The Multimodal Cat – Bike, Bus, and Light Rail in Phoenix

I normally have a dream bike commute. My eight mile early morning trip into the office is a mere 200 foot gain in elevation. When I get to work, the showers at my gym are less than a hundred paces from the secure, locked conference room where I park my bike. When I head home in the afternoon, my sedate route downhill runs through the shade provided by the noise abatement wall of a freeway and the trees of quiet neighborhoods.

I could probably do the trip, either way, in less than 45 minutes, but it is such an enjoyable ride that it invariably takes me a relaxing hour or more.

For my wife, however, it is a different story. Her trip to work is a nerve wracking 15 miles of busy surface streets and high-speed freeways. If she were to go by bike, the roundabout route she would have to take would probably be greater than 20 miles.

She will never bike commute, not only because the distance challenge would be much greater, but also because she has a thing about getting into accidents with any wheeled vehicle she operates. None of the accidents she has had have been her fault, she just seems to attract collisions.

Suspecting that my wife’s commute was more typical than mine, I performed a brief search online for commuting statistics. Sure enough, I found two studies which indicated the typical Phoenix commute was about 12.5 miles.

One was by The Center for Neighborhood Technology, in cooperation with Virginia Tech; the other was the USDOT Federal Highway Administration 2009 National Household Travel Survey – Summary of Travel Trends. (Congratulations, Ted! With your new 12.4-mile Tucson commute, you’re now much closer to typical!)

Feeling guilty about my commute of an Easy Eight, I decided I needed to bolster my credibility as a bike commuting advocate by taking on a much more challenging mock ride to work:

I would, for one day at least, ride a more typical route of around 12.5 miles into the center of the city, and I would combine bus and train public transportation to be The Multimoding Cat.

With a Monday off of my real work, my experiment would be much more of a real life experience. And I timed my trip for the peak of rush hour to make it even more real. I hopped aboard my grocery-getter — my Specialized Hardrock — just before 7:15 AM and headed out.

Phoenix Rail Pass
All Day Pass

First, I needed a transit pass. Valley Metro, the nonprofit public corporation which runs the bus and light rail services in the Phoenix metro area, sells tickets at a number of retail businesses in town, including select grocery stores, convenience stores and drug stores.

I rode over to a drug store and purchased an All-Day pass for $4.00. The pass allows the rider to board any bus (except for express buses) or light rail train, and unlimited transfers for the day. Metro has discount 7-, 15- and 31-day passes available that can reduce the per-day cost down to as little as $2.06; they also have discounted passes for senior citizens and kids under 19-years-old.

With my pass tucked safely into my sling bag, I coasted across a parking lot to a bus stop. A bus pulled up less than a minute later. The city buses have a fold-down rack in the front which will hold two bicycles. There was already a bike in the rear pair of wheel slots, so I wrestled the Hardrock into the front pair. It was a pretty tight fit, but I got it in and put the restraining hook up over the front wheel.

Boarding Berta's Bus
Before boarding Berta’s Bus

I boarded the bus and put my transit pass in the little slot. It gobbled it up, spit it back out and I was allowed to get behind the yellow line. No seats were open, but that was okay because I wanted to talk to the driver. She reminded me of Conchata Ferrell, the gal who plays the tough, razor witted housekeeper Berta on Two and a Half Men.

I got that impression when she had to jump out of the driver’s seat at the very next stop and help a fellow in a powered wheelchair get off. She traded jabs with him, and some of the other passengers, with the skill of a practiced stand-up comic. When she got back to her seat, she called out “Hey! Biker! I thought I told you to get that hook back up on your bike.”

Berta is watching you.
Berta is watching you.

I looked back behind me, didn’t see anybody moving, turned back around and said “Wait, you mean me?”

“Yeah,” she said.

I hustled down the stairs and saw, sure enough, that the hook had flopped off of the wheel. I flipped it back up, and this time I jammed it over the top of the left fork shock. When I got back on the bus, Berta said “That’s what you get for having those big, thick wheels.”

