It’s hot in America these days, and it’s getting hotter. In early July 2022, some 50 million people were under alert or advisory due to excessive heat, and weather forecasters labeled a big swath of land from Georgia to Texas “hot and humid” on their maps.
In cities like New Orleans and Houston, temperatures were edging over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, with humidity through the roof. That’s the kind of weather that becomes especially unsafe for senior adults, and for people living with heart disease and other chronic conditions that suppress their bodies’ ability to adapt to the heat.
By the second week in July, the dangerous “heat dome” was sweeping out of the South and into the Southern Plains and the Southwest. By then, it was already getting to well over 110 degrees in Phoenix. Even places as far north as Ohio have seen temperatures in the triple digits.
The transportation Catch-22
Commuting isn’t fun for most of us at any time, and now the heat has put many in an even more untenable situation.
If you are fortunate enough to have a car to get you to work, you’re paying a lot more for gas than you were even six months ago. Although gas prices have started to fall, the national average on July 9 was $4.68, more than $1.50 over the same date in 2021. That’s not all: According to AAA, triple-digit temps can actually damage your vehicle, causing nearly all its parts to have to work harder in order to achieve the same performance.
Bike to work to save gas and the environment? In many places, it’s too hot. Make the commute without a car? Many cities’ public transit systems are not equipped with air conditioning. And that’s not all: In June, a Bay Area BART train derailed when the extreme heat warped the tracks, sending one passenger to the hospital.
As you weigh the pros and cons of your own heat wave commute, Here are a few of the ways car-free commuters across the country are attempting to beat the heat:
Carpooling is one increasingly recommended way to beat the heat and save the planet during your commute. State and local governments like it because it keeps pollution down and highways less congested.
Los Angeles County has advised residents to carpool, take public transit, or drive less, simply to help address the smog, which is worsened by the heat. Elsewhere, in Allen County, Ohio, officials similarly asked residents to carpool or bike to work to help lower ozone levels. In southeastern Michigan, there’s a program called Commuter Connect that aims to encourage carpooling by matching people commuting in the same direction. Many other cities have such services.
In addition to the structured Michigan model, there’s also casual carpooling. Commuters traveling from the suburbs into the city gather at designated locations to hop into someone else’s vehicle, giving the driver the benefit of using the faster carpool lanes on the freeway.
Taking the sting out of public transit
Public transit offers a similar benefit for those who don’t mind crowds. To avoid getting stuck straphanging in a heat wave, though, you could try catching a bus or train before rush hour. See if there’s a good coffee shop or gym open near your office so you can relax or work out before you’re on the clock.
Getting real about biking to work
If you’re set on biking to work in a heat wave, make sure to put your well-being first. Like your car, your body is going to have to work harder during any kind of physical exertion in the heat. Hot weather makes it more likely you’ll get dehydrated, fatigued, or even become ill. Dehydration reduces your blood volume, forcing your heart to overwork itself and making it more difficult to regulate body temperature.
Make sure before setting out that you have enough water with you, and mentally prepare for where you’ll stop for a refill if necessary. The best advice is to drink a little bit of water at a time, and to do it often, when biking. Remember to drink even if you’re not thirsty. It’s common for someone on a long bike ride to consume two full bottles of water. A Camelbak or other hydration backpack is a great investment here.
You might also want to try drinks containing electrolytes to replace those lost due to sweating, and to put ice cubes into your water bottle.
The expert bike-to-work crowd recommends adding either panniers or a rear rack to your bike. That way, you won’t be weighed down by your backpack in the heat, keeping you less sweaty and much more comfortable.
Cyclists should also never be without sunscreen in a heat wave. Make sure you use one with a broad-spectrum SPF that’s high enough for your skin. A sunscreen with zinc oxide is best for blocking the most UVA and UVB rays.
The best advice for dressing for the heat is to wear clothing that’s loose enough not to cling, while snug enough not to interfere with bike safety. Light colors absorb less heat. Long sleeves may sound counter-intuitive, but keeping more of your body covered will actually keep your skin cooler.
If your climate isn’t humid, you can get away with light synthetic blends. If you’re in a muggy climate, you might even want to consider wool. Yes, wool. It’s great at wicking away moisture, and it breathes like cotton while being quicker to dry. In general, natural fabrics like cotton and linen allow for better air circulation.
If your company offers a shower room, bring travel-size body wash and a fast-drying towel. If it doesn’t, your best bet is to keep some dry shampoo and a pack of wet wipes in your desk drawer.
The long-range view
No matter the weather, commuting to work can be the worst part of anyone’s day. One study showed that, if a person’s commute were lengthened by 20 minutes, it would produce a level of dissatisfaction equivalent to a $19,000 pay cut.
So, now might also be a good time to take stock of your priorities. Maybe you can move close enough to walk to work. Or maybe there’s another job or a different role in your current one that would keep you closer to home. Depending on your role, you can also ask about working from home one or more days a week. Most studies on the topic have found that remote workers are, on the whole, more productive than those in the office.