A couple days ago, I lurked in after a long absence for a discussion on climate change. One way to help reduce CO2 emissions a little and help your health a lot (usually) is to commute by bicycle. These notes were originally posted at a forum hosted by the Washington Area Bicyclist Association and Bike Arlington. Any responsibility for errors or omissions is mine, not theirs, of course...
My commuting route to downtown DC is about 16 miles each way, mostly flat (only a few not-too-steep hills). It’s not the most direct route. Instead, I wind through suburban industrial roads, beautiful river-side trails, quiet residential streets. I avoid busy roads and I do not ride in heavy traffic.
Here's my usual route:
The commute takes me about 65-75 minutes each way, depending on the wind and whether I’m feeling strong or wimpy that day. Fastest I ever made it to work was 56 minutes, but that was an outlier.
I bike commute mostly because it’s fun. Riding puts me in a good mood all day. I’m always amused when my colleagues straggle in to work complaining about the weather, or the traffic, or the Metro delays. With the right outdoor gear, it even feels great to ride in cold or wet weather (even snow!), when everybody else in having fits.
Bike commuting is also the most efficient way I’ve found to stay in shape. I’m a 50 year old guy, and weigh about 200 pounds. I’ve lost 20 pounds since I started long-distance commuting, and I eat pretty much constantly. According to a heart rate monitor I borrowed, the commute burns about 800 calories each way. That’s 1,600 calories a day just getting back and forth to work.
Biking to work takes time, but it also substitutes for your daily workout. Before I started bike commuting, I usually worked out about 40 minutes a day in the gym or jogging, and my commute was about 50 minutes each way. Thus, my combined workout and commuting time was about 140 minutes a day: 2 hours and 20 minutes.
Now, my bike commute is essentially a 140 minutes daily workout in itself. Same total 2 hour and 20 minute commuting plus workout time, but now all of it is spent exercising!
Finally, bike commuting saves me a ton of money. Including parking, rush hour Metrorail costs nearly $15 a day. If I drove all the way to work, downtown parking costs at least that much, not including gas and wear and tear on the car. Bike commuting isn’t free, since you do have to buy and maintain a bike. But it’s way less expensive than driving or public transport.
These notes below the fold are mostly for longer-distance bike commuters. I opine about route planning, clothes and shower logistics, gear and equipment, and so on.
Shorter distance commuters might not have to worry about some of this stuff. Just get on the bike and go. In Washington DC, we have an excellent bike-share program for shorter distance commuters and errands (and tourists). You don’t even need to own a bike!
However, for longer-distance riders, a little more planning is needed. That’s what these notes are about, really. Once the plan becomes a routine, bike commuting is easy.
The first step in bike commuting is finding a safe and (hopefully) pleasant route. You may need to experiment and be creative.
When we drive our cars, we often stick to main roads, especially when we’re in unfamiliar parts of town. We usually take the most direct route or fastest projected route from Point A to Point B.
However, the best bike commuting routes are often obscure side roads and trails, or roundabout routes through neighborhoods that we never would have driven through.
Likewise, some of the best bike routes weren’t envisioned as commuter tracks when they were built. They were intended only for recreational use, not transportation. For example, we have a beautiful multi-use (hiker, cycle, jog, horse) trail that runs along the river from near my house in Maryland to near the DC line. However, many people who have lived in our neighborhood for years don’t know it even exists! That’s because they can’t see it from their cars. The trail has underpasses along the river bank, so you can’t see it from the road. If all you do is drive around, you’d never know it was there!
So don’t make the mistake of assuming there is no way to get from your home to work just because it doesn’t look safe from the car. I recommend starting with Google bike maps, and then following up with route testing and recon on weekends before you launch into regular commuting.
Google and Bike Maps
Google got me started. I never imagined that I could commute all the way from my house outside the Washington DC beltway to downtown. I’m just not the type of rider who is comfortable riding on high-traffic roads, and it didn’t seem like there was any other way.
But one day, I ran in to an old friend at a bike shop. He mentioned offhand that he had been riding on this new trail called the Metropolitan Branch Trail (Met Branch or MBT) in Washington DC that ran alongside the Red Line Metrorail tracks toward Union Station. I didn’t think much more about it at the moment.
