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Bike Commuting: A Better Way to Travel
URL: http://www.runmuki.com/commute

High gas prices. Expensive car payments. Traffic delays. Road rage. Expanding waistlines. There are many great reasons to consider traveling to work by bicycle. It's an effective, healthy, inexpensive, and fun alternative that is attracting more and more commuters all over the world.

Today, there's a lot of information on bicycle commuting available on the Internet. When I first created this bike commuting tips site, there were very few sources of information on just how to do it. And the more you know, the more enjoyable bike commuting becomes.

Most of the people I know travel by means other than the bicycle. For the most part, they're still internal combusters. Automobile drivers. It's the norm, isn't it? In a society like ours--where more money is spent advertising automobiles than is spent on the entire national mass transit system, where everyone's background assumption equates travel with driving--it isn't easy to make the shift to bicycle commuting. I can attest to that. As detailed in this essay, I made many mistakes. I did it all wrong.

This article isn't intended as the comprehensive guide to commuting by bicycle. It's not a "program" intended to work for everyone, in every situation. It merely relates the hard lessons learned by one cyclist over many years of riding to work everyday. My hope is that prospective bike commuters will avoid my errors. If nothing else, my experience demonstrates that it can be done. The addiction to driving can be broken, the necessity of mass transit strap-hanging can be avoided. The following might, just might, encourage others to discover how bicycle commuting can enhance their lives.

WHY COMMUTE BY BICYCLE?

Just a few years ago I was in pretty poor shape: a pack-a-day smoker, a frequent drinker, a tendency for exercise avoidance, rarely outdoors. Hoping to encourage a healthier lifestyle, my partner (now wife) Marianne gave me an inexpensive mountain bike as a Christmas gift in 1994.

After a few short-distance weekend try-out rides, I got the crazy idea to start riding to work. A regular MUNI rider since moving to San Francisco, my seven-mile commute required at least two transfers and could take anywhere from 50 to 90 minutes each way. Considering the crowding and stale air aboard the bus, the lengthy waits between transfers, the cost and aggravation -- how could bike commuting not be an improvement?

So one Monday morning, I set out early on my bike. Looking back on it now, I'm surprised that I stuck with it. I had no mentors really, no one to advise me or offer suggestions. I had to discover everything the hard way. That first morning I set out fully dressed in my office attire. Now I ride in comfortable shorts and change upon arriving at work. If I had to carry something, I put it in a backpack, arriving with a perspiration soaked back. Now I have a rear rack and panniers. One morning after a rainstorm, I thought: "Hey, the rain's over, I'll be OK." Now I know the worst feature of wet weather cycling isn't the precipitation that falls down; it's the muck that splashes up.

Many years later, I can't imagine traveling to work any other way than by bicycle. I don't waste a second stuck in traffic. No long waits for an oil change, a car wash, service from a parts store or a muffler shop. I spend precisely no time filling my gas tank every week. Parking is a snap. My fitness is excellent without spending endless, boring hours on a stairmaster, a treadmill or -- ugh -- a stationary cycle. There are no payments for car loans, insurance, parking, registration, tolls, fines, and tow charges. Instead of enduring frequent episodes of "road rage," I enjoy lots of fresh air. I frequently find things in the street: tools, toys, money. (Mostly coins, though I once found $463 in cash, pocketed after unsuccessful attempts to return.) I arrive at work, flush with a heady endorphin rush, feeling fit and ready to be productive.

Nothing has enhanced my life as much as the decision to start bike commuting. I've stopped smoking, I don't drink any more, and I'm always outdoors. I'm saving money, I feel all self-righteous about not polluting, and I can eat plenty without worrying about getting fat. (Well, sort of.) And, in general, I arrive at just about any city destination faster than if I'd driven. I discovered ways to combine bikes and transit for fun weekend travel out of town.

It's easy to start traveling by bicycle. After all, more of the world's workers get to their jobs by bike than by car. The challenge is sticking with it.

GETTING STARTED: THE BIKE

Just about any bicycle will work for commuting. I've traveled to work on a mountain bike, a road bike, a hybrid, and even a fat-tired cruiser. The important thing is to get a bike you feel comfortable on. Find a reputable bike shop, consult with the sales staff, think about how you might use the bike, how far you'll be going, what you might need to carry, what conditions you'll be riding in, and so on. My present commuting bike is a hybrid, which I'd recommend for most everyday urban riding needs.

