With gas prices rising and traffic congestion getting worse every day, bicycle commuting is slowly gaining ground in the U.S. as a viable transportation alternative. Many cities are stepping up their efforts in providing bicycle-friendly infrastructure, such as signage, painted bike lanes and multi-user paths and places to lock bikes up. These infrastructural improvements can help convince people to try bicycle commuting for the first time; once they see how easy and fun it can be, they may never go back to driving their cars to work!
Benefits Of The Commute
In addition to all the gas you’ll save if you commute by bike, there are many other benefits. Bike commuters enjoy improved health, a better connection to the communities in which they live and work and substantial money savings (no parking fees, no gas money, less wear and tear on motor vehicles). Of course, there are fantastic environmental benefits as well — each mile you ride a bike instead of driving prevents approximately one pound of CO2 from being released into the atmosphere. Less motor vehicles on the roads means lower sound pollution levels and less vehicle-related emissions (oil leaks, tire rubber dust, unburned gasoline vapors) contaminating local water sources. Plus, bicycle commuting is a great way to start the day – getting your blood pumping with gentle exercise is more effective than a cup of coffee. On the way home, pedaling a bicycle is a spectacular stress-reliever. After just a couple of miles, it’s easy to forget about the rough day you’ve had at the office, and you’ll arrive home in a better mood!
The Bike And Crucial Commuter Accessories
There is no “perfect” commuter bike on the market – different commuters have different needs in terms of the drivetrain, cargo capacity and other functionality of the bicycles they might choose to commute with. For one commuter, a singlespeed or fixed-gear road bike is ideal – fast, simple and easy to maintain. For other commuters, a multiple-geared touring-style bike with places to mount a rack and fenders is a better choice. Still others will be perfectly happy on a vintage 3-speed cruiser or Euro-style city bike. Many novice commuters start out on a converted mountain bike; the stout wheels and frame shrug off urban abuse and many of these bikes are equipped with mounting points for racks and fenders. A simple swap of the knobby off-road tires for something more streetable is often the only modification necessary to make a competent commuter bike.
The most important consideration to remember is that the bike must be both reliable and comfortable – getting to work on time is “mission critical”, so a reliable bike is a must. If a bike is uncomfortable over the route and distance a commuter travels, he or she is more likely to give up and go back to the car. Your local bike shop can help you dial in a comfortable ride: saddle height, tilt and type, handlebar positioning and proper stem length, among other “tweaks”.
Another consideration is the type of terrain a commuter traverses. Hilly and long-distance commutes more likely require wide-range gearing, while flatter, shorter commutes are probably suited for singlespeeds or at most a 3 speed drivetrain. These are really rough guidelines, though; carrying cargo or unique commutes often necessitate different drivetrain options.
Accessories most seasoned commuters can agree on is the need for a rear rack and full-coverage fenders. The rack is handy for taking the cargo load off your body and onto the bike, offering comfort for the ride. Fenders, obviously, help keep you and the bicycle clean and free of damaging grit. If your commute takes you out in the darkness, front and rear lights are crucial (and mandatory in most jurisdictions), and reflective tape or reflectors (red facing the rear, white facing the front) are always a good idea to supplement the lights. Puncture-resistant tires are another good choice for both novice and seasoned commuters. Some commuters “double up”, using tire liners underneath the puncture-resistant tire itself. Finally, a good lock to secure your bicycle is needed if your employer does not have safe indoor bike parking.
There are two major options when carrying work clothes, books, laptops and other cargo: on your body or on your bike. If you choose the former, there are many cycling-specific bags and backpacks that serve this purpose well. Most are at least partially waterproof and come in a wide variety of styles, colors and cargo capacities in both backpack and messenger-style bags.
The second option is to let the bicycle do the heavy lifting. This option is preferred by many commuters as it is more versatile in terms of cargo volume as well as in increased comfort – a heavy bag or backpack can strain the back and neck and in warmer months, such a rider will get an extremely sweaty back! A rear rack is the best choice for carrying cargo on the bike, as it lets a rider hang panniers, simple wire baskets or even a milk crate off the back. Many panniers come with waterproof liners and are available in a broad range of colors, styles and capacities.
Do you have to look your best at work? Have no fear – there are a couple makers of bike-specific “garment panniers” so that these commuters can keep their suits and skirts clean and presentable.
For light loads, nothing beats the convenience and ease of a handlebar-mounted basket. Several of these baskets detach quickly and can be used as market baskets – simply bring them into a store, fill them up and attach back to the bike when you’ve made your purchases.
