The Great Commuter Challenge started Monday at the Merriam Park Community Center in St. Paul. The competitors, from left: Jim Foti, the Star Tribune’s Roadguy, who drove a car; Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who biked, and Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter, who took transit.

Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

From the driver's seat, more stops than go

  • Article by: JIM FOTI
  • Star Tribune
  • May 13, 2008 - 12:43 AM

The broken gas pump was not a good omen.

Monday morning's Great Commuter Challenge was sponsored by transit and biking advocates, and as the only contestant driving a carbon-spewing car, I didn't expect them to make it easy for me. But sabotage a gas station?

No, no, of course they didn't do that. But pulling up to a pump with no nozzle was just one of the reasons I lost to Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who rode a bicycle, and Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter, who took a bus and light rail.

The not-exactly-scientific-but-entertaining race was organized by Transit for Livable Communities, with help from public agencies including Metro Transit and the Minneapolis Bicycle Program. My prescribed route from St. Paul's Merriam Park to the Minneapolis Central Library downtown required me to put a gallon of gas in my car, buy a newspaper at the Lake Street light-rail station and pick up some tickets at the Bedlam Theatre box office in the Cedar-Riverside area.

All three contestants had more or less the same 6-mile route. Carter was absolved of the fuel stop, but Rybak was instructed to grab a snack along the way.

We were under orders to obey all traffic laws, including speed limits. As my mother said, "Well, what kind of commute is that?" But after Rybak's driver's-license dust-up last week, we all wanted to be model citizens.

In first place, for a bit

After I found a functioning gas pump, I cruised past the mayor as he was finishing up his espresso chocolate chip scone, and I had excellent luck hitting green lights all along E. Lake Street.

Things started to go downhill at the Lake-Hiawatha intersection.

My attempt to walk across Lake Street to buy a Wall Street Journal took two tries, after the first push of the pedestrian button didn't produce a walk signal. A few minutes later, I waited through two cycles of a stoplight when the arms came down at the freight train crossing.

An impatient SUV in front of me eventually blew through the red arrow, but I had a judge/monitor in the front seat next to me: Nick Mason, a member of the city's bicycle advisory panel.

I started to have a sinking feeling -- I'd already seen Carter hustling from the bus to the train station and watched Rybak zoom onto the bike trail that runs along the light-rail line.

I was pleased to find a parking spot about a block away from the Bedlam Theatre. Not bad -- but not as good as the wide-open lot right next door. I must confess to some jaywalking -- or rather jayrunning -- at this point, with poor Nick jayrunning behind me.

Carter's tickets were brought to her when her train stopped at the light-rail station next to Bedlam, saving her six to eight minutes over visiting the box office and waiting for the next train. Bedlam offers a $2-per-ticket discount to patrons who arrive by transit or self-power.

The finish line

We'd all left Merriam Park at 7:40 a.m. Rybak arrived at the library at 8:11, Carter four minutes later and yours truly five minutes after Carter.

Considering the somewhat- stacked deck (in the real world, I could've bought a Wall Street Journal at the gas station and hopped on the freeway), my showing wasn't too bad, and besides the broader point was to call attention to the benefits and viability of alternative transportation. Carter spoke of how nice it was to be able to actually read her newspaper and chat with others on the bus and train, while Rybak, a triathlon-competing 52-year-old, is more fit and vibrant than your average teenager.

I got my heart rate up, too, but mostly while waiting for stoplights.

Jim Foti's Roadguy column appears Sundays in the Star Tribune. He can be reached at or 612-673-4491.

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