Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Voyages Multimodaux

Bellarena Train Station
The train was moving quickly, the blues and greens and yellows of the landscape blurring and running into one another in the glare of the morning sun. The diminishing mountain in the distance resembled now a flat brown cutout, sitting dull and static beyond the shimmer of the jagged marshy shore. In the corner fold-down seat I was fenced in by my bicycle resting against me on a diagonal. This created a sense of being in a tiny private compartment - just me, the bike, and the window with its views of endless grass and water. My fingers began to tap on the handlebars to the train's rhythm, as the lyrics to that exuberant '80s gem Voyage-Voyage popped into my head. All things considered, it was not a bad start to a long day.

One reason I am able to live in this rather remote corner of the world comfortably with only my bicycle for transportation, is that my travel radius is normally quite small. So when a series of personal events last week meant I'd have to dart around the country and beyond, I experienced a brief moment of panic, of the "How will I do this without a car?!" variety.

Derry Train Station
But after some initial hand-wringing, I optimistically reframed the situation as an opportunity to try out some variations of multimodal travel. After all, I live less than a mile from a bus station and within easy cycling distance from a train station. But how realistic is it to get around in Ireland via public transport - especially when you've got to be at specific places at specific times? As I already knew, but confirmed once again in the course of this hectic week: A lot depends on where you want to go.

Ebrington Square, Derry
Getting to major cities - namely, Derry, Belfast and Dublin - is actually pretty painless. All I have to do is cycle to my local train station, pay for the ticket and submit myself to what is usually a rather scenic and relaxing journey. The trains mostly arrive on time, run with reasonable frequency, and allow bicycles on board. And even though in theory there is a limit to how many bikes each train is allowed to accept, in my experience this rule is not enforced. So even though I own a folding bike, if I want to bring a full sized bicycle on the train for whatever reason, it is not a problem. Even if I had to travel to Belfast or Dublin on a regular basis (as many people here do), I would prefer bicycle+train to car. The journey by train takes about the same time as by car, but allows me to use the time more productively, since on the train I can read and do a bit of work.

More problematic are trips to places that are not along the train routes. The bus networks in Ireland, North and South, are actually quite good. But as in most places, there is often no direct way to get from point A to Point B if both points are off the beaten track. For instance, although there is a bus stop walking distance from my house, this bus only goes as far as the nearest market town. From there, I would then need to make an epic series of transfers to reach a similar type of market town elsewhere.

Just how epic, I learned when I tried to travel by bus to Letterkenny - a fairly large and central town in neighbouring County Donegal a mere 50 miles away. Starting from my local bus station, it took me no less than 3 transfers to reach my destination! It was the sort of situation where a car really would have been more efficient, no way around that. But since I didn't have a car, and would have to visit Letterkenny again in the near future, I decided to at least improve my journey next time - because doing 6 (total) bus rides in one day again was out of the question!

Bellarena Station
So when I had to head to Letterkenny again some days later, I took my bicycle, cycled to the local train station and took the train to the nearest city (Derry). From there I cycled to the central bus terminal (located across town from the train station, thus requiring either a bike or a bus), then took one single bus trip to Letterkenny.

This makes it sound complicated, but basically the trip broke down like this:
cycle to train station: 15 minutes
train journey: 20 mins
cycle to bus terminal: 15 mins
bus to destination: 50 mins
Total travel time: 1 hr 40 mins

Aside from the fact that this trip took about half the time of the walk+bus journey, I preferred it because cycling in the fresh air in between being inside vehicles made me feel a lot better physically.

It was also kind of cool to realise the full potential of the bicycle as a multimodal tool. The bicycle can do more than just serve as a means of getting to and from the train station. It can also be used to link up journeys that may otherwise be impossible or inconvenient to combine, expanding the usefulness of available public transportations options exponentially.

Having become aware of this, I grew bold in my planning. I began to derive satisfaction out of cleverly combining transport modes to minimise bus transfers. When I had time to waste in between transfers, I explored places I would not otherwise have ever had cause to visit. What I thought would be a week of hellish travel became instead... well no, it was still that. But at least I'd made a game of it that made it easier to cope with.

Among other factors, I experimented with whether I preferred to bring my folding bike and have it with me at all times, or a full-sized bike that I could lock up and leave at the bus station before the final leg of a journey. Sometimes I found the latter option worked better, especially if my final destination was the sort where I would not need my bike, so that having one would be more of a hindrance than a help.

Bicycle Parking at Derry Bus Center
Having locked up my old and somewhat cruddy looking Viking behind the bus station in Derry one day, I returned to it several hours later to find it being examined enthusiastically by a couple of bus drivers on their smoke break.

"I was just after slagging that bike," said one of them cheerfully as I leaned to unlock it.
"What, don't you like it?"
"Couldn't pay me to steal that thing!"
"I think that's the idea, mate" chuckled his friend.

Later I learned that I can actually take a full sized bicycle on the bus with me. Though I suspect this policy is informal, they allow you to plop it right into the luggage compartment apparently, where it can lay napping on its side on top of all the suitcases. I was on a bus with the final destination of Galway when I was told this, and although I had no intention of going that far, for a moment I imagined it and marveled at the myriad of possibilities in front of me. 

