First Person: White-knuckle, black-lung biking

First Person: White-knuckle, black-lung biking

Donna Eyestone

Video by Donna Eyestone.

I’ve biked thousands of miles commuting through Alameda over the past 13 years, and I’ve biked over all the bridges for those times I need to get off the Island. But a panic comes over me when I think about biking through the Posey Tube – so much so that I’ve never done it in 13 years. Then The Alamedan asked me to get some footage, so I took it as a personal challenge: Bike the tube with a camera mounted on my handlebars.

Dread was keeping me from finding the time to do this assignment. It’s more fun to go videotape something like Everything Alameda than try to negotiate the tube. I found a buddy who was willing to go with me on this “adventure” and we set off during the morning commute.

I took absolutely everything off my bike – no bags, no lock, nothing that would make my berth any wider. We arrive at the entrance at about 8:15 a.m. Traffic is totally in full swing heading out of Alameda (of course, this is the side of the road the bike/ped path is on). I’ve had to edit out some of the audio from the beginning of the video, because it is a tight squeeze on the path, even before you get into the tunnel itself! Inches separate my handlebars from the wall on one side, and a metal railing on the other. I’m sure my panniers would have been too wide to go through, and I’d never dare take the trip on the tandem with my daughter.

When you start off you’re going downhill, so you can sort of just roll. I stay on the brakes, completely petrified that my handlebar will catch on the railing, so I proceed into the tube very slowly. A few seconds in I see another biker coming the other way. I know there’s not room for both of us – so I take the last opportunity I have to pull off the sidewalk into a little opening so he can pass. We smile as we pass each other, knowing this is a lucky break, because it means that, at least for this exchange, we don’t have to figure out how to lift my bike over the railing or figure a way to squeeze past each other. Though I sense there is more to our smiles than this. We both know we’re part of an elite group of “people who bike the tube” and so we share in this brief moment of pride.

Continuing along, I’m struck at just how incredibly loud it is in there. I mean ear-shatteringly loud. So as I try to keep my handlebars from hitting the railing, I’m assaulted by so much noise that I just feel a bit overwhelmed. I’m thinking this is not a great way to start off my day.

Within minutes I’m feeling good about having not yet fallen into the traffic. Though difficult to not hit, the railing does provide a little sense that you won’t accidentally drive your bike off the elevated sidewalk right into (or onto) traffic. But it seems to me, while perched on my bike, that I might just topple over the railing if something were to happen.

Then we get pedestrian traffic – a guy walking toward us, coming from the Oakland side. I’m glad he’s on foot. We pass, and I still don’t have to lift my bike over the railing.

The sidewalk, the railing, the tube wall – they’re all covered in soot. My shoulder brushes up against it. In spots the wall is “rubbed clean” by the bikers and pedestrians that have done this before me. It’s ominously scuffed with the rubber from handlebar grips getting caught on it. Some artist has also done a bit of decorative soot-rubbing higher up the wall.

All the soot makes the cement slippery, and there’s a crack exactly where I want my bike wheel to be. So I have to make sure to not get “caught in the groove” while I bike; I’m on my skinny-tired bike because it seemed like the right choice.

There is a bit of satisfaction in occasionally going faster than the cars. This is true even when I am on my brakes because I am scared and inexperienced at riding in conditions like this. But then you’ve got to bike “up and out” of the tube. I don’t dare try to shift gears – the last thing I need is something else to think about. So I start climbing the hill, breathing more deeply because now I’m working harder. The black soot that covers the wall – I can already begin to feel it in my lungs.

But then, I start thinking that this isn’t actually taking as long as I thought it would. I see the light at the end of the tunnel. Oakland never looked so lovely! It took me eight minutes to get through the tube. I did it – but I still have to get back!

I rest a little in Oakland, and talk with a couple of bikers who I had pegged as “everydayers” long before talking to them. I know this because they are biking at least twice as fast as I dare to go. Kudos to those who regularly do this commute by bike or foot.

I decide I’ll walk my bike on the way back. I think I’d get a little less shaky-camera footage, and I want to see how long it will take. But even walking through with my bike is a challenge – I have to now fit my bike and my body next to each other. Because you can only access one of the sidewalks in the tube, you use it to go both directions. It causes tight squeezes during passing, but at least now my other sleeve will be equally blackened.

