Commuter converts from public nemesis to public transportation

I was miserable. It was a Tuesday, and it had to be 106 degrees out. I was planted in traffic on 280 South with no air-conditioning, having been forced to turn it off because my 1995 Jeep Cherokee was nearly out of gas. I had filled up three days ago, but judging from the fuel needle, my 3,000-pound crude-guzzler had suddenly decided that those 20 miles to work were more like 50 if it meant keeping occupants cool on top of its other duties.

I was on empty, and my trip meter had clocked just more than 200 miles on 17 gallons. You do the math.

I was shamefully envious of the carpoolers -- and occasional non-carpoolers with electrics, hybrids or motorcycles -- whisking by in the diamond lane. It suddenly struck me how insane it all was. Here I was wasting time, in constant peril, breathing superheated petroleum fumes with the high sun burning off my body's precious fluid reserves.

At this point in the commute, I could always feel my chest tightening with the daily dose of random rage.

I first saw the sign as I lurched over a hillock at 15 mph. It was telling me I should "spare the air, take the bus or carpool tomorrow," the cursor blinking expectantly as if waiting for me to jump out of my car and walk the rest of the way home.

At that moment, I was wishing the toxic air would spare me.

I had felt guilty for some time about this whole commute thing. I had become what I despised -- someone in a single-occupancy sport utility vehicle. A personal bus. As someone who spends a lot of time worrying about the environment, I wasn't exactly treading lightly on the earth. I was a hypocrite.

An hour and a half later, I slogged, grumpy, through the doorway, barely acknowledged my annoyingly cheerful wife, and logged on to Caltrain's Web site.

I was surprised to learn that it would take me only 50 minutes from platform to platform, San Jose to Palo Alto.

My car commute was typically 50 to 60 minutes door to door, but some days it could take as long as an hour and a half -- to go 25 miles. Not to mention fuel ($120/month), parking ($20/month), wear and tear on my vehicle (estimated $50/month) (total = $190/month).

A 10-ride pass for my trial period would cost $31.25, but I could get a monthly pass for $87, and I would really bear no other expenses to speak of.

An hour and a half later I was dusting off the vintage Raleigh three-speed bicycle that some drunk had dumped in my yard a few years back. I oiled the chain and pumped up the tires until the cracks separated.

The next morning I was up a little earlier to catch the last train out of Blossom Hill at 7:35.

It was a rush pedaling through the quiet morning air, heavy with the scent of garlic from Gilroy. I made the train, bungee'd my reincarnated wheels into one of the racks in the bicycle car and settled in for the ride. Door-to-door trip time on my first day was an hour and 15 minutes, a doughnut-break difference from my car commute.

Over the weeks that followed, I discovered many other intangible benefits of taking the train: I found myself breezing through books whose pages had been patiently awaiting the light of day for months, even years.

I was writing again. I was thinking again. I was more relaxed, cheerful and rid of commuter anxiety and guilt, not to mention out of imminent physical danger. I was human again.

It was amazing how such a simple lifestyle alteration, made literally overnight, had changed my life so dramatically. With the help of that dark rectangular angel that had brought me a message of hope in my time of need, I had found inner peace in the beauty of public transportation.