In much of the world -- in such countries as Japan, China or Holland -- the bicycle is valued as a utilitarian vehicle. In the US the bicycle is generally considered a toy, a recreational device, or as exercise equipment. Something you load on top of your car, like skis or a surfboard, and travel to some remote area to "play." That's why bike shops are filled with mountain bikes. They thrive on selling the "sport" of cycling. Travel they leave to other vehicle retailers, i.e. auto dealerships. This is a big mistake.

Don't buy a mountain bike just because the sales person has lots of them to sell. Mountain bikes are fine for many things, even commuting. However, most people never get near a trail with their mountain bike. Those fat knobby tires may really dig into the dirt on a stretch of fire road. But they add lots of rolling resistance on pavement. (They might suggest that the knobby tires are more "flat resistant." Don't believe it. I can tell you from experience that large glass fragments, nails and pushpins can puncture mountain bike tires too. As you'll see later, flats are really no big deal.)

If you think most of your riding will be done on asphalt streets, then consider a hybrid, touring, or a road bike. They're generally made with larger, easier rolling wheels, with street "slicks" or other tire made for riding on pavement, and offer a longer wheelbase for a more comfortable ride.

If you're considering buying a new bike to begin commuting, here are my suggestions for factors to consider; here are my bicycles, complete with reasons and rationalizations. Minnesota cyclist John Faughnan has a great article on the advantages of using touring bikes for everyday commuting. Many cyclists also happily enjoy commuting on recumbent and fixed-gear bikes; I don't usually recommend either for new cyclists. But for many people, the comfort and ease of a recumbent or the simplicity of a fixed-gear would be appropriate.

In short, my point is: get the bike that suits you. There's no need to have the latest, the most exciting, the most colorful, the most expensive bike.

GETTING STARTED: THE ROUTE

A big reason why many people don't commute by bike is because they think like motorists. As drivers, they know that the quickest way to get from Point A to Point B is by Route C. Unfortunately, Route C features abundant high-velocity traffic, plenty of potholes and rough pavement, a few steep hills and several dangerous intersections. Not very attractive even for a seasoned cyclist, let alone a beginner. (Not very attractive for a motorist, for that matter.)

However, there just may be a Route D that runs parallel to Route C. Route D features slower - and thus less abundant - traffic, and is flatter with good pavement, more trees, interesting scenery and many smiling pedestrians. When I began bike commuting I would travel for part of my trip on Lombard Street, which is exactly like Route C described above.

Thousands of speeding cars pour onto Lombard off the Golden Gate Bridge, each vehicle filled with an impatient commuter from Marin County. Just past the intersection with Van Ness Avenue, Lombard climbs about a 15 percent grade to the top of Russian Hill. Idiot that I was, I'd dismount and push my bike all the way up, arriving at the top as a soggy mass of perspiration, only to "enjoy" a terrifying descent down the other side to my workplace.

Eventually I learned that if I went one block north I could bicycle comfortably on Chestnut Street, which is a slower neighborhood street running parallel to Lombard. Instead of climbing the hill, I learned that I could easily ride around it on Bay Street and avoid the sweaty ascent and white-knuckle descent.

When considering your route, don't think like a motorist. Think like a cyclist. Pick the most pleasant route. Look for streets with attractive scenery. Find the friendliest espresso stop. Part of the charm of bike commuting is that the pace and ease of parking allows you an opportunity to stop and smell the roses.

GETTING STARTED: CARRYING CAPACITY

Like any commuter, you will probably need to carry stuff: papers, reports, tools, books, lunch, a gift for a coworker, a change of clothing. Carrying a load while bike commuting essentially reduces down to a variation of two approaches: bike messenger style or bike tourist style.

Bike messengers are on and off their bikes constantly. They keep their bicycles light, carrying the weight on their bodies in a backpack or a cycling specific messenger bag. The advantage of this is the ease of making lots of quick stops, locking up without having to remove frame pumps, bottles, panniers, and other items. Keeping the bike light also gives you better control; you can "bunny hop" a pothole for instance, or swerve quickly amidst traffic.

