Monday 18 August 2014

How to use a bike for more challenging transport trips

Summary: Special considerations apply to using a bike for trips which involve uncommon challenges or destinations (e.g. the airport) such as leaving it parked outside for days, finding the best route or carrying a bag/gear not designed for bikes. As I complete such trips, I'll add specific guidance in this post. The considerations are useful for similar trips anywhere but the details will be particularly helpful to Melbourne cyclists.

If interested in travelling long-term by bike, a great site to check out is: MightyGoods - Bike Touring

Flickr CC by 2.0 - Nicolas Decoopman

Trip 1: Cycling to Melbourne airport
- Getting to the airport in the most convenient, reliable, affordable and enjoyable way is something most city residents can't claim to have optimised. I typically travel by taxi with my girlfriend which optimises convenience and reliability but not affordability and enjoyment (for me anyway!). On a solo trip to Perth for the weekend in August 2014, I finally got the chance to try riding to the airport. Most of the advice below is based on this first trip. Since then I've also completed this airport trip in October 2014 and it went perfectly in terms of time, reliability, simplicity and weather.

1a. Make a thorough assessment of trip feasibility
- Presuming you're riding to catch a plane this is a high stakes trip so make sure you have established the feasibility of the distance, route, logistics, carrying of luggage, bike parking and any other barriers. In my case, I was travelling alone and simply had to get myself and a 6kg backpack to the airport 22km away for a flight at 2:50pm.

1b. Establish the safest, simplest, most reliable route 
- I typically use Google Maps bicycling layer and my own knowledge to pick a route that is sufficiently safe, direct and simple to meet my needs. For this trip, Google's default route uses the Moonee Ponds creek bike path as the key link heading north west. It seemed direct-enough so I used this as my baseline for the ride to the airport as it is a pleasant route to cycle. However, I wouldn't recommend it for riding at night or if short of time. I found a faster on-road route for the return trip which I will use again whenever keen to save time (see 1j. below).

- If you haven't ridden part or all of a route before make sure you will be comfortable with the safety of all sections and any potential issues. Challenging cycling trips (like riding to the airport in most cities) are less frequently made and sections of the route may involve sharing roads with cars travelling at 60+km/hr, squeezing against the kerb, escaping onto the footpath, creating your own shortcut (e.g. bike path to road) and carrying your bike over obstacles.

1c. Figure out in advance or eliminate route uncertainties (e.g. connecting points)
- Google Maps recommended the Moonee Ponds creek bike path as the safest cycling route and I know much of it well so I decided to use it. However, instead of joining at Victoria St, I figured I would hop on from Dawson St as there seemed like there must be a straightforward connection.

- Unfortunately, Melbourne still has many missing links in its cycling network and this is one of them. I stopped on the bridge for a couple of minutes trying to find an obvious way down and then luckily found the roundabout way without losing too much time (there was no cyclist wayfinding information). This type of route issue is not something you can afford if you have to get somewhere on time. The moral of the story for me is not to trust that Melbourne bike path connections will connect up in obvious ways unless I've already ridden them.

1d. If faced with deadlines leave plenty of extra time and take any steps possible to add buffers
- I left at 12:55pm for a 3pm flight based on a Google Maps assessment of a 1hr 20min journey time, allowing for time to park, walk, get through security, get to the gate and change clothes before boarding closed. In the end I arrived at the Short Term car park at 2:10pm, took 10 minutes to finally park and got to the gate at 2:30pm.

- If I hadn't have checked in on the web I would have missed the check in closure time. Checking in on the web with Tiger and only having carry on luggage meant I was supposed to be at the gate 30 minutes before flight departure. In reality, there was no checking of attendance at the gate and I could have arrived at 2:55pm and still boarded. So web check-in certainly created a useful buffer for unexpected delays.

- Remember also that Google Maps' estimated travel times are based on non-stop journeys but challenging cycling trips will often involve stops. I stopped when I was lost and to check my phone a couple of times.

1e. Make sure you carry a GPS smartphone and actually use it often enough
- I was carrying my GPS-enabled smartphone with Google Maps loaded but as I had left late and was short of time didn't feel I had enough spare time to be checking Google Maps regularly. Instead I was relying on my memory of where to turn at various stages. However, you'll note that my route as logged on Strava was 25km (not 22km) and took 1hr 23min (not around 1hr).