However, that night I literally woke up in the middle of the night, got out my laptop, and started Google to look at bike trails and possible routes. For my area, the Met Branch was the missing link. The new trail in DC meant that I could ride all the way from my house outside the beltway to work downtown without having to ride on major roads. It was a revelation!
The next day, I scouted the route. After a couple wrong turns, I eventually found a way to get from my house to the Anacostia Tributary Trails, across northeast DC on residential streets, and down the Met Branch trail to downtown without riding in traffic.
Google does a pretty good job marking bike trails and cycletracks. If you go to http://maps.google.com and search for your city, just click on the “bicycling” option in the dropdown box and the bike trails, cycletracks, bike lanes, and routes will show up in various shades of green. If the trail or route you are interested in is on or near a road, you can zoom in to “street view” to see what it looks like (from a car anyways).
However, the trails marked on Google may have different surfaces: asphalt, gravel, even dirt. The bike lanes may be excellent or inferior.
And use extreme caution depending on Google for bike directions. Sometimes Google’s directions will connect nice bike routes with high-speed roads that are very poor options for cyclists. Essentially the Google direction algorithm thinks like car – it looks for the shortest route, even when much more pleasant and suitable routes may be available if you don’t mind going a few miles out of the way. Likewise, sometimes to get on a good trail, you may have to backtrack a few miles. Google’s bike directions don’t think of that.
Scouting the route on weekends is the best idea. You can take your time and try alternatives, and see which streets have the safest lanes and crossings. In general, scout for safety and comfort. If your route takes you on a miserable, dirty, high-speed, high-stress multilane arterial road, with lots of driveways and turning traffic, you won’t enjoy your commute nearly as much. Likewise, even a rolling country lane may be hazardous if there is no shoulder and drivers routinely speed and don’t slow down for cyclists or other slower-moving road users.
Many jurisdictions have nice bike maps. For example, DC has excellent maps on the transportation department’s homepage.
The DC maps shade roads by whether they seemed to the mapmaker like bike friendly routes. This is an important consideration. The advent of smart phones and Blackberries had made riding on shoulders of high-speed roads more hazardous in my opinion. It used to be the drivers using cell phones were just distracted and driving with only one hand on the wheel. That was bad enough. But it’s worse now. At least cell phoning drivers usually had their eyes on the road most of the time, except maybe when dialing.
With smart phones, drivers are continually looking down at their latest text messages. They literally take their eyes off the road for long periods of time. This is making it less safe to ride on shoulders of major roads, because all the inadvertent weaving in and out of lanes is getting worse. There was a report from the United Arab Emirates recently that when Blackberry service went down for a couple days, the number of traffic accidents and fatalities fell dramatically.
All the more reason to stick to smaller roads and neighborhood streets in your route planning, at least if trails or protected bike lanes aren’t available.
In my couple years of bike commuting, I’ve only had one real crash. It wasn’t with a car, though. What happened was another bike crashed into me on a trail. (It turned out the cyclist that hit me was British – his natural instinct was to ride on the left!)
Cycling is so much fun that we often just do it without thinking too much about safety. But planning for safety is a good idea when choosing your route.
Most car/bike crashes occur at intersections. “Right hook” crashes are common in bike lanes where cars turn right without looking in the right-side blind spot. “Left cross” crashes occur when a left turning car doesn’t see (or doesn’t look for) cyclists coming the other direction. “Getting doored” is an expression for when a car door gets flung open into the bike lane if you’re riding too close to the parked cars.
On the trails, “ninjas” are cyclists, runners, or walkers without reflectors or lights (or at least bright-colored clothing). You can’t see them at dusk or after dark. Also, beware the “Crazy Ivan” jogging maneuver. This is when runners suddenly decide to turn around right into you while you’re passing them. Many runners wear earbuds or headphones with the volume turned up so they can’t hear you calling your pass or (better yet) ringing your bell as you approach them. If you see a jogger approaching a landmark like a bridge or tree or sign next to the trail, and especially if they look down at their watch, assume a Crazy Ivan maneuver is imminent.