Bike tourists, on the other hand, spend more time on the saddle pedaling. Carrying weight on their body would be uncomfortable over a distance of 30 or more miles. So bike tourists carry the weight on their bikes instead of their bodies, using front and/or rear racks and panniers (bags.) One alternative to racks and bags is a wire basket(s) permanently attached to the bike.

I practice both the messenger style and the tourist style. When I began bike commuting I'd carry my stuff in a backpack. But that often made my shoulders sore and turned my backside into a sweaty mess. So I bought a rear rack and attached my backpack with a bungee cord. That wasn't really satisfactory, so I got some foldable, cordura shopping baskets (like the ones pictured above) that attach to the rack. While these baskets carried a lot and are excellent for shopping trips, they had an open top that let rain in and bouncing objects out during everyday travel. Eventually I acquired genuine panniers. After a while of bike commuting I also bought a messenger bag made by Timbuk 2 of San Francisco.

After 10 plus years of bike commuting and touring, I've got all kinds of bags for all kinds of purposes. For everyday commuting, I use a pannier (as pictured at left) combined with a foldable basket (above) from Bike Nashbar. For day trips into the country, I have a classic English Carradice saddle bag. For heavy duty touring I use my outstanding Madden Buzzard panniers. For really big loads I even have a Cycletote trailer.

In general I travel with my stuff -- and often quiet a lot of it -- in panniers on my rear rack. You'd be surprised how much stuff you can carry on a bike with a little ingenuity and a few bungee cords. My wife and I often bring home a whole "trunkload" of purchases from our local Costco, drawing amazed stares from motorists. I also have one bike equipped with wire baskets in the rear, and many cyclists can use front baskets or a freight rack such as those made by San Francisco's CETMA Racks.

Perhaps avoiding the expense of racks and panniers, it seems most bike commuters I observe travel "messenger style." Prospective bike commuters who need to dress more formally might want to consider a bike garment bag, such as those made by Two Wheel Gear.

Even if you're not a shameless equipment geek like me, rest assured. Whatever way you do it, you can get your "stuff" around by bike, don't worry.

PARKING, LOCKS AND SECURITY

Okay. So you've got your bike, selected a route, and determined the best method to carry your stuff. But where do you leave your bike once you get to work?

Many employers show no hesitation about creating enormous parking lots, at a cost of $15-25,000 per space, for their workers' cars. It's amazing -- and sad -- that these same employers vigorously resist creating bike parking areas. One automobile space could be converted to create parking for 10-12 bicycles. .

Many municipalities, state governments or air district agencies are now providing funding to support additional bike parking. But until Corporate America gets more enlightened, the responsibility for finding a place to store your bike during the workday will be yours. Again, with a little ingenuity, it's not too hard. Perhaps your office is big enough for you to leave your bike in a corner. That's what I do. Maybe there's a nearby closet or storage area with available space. But, then again, many office buildings won't even let you bring a bike in at all.

Leaving your bike outside is riskier but not impossible, provided you know how to secure it. More than half of the one million bikes stolen every year weren't locked. Duh. Always, always have a good lock with you. I have a Kryptonite Evolution u-lock, an OnGuard MiniBrute u-lock, a heavy chain, and an armored cable lock, which I often combine depending on the situation. (Some people, such as Wig are even starting to create accessories for heavy chains.) Find a solid object, a street sign or post. (I see many cyclists in San Francisco who lock up to small trees, which is stupid. Besides possible damage to the tree, a thief could easily cut it down to remove the bike.)

Locking your bike is a lot like the two guys camping in the woods. It's getting late, the campfire is dying down, and one of them starts putting on running shoes. "Why are you doing that," the other one asks. "In case of bears," replies the sneaker-clad camper. "That's crazy, you can't outrun a bear," says the other. The one in running shoes replies: "I don't have to. I just have to outrun you."

The reality is that no lock is 100 percent secure. A determined "pro" will find a way to break any lock. Concentrate on making your bike more difficult to steal than the other bikes around it. "Out run the bear," so to speak. Two, three or four locks raise the theft threshold. Perhaps the culprit has the tools to cut a cable, but not the tools to break a U-lock, or vice-versa. Lock it in a well-lit area with lots of pedestrian traffic.

