Over the last 3 years I have been riding my bike 13 to 17 miles each way to and from work about 2-3 times a week. Like many other commuters I know, my original motivation was for health reasons. Since that time, I’ve come to realize that commuting by bike has much more to offer than I had initially realized.
At this point in my bike commuting experience, I would consider myself somewhat of an expert. I’ve encouraged a few people to start bike commuting and they have had great success. This week I will be posting a multi-part article that will walk you through the steps necessary to consider, get started, overcome any obstacles, and eventually become a bike commuter yourself.
Why Bike Commuting
Before anyone starts bike commuting they should make an assessment of what they hope to achieve by riding a bike to work instead of a car. You will also need to consider lifestyle, location, and other transportation duties (bringing kids to school, work errands, mid-day appointments) that may prevent you from considering bike commuting on certain days. If you think creatively, you can find ways around many situations that at first glance may appear to disqualify you from being able to commute by bike. Many people write off bike commuting due to work clothing and hygiene considerations, but there are ways around that problem mentioned below.
Some reasons for bike commuting would include: improved health, enjoying nature, time to think and be away from distractions, stress reduction, respect from coworkers, reduced transportation/parking expenses, remove necessity/cost of gym memberships, challenge yourself, it can be faster than commuting by car, conversational item in social situations.
We all know that transportation expenses can get pretty high, what with rising fuel prices, insurance, vehicle maintenance, parking expenses. Bike commuting can reduce some, if not all of those, but don’t bank on any immediate savings when you start bike commuting. Few bike commuters end up getting rid of their gas consuming vehicles. Some people, however, don’t own a car and use public transit. These people might notice a more immediate payoff with bike commuting. But for the rest of us, the expenses of getting started in bike commuting will probably offset any savings in gas or car maintenance in the near term.
Health benefits and stress reduction are probably the first benefits you will notice. You’ll also get the occasional “your crazy” or “wow, I’m impressed” comments from coworkers. Those comments can be fairly gratifying in themselves. Many people mention feeling more awake and ready to face the day when they bike into work. Some studies show that a person that bikes to work will be more productive at work (on average) than a person that drives to work.
Is there a down side? Yes, there are a few negatives associated with bike commuting. You’ll have to plan ahead to make sure you have the right clothes ready. Short commutes (1 to 2 miles) probably mean you can just wear your work clothes on the bike, but long commutes (10 or more miles) might require specific riding apparel and a change of clothes at work. Riding in bad weather may also require different clothing. But most people that just begin bike commuting might just want to avoid the bad weather days at first. Some initial discomfort in the backside (your posterior) is almost unavoidable when you first start bike commuting if you have not been riding a bike much lately. This goes away in a few weeks. Riding in traffic can also be a bit disconcerting at first but over time it becomes more comfortable. Finding a low traffic route to work can make bike commuting much more enjoyable. It can also be a great way to learn your city and find all those amazing places that you would never see driving along the major roadways.
So you want to give it a shot
Well, you’ll need a bike. Here is a suggestion. Don’t rush out and buy a new bike if you already have one. You want to find out if you like it first. Just take your current bike to the local bike shop and ask them to give it the once-over. While you are there, ask them if they can make sure the bike “fits” you properly. They may charge you a few bucks, but they will check several adjustments and measurements to make sure your bike is adjusted as well as possible for you and your body geometry. Your best bet here is to find a shop that has some people that actually bike commute. Most shops will likely have several employees that bike commute regularly. Ask them who to talk to and then work with that person. Tell them that you just want to try bike commuting with your current bike before making any significant investments. Most bike commuters will go out of their way to help another person get started in bike commuting (maybe it’s because we are all less stressed and just more friendly, but that’s just my biased OPINION).
Once your bike is tuned up, you need to do a little homework. Find a trail/road map of your area (Omaha has a great one) and plot out a route to work. Most major cities have multi-use trails that you can use as part of your route to get you off the roads some of the time. Again, your commuter buddy at the shop will probably know a great way to get from A to B or have some resources for you to use when figuring out your first commuting route. You can also look for routes that put you close to bus transit locations. Many cities (such as Omaha) have bike racks on the front of transit buses. This is also a great way to make a very long bike commute more manageable by riding the bus for a portion of your commute.
Now pick a weekend where you have some time to bike the route. Traffic is usually light on the weekends, and you will have plenty of time to explore your route without pressure to get to work on time. Bring a map of your route and if it’s complicated, bring a list of turns you need to make. Bike the route and take notes of anything you think you will need to remember (heavy traffic crossings, easily missed turns, possible secondary routes, travel time, large potholes, etc) and have fun.
