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Bike Commuting (an 8-minute read)

The bike doesn’t make the difference. People who say they don’t commute by bike because their bike isn’t suitable are making excuses in the wrong direction. There are plenty of truly, no kidding, legitimate reasons NOT to commute by bike without having to search for excuses. For instance:

  1. Too scary. If the roads are narrow and packed with cars and the community isn’t used to or sympathetic with bike commuters, well----it might be a good idea to surround yourself with something other than air.
  2. Too far. If commuting by bike means losing an extra hour-and-a-half or more of what may be precious family time, then don’t do it. Your green contribution is tiny and immeasurable, but your presence in the morning or evening is felt, absolutely.
  3. Bad weather. It increases risk by increasing stopping distance while simultaneously decreasing your visibility and every motorist’s peripheral vision.
  4. Errand on the way to work, on the way home, or during the day. Dropping off children at school in another direction? Visiting clients during the day in another city? Things like that.
  5. No place to put the bike so it won’t get stolen or wrecked during the day. Not all workplaces are roomy enough for bikes. I know---folders---but folders have their own set of baggage.

Any one of those reasons can discourage a bike commute, which is why fewer than 1.6 percent of American workers commute by bike. In some states, and in some regions in every state, it’s less than 1 percent.

Who actually commutes by bike?

If you’re a super cyclist looking to rack up miles during the week during a 10-mile or longer commute, then you may call yourself a bike commuter, but it’s really a training ride. Or a combo. You’re the exception, and don’t need any guidance.

Most bike commuters are bike riders with shorter commutes. It helps—it’s not a requirement—to be single, carless, and live close, too.

Americans go to foreign lands where bike commuting is popular (Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Portland, and Japan) and come back home inspired by them and disgusted by us, with dozens of digital pictures of ladies bike commuting in high heels and hose, and two-story bike parking lots, and moms toting two tots at once, bringing them to day care, on a bike made for doing just that.

The message they get and disperse here is: They can do it, why can’t we?

It’s not because we aren’t green or don’t have the will power. It all comes down to pedaling conveniences and motoring disincentives. The bike is a common commute vehicle when it makes sense, and—especially—when the car or public transportation is either not an option, or is ridiculously slow and inconvenient.

Tokyo is a good example. In Tokyo you get taxed a lot for each car you own, and car parking can easily run $400 a month. Gas costs $10 per gallon. The streets are so jammed with traffic that an old Japanese lady on a dinky bike makes better time than she will in a car. Plus, there are places to park bikes at the train station, but no place to park a car. If the search for a parking spot takes longer than the commute, why bother? If it costs $40 to park your car for the day, do you really want to? Bike commuting isn’t driven by a need to be kind to the earth. Even chain-smoking businessmen who eat whale sashimi commute by bike under those conditions.

On the other side of the globe in Copenhagen, bikes are given priority over cars. The have the right-of-way on many roads, and bike lanes are separated. In the U.S., if you get hit by a car on your bike, the assumption is that you goofed up, and shouldn’t have been there in the first place. In Amsterdam, if a cyclist gets hit, the motorist is assumed guilty and has to prove otherwise. Gas costs a lot there, too. And commutes are shorter.

Urban planning has more influence than anything else on bike commuting. The most bike-commuting-friendly places tend to be the old towns in the old countries whose industrial centers developed in the horse-and-buggy days before cars, and when population densities were so much less than they are now. It made sense to build homes around the towns, like a rim around a hub, and it kept commutes close. The poor people without horses had to walk. These days,the people without cars have short bike rides to work.

It’s so much different in America, and especially in the west. Our urban centers and entire transportation system were developed specifically for the car and around the car. In California, the average commute is 14 miles, but that’s even misleading. Tons have a two-mile commute, and tons have a 50-mile or greater commute. (Is “greater” the right word there?)

It is unrealistic to expect an average adult with an average job and a family to pedal 14 or 28 miles a day to or from work, or both. Especially since we have the cheapest gas in the world, outside of Venezuela.

You often hear that higher gas prices get people out of their cars. It gets poor people out of their cars, because they have no options. But if you’re not super poor, and if you’re working (and we are talking about commuting to a job, after all), then what’s another dollar a gallon? Seriously.
Let’s say gas went up to $7 a gallon. Consider this:

A car can go 22 miles for $7. A cab ride would cost three times that, plus tip. A car can haul a family of four, or two plus tons of gear. Advantage: Car. I still hate cars, but let’s be realistic.

