A Guide to Becoming a Part-Time Bicycle Commuter

By Little House on 16 August 2010 (Updated 15 August 2011) 22 comments
Photo: Pixel Addict

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.

The Bike

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.

Lighting

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:

Your Safety

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.

Time

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.

The Schedule

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:

Preparation

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.

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Guest's picture

Great post! I've been contemplating part-time bike commuting (I can't make it to work on a bike because they don't allow bikes in the Lincoln Tunnel and I live in Jersey and work in NY). If anyone knows a way to do it please let me know!

But I was just thinking about biking to the train at least. I'll definitely use your advice.

Little House's picture

Biking to the train station would be a fantastic start! I'd be interested in knowing, myself, if there is a way to bike from NJ to NY somehow bypassing the tunnel. Anyone?

Guest's picture
Mondo

You could consider riding to Hoboken and then taking the ferry over. I'm not sure if they let you take your bike on it, but I assume so. Or you could bike over the GWB, depending on how close/far that is from where you are. Biking to work is such a great way to start your day!

Guest's picture
Dave

Those interested in the fitness and economy of bike commuting should not be deterred by having a longer distance commute. 7 miles is a good range to ride into and from work each day compared to a commute by car with potential traffic. If you live beyond that, try a multimodal commute by parking your car in a commuter lot within that range, or find a bus route that you take part of the way if your local system has buses with bike racks. The latter solution offers the possibility of saving hundreds if you and your partner current have two cars for commuting.

Little House's picture

Terrific addition regarding the bus! Many trains also have bike racks in them if a train is an option. For long commutes, using public transpo. in addition to a bike can be a great alternative. Thanks again!

Julie Rains's picture

I will ditto the comment about lights; I don't commute by bicycle but have a friend who does -- the front light and rear flashing light are essentials, particularly for riding before dawn and also just in case of rain, fog, or darkness created by tree cover.

Guest's picture

Lights and more lights! Notice how many cars now run during the daytime with headlights on? Ride a bike with headlights - and turn them to flash. This makes you significantly more visible. It also helps a great deal with pedestrians. Many bikers ride with multiple lights flashing.

Also, you will see bikers generally wear day-glo yellow jackets and shirts. Good idea.

Safe routes is big! Get on a bike path and off the road if you can.

Unfortunately commuting traffic culture has become "Us versus them" with some car drivers treating bikes like illegal aliens. While this may be only a small percentage - it is a present and dangerous percentage. (1) Make yourself as visible as you can (2) assume that car drivers dont see you or dont care about you and (3) ride where there is physical separation between you and the cars - on a bike path or other places.

There is nothing better than, after a long day at work, looking forward to a wonderful bike ride home. Its a great day to finish the work day and you get home having cleansed yourself of the stress of the day.

Guest's picture
Forest

After being knocked off my bike twice by cars making no indicator turns I feel a helmet is essential too.... even if they do looks silly!

Great article by the way :)

Little House's picture

Great point! I make it a point to wear my helmet on longer rides (2 + miles) and on busy journeys. Thanks for including that tip!

Guest's picture
Len Penzo

I have two coworkers who have been seriously injured riding their bikes to work - the last one just last week when he was hit by a car making a right turn at an intersection.

I used to be a serious mountain biker that also dabbled with long-distance street rides. While I was never worried while I was in the hills, I was always nervous riding on the roads. Many car drivers just don't pay attention - or worse - respect the bikers' rights to be on the road.

My best advice when riding on busy streets: wear as much fluorescent green, yellow or orange as you can. It won't meet anybody's definition of sartorial splendor, but it may get a driver's attention - if only for a second. And that might save your life.

Best,

Len
Len Penzo dot Com

Little House's picture

Based on the comments I'm receiving, it looks like I should write a follow-up article on riding safely! You're right, cars don't see cyclists. They're too busy concentrating on other cars (or their cell phones!). I'm super-duper careful at intersections. I always make sure to make eye-contact with right and left turners (they just don't seem to see people near or in crosswalks.) Sorry to hear about your co-workers, I hope they were wearing their helmets.

Guest's picture

I give you credit for being so dedicated! What you are doing is good on so many levels. I wish my city was more bike-friendly. I am incredibly limited in where I can ride my bike unfortunately.

I do need to look into getting a basket or something for my bike. There is a market I can safely ride my bike to via sidestreets, and I have been thinking about doing that for some time. Thank you for the motivation!

Great post.

Guest's picture
Volt

Bicycling for my commute to work has been a great experience. More exercise. Less cost for gas money. And a great way to get rid of quite a bit of stress.

Some of my suggestions ...

For planning trips, Google Maps has a "bicycle" button, in the upper left, that toggles on suggested bicycle paths directions. Along with; "car", "mass transit", and on "foot".

Bike helmet, while it's unlikely you'll hit your head while riding your bike, the chances it will happen some day go up the more you bike. If you get thrown off you bike in an accident, it's not as if you have much of a choice if your skull is going to avoid that random rock, or chunk of concrete on the ground.

Lights for front and back, they don't seem to really help me see any better. But, it sure does help making it easier for others to notice you. Like the other posters have mentioned; fog, under the shadow of tress, as well as an underpass free way, even at night.