Just then, the echoey voice of Desireless crooned "voyage-voyage, eternellement..." into my ear again - as if to entice me to pedal through this endless boggy wilderness in a silver lamé dress and blue eyeliner to the sounds of electronic keyboard; as if to say, "You see? You got everything done and survived without a car after all. Voyages-voyages... multimodaux."


  1. I kinda like these over-done hdr images. Cos new normal.

    1. When you've faced into a headwind on the west coast, or leaned at 45 degrees into a crosswind, you might say that Ireland is over-blown.

    2. Plus de range dynamique. Potato, le potate.

    3. I wrote a poem once...

      You may say "Potato", I might say "Patayter",
      You may say "Tomato" while I prefer Tamayter,

      Say what you will, it's all the same,
      they taste best with Cicada.

      Some of my best work I think...

      Seamus Spinheaney

  2. I was going to comment on the time required between train station and bus station in Derry but then I remembered that the Foyle is in the way...

    I don't think NI has multi-modal travel quite figured out yet given train lines go past the 3 airports with scheduled passenger flights (BFS, BHD, LDY) but try walking between the airports and the nearest train station!

    I wonder if the bus connection problems you experienced are a consequence of the border. The 2 companies involved (UlsterBus and Bus Éireann) may not be inclined to run services into the other's territory but if the border wasn't there, maybe there would be a major regional hub based out of Derry.

    1. I don't think it is border related, as my experience of traveling within NI and within Co. Donegal have been similar.

      Can't decide whether the distance between train station and bus terminal in Derry is a design flaw or a good thing - possibly both? The latter being bc the bike route to/from is actually quite beautiful and I love doing it. But it does make it harder to schedule transfers.

  3. I'm very tempted to get a Brompton (fixed gear, drop bar of course) and rely on cycling/bus for getting around our rather sprawling Southwestern city (Albuquerque, NM). I do cycle many of my errands within a, say, 10 mile radius, but some journeys can be as far or further, half uphill, against wind, when you need to appear relatively fresh and normally dressed. Our bus system has improved greatly in the last 10 years, but you still need to "fill in the gaps."

    I'll be very interested to hear more of your experiences with multi-modal transport.

    1. You mean aftermarket drop bars?

      I find the Brompton pretty much ideal for 10 mile radius normally dressed cycling in various weather conditions. What I find less ideal is carrying it around folded up. Though it's much better in this sense than other folding bikes I've tried, I still find it too heavy and awkward to just tote around casually. Still great for on the bus/ off the bus and such, just not for strolling with it through shops and buildings. It also has excellent cargo capacity, which combined with its compactness is another multimodal plus.

  4. Thanks a bunch for getting that song stuck in my head!

  5. Multi modal is a completely different level when it comes to bikes. We love riding them, we love obsessing over them, we design our perfect bike and make it real….Then we're confronted with the fact that we've given up our car and are now trying to fit reality with our obsession. I had to make an appointment that was twenty-seven miles away…Took an hour and forty five minutes to get there and the ride home was completely in the dark. If an option of bus or train was available Id've loved to know about it, but it wasn't. Bicycle advocates are doing their best to promote a smart system of getting about w/o a car but it's still an uphill battle here in the U.S.

    Also interesting that you took an old bike -- a beater bike. I'm the same, with only one bike (and an expensive custom at that) I'm leery of strapping it onto buses or leaving it parked all day in shady areas. I've yet to pike up something that'll be acceptable as a bike I'm willing to have vandalized or stolen.

    So many factors in making bikes work for transportation.

  6. They do rent cars, you know...

    1. oh my god...
      [MIND BLOWN]

    2. And sometimes people forget and leave the keys in them as well... you can't count on it or anything but you might keep an eye out while pedaling through the car park at the station.

      Hope that was helpful...


    3. lol - the adventures of Velouria as a car thief.

  7. Thanks for posting this article at this particular time! You’ve got me downloading timetables and studying my old O.S. maps. I’m 60 this week, and here in Wales, that means I qualify for a bus pass on the grounds of age. This allows me free bus travel throughout Wales. I’ll also be eligible for a senior citizens rail card which gives me a 30% discount on all UK rail travel (off peak). I also own (what I think is) the ultimate folder. A Brompton and a bus pass….. surely one of the best combinations for such explorations!

    I take the points made about delays and transfers between different areas, but if you’re retired, those delays don’t really matter that much. Getting older isn’t all bad after all !!

  8. I think I recognize that landscape! County Sligo? Just beautiful!

    1. That's Muckish mountain in Co. Donegal. But you might be thinking of Benbulbin in Sligo, which has a similar flat-top shape.

  9. The adventures you had make great reading, especially since they are accompanied with such lovely photography and, though I understand the voyage was rather trying, it really sounds like fun - you did it and that is an accomplishment.

  10. As much as for cycling one should seek inspiration in the Netherlands, as much Switzerland is the place to look at for intermodality. Even the remotest places can be reached by public transport, everything works like a ckockwork (as it would).