“I think that slot is bent,” I groused.

“Honey,” she laughed, “They’re all bent!”

We rode for a bit, and then I asked “I’m researching an article I’m writing about combining bicycling with public transportation. Have you seen an increase in bicyclists riding your bus lately?”

She thought a bit, and then replied “Yes, I definitely have.” Then her mouth twisted into a wicked little half smile and she added “Especially these guys who bring their mountain bikes with the big wide tires that they can hardly fit into the rack!”

Ouch. She was good. Admonishment taken: bus bikers should probably equip their rides with skinny road tires.

I got off about a half mile later, because Berta was continuing east and I needed to head south. A couple of people were waiting at the bus stop. I looked north and did not see a bus coming. This gave me an opportunity to test a theory I have: a guy on a bike can beat a city bus in a race. I took off south, not riding much over my typical sidewalk speed of 8 mph.

I rode slightly over two miles to the light rail station and never even saw a bus in my rear-view mirror, but I don’t think it is a matter of the bus being really slow. The buses are scheduled for every half hour, and I think I started out pretty close to 15 minutes between buses. Valley Metro’s estimated time for the bus on that route is right around 12 minutes (averaging about 11 mph). I made the trip in about 13 minutes (approximately a 10 mph average). Even though the bus probably was going slightly faster than me, it wasn’t going fast enough to get within sight of me by the time I got to the light rail station.

I arrived at the station about five minutes before the train arrived. The Valley Metro light rail trains all have a car with four hooks for bicycles; two on the left side at the front of the car, and two at the right rear. You hoist the bike up vertically and place the front wheel on the hook.

Light Rail Station
Light Rail Station

Although my aluminum framed mountain bike is not really heavy, it was quite a struggle getting the bike up to that hook (it looked to be around six feet off t
he floor of the car). I almost fell down when the train started moving before I had the bike in place. A fellow in the seat behind me helped me by grabbing the rear wheel and giving a shove. When I sat down and thanked him, I learned that it was his road bike with the aerobars hanging next to my bike. My helper said he rides the light rail every workday from Mesa to downtown Phoenix, a distance of about 16 miles. He assured me that I shouldn’t worry about scratching his bike, and that everybody struggles getting their bikes up there.

Light Rail Hooks
Hanging on the light rail hooks.

We chatted a bit more before we came to his stop. I returned the favor for him by swinging my bike out of the way so he could get his down more easily. After that, until we got to my stop, there wasn’t anybody who looked like they were amenable to conversation. A high school kid sitting next to me was dozing with his chin all the way down on his chest. A big fellow with his hair tied back in a pony tail, and a silver ring in each nostril, was lost in a paperback book. All of the rest of the passengers who got on and got off were engrossed in their own reading material or smart phones.

At the stop before mine, I got a jump on the departing process by retrieving my bike from the hook; I didn’t want to be struggling with the bike when we rolled into my station.

After exiting the train, I parked the bike and did some quick calculations. The entire trip, from boarding the bus to this train station, was a distance of almost 13.5 miles. I had made the trip in about an hour and ten minutes, so my average speed was really close to 11.5 mph. Not bad at all, considering my typical average speed on my real morning commute is right at 12 mph; on the downhill trek in the afternoon, even with the heavy traffic, I average about 14 mph.

I moved over to the platform for trains headed back the way I had come. When I boarded the return train, I didn’t put the bike up on a rack hook because all of them were taken. There were an additional three bicycles in the aisles.

Unlike the bus, which requires you to wait for the next bus if the rack on the front is full, if all of the light rail bike hooks are filled you can stand with your bicycle to one side of the larger aisles. It does require you to jockey your bike around to make room for people entering and leaving. At one point, some riders left a three-seat unit just in front of me and it automatically flipped up out of the way to become a wheelchair space. Since there weren’t any wheelchairs needing it, I rolled my bike into it and was well out of the way.