Obviously, keeping your speed under control is key to avoiding self-inflicted crashes. I need to adjust the brakes on my commuter bike every month. For commuters, we need to stop fast sometimes, like when a pedestrian decides to jump off the curb into the bike lane right in front of us! Or when a dog on a long leash (or no leash) suddenly decides to chase a squirrel across a trail. So don’t ride with inferior brakes – take them in for service regularly if you’re like me and have limited “brake voodoo” home-repair skills.
For riders using toeclips or “clipless” pedals (riding shoes with metal cleats that snap into special pedals), be careful not to clip in too early and turn your front wheel into your foot when starting up after a stop. This can cause embarrassing tipovers, often with an audience of drivers and pedestrians cheering you on.
I once unclipped to approach a small hill that led up to a stop sign and crosswalk. However, when I pedaled a little bit more with my instep to make it up the hill, I accidentally reclipped and tipped over at the top, losing my sunglasses and letting out a very dirty word. The school children crossing the street were highly amused.
Helmets are necessary for kids and competitive cycling, of course. But I personally don’t think they need to be absolutely mandated for all bike riding. However, I always wear one, even for short trips around my neighborhood. When the British dude hit me, I went over the handlebars and landed on the trail. My helmet took a big dent that otherwise would have been my skull. For commuters, helmets are also an excellent place to put extra reflective stickers and lights.
So while I don’t necessarily favor laws absolutely requiring them at all time, please wear a helmet when long-distance commuting, and take it inside with you. The bike helmet is rapidly becoming the coolest fashion accessory you can carry. It’s a signal to businesses and stores that lots of people are riding bikes these days. (Maybe someday they’ll install enough parking racks!)
Trails and Sidepaths
For me, the best options for bike commuting are multi-use trails and two-way roadside sidepaths, especially in the suburbs. Multi-use trails (or MUTs, sometimes called multi-use paths or MUPs) are usually designed for recreational use. Therefore, bikes shouldn’t necessarily treat them as highways. As the faster traffic, we have to warn when passing (with a bell) and yield to slower traffic. MUTs often have speed limits of 12 miles per hour, which is appropriate if they’re crowded with walkers on sunny weekday afternoons. However, during the morning rush hour, and pretty much all winter, these trails are usually wide open and great for cycling at any reasonable speed. However, some MUTs that were designed more for recreation than transportation may have sharp curves or sudden dips and twists. Often tree roots can create hidden speedbumps, which can be an unpleasant surprise in low visibility.
At night on unlit trails, you need good lights to spot animals and ninjas in the trail. (I see a dozen deer per night certain times of the year.) It’s helpful to other riders if you can dim your lights when you meet another bike, or cover your light with your hand so you don’t blind oncoming traffic. If you have a helmet light, you can just turn slightly to the side of the trail until traffic clears.
You need to plan ahead for what to do in case of a mechanical problem at night (it’s harder to change a flat tire at night in the pitch dark on the trail), or if you crash. Does somebody know where you are? Is your cell phone charged? Will there be somebody on the other end of the line who could come get you and your bike at a trail crossing if you have a problem? You can’t always count on another rider coming by late at night to help out. My trails run near Metro lines, so I figure I can hobble to the train station if I have a problem.
Some of the MUTs in my area are closed from civil sunset (about a half hour after the sun actually sets) until first light in the morning. However, most park police will let bike commuters through without hassle, especially if you have good trail lights and look like you know what you’re doing. Complementing the officer on the beautiful trails and how much you appreciate them being out there keeping things safe sometimes works. I think these rules are mostly designed to allow police to roust loiterers at night, not to hassle bike commuters. But being complementary to the police even if they do hassle you is probably the best approach.
Bike Lanes and Cycletracks
Although I prefer to ride on trails and sidepaths, bike lanes and cycletracks are the next best option, especially in urban areas. However, bike lanes vary in their quality and safety. Some bike lanes are great; some are worse than nothing. Bike lanes that are too narrow can give drivers the illusion that it’s safe to pass, especially when there’s a row of parked cars alongside the bike lane creating a “dooring” hazard.
So it’s best to scope bike lanes out ahead of time. Many bike lanes in DC seem like a bit of a fluke. They were not designed into the road. Instead, they were installed just because the road happened to be wide enough and it seemed like an easy change to put down a stripe of paint. However, these “convenience” bike lanes are not always up to the latest safety standards.
