Fun fact: According to Bloomberg, commuting by bicycle in America has risen 60% in the last decade. That means more people are throwing their legs over a bike and pedaling to work, to school, and to run errands or to attend events. And who wouldn’t; commuting by bike is virtually free when you think about the constant upkeep of a depreciating car and high gas prices, not to mention the health benefits associated with cycling.
On Ninth Avenue in New York City, city officials’ commissioned a mile-long protected bike lane that resulted in a 49% increase in retail sales along that path. Chicago currently has ~200 miles of bike lanes. If all goes as planned, the Windy City should have completed a total of 645 miles by 2020. Cities all around the world are being restructured to provide better access for alternative commuters, or those who travel by foot, bike, or public transportation. The time is now to ditch the car and get around on a bike. Some say commuting by bike is unsafe or a nuisance. But with some discipline and some street smarts, you can be safe and have fun on every ride.
What follows is my take on a bicycle commuting guide. I’m basing this off my experience as a cyclist, my time living in Salt Lake City during college, and how I commute now in all sorts of “wonderful” weather conditions in Park City. You will probably want to change a few things up, depending on the climate where you live, but I think that the model below is a pretty good starting point.
Best Type of Commuter Bike
First things first, you’re going to need a bike. Not a nice bike, not a crappy bike, but a reliable bike that you feel comfortable riding. You could use a cruiser, a cargo bike, an old mountain bike, a vintage road bike, or even an expensive electric assist bike. My suggestion would be to find a used mountain bike since it will be the most versatile option and easy to swap out or add parts and accessories to in order to make it commuter-friendly.
Make sure the bike you choose fits your body. In college, I couldn’t tell you how many times I saw my peers stretched out on too long of bikes with the seat lowered all the way to the frame. You may think at first that the bike feels okay and is fun to ride, but after a short amount of time your back and neck will hurt and you’ll be discouraged from riding. Stop by your local bike shop and consult a salesperson or mechanic about the right size bike for you.
Lastly, your commuter bike, however old or new, should be reliable. Take it in for a tune, get some new tires, and make sure the brakes and shifting work properly. A janky bike is no fun, and bikes are meant to be fun. A small initial investment will make up for itself over and over again in gas and car maintenance savings.
Bike Commuting Gear
It’s true – riding a bike leaves you exposed to the elements; cars, weather, cyclists, and a myriad of other factors that could make your bike ride less than enjoyable. I myself have commuted in torrents of rain, snow storms, blazing hot sun and on and on. Having the right gear is going to make commuting by bike a lot easier. Let’s start with the most obvious.
Get a good bike helmet. PLEASE. If you don’t buy anything else, get a helmet. A simple and inexpensive road or mountain bike helmet will do. We’re big fans of helmets here at Jans and our staff makes a point to educate everyone about helmet safety when they come in our doors.
Bike Commuting Clothing
What you wear while you commute depends on where you are, the difficulty of your ride, and what the weather looks like that day. Basically, you should be over-prepared. A large backpack with room for a rain jacket, gloves, and everything else you need to carry is very beneficial. The weather can be funky and will surprise you no matter what the weatherman says. During the spring and summer months, I keep a light Marmot rain jacket and my normal mountain bike gloves in my bag all the time. I also like to wear bright colors when I ride to make myself more visible to motorists. And I always wear jeans or tear-resistant pants to protect my legs.
In the winter I use more layers, knickers under my jeans, and heavy-duty cold weather cycling gloves. I also wear a balaclava underneath my helmet to keep my face, neck, ears, and the top of my head warm. Here at Jans.com we have a pretty lax dress code but for those of you who may have to dress more professionally, my advice would be to keep extra clothes at your place of business that you can change into after arrival.
Storage and Accessories
There is an entire industry that creates accessories for your commuter bike. All sorts of racks, panniers (storage bags for your bike), trailers, baskets, etc. can be purchased. You will want to do an assessment of what you need to bring with you daily and the weather that you’re going to ride in most frequently. Then decide if you need more storage or accessories for your bike to carry your gear.
Flat Tire Protection
Flats on a commuter bike are more-or-less inevitable. Broken glass, bits of trash, and other debris are littered across the streets. Be prepared and always keep two tubes, tire levers, a hand pump, and necessary wheel removal tools in your bag in case of a flat. You can buy extra sturdy tires with thick treads and sidewalls, but it always pays to be on the safe and prepared side. Stop by your local bike shop and ask the staff to give you a quick demo on changing a flat.
