GreenTown Los Altos

Stress Less; Pedal More


Feb 2012


Silicon Valley Bike Commuters Push Pedaling for Improved Health

Brooke Ray Smith, shown wearing her bike commuter clothing, and “Blue Steel,” her Jamis Quest road bike. Smith rides Blue Steel everyday to her office at Passerelle Investment Co. in downtown Los Altos.

by Peg Champion, GreenTown Correspondent

While most Silicon Valley commuters dread their daily drive in stop-and-go traffic, Suzanne Ambiel looks forward to her ride to work. “My 15-minute commute is one of the most relaxing parts of my day.” A marketing manager at VMware in Palo Alto, Ambiel is one of many Los Altos residents who commute to work by bicycle.

Reasons to Ride
Besides avoiding the hassles of a car, you have plenty of reasons for taking a ride: personal health, environmental responsibility and that old stand-buy, money. Jim Thurber, fourth-grade teacher at Gardner Bullis Elementary, who commutes daily, says, “I’m a cheapskate. I hate to buy gasoline. I’d also like to put my cardiologist out of business.” Deb Kilpatrick, a senior vice president at a genomic diagnostics company in Palo Alto, agrees, “I like looking at my bike and car odometers in December each year. On average, my bike mileage is about two times that of my car. It’s great to see how much bike commuting lowers my carbon footprint – 15 to 20 percent annually. And it saves on car insurance, too.”

Nationally, only one in 165 Americans rides a bike to work, according to the 2010 US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS.) But in Silicon Valley, between three to eight times as many ride in some towns. “This is a beautiful place – with great weather – to commute on bike,” says Jim Fenton, a Los Altos resident who combines light rail with his ride to a job at a tech start-up in San Jose. “And, for the most part, the roads around here are bike-friendly.”

Bike Commuter Jim Thurber with his customized “Purple Pocket Rocket” - a folding bike that feels and rides like a full-size bicycle. Capable of fitting under your desk at work or in the overhead rack on Caltrain, the Pocket Rocket is made by Bike Friday, located in Eugene, Oregon.

The combination of public transportation and cycling is increasing in popularity. BART, CalTrain and light rail provide bike cars for commuters. Brooke Ray Smith, a dedicated rider who lives in San Francisco and works in Los Altos, says, “Four days a week I use the Dutch/Danish model: I wear my work clothes, bike at a more leisurely pace and take CalTrain. Once a week, when I want an aerobic workout, I’ll wear my spandex and ride in with a group of fellow cyclists, SF2G (San Francisco to Google.) Or, I might decide on a 30-mile ride from the Millbrae station.” Like many, Smith’s employer provides facilities to shower and change.

The 2011 Drive Less Challenge inspired Tom Fenstermacher to get back on his bike after ankle surgery. He subsequently won the challenge for his combined bike/train commute to San Francisco, logging in 765 miles over the two-week challenge period. His reasoning was simple. “I wanted to spend more time with my family, but I also wanted to get some exercise. By commuting to work this way, I was able to multi-task.”

Ride Results
Fenstermacher says the best thing about bike commuting is “having an opportunity to think and meditate.” Other riders agree that a surprising result of commuting is the mental-health benefit: “I arrive at work refreshed and ready to take on the world,” “I am more productive at work,” “Biking puts me in a good mood,” “Riding gives me an e-break,” and “When I’m pedaling, I have the time to collect my thoughts before and after work.”

Still not convinced? Last year, an analysis by Atlantic journalists Richard Florida and Charlotta Mellander using American Community Survey data found that metros where more people cycle to work are more affluent, better-educated, more creative, more fit – and happier than non-biking places.

Special thanks to bike shop manager Matt McDonald for hosting our “commuter chat” at 359 State Street on a busy Saturday afternoon, and to all the commuters who shared their stories.

Peg Champion is a member of GreenTown Los Altos and the principal of Champion Organic Communications. Her work focuses on communication and education strategies to encourage sustainable behavior. For more information visit

Tail lights on Jim Thurber's "Purple Pocket Rocket" bike.

Learn more about the GreenTown Los Altos Bike/Walk Los Altos Program

Join us for the First Saturday Family Bike Ride, March 3, 1PM-4PM. More information.

To calculate your “carbon footprint” – how many tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases your lifestyle and transportation choices create – try out The Nature Conservancy’s carbon calculator

Read about “Commuter Angst, Dangerous Drivers, and Other Obstacles on the Path to Two-Wheeled Transcendence” in this primer for new commuters, The Enlightened Cyclist. Release date March 7, 2012.

Advice for a New Bike Commuter
“Ride as if the drivers are blind, and you are invisible,” is a common cyclist aphorism. Below is wise counsel from bike commuters interviewed for this article. Use these tips to prepare for the Drive Less Challenge that begins on Earth Day 2012.

  • Don’t be afraid to try it – if you’re curious, just give it a try.
  • Start when it’s sunny – spring is the perfect time to start!
  • Take a practice run – experiment on the weekend when there is less traffic.
  • Begin gradually – try a trip once a month, and build up to once a week.
  • Ride with a buddy – team up with a friend and enjoy the ride together.
  • Get safety training – learn and follow the rules of the road.
  • Get the right gear – use a bicycle made for commuting, equipped with lights. You’ll also need a rear-view mirror and a good bike lock.
  • Get into a routine – ask yourself, is there any reason I can’t ride today?
  • Be aware – stay alert to cars, wildlife and other riders.
  • Ride slowly – remember, this isn’t a race!
  • Make sure you are visible to cars – use multiple lights and reflective clothing.
  • Use tools – check out Google maps for the best bike routes. Use BikeNav, a free iPhone app with elevation maps that can help you get to work without breaking a sweat, and track all your rides with Strava.
  • Talk to the experts – ask questions. Other commuters from work and bike-shop managers can help get you started.
  • Communicate – use hand signals and other nonverbal techniques, including smiling, to communicate with other riders and drivers on the road.
  • Avoid “helmet hair” – part your hair on the opposite side before putting on your helmet.
  • Have fun!

One Response to “Stress Less; Pedal More”

  1. KJ

    Love it! Great, inspiring story, Peg. Bike commuting (and errands on bikes) also has social benefits. I frequently end up talking to other people riding on the road but never do that when I’m in the car. Plus, Los Altos is a great place to ride for local errands – the weather is great and the terrain is mostly flat. Kudos to all the bike commuters. Hope you all sign up for the Drive Less Challenge.

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