Most bike lanes in Washington DC are between rows of parallel parked cars and the traffic lanes. This is not my favorite design. A car pulling out of a parking spot can be a hazard, essentially knocking the bike into traffic. Likewise, driver-side car doors are a hazard. Cars pulling into or out of driveways and alleys may not be able to see bikes over the row of parked cars.
I think it’s better when the bike lane is between the curb and the row of parked cars. These sorts of lanes are rare in our area, although I’ve seen them in Montreal. They look a little strange at first, but their functionality seems excellent. You do have to yield to pedestrians crossing the bike lanes to get to their cars or bus stops.
On one-way bike lanes, please go with the flow of the signaled direction. Don’t “salmon” upstream against traffic. Bikes in bike lanes have enough to worry about watching for traffic, parking cars, alley entrances, driveways, delivery trucks, and jaywalkers – we don’t need to worry about bikes going the wrong way too!
The best bike lanes in my opinion are two-way cycletracks. These are often alongside the curb in cities, although we have a center-median two-way cycletrack right down the middle of Pennsylvania Ave in DC, between the U.S. Capitol and the White House. It works great – I take it every day to get to my office. Often cycletracks will have special bike signals – red lights in the shape of a little bike figure. Watch for errant taxis or jaywalking pedestrians regardless of whether the light is green.
Taking the Lane in Traffic
If there’s no bike lane, and the traffic lane isn’t wide enough for cars to pass safely (3 foot minimum is the law in DC), then the cyclist should take the whole lane. It’s especially important to assert the whole lane if you think a car might try to pass unsafely into oncoming traffic. What will happen is that the passing car will swerve right into you or run you off the road instead of hitting the oncoming car head on. So don’t let them try. In most cases, I usually ride in the right tire track, far enough into the lane that cars can’t pass and far enough away from the gutter that I don’t ride on gravel or debris. But not so far to the left that it could appear I’m just being obnoxious.
Of course, when you take the lane going a usual bike speed – like about 15 mph – cars will back up behind you and get impatient. But that’s just too bad if it’s unsafe to pass. There is no minimum speed on most local roads (the speed limit is an upper limit, after all, not a minimum), so sometimes cars just have to wait for slower traffic, including bikes. Sometimes, there are places where you can safely pull over and let a line of traffic pass. There’s one place on my commute where I pull on to a (usually deserted) sidewalk so more cars can get through a quick green light cycle. However, you should be careful to not weave in and out of a parking lane when letting traffic pass – cars might not see you when you re-enter the lane. In those cases, it’s best to just hold your line in the through lane, or else be sure to yield to cars when re-entering the lane.
Sidewalks and Suburbs
Speaking of sidewalks, in DC it’s legal to ride on sidewalks except in the downtown core area. Other cities and towns may have their own rules. I don’t like to ride on sidewalks, but sometimes it can be necessary for a block or two. In the suburbs, the multi-lane, high-speed arterial roads can be nearly impossible to safely bike on, so sidewalk riding can be safer. But watch out for driveways and strip mall entrances.
Remember, suburban drivers think the landscape was created totally for them, not for pedestrians or bikes. They’re right, by the way. Most suburban roads are designed essentially as “car only” zones, and are pretty hostile to other ways of getting around. Heck, you often need to get in a car just to go to the next store over on the shopping strip, since there’s no safe place to walk. So just assume that suburban drivers aren’t looking for you.
Clothes and Cleaning Up
Once you’ve found a safe route to work, the next question is how to manage your clothes. For shorter commutes, you may be able to ride in work clothes. However, for long commutes you’re going to want to wear bike gear and change at work.
First question: Is There a Shower? My building is perfect: we have a small workout room with showers and lockers. Sometimes, even if you don’t have a shower in your building, there will be gym nearby where you can change.
If there’s not shower nearby, I’ve heard good recommendations for Action Wipes. Action Wipes are essentially cleaning cloths for adults. They’re disposable, but can be washed and reused for rags (good for cleaning bikes, actually).
Thankfully, most bathrooms in business locations these days have special large stalls for disabled folks. These make great wipe-up and changing areas, since there’s extra room. (Of course, if a disabled person needs to go, they should get dibs.)