Strava trip to the airport

- This extra 3km and 15 minutes was primarily due to missing the correct place to turn off the Moonee Creek bike path onto Mascoma St. I didn't see a road sign and didn't check Google Maps and ended up by mistake on Pascoe Vale Rd. Apart from this being an unsafe road for bikes (I was forced onto the footpath), it took me in the wrong direction and I only stopped to check my smartphone when it started to bend the wrong way and go uphill.

- My smartphone's GPS and Google Maps saved me in finding a route back to Mascoma St that had a creek crossing bridge at the park near the Oak Park Tennis Club. Interestingly, this bridge wasn't on the Google Maps app on my smartphone but is visible on the Google Maps website. Which suggests that you should always use the full website version to explore such route details in advance of setting out. I got lucky in guessing there might be a crossing point in that area.

Wrong turn on the way to the airport could have been avoided by checking my phone

1f. Use puncture proof tyres and carry a mini pump, tyre levers and spare tube
- I use Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres which are virtually puncture proof and this proved very handy given the glass and dirt I rode over on this trip. See: Puncture-proof tyres are the key to reliable transport. Shortcuts are much easier when you're not too concerned about punctures. Nevertheless, next time I will take at least a mini pump and possibly tyre levers and a spare tube. A mini pump is especially useful as tyres can lose air due to a faulty valve, slow release puncture or human sabotage (e.g. at airport parking) and the bike can be perfectly rideable if you can pump up the tyre.

- Personally, I take a mini pump and puncture kit. And I also take my 15mm spanner (to get the wheels off) and 5-7mm allen keys. I tape the spanner under my seat to avoid any issues with taking it in carry-on luggage.

1g. Have an emergency fallback plan such as leaving your bike and catching a taxi or train
- My emergency plan for getting there was to leave my bike locked up en route (e.g. street sign) and walk to the nearest road and call a cab. If doing likewise, make sure you have a method of payment and ability to readily get a cab at short notice to the necessary locations.

- My fallback plan for getting home from the airport if it was raining and I didn't want to ride all the way was to ride to Batman train station on the Upfield line and use it to travel 5km south. Obviously I would have needed a train pass with sufficient credit (Myki card in Melbourne).

- As it turned out, my flight was delayed and I got in at 1am on Sunday night which would have been too late to catch a train. So such plans need to take into account such eventualities.

1h. Carry a light load and avoid hills and steep gradients
- My backpack was 6kg and didn't cause too much trouble for this trip but a 10kg backpack would have. I ride a single speed bike and there were a few hills on the route, especially on the unplanned detour after I got lost. These hills wouldn't have given me any trouble without a backpack but with one and after riding 20km I wouldn't have wanted to be carrying much more.

- Google Map routes have elevation profiles and if you may struggle with hills or gradients you should minimise the weight and choose a route that minimises the gradients and climbing. See: How to maximise your cycling when faced with hills

1i. Carry all-weather, all-conditions gear regardless of the forecast
- When I rode to the airport it was sunny and 15C. When my flight arrived and I had to ride home it was 4C and there was light drizzle. I didn't have a rain jacket or gloves; a mistake I won't make next time. After 10-15min I warmed up and the ride home was fine. However, if it had been raining properly it would have been a miserable ride without a rain jacket.

- I was carrying charged front and back lights and this was critical for a safe ride home. Sharing high-speed (60+km/hr) roads that motorists don't typically see cyclists on is risky enough. Doing so at night without good lights is not advisable. See: Essential gear for cycling and what type to get

1j. Choose your routes flexibly based on the circumstances
- I started out for the return trip at 1am on Sunday night and the roads were almost empty. Also Melbourne bike paths are not lit at night and are a little more dangerous to ride relying mostly on your bike light. Hence, I decided to ride the quickest way home and used Gaffney St to head east and Sydney Rd to get south. This route was only 21km and took just over 1 hour (including a few stops to check I was on the right track).

- If it was daytime I would use this route in future but use the Upfield bike path instead of Sydney Rd. However, this late on a Sunday night, Sydney Rd had minimal traffic and it was quicker and safer to ride down it.

My finalised recommended route to and from Melbourne Airport is as plotted below in Google Maps. I have used Velo Cycles as the start point (it's well known and well-placed to capture many starts) and the Starbus Airport Shuttle as the end point (it's right near the bike racks).