It actually is a little scarier coming from Oakland into Alameda, because you’ve got to travel against the flow of traffic. This gives you the feeling that you’re going faster than you really are, and when you have to actually witness how close those tall, big trucks come to the railing – well, let’s just say it is enough to make you wish you were someplace else.

My handlebars catch the railing a couple of times, and my pedal even clips it while I am walking – luckily this didn’t happen while I was riding.

It takes almost 17 minutes to walk it, and, in hindsight, was probably a bad decision. Though the video footage is better, my lungs are hurting; I spend the rest of the day wheezing. I had heard stories about the poor air quality in the tube, but I just thought maybe those people were more sensitive than I. Nope – it really was bad breathing, with lingering effects long after having emerged from the tube.

As a kid I remember a trip in New Hampshire – we got a bumper sticker that said “This car climbed Mt. Washington.” There was no one waiting for me at the Alameda portal with any stickers, but if there were, it would read “I biked the tube.” But first a shower, and then, hacking up a lung.

Editor's note: Alamedan videographer Donna Eyestone is a board member for Bike Walk Alameda.

Related: Tube fixes a start, but cyclists say they need more options


Submitted by NJHorton (not verified) on Fri, Oct 18, 2013

That was absolutely horrifying. You are a brave, brave soul.

Submitted by Anne B. McDonald (not verified) on Fri, Oct 18, 2013

My husband and I did it once. Only once. Now we will ride to the Park Street Bridge to get to the Sunday Farmers Market in Oakland rather than take the shorter route through this dangerous, dirty Tube. (It isn't all that great in a car, btw!)

Submitted by Todd Edelman (not verified) on Sat, Oct 19, 2013

And now what?

Submitted by m marcus (not verified) on Sat, Oct 19, 2013

i've been thru the tube on a bike a few times in my 20 years of living and biking in alameda. it does suck! especially the noise. and the soot is just as described in the article. but to be clear, you won't fall over the railing into traffic (unless you're jumping around, a lot) and to pass another cyclist (which has happened every time i've ridden through) both cyclists simply raise their front wheels and slide past each other. no need to "lift the bike over the railing." let's not make this trip more unpleasant than it already is. next time i need to go through the tunnel, i think i'll ride on the roadway with the cars; easier than the sidewalk actually. but probably quasi-legal.

Submitted by olivia (not verified) on Sat, Oct 19, 2013

Wow, good for you! Thank you for the footage. Now I know that I will never attempt it. I once tried that I had some major anxiety as I approached the on ramp. Do you think there is any way to increase service by the estuary shuttle to weekends? I realize funding to even continue the shuttle might be in jeopardy.

Donna Eyestone's picture
Submitted by Donna Eyestone on Sun, Oct 20, 2013

I think the 2-bikes passing thing depends a lot on both the bikers, and the bikes they are riding. On my "typical" ride -- a tandem with panniers -- there's no way I could get on one wheel -- and, frankly, no way I could lift it up at all -- so that would put me at the mercy of some other kind cyclist who could figure out how to get around me. I've seen and heard about the bike-lifting thing (which added to my fears too). So your point is well taken - but my guess is "it depends" is the only safe answer as to how to pass.

I would think - short of some other heroic efforts - that a plan could be put into place that has BOTH sidewalks opened up --- with some way to make it clear that this is the sidewalk to take when heading toward Oakland, the other sidewalk the one to use when heading to Alameda. This would take away the passing issues. To do this -- they'd need to remount those Call Boxes so they don't stick into the sidewalk. There's also some pipes on the very outside edge of that other sidewalk -- but those actually don't seem like they'd make the cycling or walking really any worse.

I could see, with practice, that I, too, could be one of those people who just rides through with confidence. I feel like I'd need a few more inches of space to really get to that -- but I hear that we are getting that with the new railings.

Really -- what seems like my #1 concern is air quality. It just is really terrible. I'm thinking a better ventilation system would help a lot -- though I also wonder if it would make it even louder in there.

In my case - the Tube is not ever convenient to go through - either in a car or on a bike -- I live at the other end of the island -- so it really is much more pleasant to bike over the Park St. bridge and head out on Embarcadero. And, for me, isn't out of my way. This is not to say that the Tube wouldn't be the most convenient route for others -- and having a way that you could get through it (or some other method) using your own power, rather than waiting for a bus/shuttle/water taxi would be great and solve a lot of traffic issues. It is really so short -- and a relatively quick ride -- it is empowering to be able to do it by bike -- but it is not for the average, casual cyclist.