  11. Odd the bike you chose to travel multi-modal, essentially a beater bike that you feel would not call attention to itself. You've got many bikes which, maybe like shoes, there are a pair for all occasions. I worry about going high end for transportation.

    1. I chose that bike for a specific trip where it was better not to have a bike with me at all for the last leg of the journey, and where I did not know what kind of locking-up options would be available at the park-and-ride place and how long I'd end up having to leave the bike there. More often than not though I take the Brompton.

      Funny thing about shoes. I was never that into shoes to begin with, but not owning a car for the past 4 years downsized my range of footwear even further, since every pair I own now has to be walkable and cyclable in. It is not impossible that, if I count all my nonfunctional vintage bikes, stray bikes on perma-loan to others, etc., I might own more bicycles than shoes.

    2. My wife collects shoes. I collect bikes. She arranges her collection neatly in various closets, under beds and under the dresser in the spare bedroom. Many of my bikes actually get ridden, but several languish in various stages of dis-assembly, awaiting parts or a final decision on how they will be built up. We've both pledged to take steps toward reducing inventory before things get out of hand. I think I'm winning. The Schwinn Super Le Tour that I bought on Craigslist last summer is restored and will soon head out the door. My wife continues to agonize over the two pairs of Danskos that were a great bargain, but they just don't fit.

    3. Do you still qualify as a woman, then? ;) Just kidding. I’m a man, I’ve currently got six(-ish) bicycles but almost twice as many pairs of shoes/boots. I buy them at Aldi when they’re reduced and keep them for when the shoes/boots I’m wearing wear out; at the moment I’m several pairs ahead. Always amazes me how soon pedals wear out non-cycling-specific soles, though – I remember a post you wrote not so long ago about re-soling shoes to make them cycling-specific – I’ll follow that up, even with soles that are worn out, as long as the uppers are still viable. Waste not, want not...

      Funny story (sort of): A fellow on one of the cycling forums was agonizing over which of his two bicycles to jettison; apparently SWMBO (She Who Must Be Obeyed, if you don’t know internet language) had given him an ultimatum: either ditch one of the bikes or find another wife; she said he could only ride one bike at a time – can you believe that?!?!?! Total no-brainer, of course – he should have told her she could always find another husband – but most of the folk on the forum thought they’d play along and humour him for a bit, and one wag wrote, ‘Tell her she’s only got one pair of feet...’

    4. Yes, that's what I mean, choosing a bike because you were uncertain as to the safety of leaving it behind. I sometimes wish I'd more options when navigating longer trips. It's been close to a decade since giving up my car and simplifying life and during that time I made the choice to invest in a bike to meet all my needs. Problem is that it cost around six grand. It's the cat's meow but strapping it to the front of a bus or leaving it locked for long hours in a sketchy place creates a certain amount of anxiety. It's difficult. I've the one bike and three pairs of shoes, one for winter, one for summer and one pair of cleats. Using a bike for complete transportation still has it's issues…well, unless you've got many bikes.

  12. You say 'my bicycle' when really you mean my bicycles. You've one for every occasion which, I guess, makes sense. It's not easy getting by with one bike. My son and myself deal with this, daily….Being self sufficient on a bike and dealing with the limitations of it's design is daunting. We sometimes share. Still cheaper and better than owning a car.

    1. I’ve always thought you could never have too many bicycles, but recently a neighbour very kindly presented me with a virtually unridden and unworn early-’90s Raleigh Pioneer Reynolds 501-framed hybrid/trekking bike. Nothing special, but it’s like the equivalent of the No. 5 Jack plane, if you know about woodworking – a real jack-of-all-trades. I’m currently overhauling and refurbishing it, including a respray, and once it’s done it should be better than new. Don’t know how I’ll use it (for everything, probably – it’s the most ubiquitous bicycle I’ve ever possessed), but although it cost nothing (to buy, at least – the neighbour wouldn’t take anything for it), if I could only have one bicycle it’s the one I’d keep (I don't own a car either)..

      I’m always skint, but over five years ago, Velouria wrote a thought-provoking piece about affording stuff (I think she said she might revisit the subject soon) – life is all about priorities...
      Lovely Bicycle! Affording Beautiful Bicycles... and Other Things You Love

  13. Trains are a godsend for the Chicago cyclist. We have commuter rail which goes quite a ways as well as decent Amtrak service in various directions (though only some trains allow full-sized unboxed bikes). It's made weekend bike-camping possible for us, even in the midst of the Chicago sprawl. Campgrounds in Wisconsin which would be a 100-mile ride from our door are only 30 miles from a commuter rail stop. It's also nice to be able to simply ride roughly parallel to a commuter rail line until you're tired and then have the option to take the train home.

  14. I do this too, lots of planning to take the bike with me on a train, looking at maps to try to work out the best way to ride in an unfamiliar city. I also have an old beater bike whose sole reason for being is for the odd time it has to say locked up at the station all day or night. The whole trip is made much more memorable if a bike is part of it.