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Houston Attorney Thrives on Doing The Impossible – Daily

Some of Houston’s cool and under-appreciated bike infrastructure.

In this extremely wealthy country of ours, the chief barrier to wealth is often the information, or misinformation that gets stuck inside our own heads.

People with the right knowledge can develop the right habits, and these habits lead them to accumulate wealth very quickly. Meanwhile, the majority of people pick up incorrect financial ideas and bad habits, leading to permanent debt. But they mingle mostly with their own type, so the failure habits keep spreading.

Sometimes, to break out of the Herd Mediocrity Mindset, you just need to see an example to learn what is possible.

So with that in mind, let’s review an example of yet another allegedly completely impossible thing, that an MMM reader is doing every day.

Jeremy Stone, aka The Rock, engages in a rare – and yet incredibly profitable – activity, in a city that is legendary (in the public mind, anyway) for making this activity completely impossible.

The following tale is drawn from our past year of occasional email conversations.

The Lawyer Who Actually Bikes to Work.
Year-Round. In Houston.

Dear Mr. Money Mustache,

“I’m a lawyer and commute to downtown Houston every day regardless of weather (unless I need to drive somewhere for work), without a handy shower or any special amenities, so it can definitely be done.

I was skeptical too, but my wife pushed me to do it after we got into your blog about 4 years ago, and it’s been one of the best decisions we’ve made.  If anyone complains that they can’t do it because of heat, humidity, needing to dress in a suit, etc, I’m proof that you can do it.”

The Challenge:

Throughout the history of this blog, Houston has become the poster child of Bike Excusitis Disease – the place most often cited as “The Reason I Can’t Bike to Work”.

Houston commuting, as perceived by car drivers (image credit: Politico)

Raised on the slippery black teat of the Almighty Oil Well, Houston was developed for motor vehicles and the metro area now sprawls across ten thousand square miles (6.4 million acres), which means Houston alone is one fifth the size of the country of England. Ironically, the more you optimize a city for cars, the bigger your traffic jams, so Houston has the worst traffic in the US.

And it’s a subtropical steam bath: daily highs exceed 80F / 27C for a full nine months of the year with high humidity year-round.

On top of that, Mr. Stone is a high-ranking official in a law firm, the profession most often cited as one where you can’t bike to work. Lawyers need to wear suits at work, see clients, impress judges, and this calls for the utmost in personal hygeine – scrubbed skin, shaved beards, polished shoes and manicured nails, premium brands and styled haircuts. It’s a hassle, but it is a necessary selling of the soul, in exchange for a six or seven figure income. Right?

With those painful complaints out of the way, we might as well move on to actually solving our problem.

“At first, I thought it was a crazy idea. It wasn’t, and I loved it.

I started commuting on an old but good Trek mountain bike (got stolen), then to a $50 hybrid that was a piece of crap, then upgraded to a fancy Surly Disc Trucker.

Most of this route is nice and easy, because it is mostly on a hike/bike trail. Over the last few years, Houston has been changing old railroad lines into these trails.”

The Route: 

Sunrise in Downtown Houston, as seen from the bike route.

Bike commuting can be superior to driving in every city, but only when you design a route that works for riding your bike. When you drive a car, you will usually end up on the fastest, widest, (and most dangerous) roads, never even realizing that there were parallel bike-friendly options nearby.

“My route takes me through a neighborhood called River Oaks, where the very richest Houstonians have lived for decades.”

Early in our conversation, Mr. Stone shared a map of his bike route with me, and I compared it to Google’s suggested route for driving a car downtown. The distance is about the same, but in a car you end up on the interstate highway, which makes the commute seem completely un-bikeable.

Fig.1: Google Maps view of car vs. bike routes to work. Bikes are surprisingly fast, plus immune to traffic jams and you get free parking.

Key Strategy Note: this ride was made much easier by the fact that Stone lives within 4 miles of work. This didn’t happen by accident: he chose his home and his work strategically to avoid a car clown commute.

Yet interestingly enough, houses in his neighborhood are still only in the $300,000s. If homes so close in are so affordable, why is anyone commuting into downtown Houston in a car?