Public transport costs way more, and you can’t bring much. Here in the San Francisco area, a 22-mile light rail trip for a family of four costs about $20, and you may need a cab or a bus once you get off. And you can’t eat on the way. Advantage: Car. I’ve never bought a car. Only inherited them or had a mother-in-law buy us a used one. I don’t know about cars, I fear them, but sometimes cars are the objective winners over a bike, and denying that is…living in denial.

This is NOT anti-bike commute. I/Grant have commuted by bike my whole working life. For ten years it was 17-miles one way, and most of the time I rode both. For ten years after that it was 26 miles one way, and I often rode both. For the past 16 years it’s been shorter, and I still ride. I am as pro-bike (and anti-car), and pro-bike commuting as one can be, but I don’t think it helps the cause to play the green card and guilt-trip people into it, or to expect less dedicated bike riders to rearrange their lives, inconvenience themselves, or even put themselves at risk by commuting by bike when the cards are so against it.

But when your commute is short, the weather is fine, traffic isn’t scary, the roads are wide enough, and you don’t risk a stolen bike every day—THEN it makes sense. Dive in! Here are some tips that may seem obvious, but are still obligatory in a thing about bike commuting:

Safety tips

Be dorkily visible.  Lights and big reflectors. Ankle bands. Look like a nutcase.
Expect parked car doors to open on you.
Use a rear-view mirrow so you can know what’s behind you.
Ride a bike you can either take inside or lock outside without worrying about.
Carry gear on the bike, not on your back. As much as possible.
Helmets? Sure, what the heck.
If you commute in traffic, don’t for a second think a speedy bike is faster. It may mean you get to the red light sooner, but the slowpoke on the jalopy sails past you as it turns green, because he never had to stop.
Ride the stoutest tires your bike will fit.
Leave in time to fix a flat if you get one, and know how to do that.

Equipment
It’s not complicated. You don’t need to ride a copy of a Netherlandian bike, or cute your bike up with foreign-style accessories. You don’t have to go overboard with “commuter” style. Give your normal bike a chance, and just commutify it a bit.

Handlebars
Should be higher than the saddle. It’s more comfortable and makes it easy to see ahead.

Pedals
Double-sided platforms that work with the shoes you work in. Clipless on a commute bike is dumb. This doesn’t mean any of you reading this who commutes with clipless pedals is dumb; but there’s room for improvement.

Tires
Ride the thickest, heaviest tires your bike fits. If your bike doesn’t fit anything larger than a 32, it’s a bad commute bike. It may work, but it lacks the margin of safety and comfort and rideable tire-pressures that a workhorse commuter ought to have.
Schwalbe makes the best, toughest tires out there. A commute bike without Schwalbe tires (35mm or bigger) is not as good as it can be.

Fenders
If you ride in the rain, sure. If not, don’t feel obligated just because it’s a commutey look.

How to carry stuff

Figure out what you need to carry and get an appropriate bag or basket for it. Or both. If you aren’t changing clothes at work, and bringing 17-in laptops and big paper files home with you, you don’t need a monster bag or basket. But if your commute to or from often involves a side trip to the store, then get a basket or bag that can handle it. A big Wald basket is hard to beat. A monster saddlebag is, too. Basket in front, bag in back (perhaps supported by a rack), and you’re set for anything.
The message here is: Get it off your back, and go BIG with your totin’ stuff.

Locking your bike outside while you work inside

Are you sure you can’t take it inside? There’s no guarded employee parking lot? And you work in a high-crime area? Then ride a bike that doesn’t cost as much as your lock.
Otherwise, bring your bike inside.

Good luck. This article isn’t intended to inspire you. If it offers any useful advice, that’s great. Its purpose, mainly, is to lay it out there that bike commuting isn’t a matter of will power or dedication to the earth. It’s more a matter of surveying the whole commuting picture—distance, time, weather, risk, side trips, convenience, and disincentives to driving or taking public transportation, and seeing which one wins. What you do, do without guilt.
Vote for politicians who are pro-bike, and vote out the scoundrels who aren’t. Support local bike advocacy groups who have more and better time and skills and political connections to create better bike-commuting environments.
You don’t need anybody to tell you do commute by bike. If your situation lends itself to that, you will. If you haven’t tried it, try it and see how it goes.