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Commuter Idyll Winner Matt Gjertson Shares His Stirring Tale of Redemption

Sam Schwartz Engineering staffers Vig Krishnamurthy and Morgan Whitcomb created this awesome illustration of Matt and his commute options. Morgan's boyfriend Jake Williams won last years Streetsblog USA Commuter Idyll contest.

Thanks to everybody who participated in Streetsblog Chicago’s Commuter Idyll contest, sharing your inspiring stories of switching from a nerve-racking car commute to a pleasant walking, biking and/or transit trip. Big thanks also to contest sponsor New Belgium Brewing, which hosts the fun-tastic Tour de Fat bikes-and-beers fest this Saturday in Palmer Square – see details about this can’t-miss event below. Be sure to drop by the Streetsblog table at the tour, where we’ll have free schwag, including our famous “I [Heart] Bus Rapid Transit” buttons.

Matt Gjertson outside of his workplace.

A number of readers told us about how they ditched long, aggravating drives to work by switching to walking, biking, bike-share, CTA, Metra, carpooling, or some combination of the above. Some discussed how they moved closer to work – or got a job closer to home. Everyone reported that switching modes improved their health and happiness by helping them get more fresh air, exercise, or time to read or nap, allowing them to arrive at their job alert and ready to handle the day’s challenges.

Some of our favorite entries came from contest runners-up Courtney Cobbs, Brett Miller, and Elizabeth Edwards, who win VIP passes to the tour. You can read their inspirational tales, along with submissions from other readers here and here.

Our grand prize winner is Matt Gjertson, who talked about how his stress level soared after he switched jobs and had to give up a long-but-fun Metra commute. However, Matt’s tale is ultimately one of redemption, as he was able to regain his sense of wellbeing by fine-tuning his travel strategy. Here’s his story...

I moved from the suburbs to the city in May 2008, though I worked in Crystal Lake. I scoped out digs that were close to Metra stations, since my job was relatively close to a couple of stops along the UPNW line and there was absolutely no way I was driving to/from work while living in the city. Lo and behold I found a decent place six blocks from the Clybourn stop. The commute included about an hour and ten minutes on a train, and fifteen minutes on a bike, for a total time just under an hour and a half each way. This went on for four years, although I had people telling me I wouldn't last one. Sure, my commute took 3 hours out of my day, but I was able to nap, read, make friends, and even drink beer on my way home -- legally!. It was well worth it, and each time I decided to drive for any reason, I ended up wishing I was on the train instead.

Flash forward to the spring of 2012, when I received an offer for a new job just a stone's throw outside the city limits, in Franklin Park. I started out driving, with the intent of figuring out how to make it work via public transportation. Everyone I told about the new job commented about how nice it must be to work so much closer to home. However, even though I was traveling a quarter of the distance, I was only saving half the time -- 40 minutes in the morning, and 45-50 in the evening. They couldn't be more wrong... The commute was absolutely miserable. Every day I'd trek home along Belmont or Fullerton, yearning for the days I could sit on the train and not have to worry about the insanity that was Chicago traffic. I missed everything about my last commute, even though it took twice as much time out of my day. I meant to figure out how to get back to those days, but the monotony got to me and habits formed, and before I knew it a year had passed and nothing changed.

I really don't know what set the ball in motion, but pretty much just one day I decided to get rid of my car and force my own hand. I was able to take the bus to the blue line, and have someone pick me up there on their drive to work. It wasn't out of their way at all and they were more than happy to do it, but I don't like being "that guy" that has to rely on someone to get where he needs to be. I made it a point to figure out how to get to work using only public transportation and my bike (again!). The best compromise I came up with was to ride to the Belmont bus, throw my bike on the front, ride the bus to the Cumberland terminal, and then bike the rest of the way, another mile or so. This ended up being about an hour in the morning, but frustratingly longer in the evening. I eventually started to just ride home instead of taking the bus, and found that I could make it home in about 50 minutes. That's going 11+ miles on a bike in the SAME amount of time it used to take me to drive the same route. As time went on, I'd just ride to work in the morning as well. I just bring a change of clothes each day, and I always have the option of taking the bus, or even getting a ride to/from the blue line if needed. Options are great.

So now here I am. I’ve lived for over a year without a car, and I’m so much happier for it. The mornings are pretty relaxed, and I've come to look forward to the ride home to clear my head and just enjoy the commute as opposed to dreading it. I ride my bike over 22 miles almost every day, and love it. There's an undeniable feeling of satisfaction I get when I’m traveling faster on a bicycle than the line of traffic full of cars, trucks and buses.

Chicago Tour de Fat 2013
Mucca Pazza performs at last year's Tour de Fat. Photo: Stephanie Barto

Congratulations, Matt! You win a deluxe VIP pass to the Tour de Fat.

Readers, if you’ve never been to the tour, you’ve been missing out on a heck of a bike party, for a great cause. The free, family-friendly event includes a costumed bike parade around the neighborhood, live entertainment, a corral full of Frankenbikes you can test ride, tasty chow and, of course, plenty of delicious craft beer. Best of all, the proceeds go to West Town Bikes, a bicycle education center in nearby Humboldt Park. Last year’s Chicago fest drew 8,000 attendees, raising more than $40,000 for West Town.

Here’s the full schedule for the fest. Hope to see you there!

Revival Stage
11 a.m. — Bike Parade Launch
12 p.m. — Fashion! Best costumes of the Tour de Fat
1:10 p.m. — The Slow Ride Race
2:30 p.m. — Car for Bike Trade
3:55 p.m. — 1,000 Person Dance Contest (winner receives a New Belgium cruiser bike)
4:20 p.m. — Los Amigos Invisibles
5:05 p.m. — Finale

Variety Stage
1:35 p.m. — The Handsome Little Devils
3:00 p.m. — Yo-Yo People
3:40 p.m. — Mucca Pazza

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