There is no answer aside from sheer foolishness – those highways will soon be empty after this article gets out.

“My route takes me along the trail along Silver St. in an old Warehouse district, now an artsy district. Then along White Oak Bayou (Houston is built on bayous, not rivers!) as you near downtown, and under an old 150 year old bridge that has been built over. 

Some of these bridges serve as homes for the thousands and thousands of bats here. You can’t see them, but I took this picture at about 6 or 630 am, and there were bats flying all around. The bridge is so low you get to ride right through them!

Biking beats driving – exercise, fun, no traffic, bats, tombs, turtles, snakes, herons!”

The Speed: 

The deceptive thing about bikes is that within a city, your average speed ends up equal to, or even faster than, a car. In big cities, cars average only about 27 MPH even without traffic, and rush hour can cut this speed in half again. Meanwhile, a slow beach cruiser coasts at about 12MPH (the speed Google uses for biking estimates), a fit cyclist rolls at 20, and an electric bike can easily sustain 28 MPH with almost no effort from your legs at all.

So when I’m in a rush to get somewhere in town, I never reach for the car keys – there’s no time to waste puttering around in a gas-powered wheelchair.

The Cars (and other Financial Effects):

Most people in Mr. Stone’s position have huge houses in the wealthy enclaves of Houston, and drive very high-end cars to work. If there is a spouse and family in the picture, they have multiple cars. And yet somehow, the Stone family survives with just one 2006 Honda CRV (market value about $6000), which remains in great condition because it leads such an easy life.

Driven lightly, the total cost of ownership of a car like this is about $2000 per year. Meanwhile, the typical attorney power couple might keep an up-to-date Mercedes SUV and a BMW 5-series. Driven at the US average level of 13,000 miles per year, this fleet would vaporize about $24,000 per year of personal wealth.

Wow, we need to put that shit into a box so more people will see it:

Average family driving
with two typical lawyer-level cars
destroys about $250,000 of your wealth
every single decade.

Still think biking to work is only for poor people? Do you consider an 11-year-old vehicle beneath your standards?

When you are not dependent on cars, you no longer derive your identity from them, which means you can start thinking about them like the appliances they really are. This makes your car costs drop drastically.

But What if I Move Jobs?

Coincidentally, halfway through our conversation, Stone ended up switching employers and acquiring an even better position.

I imagine that the same sharp mind and optimistic can-do attitude that encouraged him to bike to work, were the things that helped him earn this upgrade. But the new office was in a different part of town, further from home.

Did The Rock head straight to the car dealership to purchase a new Chevrolet Suburban like everyone else in Houston? No, of course, he just busted out the map and the brainpower again.

But What About the Heat?

“Until the new job, my office did not have any shower facilities. But I found it was not really a problem: I just keep my clean dress clothes at work, and change out of my cycling clothes once I get to the office. 

Also, making the trip before sunrise (especially in the summer) gives me much cooler temperatures. The ride home can be hot and sunny, but there is always a cool shower and air conditioning waiting for me when I arrive.”

Rock is right. I too biked to school and work throughout my career, in temperatures ranging from 0F to 105F. Long-time readers already know that bike transportation is probably the biggest factor that accelerated, and continues to fuel, my own family’s early retirement.

Some of my workplaces had showers, and others didn’t – but I never even felt the need to use them. In extreme heat I’d just just put on a clean, dry shirt and maybe a fresh layer of speed stick, and settle in to my office to enjoy the air conditioning. Any trace of perspiration or heat was gone within about five minutes.

This is because physical activity, including riding your bike, is normal, not the exception. It’s not a medical procedure or a competition or something you do in an indoor “spinning” class. It’s not an emergency condition which causes your body to shoot feces from every pore, destroying any nearby pieces of clothing and requiring a long, hot shower every time you move so much as a fingertip.

It’s just what happens every day.  So The Rock and I will see you on the streets tomorrow morning – it’s always Bike to Work Day.