One thing I needed to do was keep a light grip on the bike brake. As the train started and stopped, my bike would tend to roll backward and forward, and if I didn’t keep a grip the bike would try to get away from me.

No hook available
No hook available on the light rail

I left the train at a station closer to my house, and rode the bike straight home at my usual commuting speed. A check of the return trip ride statistics were remarkable similar: I had gone a distance of right at 11.5 miles in just under an hour, so my average speed was again around 11.5 mph.

I don’t think my brief experiment with multimode commuting allows me to make any broad statements about it, but I can make a few observations, at least about how it would work in Phoenix.

  • I wouldn’t bring any panniers or other rack-mounted bags, for a number of reasons: (1) You’ll have to remove them and take them with you on the bus, because they do not allow you to leave them mounted to the bike on the rack; (2) It’ll be almost impossible to heft the bike up onto the train car hook because there isn’t room and the bike will be way too heavy; (3) While standing with your bike in the train aisle, your hand will get extremely tired as you keep pressure on the brake; (4) It will be much more difficult to move your bike out of the way so other passengers can enter and leave.
  • Equip your bike with narrow tires, so you won’t be scolded by Berta.
  • An ideal bicycle for multimoding might be a fixie: light enough to move around in the train aisle, to put up on the hook and to not fly out of your hands when the train comes to a quick stop.

BluesCatBluesCat is a resident of Phoenix, Arizona, who originally returned to bicycling in 2002 in order to help his son get the Boy Scout Cycling merit badge. His bikes sat idle until the summer of 2008 when gas prices spiked at over $4.00 per gallon. Since then, he has become active cycling, day-touring, commuting by bike, blogging ( and giving grief to the forum editors in the on-line cycling community.

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12 thoughts on “The Multimodal Cat – Bike, Bus, and Light Rail in Phoenix”

  1. Mike says:

    Good article. I do a daily bike/bus commute, 16 mi. RT, on my Specialized Tarmac in Chandler-Mesa-Gilbert. Same times, speeds, and experiences. Light rail option would be nice.

  2. Joel says:

    Great article.

    I have been multi-mode commuting for 22 months. The first year averaged about 15 commuting days by month with cycling to the bus park-n-ride. The other five days consisted of either my wife dropping and picking me up or taking my family “zipcar” (an older family car shared by my daughter and I).

    In this past year, I can proudly count on one hand the amount of times I have not biked to the bus station.

    I lock my bicycle at the station. I use a U-lock and a cable lock (with its own separate lock). There is video surveillance as well as the main bus pick-up located at the racks. The bus drivers have gotten to know me and I believe that they keep an extra eye on my bike (in the late fall, winter, and early spring, it is the only bicycle in the rack).

    The bike ride is about 7 miles each way with a twenty-five to thirty-five minute bus ride. My commute time with a car would take about forty minutes to forty-five minutes.

    By using my bicycle for part of my commute, I can get one hour of exercise each day for only thirty minutes of additional commute time. The most important point for me is that my ride is worked into my daily schedule. That little bit of moderate exercise has been the foundation of losing twenty pounds of weight and keeping it off.

    The economics are even more impressive. The car ride was about forty miles round trip. At 55 cents per mile, the total is $22/day. The additional cost of parking ($11/day) and tolls ($5/day) quickly raise the daily costs to $38/day.

    My employer provides commuter benefits which I applied to my bus costs. The normal daily amount would be $5.80 each way with a discount of $5.00 each way if you purchase 10 tickets at a time (with expiration dates). I purchase a monthly pass which brings down the daily cost to $8/day. My employer benefit completely covers the $8/day currently.

    I converted an existing bicycle but have added many little goodies to make my ride more comfortable, safer, and reliable. The costs records were kept and it averages about $.10/mile to ride my bike. The total bicycle commuting mileage is about 3,000 miles/year.

    All of this being said, since my employer helps me with the bus pass, I save $36/day by riding my bicycle and taking the bus. Even if my employer stops assisting me with the pass, I will continue to use this method and save $26/day.