You may be fortunate enough to live in a community with some bicycle planning professionals on the Department of Public Works payroll. You might inquire about the availability of bike parking at the DPW. (At the least, it's always helpful for these agencies to be alerted to the desire for improved bike facilities.) Many communities are even developing dedicated "bike stations" serving commuting bicyclists.

With a little consideration, perhaps even an inquiry or two among other bicyclists, you should be able to find a suitable place to leave your bike during the workday.

BICYCLING SAFETY

In the section above about choosing a route, I suggested that you don't think like a motorist. Well, that's mostly true. However, when you're out bicycling on the street, the safest way to travel is as if you're operating a vehicle. The California Vehicle Code (CVC), and generally the traffic regulations in most other states, essentially considers a bicycle to have the same rights and responsibilities as a motor vehicle. That's something too many cyclists forget.

Many beginning cyclists think that riding on the sidewalk is safer than riding in the street. They couldn't be more wrong. Cycling on the sidewalk means you have to dodge pedestrians, pets, scaffolding, garbage cans, parking meters and signs, vehicles exiting driveways and garages, landscaping, trees and leafy debris, motorists turning off the street, pedestrians leaving buildings without expecting a high velocity traveler sharing their space, and police officers with a ticket quota to meet.

Ride in the street. It's safer. Bicycling on the sidewalk also creates unnecessary enemies for bicyclists. Respect pedestrians, seniors, and people with disabilities. Keep out of their space when you're on your bike.

Many prospective cyclists are justifiably concerned about safety. However, the perception of danger is generally far greater than the reality. In my experience, probably 98 percent of the motorists I encounter are truly not a problem. There are some "road raging" jerk drivers out there, but for the most part, they're rare (fortunately.) You can further minimize the risk from motorists by doing a few obvious things:

Know your bicycle. The best way to improve your bicycling safety is simply to bicycle more. Take your bike to a quiet street or park and practice riding. Learn how your bike handles: how it stops, accelerates, turns, and shifts. Gaining confidence in your bicycle handling skills will greatly improve your safety.
Keep it working. Many bicycle crashes result from equipment malfunction. Keep your bike well-maintained and you will avoid many problems.
Pre-ride inspection. Before you ride, give your bike the "ABC Quick Check": Air, Brakes, Crankset, Quick Releases. Make sure your tires are inflated, brakes are good, chain is in the chainrings and cogs, and that quick releases are closed.
Be seen. Ride predictably, with traffic, where drivers can see you. Stay in the traffic lane, maintain a straight line. Never ride against traffic; wrong way cycling is extremely dangerous.
Be heard. Communicate with motorists, pedestrians, and other cyclists with hand signals, bell, and horn. Make eye contact with motorists, to be sure they see you. Smile when motorists yield the right of way.
Be assertive. Timid riding invites abuse. You have a right to the road. Claim it. Define your space. Donít be bullied. You have the same right to the road as an automobile. Many cyclists ride as close as possible to the parked cars on their right, frightened that an overtaking vehicle won't see them or won't wait until its safe to pass. Problem. The most frequent accident for urban bicyclists is "dooring," a collision with an open car door. Claim your space.
Be alert. Watch for hazards: potholes, debris, open car doors. Anticipate. Be familiar with your route.
Speed kills. Going fast on a bike is thrilling. But don't ride at a speed beyond your capabilities. Ride in control at all times.
Be smart. Obey traffic laws. Or the law of traffic. Know your limits.

Again, be assertive. Take the lane! Traffic law doesn't require a cyclist to pull over every time a car approaches from the rear. You only have to be as far to the right as you consider necessary to safely operate your bike. If there's road debris, broken pavement, another cyclist or anything in the extreme right that makes you uncomfortable, move to the left. You have the right to the entire lane! Take it. You're far safer having the cars behind you than crowding you while they pass. Give yourself a cushion. Define your space. Don't be timid. Assert your rights.

Bicycling is safe. Sedentary couch potato lifestyles kill far, far more Americans than pedaling.

Special Safety Considerations for Women

WHAT ABOUT THE WEATHER?