Related Reading on the magic of a Cooperative Spouse:

Is Mr. Money Mustache Ruining Your Marriage – Part 2


Is Mr. Money Mustache Ruining Your Marriage? – Part 1

Epilogue

On the day that I finally got around to publishing this post, Jeremy and his lovely wife happened to be visiting my part of Colorado for a wedding and some hiking. So we invited them over for dinner and we had a great time together. I also gave him one of the secret stash of MMM t-shirts that arrived at my place today:

 

  • Paulina June 27, 2017, 2:07 pm

    I also live in H-town and commute the 3.5 miles to my downtown office. I’m considerably more lazy than Jeremy, so I got a cheap scooter. I go through 2 gallons of gas a month, $9/mo insurance, and the best part is I don’t have to pay for parking! I love the damn thing.

    However, I recently found myself in the family way and have since stopped riding (I get a ride form my husband, who drives our only vehicle a Tacoma for work). Now I’m left with the dilemma of returning to riding a scooter once baby arrives, or biting the bullet and buying an economical vehicle. What do I do?!!?!

    Reply
  • JB July 3, 2017, 11:15 am

    Today, I rode my bike into work. Well, the gym, then I had to walk a mile to work, but I was sweating for an hour after I took a shower and walked to work, then sat at my desk trying to cool down. For me, this is why I don’t ride in during the summer. For those of you that don’t sweat like a waterfall, more power to you. I pretty much have to wear either a black or a white shirt to hide the sweat. At least most of my polo shirts are DriFit so the sweat wicks away. I have a glass office/glorified cube, so I have no place to really hang out and cool down. Maybe when it gets cooler I will go straight to work and save myself the extra 45 minutes of going the gym and walking from there.

    Reply
  • Mrs. Farmhouse Finance July 7, 2017, 8:31 am

    I just bought my first road bike, and am very excited to join the bike commuters when we move this year. I will have a 6 mile commute through neighborhoods and on flat country roads. There are no showers at work, but I think a quick towel down and a change of clothes will be all I need.

    Reply
  • David July 10, 2017, 1:47 pm

    This is one of the greatest articles in the history of the world. Love it!

    Reply
  • Tim July 12, 2017, 7:25 am

    MMM, thanks for posting Jeremy’s story, it really inspired me to get out of my comfort zone and bike to work. Today was the first day I did so. I too live in Houston and work not far from where Jeremy does. A few months back I moved to Houston for work and based on what I learned from this blog was sure to pick an apartment close to my office. I think subconsciously I knew I wanted to bike, but at the time I told myself it was for the short commute. After my wife gave birth a few weeks ago I knew I needed to make a change, at 29 and years of little exercise and not altogether healthy eating I could see the writing on the wall. So I bought a commuter bike off of Nashbar (great company by the way, they even credit you for reduced or sale prices for a time after you bought the bike) , put it together myself instead of paying a bike shop, and now have officially used it for its intended purpose.

    I admit I am still a total wuss, I plan (due to some knee pain) to take it slow and bike a minimum of once a week with the goal to do it everyday by the end of the year. But I have already intrigued the wife (she now wants a bike) and eventually have plans to get a bike trailer.

    Reply
    • Jeremy Stone September 1, 2017, 1:33 pm

      Awesome!

      Reply
  • Amanda July 12, 2017, 8:38 pm

    Love this! I was a bike rider in St. Petersburg, Florida starting in January 2015 because I could no longer afford my car payments. I hated it so much bc I was “forced” into it, and it was sooooo hot. Also the used road bike I bought wasn’t that great. Very hard to ride. About a year later I was spending the money needed to keep my bike in tip top shape, and loved the thing! When it got to the point that I might be able to afford a car, I opted out and saved my money to backpack through Central America, which I’m doing right now. Just got to Costa Rica a week ago! :) Thanks MMM, great post!

    Reply
  • Rachel August 2, 2017, 4:03 pm

    After reading this and totally missing my old foot-commute to work 30 minutes there and back, I remembered why I stopped: I became chronically ill (still working) but always in pain. Do you have any finance advice for those of us out there who do have chronic health issues? I know it may not be your area of expertise, but it might be interesting for you to consider/look in to! All the best.

