A Guide to Becoming a Part-Time Bicycle Commuter
A few years ago, I wanted to increase my level of exercise and save money on gasoline at a time when gas prices were the highest they had been in decades. I realized I could accomplish both tasks through commuting to work by bicycle. In some ways, transitioning from the car to the bike was easier than I had thought. In others, however, it required me to alter my daily schedule, which was sometimes rough. In hindsight, I'm glad I was able to make the transition, even if there are times when it is only a part-time achievement. I was able to make the car to bike transition due to a few variables that I was able to control:
- Purchasing the right gear: the bike, racks, lights
- Planning a less-trafficked route: bike lanes, residential streets, bike paths, and the ever debatable side walk riding
- Altering my schedule to make cycling more enjoyable: preparing, timing my route, breaking up my ride
Buying the Right Cycling Gear
Choosing a comfortable bike is definitely a personal choice, but a must for any journey over a couple of miles. After testing out a few models within my price range, I chose a comfort bike with multiple gears so I sit more upright, and not over the handle bars. I can shift into a low gear going uphill and a higher gear pedaling downhill. I also made sure to choose a bike with thicker, wider tires. I now feel pretty confident in my riding that I won't go tumbling off my bike if a ride over a small bump or pothole, but in the beginning any little uneven pavement would make me wobble.
Purchasing a new bike isn't necessary; there are plenty of great used bikes to choose from. Just be sure to have someone familiar with bicycles complete a tune-up; pump up the tires, check the alignment, grease the gears, check the brake pads.
Baskets or Carriers
Once a bike is selected, you have some optional accessories you can add to your bike. Because I carry a book bag with me to work, I decided on collapsible saddle-bag style baskets. The saddle-bag style baskets attach to a small rear rack that normally doesn't come with the bike purchase, unless you're lucky enough to purchase a used bike with one of these already attached. Other basket alternatives include a front-mounted basket that mounts to the handlebars. Frugal alternative: Of course, if you decide you won't be carrying much with you on a bike, a backpack will do the job just as well.
An accessory that I feel is more a necessity rather than an option is lighting. Even if you don't ride at night or at dusk, having a front and rear bicycle light helps cars see you. You also never know when it may be foggy or overcast; lights can help you be seen.
Finding Bike Routes
Many cities are becoming more bike friendly as people hop on their bikes and hit the streets. However, every city varies. I live in a city that just can't seem to make up its mind; terrific bike lanes happen to end in the most unusual places. So, I've had to get creative when planning out my route. Since bicycles are much more capable of riding through unusual spaces, like small alleyways, parking lots, and university campuses, I've been able to plan a safe route to and from work. Using an online map, I first calculated the shortest distance to work. Unfortunately, that route put me on the busiest of streets and I just didn't feel comfortable riding them. So, I started scoping out side streets. I found a slightly longer route (about a mile and a half longer) that is less-trafficked and a safer alternative. Some things to consider when plotting out your best route:
If you happen to live in a bicycle-friendly city, you may be in luck with clearly marked bike lanes. If not, you may have to search out side-streets, bike paths, even parks or college campuses that have very little traffic. Part of my route is through a college campus making a mile of my trip practically car-free.
Other People's Safety
I don't consider bicycles dangerous vehicles. Of course, they can cause minor injuries to you or others if you run into something or someone. Which brings me to side walk riding; sometimes the only route you have available based on traffic in your area. I live in an area where there is very little pedestrian foot traffic, making side walk riding completely safe. However, you will need to use your best judgment when deciding to ride on them.
Choosing the route with the shortest time sounds like a no-brainer. Realistically, you may have to decide if that route is safe. My motto is safety before length. I'd much rather ride a mile out of my way than get hit by a car.
When I first began commuting by bike, I read that some bike commuters actually rode to work faster than when they drove their car. Though this hasn't been my experience, it also hasn't detered me from riding. Riding to work does entail altering my schedule a bit, meaning I have to make it a point to wake up 30 minutes earlier than if I were to drive. Though I'm not a morning person, a few things have helped me organize my time:
Preparing the night before can be a life-saver. Since I know I can't beat the clock, I prepare my lunch and the items that need to go with me to work (like a change of shirt) the night before. I pack all my items in one book bag that fits snuggly in my basket. Being prepared means I won't forget anything as I stumble out the door half asleep. It also means I can sleep an additional 10-15 minutes later than if I waited to prepare my things the morning of my ride.
A Timed Route
The weekend before my first week as a bicycle commuter, I timed myself. I realized I needed 45 minutes to ride to work, including the time I needed to pick up my coffee. (The coffee really helps!) I can't say I've been able to shave any time off my route; I seem to pedal at an average of 9 mph no matter how long I've been riding.
A Much-Needed Break
Since my ride is a solid 6-miles, I usually take a quick 5 minute break right before I hit the point of my route where I can coast downhill a bit. Depending on how long your commute is, you might be able to do without one, or break up your ride with a bus, train, or subway ride depending on the length of your commute.
Ultimately, distance and time play a large factor in the viability of becoming an everyday bicycle commuter. However, even part-time commuting can be an enjoyable experience with the right preparation.