The upgrade ability of a bike. You can start out simple. And gradually add more components to your bike to suit your needs as you ride more and more.

Guest's picture
TheUkieVillain

^^This.

HELMET: A helmet is a MUST for EVERY ride. I use my bike as my primary transportation in Chicago, and I've been doored (hit by an opening car door) less than 3 blocks from my home. It was the helmet that cracked instead of my skull when I went down.

LIGHTS: They're helpful during the day, but essential at night. They won't help you see, but they'll let cars see you.

ROUTES: Google Maps now has a 'travel by bike' option available in most cities. It gives priority to bike paths, bike lanes, side streets, and flat grades (so you're not pedaling up hills or burning out your brakes going downhill all the time). It's a great tool. But use common sense--if a street doesn't feel like it's giving you protection from auto traffic, use another route.

GEAR: Depending on where you are and the type of riding you do, some things to consider:
Gears/derailleurs -- if there's a lot of hills, a good set of gears is a must. If you're in a flat town like Chicago, a fixed gear bike (AKA a one-speed) can work and save a LOT on maintenance.
Tires -- if you'll be riding in urban environments exclusively, get a skinnier tire. It will ride faster (less wheel resistance) and feel better. If you'll be doing dirt-trail riding exclusively, get a mountain-bike style tire with more knobs for better traction. If you might be doing both, or if there's crushed-rock trails (in Chicago, that's the Prairie Path), get a hybrid.
Seat -- None of them are 'comfortable', no matter what. If you're riding for more than 3 miles, get used to the idea that it will be uncomfortable. Some more so than others. Get one that you can live with, and realize that even the $300 leather, gel-filled seat won't feel as good as the couch in your living room.
Computer -- I'm a fan of bike computers. Even simple ones will tell you how fast you're going, how far you've gone, and give you the time. It's a good way to challenge yourself to go faster/farther when exercising, and help keep you on time when commuting. And they can cost as little as $20.

MAINTENANCE: ~Buy a small repair kit and keep it with your bike or in your backpack/bag. ~Learn to patch and/or change a flat tire. It'll save you quite a bit of $$ in the long run. ~About once a month, give the bike a wipe-down with a damp cloth to get the road grit off. Especially if you've biked when the pavement is wet. Helps the bike run better and keeps it from rusting. ~Buy some chain lube and make sure the chain is greased up. Nothing sucks quite as bad as having a rusty chain break on you, leaving you to walk the rest of the way.

Guest's picture

Hey Little House! =)

I'd like to add that make sure you get a basket or saddle bag that really suits you! I got this super cute saddle bag with polka dots, love it, BUT you have to fasten and unfasten it on each time you take it off the rack. It was a major time sucker for me, so I ended up tying the basket I have with zip straps to the rack.

So I have a saddle bag that's just sitting there, looking pretty. I am hoping to sell it on craigslist or something and then get another saddle bag that has a snap-on attachment to the rack.

Great post!

Guest's picture
Geoff Parlett

Where do you put your bike while your at work? Does your office have bike racks? Do you leave it in your cubical?

Aren't you all sweaty and stinky when you get to work? Do you ride your bike in a suit? Change when you get to work?

Little House's picture

Good questions. Since I work at a closed-campus school, I lock my bike at a bike rack inside the school. However, some offices are open to you bringing your bike indoors (it definitely will depend on where you work.)

As for the sweat issue, I wear a light t-shirt riding and bring an extra shirt to change into when I get there, as well as a small hand-towel. I can easily wipe off the sweat, change shirts, and I'm good to go.

If you must wear a suit to work, then clothing is a little more difficult. Perhaps you could leave a suit or two at the office on the days you intend to ride, then change out of your sweaty light-weight duds into something clean and dry. The clothing issue is usually not as complicated as people think.

Guest's picture
Guest

Electric bicycles are amazing. Pedal assist motors give you the option of how hard you need to pedal in order to complete your commute.

http://www.electricbikee.com/

Guest's picture

Would love to do this, but riding my bike in a suit and tie with nowhere at the office to shower probably isn't the best idea. :)

Guest's picture
Rachel

So glad to see this post! I'm a dedicated bike commuter, and your tips are great.

One thing, though - not only are lights useful, in many places they're a legal requirement after dusk. As are bells. Going without risks both safety and fines.

Guest's picture
Tara

Great article! I started part-time bike commuting two summers ago and love it. I love saving on gas and burning some calories. I've noticed that if I don't commit to what days I'm going to bike commute, then it's easy to fall back on my car.

I echo the other statements made so far - I wear a helmet, wear brightly colored shirts, and I'm super cautious at intersections and places where cars dont seem to pay attention (daycare & fast food entrances/exits !)

Keep on pedaling!

Guest's picture

I missed the bicycle culture when I moved home from Germany, so my Dad suprised me with dusting off my old hand-me-down bike and outfitting it for riding to and from class on my university campus. It had a basket, a headlamp and a bell. In germany the bell signals a biker is coming up behind you and you should step off the path - but no one on campus back in the US seemed to know what it meant - I ended up having to shout "Excuse me! Excuse me!" the whole time before sadly giving up. Now I can't wait to have a job close enough o home to try it again - thanks!