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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University August 18, 2008 | Vol. 37 No. 42
Look Ma, No Gas

Jay Rubin commutes to his Homewood office in an electric car that runs off household current.
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS

Gas prices have you in a tizzy? Meet some of Johns Hopkins' happy eco-commuters

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Audrey Huang has a simple philosophy when it comes to her morning commute. "I have legs that work," Huang says. "I might as well use them."

Huang, a senior media relations representative for Johns Hopkins Medicine, bikes to work nearly every day from her home in Charles Village to her office in the Bond Street Wharf building in Fells Point.

She rides the five miles on most days — well, so long as it's above 40 degrees and below 90 degrees, and not raining too heavily. Otherwise, she takes Johns Hopkins shuttles. On rare occasions, she drives in.

Huang is just one of a seemingly growing number of JHU employees who bike, walk or, in the case of at least one employee, drive an electric car to work.

While it's unclear how many Johns Hopkins employees go the gasless route on their commute, the high prices of gas and parking, and a concern for the environment, appear to be pushing the number up.

Huang says her motivations for using a bike are many. "[Vehicle emissions are] bad for the environment, gas is expensive, and parking is another cost I'd rather not pay because I don't really have to," she says. Huang says that the calories burned are a benefit, too, but not a primary motivator, as she keeps active in lots of ways.

She's been working in Fells Point for more than two years, cycling off and on the whole time. Her route takes her down Greenmount Avenue and into downtown. She says it's not as treacherous as one would think, although she has had a couple of near collisions with pedestrians and cars.

Audrey Huang makes the five-mile trip from her Charles Village home to her Fells Point office on two wheels.
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS

She makes every effort to be noticed. She wears bike shorts, "a really obnoxious day-glo yellow cycling jacket," a bike helmet, shades and, in cool weather, gloves. She crams a change of clothes into a Timbuk2 bag that she totes along.

Jim Miller, another bike commuter, used to pack his clothes, but now he has a full closet of work attire waiting in his office.

Miller, director of design and construction for the Office of Facilities Management at Homewood, treks nearly five miles each way on his commute. Miller, who lives in Towson, describes himself as a lifelong biker, ever since the days of his first paper route.

He rides an 18-speed cyclo-cross road bike with a small seat and drop handlebars. He's outfitted his "commuter" bike with lights, beefy tires, fenders, panniers (attached bags) and a rack. Miller is the quintessential bike rider who dresses the part. His typical garb is spandex pants, a Tour de France bike shirt and an aerodynamic helmet.

He's comfortable with his mode of transportation and the distance he travels, but he recognizes that traveling down York Road in rush hour is "not for the faint of heart."

He owns a car and estimates that he drives six times a year, when he absolutely needs to go somewhere after work.

His morning commute is pretty much all downhill. "The ride in is much more leisurely. I really don't sweat too much," he says. "Well, I haven't heard any complaints, yet."

Of course, what goes down must go up. He estimates he burns 110 calories coming in and 350 on his return trip.

When asked why he rides, Miller says it's his love of cycling.

"I like the exercise and the sustainability side of it," he says. "Honestly, I'd much rather be on a bike than in a car. I feel like you are more in control." Except in an ice storm, he adds.

Jason Eisner, an associate professor of computer science in the School of Engineering, bikes to Homewood every day from his home in the northeast corner of the Guilford neighborhood. He moved to the area six years ago and commuted on bike from day one. He estimates he travels 2.5 miles roundtrip.

Like many bikers interviewed for this article, Eisner rides rain or shine but stops short of riding in instances of ice and heavy snow. He also leaves the bike at home and drives in on days when he has appointments or errands to run after work.

Eisner says he loves his commute and the money he saves. "I also just like to get outside," he says, "and it's a nice way to start the day."

Jay Rubin, administrative secretary to the university's board of trustees, goes gasless too — in his electric car.

Rubin, who lives three miles from the Homewood campus, took the bus for eight years but eventually grew weary of unreliable mass transit. He tried going the bike route, too, but lamented the lack of shower facilities on campus. Last year he looked into electric cars and was happy to discover that Maryland had become the 25th state to allow them on the road.

One vehicle maker, American Electric, invited Rubin to give their new Kurrent car a test run. He flew out to Washington state, fell in love with the vehicle and had it shipped across the country.

The Kurrent plugs into any standard three-pronged household 110-volt outlet and gets between 15 and 20 miles per charge. He loves the greenness and ease of upkeep. "It's nonpolluting. I never have to visit a gas station except to put air in the tires. It's just very low maintenance," he says. "I keep the tires inflated, wash the windows, and that's about it. There is no transmission, and it's as easy to operate as a bicycle — and I'm shielded from the weather."

