An Exceptional Commute: A Q & A with Joe Johnston

April 02, 2020

Tell us about the type of commuting you do, and how long you’ve been doing it.

“Basically, almost all the time, I ride my bike to and from campus every day. I’ve been doing that for the last four and a half years, so, since we got to Spokane in 2015.”

What inspires or motivates you to engage in this type of alternative commuting? Maybe certain health, economic, or environmental benefits you’ve identified as valuable?

“I would say it’s a combination of those things for me. One part of it is environmental concern: recognizing the changing climate that we’re living in, so certainly part of it is some kind of commitment to wanting us to do less harm to the environment, rather than more, as we have in the past. But another part is certainly the physical health part. Having my commute be one way that I’m actually doing a little activity every day. Another part is mental health. It’s so nice, to me, to have that time in the morning and at the end of the day where I can just get outside and not be in a car and be reflective and process what went on in my day. The last part is that there is so much beauty in the city of Spokane and around it. I get to ride right by the lower and upper Spokane falls, and through Riverfront Park all the way to campus.”

You said you moved to Spokane in 2016. In your time here, have you seen changes in the built environment of Spokane?

“I have seen some changes. More bike lanes, some improvements to trails here and there. One big undertaking has been Riverfront Park. Just everything they’ve been doing through there, which will be fantastic once they finish it up, and I believe they’re close to that now. So that has been one big change for my commute that has improved it. Also, on N. Monroe, what they did there has improved things dramatically for riding a bike up and down that street, compared to what it was before. There’s still plenty that needs to be done. There aren’t enough bike lanes, it’s not really a part of the culture of the city at this point.”

What support (from family, friends, coworkers) have you received? On the other hand, have you had people be concerned or question your decision to commute in this way?

“I think it’s only been supportive. My partner and I, we don’t have children, we both work at Gonzaga, and we just have one car. I have a lot more autonomy in my work than most people. I can carry my bike right into my office and leave it there, I can be flexible on when I need to leave and when I need to go, and within my department, the students all think it’s fun, or maybe funny, to see me, particularly in the wintertime, when I have all the gear on. Some of my colleagues, especially when I bike in the wintertime, have lots of questions, but it’s mostly very supportive.”

What is the biggest challenge you have faced as a bike commuter?

“I’ve been fortunate in that I haven’t had any accidents. I’m not that worried about that, I think I should be more worried than I am about it. But that is a concern, because cars have come close to me on many occasions. I think getting a flat tire at the wrong time is not useful, but sometimes, I think, if you want to be committed to the bike, you have to be a little bit selfish about it, which doesn’t feel all that great. If I’m going somewhere with someone else, I can’t offer a ride to them, that kind of stuff is a challenge. But really, I haven’t had that many challenges because I have a lot of autonomy with my position as a professor. At Gonzaga, the dress code is pretty relaxed, so I don’t have to pack a suit or something like that.”

How have the changing seasons impacted your decision to bike to work?

“I have a road bike and I also have a mountain bike. So I ride the mountain bike in the winter. I have to take a slightly different route in the winter, particularly when there’s a lot of snow on the ground. Depending on how much snow is down, sometimes there’s some walking going on, or some very slow riding. It gets trickier in the winter, for sure. Before I had the mountain bike, if it was too snowy, I would just walk to work.”

What do you wish more people knew about biking?

“Basically, I think it would take me the same amount of time to drive to campus as it does for me to bike, from where I live. And part of that is because I don’t have to deal with parking. I ride straight to the door and then I take my bike straight up to the office. So I think it probably takes me less time. And, as someone that used to have to drive, kind of a long way to and from work, it is just so much calmer and such a nicer start to the day and end to the day, riding the bike, compared to being in a car and dealing with traffic.”

Do you think there is anything Gonzaga could do to get more people involved with biking?

“I think this, our conversation, highlighting the people that are doing this, is good. I have kind of contradictory thoughts about this. On the one hand I would say, it would be a much better option for people if they lived closer to campus. I think there’s a good number of faculty that live up on the South Hill, and that is a haul to bike up there and it’s kind of scary to bike down it. At the same time, Logan Neighborhood, for instance, is a neighborhood that is not a wealthy area. Housing, in our city and particularly in Northeast Spokane, has become more and more hard to come by at an affordable price. So the idea of trying to push faculty and staff to purchase homes or want to live in the neighborhood, on the one hand, it’s a very nice idea because then they can be a part of it, on the other hand, we know the amount of rental units that occupy that neighborhood for students, that has had a detrimental impact on community members that used to live there. So, I don’t know, I kind of am of two minds on all of that.”

Do you bike recreationally, or just as your commute? Do you have a favorite trail or bike ride to do?

“I bike recreationally too, but most of it is commuting. But yeah, I like biking recreationally as well. Riverside State Park is just so beautiful, and riding the Centennial Trail northwest is just gorgeous, and it goes on forever and ever and ever.”

Any final thoughts or words of wisdom, whether about biking or life in general?

“I started doing this, riding, only 6 years ago. One of the things that I thought before, was, there is no way I would ever ride a bike in the wintertime. It looked so cold, so frigid, and so impossible, but after doing it, I now understand that all you need to do is put on more clothes. Get a good pair of shoes, and gloves, and it really is fun. And it feels good, particularly in the darkness that is Spokane in the wintertime, to still get out and just do it.”

If you or someone you know commutes to Gonzaga in an interesting way, we want to know about it! Send an email to and you might be featured in a future profile!