed more fun than running around in circles. Having a purpose, knowing I have to go the full 8 miles to get to work, makes it feel different than just training for a race or something. I mean, it feels well, purposeful. Productive.

Of course, bike commuting had that going for it too, and I still bike more often than run; it's easier and faster, and no need to even shower once I arrive. Plus, if I have to go to a meeting, the bike will get me there .... I've never tried running to a meeting. 

But because it's so new to me, I've been getting new insights on these run commutes. Maybe they're not quite on the scale of epiphanies, but I am seeing things a little bit differently, hence the reason for this blog. Here are four things that I now completely believe (at least while I'm running).

Make a clean break from the office

On a bike, I never hesitate to carry all kinds of things from the office home with me, and while they don't weigh me down much physically, they do exert a weight on me emotionally. When I run to work or run home from work, it's just my body, some clothing, a single door key tucked in a pocket, and perhaps some form of ID. But that's it. No baggage from work to bring home, and no baggage from home to bring to work.  It's a clean break, allowing me to truly leave work at the office. 

Perpetual motion = happiness

Maybe it's because of my training in vehicular cycling, which included years of reading depressing crash reports, but when I am on a bike I truly become the operator of a vehicle. As such, I accept red lights and stop signs (and even try to view them fondly as rest areas). I have a set route and I don't deviate from it. I am on a machine, I am part of the machine, and I behave like a machine. It works. I have ridden on some of the busiest and craziest arterials in the country and rarely even had any close calls. But it truly means driving a bike like you would drive a car. You take a lane when necessary. You abide by all traffic control devices. You let people around you know exactly what you are planning to do, scanning appropriately and signaling before doing it.

I'm different when I'm on two feet. First, keep in mind that whether I'm driving a car or riding a bike, I do yield the right of way to people trying to cross a street, whether the crosswalk is marked or not, just as the law stipulates. So it stands to reason that when I'm on my two feet, and not operating any kind of vehicle, I take my rights seriously. And when running I find that drivers expect me to keep my pace, and more often than not, it seems easier to get them to yield to me than when I'm just out on a leisurely walk.

But what about those darn red lights? 

Here's the thing I have discovered about running:  You look sort of funny running in place. And while looking silly hasn't really been something that has held me in check, it does seem like a waste of energy when you could be moving at least in some direction. So, if the light in front of me is red, I'll take a right instead. Maybe I'll go far enough so I can safely cross midblock (it's only jaywalking if you're between two signalized intersections); or maybe I'll keep going till I get a green light to cross. It really doesn't matter as long as I'm able to keep moving.  There's something really fun about being able to keep moving in a congested urban environment. Of course, a grid pattern (a good street network) in an urban environment allows me to do this. It would be much more challenging in suburbia.

Traffic seems silly

Okay, I agree, silly is the wrong word. A better word might be 'absurd'. I mean, when you are passing cars on a bike during rush hour (made possible by bike lanes) you feel pretty darn proud about it. And if it weren't for the pollution you're inhaling, you might even have a bit of a soft spot for the drivers, who you know must be terribly frustrated. But when you're running and still able to pass cars!, well, the whole thing just seems sort of insane.

No, I'm not saying I make better time as a run commuter than a motorist traveling the same distance. But as a runner, the amount of space devoted to moving lots of people traveling alone in large steel enclosed objects becomes pretty striking. And so much wasted time at intersections! Again, on two feet you really feel the freedom to keep moving; the machines we have built our cities around simply do not allow for such a thing. And the old adage, no human is as stupid as the smartest traffic signal, rings true every time I'm out there. I can press a button and wait for two minutes, or I can just keep moving.

We were born to run

This is a new concept to me, having been brought up to believe that running is an awful activity and that sooner or later people who run a lot are going to wind up needing surgery. Most my life I have advocated for bicycling as the superior human activity, not only more efficient and faster than running, but also much easier on your body. But I started seeing things differently when I read Born to Run, by Christopher McDougal, and made the gradual switch to barefoot (or bareform) running. Now, at age 54, I don't have any pain when I arrive at work after spending an hour running on pavement in shoes that provide virtually no cushioning! And at the end of the day, I feel fine about running for another hour in order to make it home. Had someone told me 20 years ago that I would be able to do such a thing (without pain) I would not have believed it. But don't take my word for this. Read the book and see for yourself.

But clearly, it's not for everyone....

Theoretically, running for transportation is within the reach of more people than driving a car. And of course it's cheaper than taking transit or even using a bicycle. But theories don't always translate into reality so we're probably not going to see run commuting become an option on the American Community Survey (ACS) any time soon. So, consider run commuting if at least 4 of the 5 things below are true for you:

1) Bicycling sometimes seems too easy and walking would take too long (i.e., you live between one mile and ten miles from where you need to be);

2) There is a shower (or at least a sink and faucet) waiting for you at both ends of your journey, and dry clothes you can change into;

3) You have gradually built up to being able to run comfortably the distance that you need to go;

4) Once at work, you have other means to get to any meetings that might take you out of the office (transit, Nice Ride, Hour Car, office bike fleet, etc.);

5) You wanna try something really different but you can't find your roller skates, and you've forgotten how to skip.

Good luck!