Tips for Commuting by Bike
Thinking about commuting by bicycle? Fantastic! It is much easier than most people think, it is highly rewarding, and makes an otherwise mundane event -- commuting -- into something fun. To familiarize the uninitiated, commuting to work by bicycle has a few fundamental requirements:
There are many parts of each of these fundamental requirements, but this is a great place to start. I have many suggestions for how to get ready. All of these suggestions come from lessons I have learned from bicycle commuting in Minnesota and in New York. Let's get started!
Own/Borrow a bike or have access to a bike share program
Clearly, this is paramount. You will need a bike.
There are many places you can find bikes for sale. For a new commuter, the prices for some bicycles can be outright shocking. I recommend shopping around first for a style of bike. This can be done by looking at your local bike shop in person or online. Here is a short synopsis of the different styles of bikes.
My bike, a Linus Roadster 3 speed, is considered a Hybrid/Commuter. Notice the bag clipped to the back.
A road bike has many speeds, usually at least 10, and puts the rider in a more aggressive riding position over the handle bars. Handle bars on road bikes are typically drop down bars, which when held at their lowest point are meant to create an aerodynamic riding position. Road bikes are built to be ridden fast.
As the name/marketing suggests, these bikes are great for commuting. Hybrid and Commuter bikes are beginning to be used interchangeably to describe a bike that is meant to carry stuff and put the rider in a more upright position to see the road well. Typically, these types of bikes come prepared with a back rack for bags to clip onto and a basket in the front for general storage.
Do you live in the Keys? Do you wear a Hawaiian shirt and take your board to the beach every morning? No. You live in a city, have a job, and need to get places.
Minimalism is the name of the game with a fixed or single speed bike. A fixed gear bike is preferred by many because it provides a responsive. The chain itself is fixed to the back cog (there is no freewheel) and so if you pedal forward, you go forward, if you pedal backward, you go backward! This is the main difference between Fixed and Single Speed, you can coast with a single speed, but with a fixed gear you don't need brakes, just lock your legs or resist the pedals. Single Speeds are great for first time commuters, but Fixed Gears are challenging bikes to ride. They look very similar, but they are very different.
Mountain bikes are not just for the trail or the country. Mountain bikes can be a fantastic commuter bike that can take a beating and still have similar speed to any other bike on the road. Mountain bikes are typically heavier, but not always, they have shocks to absorb bumps and curbs, and they have many speeds to help with inclines and hills. Mountain bikes are also fantastic in Winter because wider tires and wider handle bars provide more increased stability.
Where do I buy a bike for cheap?
In most cities, there are bike recycle non-profits, and for profit companies collecting and buying discarded bike parts to refurbish old bikes. This a great chance for recycling related bicycle puns.
Also, the old standby is Craigslist. As with any transaction taking place over Craigslist, good luck! You may find an amazing deal from someone who needs to dump their bike quick for whatever reason.
When looking for a bike you will need to consider which season(s) you will be riding.
Colder, Snowier, Wetter Months
In colder and snowier weather, you will need a bike that can be punished. Many commuters in the colder and snowier states will have a special winter bike that is only for use with the salt, snow, grime, and ice conditions that exist in the colder months. In cities that have effective snow removal techniques or have climates that regularly melt the existing snow or ice, it is possible to use the same bike all year round. At the time of this article, I am currently riding my year round bike. It may need some serious cleaning come the Spring, but all bikes need some TLC at some point regardless of climate.
Warmer, Dryer Months
Everything is glorious. Buy the bike you want and use it without fear of any mean salt or freezing!
Citibike Bike Share in New York City
I live in a beautiful city that offers bike share! Aren't I special!
You are special! Your city/metropolitan area offers a bike share program. In New York, the system is year round, so this is a viable option all year. In the Twin Cities and elsewhere, the bike share system is packed up for the winter, but is back the second spring is sprung. I was a yearly subscriber to the Minnesota Nice Ride bike share system for two years and that is by far the best value for consistent bike share users. You are given a key that can easily unlock any bike at any kiosk within the system and you are off.
There are some criticisms of bike share systems from the perspective of commuters which are worth noting here.
- System balancing of bikes is one huge challenge for bike share systems and can lag behind demand. In other words, you may walk to your local bike share station and because of it being a nice day or you left work/home late, all of the bikes are gone. No biking for you today or you walk to the next station, possibly for similar results.
- Along those same lines, if you are able to acquire a bicycle from a station, maybe you get to your station to drop it off, but all of the stalls are full. You must then move to the next available are for possible open stalls.
Although, the fan plus side to bike share is that you do not have to maintain a bike, worry about it getting stolen, and you don't have to ride home in the evening if you want to go out to happy hour with your lovely coworkers!
Understand the Rules of the Road
It may seem odd, but an important first step to learning how to operate as a bicycle on the road is to first know how to properly operate a vehicle on the road. In nearly all cases, the rules are the same or very similar for bikes on the road as they are for cars. Driving a vehicle before and during your time as a bicycle commuter can foster a well rounded mentality on the road both while driving and while cycling.