Dressing for the commute can be a hotly-debated topic. There’s a strong push in the U.S. to take some of the bike’s association with fitness away from utility cycling, and lycra is often frowned upon. Hardcore utility cyclists believe that a person should be able to wear regular clothing and shouldn’t need special gear in order to ride around town.
My feeling is this: wear whatever keeps you comfortable. If you have a long and sweaty commute, wear cycling-specific gear for comfort purposes and simply change into work clothes at your destination.
Many folks choose to ride slowly, avoiding getting sweaty and also avoiding the clothes-changing requirement once they arrive at work. In cooler months, I’ve tried this and it works out fairly well. Commuters who need to dress professionally (in suits and the like) may strongly consider carrying those nice clothes and shoes in a bag, though.
Still other commuters forgo the need to carry nice clothes to and from work every day. Here’s the tactic: bring a week’s worth of work clothing on Monday, either by bike or by car, and leave it at the office. At the end of the week, the dirty clothes go home to be laundered. Piece of cake!
Footwear is another consideration. A lot of this depends on the pedals your bike is equipped with. For folks who use clipless pedals, a change of footwear is mandatory. Many commuters choose to swap their bikes’ pedals out with BMX-style platforms. These pedals allow a rider to wear anything from dress shoes to flip-flops in comfort, and in wintertime a rider can even wear snowboots with good effect. One other benefit of platform pedals is that you don’t need to change your shoes to go for a ride – simply swing a leg over no matter what you’re wearing and off you go.
If you do change your shoes for the office, you might consider leaving those dress shoes at your workplace rather than carrying them back and forth. They’re heavy and all that banging around can make them look ratty in short order – it’s easy enough to slip the nice shoes on when you get to work, anyway.
Dealing With Inclemental Weather
Not every workday is sunny and warm; as a commuter, you’ll need to be prepared to deal with inclement weather such as cold or rain. For cold weather, dressing in layers seems to be the trick. The benefit of layering is that as you warm up, you can shed a layer or two to maintain comfort levels. A synthetic or wool base layer combined with a polyfleece or wool sweatshirt or jacket and a wind- and waterproof shell over that works in low temperatures.
For the outer jacket, there are many choices available. Some of the features to look for are reflective accents and some means to vent the heat (underarm zippers or mesh-lined pockets with zippers). A longtime winter commuter once told me, “you want to be able to start out a little chilly – if you’re toasty warm before you ever start pedaling, you WILL overheat.”
Cycling-specific winter gloves or mittens help to keep your hands warm, but there are other alternatives. I’ve had great success with an inexpensive pair of neoprene fisherman’s gloves…they’re waterproof and warm enough for all but the very coldest days, and they’re grippy even when wet.
Footwear can be a tough choice come winter – cycling shoes are often made with a lot of mesh, and that can let the chilly winds into your shoes. There are a variety of neoprene toe and full-shoe covers available, though, and these can be tried. As mentioned earlier, a great trick is to use the platform pedal/winter boots combination. If your shoes have room, a couple pairs of socks can help keep your toes warm, and if you slip a plastic bread bag over your socks before putting on the shoes, this will trap lots of heat and keep your feet dry, too!
In the rain, you’ve got a few choices – rain jacket, rain cape or nothing at all. In choosing a rain jacket, look for models with a permeable membrane to let excess heat out. A rain cape offers some more ventilation, but must be coupled with fenders or the rider underneath the cape will get soaked from the bottom up. Where I commute, the rainy season comes during the summer, and I choose to forgo any protection; I wind up just as wet under my jacket from sweat as I would getting rained on, no matter how vapor-permeable a jacket is. I simply change into dry clothes once I reach my destination.
Final tips and tricks
- If you’re new to commuting, try a few weekend “shakedown cruises” before you commit. This way, you’ll see how your cargo-carrying system works and you’ve got time to select the best route (fastest or most scenic) without the stress of arriving at work on time.
- Give yourself a little extra time on your commute to deal with unforeseen events like flat tires and the like.
- Keep a couple of alternative routes on file – mixing it up by riding different routes helps keep the commute fresh and less of a grind.
- Ride assertively and be as visible and predictable as possible.
- Keep baby wipes and extra deodorant in your desk at work – a particularly sweaty commute won’t have you alienating coworkers around the office if you can freshen up when you get there.
- Finally, remember to have FUN – riding a bicycle requires a couple of extra logistical considerations, but it sure beats sitting in traffic!
Jack Sweeney is a reference librarian and proud father from Tampa, Florida. He is also a writer, product tester and editor for Bikecommuters.com, and has been a dedicated bicycle commuter since 1989. Jack sold his car this year in an effort to be as car-lite as possible, and he hasn’t missed it one bit.