I'm fortunate to live in California, where the climate is generally favorable for bicycle commuting. Riding a bike in the rain can actually be fun: motorists tend to be more cautious, you'll keep cooler, you won't stall out in huge puddles, and pedestrians smile in amazement as you pass. The worst part of cycling in the rain is that your bike gets mucked up; and even that can be quickly remedied by a bucket of soap and a garden hose. Experience bicyclists have a saying: "There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing."

There is a great availability of clothing suitable for all weather conditions. Many "retrogrouch" types will advise wearing wool, which is the classic material for cycling jerseys and shorts. It wicks away perspiration, retains warmth, is often light-weight, and feels pretty good. However, others will advise wearing the new "technical fabrics", polyester or nylon garments that have many of the same properties as wool. These synthetics include Polartec, Akwatek, Coolmax, and others. There isn't any formula to dressing for bicycling. Most days I travel in cotton shorts and a T-shirt; for longer weekend recreational rides I'll wear my hi-tech garments. Decide for yourself what works best, given your budget, climate, and fashion sensibilities.

For riding in rainy weather I have several outfits. I have a Carradice rain cape (or poncho) that I acquired from Rivendell, which is the classic European mode of rain protection. For really heavy duty storms I have a Goretex jacket and pants, neoprene overshoes, and waterproof gloves. Goretex is supposed to "breath." That is, it allows perspiration to evaporate through the material while keeping precipitation out. This is only somewhat true. No miracle fabric can completely evacuate your body heat if you're really riding hard.

Another essential item for bicycling in the rain is a set of fenders, which should be standard equipment on every bike. But since bicycles are marketed as sports equipment (see earlier), things like fenders, kickstands, lights and racks are generally not included as standard equipment. This makes the bikes "lighter" and more "high performance," while perhaps keeping the price down. But don't hesitate to install fenders, which will keep the wet weather slop off both you and your bike.

Extra caution is necessary while riding in the rain. Metal objects in the street (manhole covers, construction plates, train rails, etc.) are very slick, as are painted road surfaces. Your stopping capacity is also diminished in the rain. But if you're properly outfitted, riding in the rain isn't a terrible ordeal. You will certainly avoid a lot of those multi-car pileups that delay so many motorists during rainstorms. By wearing the right protective clothing and riding at a moderate pace (i.e. below perspiration stage), I arrive at work on rainy days drier than if I'd stood waiting for a bus.

Unfortunately, I don't have much experience riding in the "Snow Belt" during the winter. Fortunately, there's a great website devoted to cold-weather cycling--including commuting--at Icebike.

INTERMODAL ACCESS

But what if your workplace is farther away than you want or are able to ride? My wife Marianne used to work in San Mateo, about 20 miles away from our home in San Francisco. She would travel there using a combination of bicycling and transit. She would ride about 2.5 miles to the Caltrain station at 4th and Townsend Streets in San Francisco, board the train, and get off at Burlingame. Another two-mile ride completed her journey to work. Most days it would take her about an hour, which is about the time it would take if she had driven.

Many transit systems are developing better intermodal access for cyclists. Caltrain, which runs from San Francisco to San Jose, is a national leader in bike access. This has proven enormously popular among the technical types who reside in the city and work in Silicon Valley. MUNI, the city's bus and trolley service, has installed bike racks on some routes and may expand their pilot program on all routes. Most ferry services in the Bay Area provide bike access. BART, or Bay Area Rapid Transit, allows bikes on all cars, except during peak commute hours (just when you need it).

While many transit agencies are slowly getting enlightened, we're not there yet. Even the Bay Area, a pioneering leader in intermodal access, blocks much bike access. For instance, cyclists who work across the Bay are frustrated by BART's rush-hour freeze. Yet many cyclists who are frustrated with their local transit agency's resistance to bikes still find ways to combine cycling and transit. Most transit agencies allow people with folding bikes aboard their vehicles. Popular models include folders made byBreezer, Bike Friday, and Brompton. Some people even use two bikes--one to get to the nearest transit stop, and one at their destination stop.

So even if your office or workplace seems far away, with a little consideration, you can find a way to combine bicycling and transit to reach your destination.

OTHER EQUIPMENT/ACCESSORIES

Some other equipment you may consider acquiring as needed:

REPAIRS/MAINTENANCE

The most common repair you will encounter as a bike commuter will be a flat tire. You can minimize pneumatic distress by buying durable tires. (I'm fond of Continental Top Touring Tires.) You should also monitor brake wear to make sure they're not rubbing against the sidewalls of your tires. You should also look for and remove glass or metal fragments stuck in the rubber. However, sooner or later you will experience the distinctive hissing of a punctured tire.