Second Question: How to Transport Clean Work Clothes? For me, I keep a pair of work shoes and a belt in my office, and I hang a couple sport coats behind the door. I take a clean shirt and pants wrapped up in the plastic from the dry cleaners with me each day in my backpack, along with clean underwear and fresh riding clothes for the trip home in a plastic grocery bag. My nasty riding gear from the morning goes in the bag for the trip home.
I also keep a winter coat at the office, since I don’t want to bring one back and forth from home each day. Unfortunately, I don’t have a dry cleaner near my office, or else I could just handle most of my laundry needs from work!
On wet days, it’s very helpful to have a place where you can dry out wet riding shoes, hats, and gloves. I have a portable heater in my office that serves this purpose well.
Bike Parking and Transit
Here again, I’m lucky – my building has two bike racks in the underground garage. So our bikes are dry and safe year round inside. We also have some inverted U-shaped sturdy lockups on the sidewalk outside. The outside bike racks are the next best thing, but the risk of theft or damage goes up. I wouldn’t leave an expensive bike outside in DC over night.
Some long-distance commuters only ride one way each day. They’ll bike commute in the morning, then take public transport home, leaving the bike overnight at the office. Then the next day they’ll take transport to work, and ride home. This can be a helpful way to commute if riding both ways would be too far, especially when you’re getting started. However, you’d need a very secure place for your bike (like in a locked or attended garage, or inside in your office, if your boss permits).
Buses in DC have bike racks on the front. So if you have a mechanical breakdown or some other issue, you might be able to hitch a ride on the bus. Most commuter trains (and our DC Metrorail) don’t allow full-size bikes during rush hour, which sucks. However, they do allow folding bikes (some of which ride really nicely).
Locks and Security
Even in well secured, underground parking racks, it’s best to lock up. Inside, where the risk of theft is low, at least lock your frame to the rack with a strong U-lock. Outside, be sure to lock your frame to the bar, and, if possible, also lock both wheels to the rack or your frame with a chain or flexible lock, so that thieves can’t steal your wheels. The quick release drop outs for bike wheels – designed so you can change a flat tire without tools – also make it easier for thieves to steal your wheels.
Make sure to bring your lights, portable air pump, and other removable gadgets inside with you. Most will clip off easily. If you have an easily detachable seatpost, you might want to bring your saddle in with you as well. Just mark the line on your seatpost where it enters the seat tube, so you can put it back in at exactly the right height when you head home.
Backpacks and Panniers
My commuter bike has a rear rack on which I have two large panniers for my computer and gear. The panniers add weight at the rear of the bike, which can make mounting and dismounting a little awkward. The extra weight in the back also makes hill climbing a little more clumsy when standing up on the pedals.
When I commute on my cyclocross bike, I carry my stuff in a backpack. I got a triathlon pack by Louis Garneau – it has a lot of space for clothes and a laptop, good pockets for sunglasses case, and so on, and a very handy wetsuit compartment for my wet gear on the ride home. It’s not completely waterproof, so on wet days, I put my clean clothes for work and for the ride home in plastic grocery bags. I have a padded laptop case that fits fine and protects the computer.
To me, the advantage of backpacks is that they seem better for balance and bike handling. However, backpacks do put more weight on your seat. This doesn’t bother me, but could be uncomfortable for long rides if your seat position isn’t perfectly lined up on your “sit” bones, or if you’re not moving around a lot on your saddle and putting weight mostly on the pedals. Backpacks are also hotter in the summer, since they hold in heat on your back.
Food and Water
When I wear a backpack, it’s hard for me to reach food in the back pockets of my jerseys or jackets. So I use a “bento box” – a small container that mounts with velcro straps just behind the front stem and sits on the top tube. I can also put spare blinky lights and batteries in there.
I have two water bottle caddies, on the down tube that extends from the front of the bike down to the pedal area, and one on the seat tube, which is the (nearly) vertical tube from the seat down to the pedal area. I can reach both while riding. On really, really hot days, I have a Camelbak that I can wear for extra water. Of course, that also adds a little heat itself. I eat a lot, and I usually need at least one 150 or 200 calorie food bar on each leg of my commute to stay fresh.