Lights to Keep You Safe
One necessary item for your commuter bike is a good set of lights. A powerful strobing red light for the rear and a powerful strobing white light for the front are both essential. Brands like Blackburn make great bike lights that last a long time for a great value. Cars are big and unruly and now, more often than ever, phones, GPS units, and stereos distract drivers. And that list keeps growing as technology expands into cars. You’re going to want to make yourself as visible as possible on the road, so a quality bike light on the front and rear is imperative.
My last tip on gear and add-ons for your bike is to buy a quality lock and then use it every time you ride. A durable chain with a padlock is usually enough to keep your bike safe. A compact U-lock that can fit in your bag works well too. Sometimes you might use a combination of both. Again, make an assessment and decide what kind of lock best suits you. If where you work has a bike storage option then you may be able to leave the lock at home for daily commuting. But if you’re hitting the grocery store on your way home, you’re going to want to lock your bike. Ideally, you should be able to at least lock the front wheel and bike frame to a rack, metal bench, or street sign. And if you can, use a long chain lock to lock the back wheel as well.
Now that you’re ready to ride, there are a few rules you’re going to want to follow. As a bicycle commuter, you can consider yourself as another qualified vehicle on the road. No matter what anyone says (or yells) you have the right to be on the road. That being said, bike commuters are small, often moving a lot slower than the surrounding traffic, and difficult to see. You should be riding defensively and be highly reactive to changes in traffic and emergency situations.
Plan a Route
One of the number one things you can do to be safe is use a pre-planned route. Look up which roads have distinct or protected bike lanes and use them extensively. Always following the same route and using bike lanes will provide a sense of familiarity with traffic patterns and obstacles.
If you’re relegated to using busy roads, take command of your lane. Don’t move to the shoulder, which could be narrow, where you could be pushed off the road. If there are many cars behind you, pull over often to let them pass. Ride smart and be mindful, and when you can, stay off multi-lane roads with lots of traffic. Side roads are a safe haven for cyclists.
Follow the Law
When riding on the road, the same laws that apply to motorists apply to cyclists. Stop signs and red lights mean you actually stop; they don’t mean you can cruise through because you’re not in a car. Only in Idaho can a cyclist treat a red light as a stop sign and a stop sign as a yield sign. In the cycling world, it is known as the “Idaho Stop.” Pay attention to signs and be patient. Cops around the nation are handing out tickets to cyclists, left and right, for cruising through stop signs and red lights and not yielding to traffic.
Use proper hand signals to turn corners and change lanes. On busy streets, communicating with other drivers is the key to staying safe. By stretching your arm out and pointing directly to the left, you are signaling that you are making a left turn. And by using the same left arm, but pointing your forearm up with your elbow at a 90-degree angle, you are signaling a right turn. Using the same arm motion, but pointing your arm straight down signals to traffic behind you that you are reducing your speed. It also doesn’t hurt to make eye contact with the drivers in cars that you are facing as you prepare to turn. A simple hand gesture (a wave, not the other kind of gesture) shows the driver that you appreciate them yielding to your turn.
Another crucial commuting skill to have is the ability to check who is behind you and next to you by quickly moving your head without swerving the bike. Just like switching lanes in a car, you should use a head check to switch lanes on a bike. Take your bike to a grassy field and practice quickly looking behind you without swerving. You may get it right away, you may not, but this skill is imperative to safely navigate between lanes.
Stay Off of the Sidewalk
It may seem safer to ride your commuter bike on the sidewalk. But riding on the sidewalk is actually very dangerous for yourself and pedestrians. You are riding much faster than anyone walking and pedestrians are not confined to a specific lane or path on a sidewalk; they are free to move throughout the space without thinking. Often, pedestrians are conversing with each other or engaged with other mediums and are not paying attention to their surroundings. Their overall awareness has been lowered, making it more likely for them to walk into your path. So please, stay off the sidewalk and follow the rules of the road.
Last but Not Least
Remember to have fun. Everything that I have listed above is for your benefit. Bikes have two wheels, no windshield and go as fast as your legs can make them. Commuting to work or doing errands on a bike is a moment in your day to just relax and cruise. You’re not at the mercy of the flow of traffic. Enjoy it.
Paul Boyle, Marketing Specialist