Using the link below, you can modify the Google Maps cycling directions by adding your own start point and editing the intermediate points as needed.

Velo Cycles to Melbourne Airport bike racks (via Upfield bike path, Gaffney St, Mascoma St, Melrose Dr)

- Now that I know the best route, it takes me around 52min moving time to get to the airport and around 54min moving time to get back (just under an hour of total travel time).

1k. Find out exactly where you can safely park in advance
- I looked up Melbourne Airport's website and found this page: Bicycle & motorcycle parking. It contains a link to the map below. My annotations are in red to show specifically where the bike racks are. Note that I asked 10 people who worked there where the bike racks were and none of them knew! So don't waste time asking staff. The bike rack I eventually found was next to the Car park management office for the car park. The bike racks are just to the right.

You can access them via riding into the car park and heading north west toward the Terminal 2 access. But the easiest way is just to ride along Terminal Dr and stop when at Terminal 2. Instead of turning left to go to Terminal 2, turn right toward the car park. You'll more easily see the Car park management office and racks from the outside as in the photo below.

Photo from 2015. Europcar has moved and I'm not sure if this still says Car park management but this is the spot marked in my annotated map above.

1l. Lock up with multiple strong locks and cover the bike if necessary
- My bike was going to be parked for two nights so I carried two U locks and locked the rear wheel, frame and rack with one U lock and the front wheel, frame and helmet with the other. I left my inexpensive saddle bag and mudguard on the bike. Everything was still there and undamaged when I returned. See: How to prevent your bike being stolen

- Note that though this bike rack could easily have been placed undercover it isn't and my bike was exposed to the rain for two days. I have an inexpensive and durable single speed so didn't mind too much. If you have a more expensive bike you may wish to bring a basic cover for the part of the bike you wish to protect.

1m. Minimising sweat and changing clothes
- In August 2014, it was pretty cold and I wasn't riding too fast so I didn't sweat much on the way to the airport. I rode in shorts and a breathable top and freshened up in the toilets and changed my clothes before boarding the plane. The main problem area for sweat when the weather is warmer will be the back if carrying a backpack, so I would suggest using a rack if preferable. See: Solve the sweat problem without showers and changing clothes

1n. Consider using dockless bike share if combining with transit.  And use dockless bike share or a beater bike if you simply don't wish to leave your good bike locked up in public

For a flight in Feb 2018 I was going to be returning home with my partner and daughter in a taxi but still wanted to use a bike and transit one way on the outbound leg. Happily, Melbourne now has dockless bike share with OBike as noted here:
How to get the most out of dockless bike share networks in Australia

OBike's are too heavy, slow and only single speed so not feasible to ride 22km to the airport. But I thought I could ride it 6km to a train station (Newmarket) on the Cragieburn line to Broadmeadows station which then connects with the 901 bus to the airport.
See: > The cheap way to Melbourne airport

Theoretically, I could have simply parked the bike at Newmarket station. I wouldn't have been happy to keep my own bike locked up there for a week while I was on holiday. The total trip should take just over an hour and cost $2 for the OBike for 30min plus $4.10 for the transit trip. A taxi ride takes 25-35min depending on traffic and costs around $50.

However, in reality I found there were a few issues with using OBikes:

- I couldn't find any nearby ones even though the OBike app indicated they were there
- A couple I did find were too damaged to ride
- When I did find a working one it wasn't feasible to ride 6km. The bike suits people from 140cm to 170cm. If you're over 180cm you'll find them very uncomfortable and inefficient to ride more than 2km.

For future trips where I am combining cycling with transit but would need to leave my bike parked in public for a lengthy period, I will use my "beater bike" instead. A low-value, old hybrid that I don't mind leaving parked in public for a week or two.
See: > The complete guide to beater bikes

Further Info:

MightyGoods - Bike Touring

Parking For Motorcycles, Bicycle And Bikes At Melbourne Airport

I Hate Taxis: Melbourne Tullamarine Airport - Other transfers (inc bicycles)
> Sydney International Airport - Other transfers (inc bicycles)

Bikely Routes:
> Melbourne Airport to City

A View From The Cycle Path: Southend-on-Sea. Missed opportunities to create a better environment for cycling and walking
- Notes how simple it is to cycle to Groningen airport