Clothes and gear
Once you know which way you will take on your first commute, you need to consider what you need to bring with on your first trip. If you have a place to change/shower at work that is the best scenario. Personally, I bring a weeks worth of clothes to work each time I drive. When I bike in to work, my clothes are already in a drawer in my office. I just change in my office (I have a door on my office) or the bathroom. I keep deodorant in the same drawer and a small towel in case I need to wipe off some sweat or take a little sink bath if I get real sweaty on the way in. Typically I don’t sweat much in the mornings, on the way in, because I ride slowly and the airflow keeps me pretty dry. On the way home, when it’s hotter, I don’t mind sweating more. Some people also bring their clothes for the day in a backpack or pannier (like a bike saddle bag), and then just change as soon as they get there. Other people have very short commutes and can just wear what they plan to wear all day.
In addition to clothes you will want to have a few other items with you on your bike whenever you commute. I always carry a spare tube, a multi tool (one that includes a chain tool), a pump or some CO2 cartridges, a patch kit, and a couple tire leavers. If you don’t know how to change a flat or use the multi-tool, have your bike commuting buddy at the shop show you how. If you bike is real old and uses bolts instead of quick releases for the wheels, you will also need to carry a wrench to take off the wheels in order the change a flat. When riding on city streets, you WILL eventually get a flat. If you don’t want to carry that stuff, you can always carry a cell phone and call in a rescue party to get you back home or the rest of the way to work. I always carry a cell phone anyways. You never know when something might happen that might leave your bike non-functional, just like with a car. Having a few dollars in cash with you is also a good idea.
Visibility is one of the most important parts of staying safe while bike commuting. Making sure other motorists see you, is probably the number one way to stay safe while commuting on a bike. High visibility clothing like neon yellow vests, reflective tape on your bike, and reflective clothing are great ways to make sure you stand out from the surrounding traffic and landscape. However, during dark or twilight hours, even high visibility clothing is not enough. It’s a good idea to have flashing lights on the front and back of your bike to keep you visible when lighting is less than favorable. Flashing lights also draw more attention to you than a steady light that may blend in with other lights in the landscape. If you look like just another porch light, motorist may not easily recognize you as a vehicle. Brighter lights are always more affective and less likely to blend into the scenery. Carry an extra set of batteries if there is a chance you might run out of juice before the end of your commute.
A common mistake of many bike commuters is riding on the sidewalk. One place you will almost never be noticed is on the sidewalk. It feels safer, but in practice, it is much more dangerous. Motorists will almost never notice you, and will often turn right into your path at intersections you will be crossing. This will leave you looking behind you at every turn looking for motorists turning into your path. While riding on the road may feel awkward at first, you will get used to the motorists and they will eventually get used to you.
Be an ambassador
Don’t be surprised when somebody honks at you or suggests in a not so kind voice that you “get on the sidewalk”. Most of them do not realize the dangers involved in riding on sidewalks. You also want to be careful with how you react to such drivers. The driver that you give a “one fingered solute” to today may be passing you on your commute tomorrow. Don’t give them a reason to harbor a grudge against you and other cyclists. You should also obey ALL traffic laws. We are vehicles and should be treated like vehicles. That means we must act like vehicles at all times. Check your local laws and statutes for any bicycle specific laws. Some states give special privileges or enforce restrictions on cyclists that do not apply to motor vehicles.
Do some homework
Before your first ride, you need to brush up on bike safety and bike commuting in general. Here is a list of very good articles that will get you ready.
Lock it up
One last consideration before you head into work is where you will put your bike. Some options include: Your office, an empty office in your building, a janitors closet, storage room, underground parking area, outside bike parking. If you have to park your bike where people you don’t know and/or trust will have access to it, you might want to lock it up. Here is an article on this topic. You may even want to add the Sheldon Brown website to your favorites. Sheldon’s site has articles on about any bike related topic you can think of.
Even in Omaha, it's a good idea to lock your bike with a good bike lock. Just ask Brady. He was one of the lucky few that was able to recover his bike.
While your thinking of keeping your bike secure, take some time to write down the serial number on the bottom of your frame (right under where the pedal and crank machanism passes through the frame).
Off you go
Over the last few weeks we have covered, pretty much, everything you need to know to make a solid and safe start in bike commuting. Now it’s time for your first ride to work. If your route is long, and your not sure you can make the trip both ways, try driving to work with your bike and commuting clothes, then ride home one day, and make the return trip to work the following day. You can then drive home the second day. That way you only have to cover half the total distance each day. This is also a great way to save time if commuting both directions would require more time than you have available. After a few weeks, you should be able to handle bike commuting both directions in one day. When you get to work, make sure your bike is secured, get changed and/or showered, and revel in the sense of accomplishment.
Many bike commuters report that their favorite part of the day is their bike ride to and from work. So enjoy the bike commuting, improved health, and all the benefits of a healthier lifestyle.
As always, feel free to leave a comment if you want to share your experiences with the rest of us. We would love to hear about your bike commuting experiences.