It’s getting warmer and the days are getting longer! If you’ve considered starting to ride your bike to work, maybe this is the year. Before you get started the idea may be daunting, but once you’ve tried it and pushed through the initial challenges of route selection, equipment and logistics, I would bet you will never want to go back to driving or public transportation. Riding to work is that good. This is the first of three posts which I hope will inspire and motivate you to shed your dependence on the car and start or restart riding to work or school. I’ll start by break down route selection factors which are unique to commuting on a bike, then cover equipment, logistics, and other gear in the next two installments.
I’ve been riding to work in the Boston area for about 30 years. While I don’t do it every day, I definitely try to. The truth is whenever life gets in the way of riding to work, I miss it terribly, and work crawls by at a snail’s pace. When I don’t ride I’m jealous of all the cyclists I see on the way. But fortunately there’s always tomorrow. Benefits to being a bike commuter are numerous; firing up your metabolism early in the day, calorie burning while you ride, money saving, burning less carbon based fuels and keeping your heart healthy just to name a few. But some lesser known benefits are a predictable arrival time at your destination, no need to factor in time looking for parking, and stress reduction both before and after work. In the morning you can begin to think over what your day will look like. In the evening, a ride offers you the opportunity to change your mindset and mood and prepare for dinner or family time if that’s what greets you at home. You may even be able to avoid going to the gym quite so often, although other activities during the week, particularly yoga, stretching, and swimming, are great compliments to cycling.
Today I wanted to talk about route selection to help anyone get started on the right track. Your safe and fun cycling route to work or school will often be quite different than how you might drive there. Route selection can actually make or break your good time on a bicycle commute. Let’s focus on 4 main considerations, but know that safety is the overriding theme which we always have to keep on top of mind. Many people do not have any dedicated bike paths to use, so cars will always be something to contend with, even if you live in a bike friendly place.
Space. As noted, everyone’s transportation environment is not full of car-free bike paths and protected bike lanes. When riding on the road, the amount of pavement useable for cyclists varies greatly. If you have to share the road with cars, try to avoid roads with parked cars on both sides where cars don’t have enough room to get by you without crossing the yellow line. If this is where you have to ride, know that car drivers may be in a rush and often get pretty upset when someone like a cyclist slows them down. While you have every right to be there, it’s not always a good idea to flaunt that right (think moose and squirrel…). A more sustainable attitude is to try to instill the feeling that you want to stay out of the way, keeping in mind the most important thing to you is your safety. I actually feel bad for drivers, because they have to be in a car and I’m out on my bike! But no matter your attitude, it’s preferable to pick a quieter, wider road, and avoid routes that bring out the worst in impatient (honking, engine revving) vehicle drivers.
Surface conditions. Another thing that is truly worthy of avoiding is poorly paved roads, routes under construction, and any roads that have surface level train tracks which run a similar direction to your path of travel. I have one road in particular that has the problems I mentioned in #1 (no space and full of parked cars) and is never exactly well paved, but would be on the most direct driving route if I was to drive. Part of efficient travel is predicated on not having a mechanical incident or accident so I select another route. If you have no choice but to travel on an undesirable section, like when there’s really only one bridge option over a river or a man made barrier, try to stay aware of what’s in front, behind, the surface below, and objects to the sides of you, to keep your personal space safe. Sometimes you can’t safely swerve around a pothole because there’s a truck bearing down from behind which can’t move over in its lane. As you ride more you will increase your awareness and become better at knowing what’s coming from behind as well as everything you can see in front of you. After you’ve done your commute 10-20 times, you will also observe changing road conditions, like snow/sand/salt piles, potholes, debris accumulation, construction, and start to have an expert understanding of all of the nuances of your selected commuting route.
Intersections. You may also live somewhere that the streets do not all meet at a right angle. Some may have traffic lights or controlled walk signs, and there may even be uncontrolled intersections where signs are missing and people are just supposed to know who has the right of way. Either way, at or near intersections is where most accidents happen, so you have to be on your guard and super defensive as you approach and cross an intersection. And keep in mind that car drivers often take a minute to check text messages or social media when stopped, so when they resume motion as the light turns green, they don’t always make a complete assessment of what’s around them first, especially when someone behind is honking at them. In picking your route, you may want to plan to detour around a really horrible intersection. Where I live, running red lights, even when a the pedestrian signal says walk, is a ticketable offense. I’m not saying it should be otherwise, but if you are new to riding with cars this is a key rule to consistently follow. To make sure you are visible when stopped at an intersection, wait near the front of the lead cars, so you’re first to cross the intersection, and after exiting the intersection try to get out of their way as a courtesy.
Solar Glare. If your commuting time is near sunset or sunrise, as it is for most of us, solar glare can be blinding during different times of the year. Cyclists should definitely consider year round eye protection, even when the sun is not out, but I’m really talking about the impact it has on car drivers when I say it’s an important safety concern for cyclists. In multiple situations; crossing a street to make a left turn from a stop, traveling into the sun with cars behind you, and at intersections; beware of the possibility that you may not be visible and ride where you have an ‘escape route’ in case you realize you have to suddenly change your path to avoid a car that seems not to see you. Some cyclists use head and tail lights even while riding in daylight. That won’t necessarily help in the case of solar glare which is usually so bright little else can be defined in the field of view.
Think about these factors as you pick your bike commuting route. If several of them are present anywhere on your route, consider a reroute. If you identify more than one critical safety factor, that multiplies the risk of an accident or incident, so please consider another route. In the next two posts in the series, we’ll look at other important factors such as bike selection, clothing, and continue helping you find alternative safe and satisfying ways to get to work. Please share this post to inspire your family and friends to do the same.
Why am I writing this? I’m a passionate veteran ‘ride (walk or run) every day’ commuter. I’ve been avoiding cars as often as possible and getting around almost exclusively on a bike since moving to Boston in the 80s. People ask me all the time: is it safe? I think safety is a matter of preparedness and understanding defensive bicycle riding. It’s not a race. Sometimes you have to slow down just to stay safe. Some intersections are just unsafe, and then there’s distracted driving, which is sadly everywhere, everyday. But if you give it a try you might find it’s life changing. -Jane Hayes