    Reply
  • David August 2, 2017, 8:08 pm

    I live two blocks from The Rock, and also bike to work downtown. My glorious 3.0 mile morning commute is captured in a short time-lapse video, synchronized to music, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xpCxZg0F-b8&t=6s

    Reply
    • Jeremy Stone September 1, 2017, 1:34 pm

      Nice video, David! And I’ve always enjoyed your art car!

      Reply
  • Frugal Lizard August 10, 2017, 5:42 am

    If this crowd doesn’t need a little more evidence that bicycle commuting is good, just skip this: http://shifter.info/forget-all-the-other-reasons-you-should-be-riding-a-bike-this-is-the-one-that-matters/

    Reply
  • Phil September 12, 2017, 9:32 am

    Hi! I can definitely echo this story – with a very cold twist. I was a partner at a major Toronto Bay Street law firm and commuted on my bike year round for 5-6 years before retiring at the ripe old age of 37. Now I continue to ride my bike daily, including on the nice winter days (i.e., all of them!). All you have to do is either leave some suits/shirts at the office or pack them up daily. Switching to biking and selling my Pathfinder was one of the best decision I ever made on my path to FI and early retirement. I have been without a car for almost a decade now and feel the best for it. Go for it!

    Reply
  • Marco Zuniga October 16, 2017, 6:06 am

    I ride sidewalks most of the commute, so traffic doesn’t affect me as much. Doesn’t make sense to be stuck in traffic on a bike

    Reply
  • Trini Transplant December 18, 2017, 7:10 pm

    Public transportation into NYC where I work is generally pretty amazing from where I am in New Jersey and it’s virutally impossible to bike through one of the tunnels or over the bridges without getting arrested, at least. But I still have my bike from my Westminster, Colorado days where I realized just how easy such a thing was. Sadly, I bike around leisurely now in the warmer months and that’s it.

    Reply
  • The Lonely Cyclist July 26, 2018, 11:56 am

    My husband and I moved to the LA area last year from Philly where I biked my 3 mile commute along the Schuylkill River. I was shocked by how few people bike in So. California. The weather is perfect all the time! The traffic is terrible all the time! Why does no one bike here?!? I am also a lawyer, and most of my colleagues commute over an hour to work, or arrive before 6am and stay after 7pm in order to avoid traffic. I bike 5 miles each way, it takes 25 minutes, and allows us to be a 1-car family. The lack of dependable bike lanes made me nervous at first, but with a little extra awareness of your surroundings, bright clothes, and general lack of asshole-ness to the drivers around you, I find that biking here is perfectly fine. Bonus: I am the only cyclist in my building, so I never have to fight for room in the bike rack like I did in Philly!

    Reply
    • Mr. Money Mustache July 26, 2018, 3:05 pm

      Yup, your observations are SO correct about Los Angeles. As far as I can tell, when you boil down all the bullshit reasons why people claim they can’t bike in LA, the only underlying theme is “people are dumb”. There is really no other excuse in 90% of cases or so, which means 90% of traffic could be eliminated within a year, if people did a combination of moving houses and jobs and manning/womaning up.

      Reply
  • Ryan August 9, 2018, 10:25 am

    I’m convinced that biking to work is impossible for me. Given the “no excuses” attitude of many here, I am hoping someone can convince me otherwise.

    Problems:
    1) Two-body problem. My commute is 19 miles. My wife’s is also 19 miles, but in the opposite direction. We were lucky to find jobs in the same state (physicist and neuroscientist), so new jobs are not viable options.
    2) Childcare. How do I drop off / pick up my kid on a bike? Keep in mind that daycare scheduling us very tight.

    Lesser problems:
    3) Limited savings. I have to have a car for the intense spring Texas storms. As long as I have two cars actively insured, my savings are limited.
    4) I now have family 1 mile away that can help with a sick child. That is very valuable.
    5) Even non-interstate roads can be scary in Texas. The dangers of driving are well understood, but being the lone biker on a four lane road full of impatient, aggressive, and distracted car clowns seems to be an order of magnitude worse.

    Reply

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