Although, in New York, things are a bit different than most cities. Driving in New York City in challenging. Riding a bicycle in New York City in many ways is more challenging. That said, cycling infrastructure has become so much better in New York over the past 10 or so years, in part due to data driven Bloomberg administration that wants to move more people in the same amount of space and in part due to a global movement that recognizes the synergy between new movements toward cycling as transportation and modern ideas around healthier living. This is a positive progression that will allow more people who want to bike, because of new pushes toward healthier living and sustainable forms of transport, to be able to enjoy riding in the city and not fear for their safety when on the roads.
Combining experiences on the road as a driver, cyclist, and pedestrian together will allow for all users in all cities to have a higher level of empathy and understanding. In my own experience, I have become a more conscious and alert user of the street as a cyclist as a result of combining experiences.
Imagine a two way street, with bike lanes between the curb or parking lane and the moving lane in each direction. A car is going to take a right across the bike lane and there is also a biker within that bike lane a few cars back.
If you are driving and don't bike regularly...
the sun may be glaring in your mirror in the morning, the radio is on, and you are drinking coffee, just about to pull onto your work's street. You don't check your mirror for bikers -- you make the right turn, hear some strange vagrant yell something outside your car -- continue on your way.
If you are biking and don't drive...
you might continue in the bike lane, not notice that the car making that right turn does not see you and have to slam on your brakes, shout a few expletives at the driver and hit the back of their car in disgust. The world is now a scarier and standoffish place.
If you are biking and you do drive...
you assume no one in a car can see you... ever. You will see the car's blinker or even just their intent showcased by the car slowing and veering over. You prepare yourself to properly enter into the traffic lane with a hand signal and pass around the left side of the turning vehicle.
If you are driving and you do bike...
you assume that all bikers think you are a monster and want to kill them with your car. Knowing this, you will turn your blinker on, check your mirror, not make any sudden movements to preemptively begin the right turn, allow the cyclist to notice that you are allowing them to pass, and then let them pass freely. Two smart people negotiated a roadway together, as drawn up by the people who designed the road. Brilliant!
To be sure, the important lesson here is that many drivers and cyclists break the laws of the road routinely, as a result of poor infrastructure and poor road etiquette. Many drivers who do not bike are conscious of all users of the road and don't fit this example. That all said, not everyone is a psycho bike messenger or get-out-of-my-way Hummer driver. Simply, be careful and vigilant when on the road. Use your skills acquired from your experience as a user of the road in general, not exclusively just as a cyclist, driver, or pedestrian.
Over my time as a bike commuter, I have had many different jobs. All of these jobs didn't care how I got to work, just as long as I was arriving on time and arrived generally kempt. As such, commuting by bike requires a bit of planning and foresight that is uncommon for most commuters.
Find a place to put your bike.
You just road your bike all the way to work, now you need to put it some place! My current employer graciously provides bike corrals on our floor which is amazing. If you don't have a corral on your floor, you may want to investigate a parking garage that would accept bike parking. If all else fails, get a good lock or two and keep your bike outside locked to a pole. Locking tutorial to come!
Bring a change of clothes.
The first few times you bike to work you will realize that cycling is a workout and workouts cause you to sweat. Even if it is 0 degrees, a cyclist will still sweat. Also, cycling puts you in the way of the elements -- it's raining, snowing, or that truck just happened to splash you with that weird stagnant street water. You will need a change of clothes, especially a change of clothes for the areas that touches your skin -- that gets smelly quick.
Bring a bag to carry your things.
I hate having my wallet and other things in my pockets while riding. I have a bike that clips to the rack on the back of my bike and this works to hold those items and the items I need to change when I get to work and the lights I will need to put on my bike to ride home in the dark. I used to love having a messenger bag that slung over my shoulder easily, but in the summer all of the weight on your back can get tiresome and also your back will get very sweaty without ventilation. This is why most experienced commuters will use pannier bags that clip on their bike in some fashion.
Find a place to change.
Once you get to work, you will need time and a place to change. Plan to get to work at least 30 minutes before you are expected to begin your workday. This will give time to cool down, change your clothes, get a drink of water, and do some extras to compliment your workout, like stretching. Many workplaces today offer showers, changing rooms, and bike corals, but these are very few and far between. Most workplaces at a baseline with offer a staff bathroom, with private stalls. This should do just fine to freshen up, cool down, and be ready to work with a new energy.
Enjoy yourself. Commuting by bike is fun!
There are many considerations to take into account when thinking about commuting by bicycle, but really, the best way to find out if bicycle commuting is a real option for you is to try out your route to work on an off day and see if it is something you can manage. If it feels possible, just try it! In the end, commuting by bicycle is simply a fun and pleasurable spin on an daily event that many dread. Make it a positive for your life!