What do you do when you get a flat? First, take a deep breath. Then ... fix it. It's wise to always travel with a lightweight air pump (make sure it matches your valve stem, presta or schrader), tire levers, and either a patch-kit or spare inner tube. The easiest way to repair a flat is with a new tube, taking the punctured one home to repair. It takes a little longer to repair the tube with glue and a patch -- about five minutes. But with quick release wheels, getting a flat is a small hardship. Practice removing your wheel, taking the tire off and changing the tube at home, where you're warm and dry. A dark, rainy night is the worst time to fix your first flat tire. A quick tip for easy cleanup: wear a pair of latex surgical gloves, available at your local pharmacy, make your repair, then discard. (Don't litter!)

You will certainly need to do other repairs over the course of many months of bike commuting. The encouraging thing is that most repairs you can do yourself. A bicycle is a far simpler machine than an automobile. With the help of more experienced cyclists, bicycling magazines, or one of many available "how-to" books, you can easily learn to fix your own bike. Many bicycle shops, community colleges, adult ed programs, or bicycle organizations offer workshops or classes in bike repair. I took a class at the Freewheel in San Francisco, a community bike shop that provides tools and repair stands for members to work on their bikes. It's a very satisfying feeling to be a self-sufficient cyclist.

The most important advice I can offer regarding repairs is this: replace your chain every 2,000 miles or so. The most important part of your bike is the drive train: pedals, crank, chain, rear freewheel or cogs, derailleurs. Keep your drivetrain clean and your bike will work well and you'll be a happy commuter. Over time, your chain will "stretch". (Actually, the metal wears away around the connecting pins.) A stretched worn chain causes your rear sprockets to wear down to match the chain. Replacing a freewheel or a cogset or even chainrings can get a little pricey. Clean and oil your chain frequently -- especially after riding in the rain -- and replace it regularly.

BEYOND COMMUTING

Expect to experience some sore muscles when you first start bike commuting. Eventually you'll gain strength, improve your balance, enhance your breathing, lower your blood pressure, reduce your resting pulse rate, sleep better, and on and on. In short, your fitness will improve, simply by commuting to and from work everyday on a bicycle.

When the weekend comes along, what are you going to do? Plop your hard earned vitality in front of a television or something? Of course not! Get out there and bicycle some more! Recruit a friend to cycling. Take a ride out in the country. Pack along a picnic lunch and a camera and explore your world.

Another important step is advocacy. You've embraced a better, healthier, more affordable, and more environmentally sensitive method of travel. Now help make it easier for others to make the same choice. Bicycling Magazine offers the following:

Cyclists should expect and demand safe accommodation on our public roads, just as does every other user. Nothing more is expected. Nothing less is acceptable.
This modest reasoning should be the foundation of all public policy regarding our streets. Unfortunately, for too long, too many government officials and traffic planners have prioritized automobile movement over everything else.

There are a lot of things more important than the velocity of automobiles: sense of community, quiet streets, neighborhood quality of life, the safety of children, pedestrians and senior citizens, clean air, economic vitality, etc. Find the bicycling advocacy organization in your community and join their effort to enhance cycling conditions. In California, visit the California Bicycle Coalition for links to local groups. In the US, visit the League of American Bicyclists for contact with hundreds of group. If no group exists in your community, form one.

Best of luck with your experience bicycle commuting. I'm certain you'll find your life enhanced by the choice. Let me know how you make out.


Related Articles by Paul Dorn
Pedaling to Save the City - the Critical Mass bicycling movement
Car reliance is roadblock for California - op-ed published in Sacramento Bee
Baseball, Apple Pie, and...Bicycling? - Bike facilities lacking at California ballparks
Cycling in Osaka, Japan - the use of bicycles for transportation in Japan
Class and Traffic - the often overlooked costs of auto-dependency
Hydrogen Fantasies - new fuel for vehicles, or just hype?
Paul Dorn's Bicycles - reasons, considerations and rationalizations on bike types
Cycling in Davis, CA - the most bike-friendly city in the US

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