    These are the cold hard commuting dollars saved but now I will add some intangible savings.

    My physical health has improved in documented ways. I had a complete physical before starting two years ago and discussed my bicycle plan with my doctor. He gave me the goal of one pound of weight loss per month. One pound of fat is about 3,600 calories (cal.). I was going to ride at about 12mph for a total of 14 miles/day with a weight of 230lbs. He said this was conservatively going to burn about 350 to 500 calories a day depending on wind, additional weight of my items being carried, and so on. Fifteen commuting days/month brought the calories burned to a reasonable guess of 6,000/month. The extra physical activity was going to make me want to eat more. I was going to have to watch what I was eating and resist the urge to eat more.

    It worked, I am in my ideal weight range, my HDL cholesterol went way up and my LDL dropped dramatically with no drug treatment. All of my other numbers were within their normal ranges. At this moment my HDL to total lipid cholesterol number is so low that I have a 50% LESS chance of cardiac or arterial problems than the average person. This is a HUGE health savings to say that riding my bicycle for one hour a day during my commute is CUTTING my risk of stroke, heart-attack, and hardening of the arteries IN HALF compared to not commuting by bicycle. My doctor only wished that all of his patients had my numbers and told me to just keep doing what I have been doing. I cannot afford to stop cycling now that I know my numbers would just revert back and knowingly increase my chances of being sick in the future.

    The mental stress reduction cannot be monetarily quantified. As BluesCat and I have discussed, those 30 minutes in the morning and afternoon are my quiet moments in my mind. I get back to the basics of being in touch with my surroundings and it reminds me of being young on a bicycle. I started to take leisurely bicycle rides of about one hour on each day of the weekends on my older road bicycle (which feels like a sports care compared to my “truck” commuter bike).

    I save money, feel good, and have better health because of my bicycle commute.

    Did I tell you that I like to ride my bike?

  3. Ted Johnson says:

    Seems to me that your Revelate Designs frame bag makes a fine companion for how the bike hangs on the hooks on the train.

    Frame bags seem to be marketed to adventure cyclists, and not so much to commuters. I wonder if there’s an opportunity there.

  4. BluesCat says:

    Mike – In addition to extending the light rail north, east and west (see the Valley Metro Projects and Planning Map), I see that they’ve just completed the public input for the Tempe Streetcar. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any streetcar systems in the U.S. with bike racks like the ones on buses; SOMEBODY is missing out on a million dollar idea!

    Your Tarmac sounds like a really good bike for multi-moding: light, and with skinny tires which will fit right in those bus racks!

    Joel – Because of my bike commuting, my Doc says my 63-year-old cardiovascular system is in great shape. I wish I could ditch my car, but since my company has two offices 50 miles apart … *sigh*

    Ted – I tell ya, since my review of the Tangle Frame bag, my appreciation of it has simply increased more and more. It is narrow, and out-of-the-way, and carries much more stuff than most handlebar bags.

  5. Ray Lovinggood says:

    BluesCat, the bus system I ride on my multi-modal commute allows bikes with panniers on the bus bike racks. My bike has been wearing panniers for over a year with daily rides on the bus. There have been no interference problems with other bikes.

    Before using the panniers, I used a “trunk bag” attached to the bike’s rack and I never had a problem with it and the bike while the bike was on the bus rack.

    The bus system did test racks for three bikes, but drivers complained the bikes blocked the headlights.

    If your hand gets tired holding the brake lever, do something I just learned a few days ago: Use a rubber band to hold the brake lever. Works great! The suggestion included that the small diameter, thick bands that come on broccoli work well. Indeed, it does, on my drop-bar bike. I just keep the rubber band on the handlebar then stretch it over the brake lever when I need a little stability.

    My bike has 32mm tires and it fits just fine into the loops of the bus bike rack. No complaints.

