Thursday, 19 July 2012

Surviving commuter cycling

After visiting Literary Emergency's blog with its post about cycling to the new alt-academic job, I was inspired to share my commuter cycling enthusiasms and my joyful feelings of managing to find a job that is only about a fifteen minute cycle ride from home.

When I lived in the Boston area years ago in my younger, carefree days, it was common and accepted that most working people would just have to get in their cars to get to work if they didn't work within the busy city borders where you could rely on buses or trains. I worked a few jobs that were located in the suburbs around the major industrial parks, with my last, desperately needed job taking about a 55 minute car journey. I hated the traffic filled journey (and wasn't crazy about the job either), but I couldn't escape it. I used to dream of having work that I could walk to or take a short, uncomplicated bus journey. Later when I lived and worked in London, I relied on the underground system to take me across the city to my first job. My next job was a bit closer but still required a long-ish bus ride in constant London traffic. In my later job when I was teaching I had the option of driving a 50 minute journey, and could also get on a train then bus if I wanted a change. We lived in a very busy part of the inner city then and with the work commute I felt there was never a moment of a slow pace in life. By the time the weekends came, the thought of just staying indoors for two days was quite attractive. As I said in my last post about babies and post-grad study, our move out of London at the time was very welcome.

One of my other teaching contracts in higher education years ago also meant a long commute in. It was another stint that I hated and  I wasn't overly excited about the teaching deal there either, so was very happy when I accrued more hours at the institution that was closer to us. By the time I was thinking about PhD study, I was determined that it had to be somewhere I didn't have to spend my life struggling in traffic to get to. At that point I just didn't had the luxury of extra time for it, and my patience had run thin.

This terrain of the question of how far would I be willing to commute in my future employment prospects has been a difficult one. It certainly played a large part in my decision to give up on a teaching/research academia career. I have come across many others in academia who work away from their homes and come back for a few days of the week when they are not required to be there for teaching or in meetings. I contemplated that possibility and after some time realised that with all of the other demands and pressure I would be under, this wouldn't be a good option for me. My domestic situation with two young children and an academic husband who is required to be away (sometimes frequently) just wouldn't accommodate it. After living with Relapsing Remitting Multiple Sclerosis for some time, I also accepted that my health would suffer and my condition would probably progress and go downhill if I wasn't careful. It's been a relief to accept that if I want to continue to be upright, on my feet with some energy that something else in my life will have to give  - and the prospect of an academic first permanent job away somewhere else across the country was what I was willing to give up. But what about non-academic work? After researching some of these possibilities for some time, it's been clear that with the recession there are few good/appropriate jobs out there and many people have to be willing to travel if they want to stay employed. One possible contract position that looked interesting and got me a telephone interview some time ago was over an hour's drive away. Another prospect was full-time and an hour or so train travel and bus ride on the other side. I have often thought that my increasingly narrowing list of expectations for the ideal job will just result in long-term unemployment - it would all be my own fault as I was simply asking for too much.

I promise I am getting to the cycling part now and I apologise to readers as I've noticed I've tended to go on   a bit too long now. Anyway, last year in June I managed to secure a short-term research job based it the city centre here, only a fifteen-twenty minute cycle ride away. Walking is manageable but about 40 minutes one way and I worry a bit about using up my energy reserves this way. This prompted me to finally get out there and look for a bike that would replace the one that was stolen around the same time that I was really ill and had my RRMS diagnosis. After the diagnosis and long recovery time, I really felt that I'd never be able to get on a bike again. Maybe on flat ground but certainly not in my very hilly city where even mega-fit cyclists seem to struggle on. But, not to despair, the electric bike has made it's way here! One of my work colleagues from the university got one and it began to open my eyes to the freedom I could have to pop in and out of the city. After some time looking around and being very indecisive (they're not a cheap option) I decided to go for it and started riding again last June.

For us it's been a perfect commuting option. We have only one car that I use more as my husband can cycle quickly to his office. So, without the extra burden of a second car with increasing petrol prices and car insurance, maintenance etc, I could justify spending a bit more on the electric bike to help me up the hills around here. I use it mainly just for short commutes but the juice will go for about 40 miles before it needs a recharge. The battery comes off and you just plug the charger into it over night to go the next day.

Now, back to the issue of job searching and getting lucky. The non-academic staff job I've just managed to secure a couple of weeks ago is based at the university where I did my PhD and is close by. The pay is much lower than I wanted but it has lots of benefits that for me cancel out this problem. I don't have a long commute that will stress me out and exhaust me. I am actually going to save a fair bit of cash this way by not having to spend on train fares or petrol costs. Commuting to another major city where some academics go for top jobs around here, for example, would run costs up to at least a couple of thousand more pounds a year. They have offered me the option of part-time hours, which had been on my list of outrageous and unrealistic preferences for a long time - after a while I crossed off this preference, assuming it was just too unrealistic and I'd just have to see how I got on in terms of my energy levels. The team of people I will be working with are accommodating, nice and professional. I discovered that one woman left her work as a lawyer in a swanky law firm because she wanted to work in a more civilised atmosphere. So, I'm not the only one compromising! The job can grow - it also includes research and will make good use of the skills I've been acquiring over the last several years. Later I will have the option to apply for other internal only jobs where there will be less competition. I can get back on the bike again and give up the car. This prospect is a good one, but of course, I do live in a country where we have had the most rain this summer in British history. Cycling in a down pour is not fun at all, and I have begun to invest in more cycling rain gear - some of it quite stylish,as you can see here:

These fancy things are called Leggits and I've got them online from Georgia in Dublin, where they have their fair share of rain. They had some other cool, stylish stuff but thought I'd wait a bit before spending all of my first pay cheque before I've even earned it. These leggits are meant to be worn over any kind of shoe to protect shoes and trousers from rain. I've run them under the tap already as a test and they are completely waterproof. Good stuff in summer showers when cycling in sandals! Here are some shots of my electric bike. It's the 'Diva' women's design from the Oxygen brand:

I've got waterproof trousers and waterproof gloves now, as well as a stylish long cycling coat which claimed to be waterproof but after a major heavy rain, I discovered it was 'resistant' which isn't quite the same! If pushed I could drive the car to the area of my new job during a heavy rain and walk a distance to the office, as parking is extremely limited, if not impossible there. I'm hoping that after the very wet summer we've had, the colder season, like this past winter, will be drier. The saving grace is our mild temps in winter here, so winter commuter cycling is feasible outside of the really heavy rain conditions that is! My message here then is, if you're hesitating about getting back on your bike (in hilly cities like mine), don't despair. The electric bike is amazing and liberating. I highly recommend it to all. And who knows, maybe your list of future job expectations is not as unrealistic as you think it is at the moment. The right job may just be right around the corner waiting for the right time to surface!


  1. Great stuff! Love the bike - and the leggits are fabulous! Enjoy...

  2. Snazzy rain gear! I'm a bit jealous of your electric bike, I must say!

  3. I am crazy about the bike. Sometimes I do feel a bit lazy with it, but you can decide how hard or easy you want the ride to be. But for negotiating impossible hills, this bike is the answer - eco friendly too. It eventually pays for itself and you can justify the costs after adding up daily bus fares. Over here the fares are always increasing/way over-priced. I can use it also with the family for family cycles so it never sits around too long out of action.