January 6, 2012

UW staffer zeros out daily commute costs, carbon footprint

News and Information

Edmiston said he hopes others from the UW community will invent even more cost effective and usable commute alternatives.

University of Washington staffer Bob Edmiston was unhappy with his commute.

It took him a half hour each way driving between his Madison Park home and the university, using $2 worth of gas and paying $7 for parking. He didnt like using that much time and paying that much money, and he was concerned about his carbon footprint.

So Edmiston used his job skills to figure out what to do. He calls himself a user-experience researcher; he finds out what people need to do to get their jobs done and helps build the software tools they need to do that.

“Im all about the data,” Edmiston said. “So I collected data on a daily basis in terms of time on task and dollar amount per day and used that to evaluate different commute alternatives.”

Bob Edmiston with his electric bike.

Bob Edmiston with his electric bike.

First, he invested in an electric car. That eliminated his gas costs, but it didnt change the commute time or the parking fee. Then he tried the bus. His costs went down further, to $5 a day, but as for the time. . .

“Either the 43 or the 44 bus will get me down to 23rd and Madison, but then the 11 bus for the last trek comes every 20 minutes and if you just miss it, its literally faster to walk all the way to the end of Madison than it is to wait for the next bus,” Edmiston said.

So a trip by bus took at least 30 minutes and sometimes an hour. Unacceptable.

Edmistons next approach was bicycling, which would seem to be the perfect solution, given that it requires no gas and no parking fee and allows the rider to escape the worst traffic hassles. But the trip left him hot and sweaty, forcing him to take time to shower and change before starting work. Not optimal.

Then Edmiston had a brainstorm. Why not try an electric bike? He could pedal when he wanted to, use the motor to eliminate the sweaty part and still use no gas and pay no parking fee. He found his first e-bike on Craigs List.

“I was able to cut my commute down to 20 minutes each way, which was faster than any of the modes I had tested, and I still didnt have to pay for gas or parking,” Edmiston said.

But the used bike wasnt powerful enough for daily commuting. Edmiston found that he could get to work all right but he needed to charge the bike in order to get home. So he bought an electrification kit and put it on his regular bicycle. Bingo. He could ride both ways without needing to charge the bike.

Bob Edmiston stays dry while commuting on his bike thanks to a removable top.

Bob Edmiston stays dry while commuting on his bike thanks to a removable top.

Edmiston now had his commute time down to 20 minutes, his parking fees to zero and his fuel costs to about two and a half cents a day on average. For most people, that would have been enough. But Edmiston is not most people. His next move was to put solar panels on his house, together with a battery bank for storing energy. He charges his bike off the battery bank.

“Then I was able to get my commute costs down to absolutely nothing, and since each days commute is run off yesterdays sun, my carbon footprint is exactly zero,” Edmiston said.

But can he get enough solar energy in perpetually cloudy Seattle to run his bike? Well, most of the time. Because of the storage capacity of the battery bank, he said he only needs about two hours of sunshine in any three-day period. And when he doesnt get that, he pays that whopping two and a half cents to run his bike.

Okay, but what about riding in the rain? Edmiston has an answer for that too. He invested in a convertible top with a windshield that keeps him dry on the wettest days.

What would lead a man to go to these lengths? For Edmiston, it began when he came upon the Redmond Derby Days fair and found the “Undriving” booth.

“They were trying to get people to sign a pledge that they would do something to drive less in the next year,” he said. “My commute seemed like the logical thing to work on.”

And of course, once Edmiston begins a project like this, his data-loving mind kicks into high gear. When he was featured on the Undriving website, he included charts noting the time and expense of various commute options.

The battery that powers Bob Edmistons electric bike.

The battery that powers Bob Edmistons electric bike.

After attending a presentation about Portland neighborhood greenways at the UW, Edmiston was inspired to contribute to the Seattle Neighborhood Greenways Project, which is pushing to create streets that are optimized for bicycle and pedestrian traffic by reducing car speed and volume through the use of speed bumps, traffic circles, separate bike lanes and the like.

Edmiston said that greenways would make a difference for people who are willing to bicycle or walk for transportation but afraid of traffic. Only about 6 percent to 8 percent of the population, he said, are confident cyclists who will ride in traffic. Sixty percent are classified as willing but wary.

“Empowering the 60 percent, would probably have a bigger impact on cycling than all the bicycle infrastructure done to date,” Edmiston said.

Hes involved with a U District Neighborhood Greenways group that is planning routes to the university. The group is lobbying the city council to start construction on those in 2012.

He said he hopes others from the UW community will invent even more cost effective and usable commute alternatives, and hes willing to be a resource for anyone interested in electric bikes. Contact him at bobedm@uw.edu.

Meanwhile, Edmiston rides his e-bike to work every day.

“I keep getting flak from people,” he said. “They say, ‘Thats not a real bike. Youre not a real bicyclist. You have a motor on that thing. I say, ‘I may not be what you consider a real bicyclist, but I am a commuter and I dont drive to work.”

As to whether hell ever see a return from all his investments in his bike, Edmiston said he isnt concerned. “My goals were to eliminate my daily commute cost and do so with zero carbon footprint, in a way that would be realistically usable on over 95 percent of my workdays.  So far its achieving those goals.”