    A “fixie” works well for many commuters, I’m sure, but I want something with brakes, with a free-wheel (otherwise, why not ride a pennyfarthing or a tricycle?) and a rack. I don’t want to carry my office clothes in a messenger bag. Too damned hot! True, a fixie will be lighter than my geared bike with rack and panniers and will be easier to lift onto hooks. That’s something I don’t have to deal with since we don’t have commuter rail (Yet).


  6. Dre says:

    You forgot to mention the stupid, asinine video about bikes on buses on the valley metro site.

    Typical government excellence.

  7. BluesCat says:

    Ray – I believe the feeling is that bikes with child carriers and panniers are too heavy and bulky for the racks. Valley Metro isn’t alone in this idea, I’ve seen the same notion expressed by some communities in Colorado and Oregon. I’m glad I didn’t test the idea with Berta (I got the feeling I was already on her poo-poo list).

    Great idea about the rubber band for the brake! I’m wondering if a guitar capo might work pretty well, too. (In order to test that theory, I’m gonna haveta wait until my son’s back is turned and I can sidle up to one of his cases.)

    Dre – I gotta admit, when I was doing my pre-trip research I watched that bikes on buses video thinking it might give me some good info. It told me nothing I didn’t already know.

  8. Reject says:

    The only bike I put on the Sun Tran (Tucson) bus bike rack is my Dahon Speed Uno, equipped with Banjo Brothers Waterproof Saddle Trunk and sometimes a small handlebar bag. Ample room for a lunch, frozen cool pak and a dry tee.

    Honestly, I’m not understanding why anyone would put a pannier-equipped bike on a bus rack.

  9. I haven’t tried combining bus and my full sized bike because I worry the rack will be full or that I’ll get off the bus and forget my bike. I started carrying my folded Brompton right on the bus and that has worked really well.

    I don’t even bother trying to use the hooks on the light rail. a 35 lbs bike is just too heavy for this lady and the bike car is always so packed that even if I could easily lift it, doing so would be awkward, and what if I inadvertently hit someone with my bike as the car lurches forward. Again, I am finding light rail much easier with the Brompton folded, and I just roll it on board.

    This time of year, I would definitely arrive at most of my destinations faster if I just pedaled all the way in from home, but it’s so hot out, even at 7:30 a.m. I like just pedaling the 1.5 miles from our house to Central Station, catch the 8 going south on 7th Ave to Baseline to my internship. That gives me 10 – 15 minutes to cool down and pat away the perspiration so I look somewhat fresh when I get to the office,

  10. Roka says:

    My wife and I have also taken our folding bikes (a Brompton and a Dahon) on Valley buses and the Light Rail instead of our full size bikes. No only is it much easier but you don’t have to worry about having to wait for another bus because the bike racks are already full. We were a bit worried that bus drivers wouldn’t know that Valley Metro allows folding bikes onboard buses (they do) but we’ve never had a problem. I have Valley Metro’s web page with that info bookmarked on my smartphone just in case.

  11. BluesCat says:

    Karen & Roka – I never thought about how well a folder would work on the bus and train.

    And here’s that Valley Metro web page about them being allowed on buses: Valley Metro Need Help. Great tip, thanks!

  12. Michael says:

    There’s no getting around it: Bicycle commuting is not easy in Maricopa county. The cars try to run you down and you’re always breathing smog.
    But easily the worst part is that the bus/train system here sucks. The buses usually don’t match up with the trains and that means you’ll spend as much time waiting as you will riding. I live 16 miles from work and there is no way to get from Mesa to Tempe in a reasonable amount of time. It takes 1 1/2 hour minimum by public transit and that is just not worth it. It might be green, but it’s not fun. The only way I can justify it is that I ride my bike home. So I can take the commute one way and excercise the other. Otherwise, I would drive. Until the cities put in dedicated bike trails that go places where you need to go, and match them up with a decent public transportation system, driving will continue to be the only way to get to work. And I don’t see any of that happening within the next 25 years.

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