The diminutive vehicle seemingly could fit in the glove compartment of a Hummer. It's 92 inches long, 50 inches wide and comes equipped with a radio, a small trunk, heater and defroster. Air conditioning? "That's when I roll the windows down," Rubin says with a grin.

He admits his ride does turn heads. "Everyone stares and goes, 'What is that?'" he says. "When I'm stopped at an intersection, men often roll down the window and scream, 'How much does it cost?' Women ask, 'Is there trunk space?'"

Any cons? Rubin says some people grumble when his small car takes up a standard-sized parking space. And he can go only 25 miles per hour, so he can't take it on the highway. "But now I'm used to driving slow," he says. "You live longer that way."

Leana Pitkevits-Houser uses no wheels at all to get to work.

Pitkevits-Houser, a program administrator in the Center for a Livable Future, walks to the School of Public Health nearly each day from her home in the Canton neighborhood. She often cuts through Patterson Park on her two-mile journey.

She started walking three years ago, and although she owns a car, never considered driving in each day. "I just prefer walking. It's a nice walk through the park. I have a pretty set route. I've figured out where it's shady, which is important on hot days."

Pitkevits-Houser says she appreciates the environmental and personal benefits.

"I often have my best thoughts and ideas on my walk into work. It's a great time to think, or just zone out if I want to," she says. "I also have great interaction with the people in the park, those pushing children in strollers or others out walking their dog. It's really nice, and good exercise. I was able to quit the gym."

She admits her shoes wear out faster, but it's worth it.

Alan Stone, a professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, walks 35 minutes to work each day from his home in Tuxedo Park, located north of the Homewood campus.

Alan Stone walks rain or shine — and chooses a different route for each trip.
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS

Unlike Pitkevits-Houser, his route is anything but set. "I try to walk a different route each way so I don't get bored," he says. He often walks along the Stoney Run, except when it's been raining a lot. "I don't want to fall in," he jokes. Some days he aims for every hill and staircase he can find to ratchet up the difficulty level.

Stone has been walking to work for eight years. He, too, used to take the bus but discovered he got home earlier if he simply walked. The increase in on-campus parking costs was another incentive.

"The main thing for me is that walking clears out my mind," Stone says. "I know exactly what I want to type out and do when I get into the office. I also love being outside."

Stone often takes routes where he doesn't have to worry about cars, although when he crosses Cold Spring Lane, he has to have his wits about him.

He wears hiking shoes on his walk and then changes to his trademark sandals when he gets into the office.

When it snows, Stone sometimes throws on a pair of cross-country skis, a pastime that got him featured in The Baltimore Sun.

Stone tried a bike but decided it was too dangerous for him. "There's always the chance of a car door opening," he says.

What does he encounter on his walk? Well, lots of dog walkers and, oddly, the occasional bit of discarded foreign currency. He also once saw a student calmly pick up a black snake and walk away with it, and one day he found the pressure weight for a pressure cooker. "I was puzzled. Did the pressure really build up that much that it got shot across town?" he says.

He walks rain or shine and in the summer sometimes carries along a large plastic bucket with edibles from his garden to share.

He enjoys not having to deal with a car, and the weather doesn't deter him. "Web access to Doppler radar lets me avoid heavy downpours. With light rain and snow, just dress appropriately. It's not an issue."

Gregory Hager, a professor of computer science, bikes into Homewood from Roland Park, roughly two miles from campus. Prior to joining Johns Hopkins in 1999, Hager worked at Yale University, where he also biked.

He rides a mountain bike, "nothing too fancy." His wife also bikes to work, and the family has only one car. They often use one of the Zipcars located on campus. "There are some rare occasions when I drive in with my car, mostly in the winter, like when there's black ice out there." Snow? No problem. He has the tires to handle the conditions and comes in wearing ski goggles.

As for safety, he says that crossing University Parkway does have its sketchy moments. The most dangerous part of his route, though, is the entrance to campus near the ROTC building. "It's a bit of a blind curve."

The Center for a Livable Future is currently wrapping up a series of focus groups at the Bloomberg School of Public Health to learn more about how people commute to work — specifically, biking, walking, carpooling and mass transit — and how the school can make their options easier and more appealing.

The focus groups were a follow-up to a commuter survey that was sent out to Public Health faculty, staff and students in May.

Pitkevits-Houser says the survey shows that people want to use more eco-friendly commuting options but that there are some resources that are needed, such as knowledge of safe routes for biking and walking, flexibility of work schedules, access to showers and a database to help people find carpool partners.

"Some of those things we can provide, like info about safe routes and a database for carpoolers, while others will require support from the university and/or state," she says. "We are very hopeful that these options will become easier and more appealing in the future."

Get your bike gloves on.


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