Lights and Reflectors
I’ve learned that you literally can’t underestimate how hard it can be even for attentive drivers to see you. Of course, they’re often talking on the phone or checking their GPS or text messages, so they may not be looking for you at all. So in addition to being visible, you need to proactively catch their attention.
I’ve seen some riders who look like they want to be fashionably discreet in the clothing choices, with lots of subtle and stylish shades of black, grey, or tan. These are incredibly hard to see. Just a bad idea for bike commuters in today’s distracted world.
You need very brightly colored jerseys or jackets – preferably fluorescent yellow, green, orange or pink. Bikes need front and back reflectors and lights. Reflective stickers or tape on your tubes can help a lot. There’s a small company that makes reflective “bike wrappers” that attach to your tubes (no jokes please). I use a “glow light,” which is a hi-vis, battery powered flexible light that wraps around your frame.
I ride on both lit and unlit trails. In winter, it’s dark at 5pm. So I need both “see” lights for the trail and “be seen” lights for the city streets. I run “be seen” blinky lights front, back, and sides on my helmet, day or night. (It’s a Vis 360 light system, sold by Light and Motion.) I also run a rear light attached to my seatpost and a blinky light on my handlebar in addition to my helmet lights when it’s dark or rainy when I’m on the streets. I have a powerful handlebar light for “see” lighting on the trails at night.
Weather and Gear
Eye Protection In the winter, I can be riding at dusk/dawn, in full light, or in full dark on the same day. I use the relatively inexpensive (Tifosi) glasses with multiple lenses for different conditions: dark green for bright, red for dim or flat light conditions, and clear lenses for night riding.
I sometimes have trouble keeping my lenses unfogged in the winter when it’s wet and cold. Sometimes, I just have to take the glasses off when I’m stopped at lights (they tend to fog up when I’m not moving). There are some lens defogging solutions that are marketed to paintball players, but I haven’t tried them. Likewise, there’s a product called “cat crap” that’s marketed to hunters for unfogging glasses. Haven’t tried that either.
Snow and Cold and Wet My semi-knobby cyclocross (700x35) tires seem to work fine on trails up to an inch of snow, or on slushy streets. Any more snow than that, and I get out the old mountain bike with much wider and knobbier tires for commuting. I have shoe covers that work pretty well for keeping my feet warm down to about freezing, especially if I wear wool socks.
When it’s really cold or snowy, I ditch my riding shoes, and just wear insulated hiking boots. Since I have to put my foot down more often to avoid slips and falls anyway, I just feel more comfortable in the boots and not using my clipless pedals when the weather’s really horrible. They also keep my toes cozy warm. My wife has special insulated riding shoes for winter, but she doesn’t ride in snowy weather usually.
Some bike tires are designed for snow and ice, and may include metal studs. I haven’t tried these, but people swear by them.
Layers work best for me. On a cold day, I’ll put on several layers of jerseys and a jacket on top. I have riding tights that I wear underneath a pair of Gore-Tex rainpants when it’s really cold. I prefer the winter gloves with removable liners. I just pop the liners out while I’m at work and they’re dry again for the ride home. Others prefer “Moose mitts” or “bar mitts” for their commuting bikes.
When it’s below freezing, I have some thin-fleeced shirts with hoods that can go up under my helmet. This keeps the ears and neck warm, sometimes with a lycra skull cap too. I have a cheap neck gator that I can pull up over my mouth when it’s bitter cold. With the gator, you can swivel the crusty side around to the back if it gets really nasty with frozen snot and drool.
Never wear cotton. Jeans or cotton t-shirts will get wet immediately and stay wet, and you’ll get chilled very fast. Stick to synthetics and wool for warmth. Jeans are negative insulation when they're wet (and not much insulation when they're dry either)!
Fenders I’ve been slow to convert to fenders on my commuter bike because I thought they looked a little dorky. Besides, I get a shower at the end of my commute, so who cares if I get a little muddy?
However, I realized that I was getting a lot of spray from my tires in my eyes when I rode in the rain. Also, my chain and shifting components got cruddy really fast. So now I have fenders, and I love them! Riding in rain always seems fun in a naughty sort of way. Now it’s fun and spray free!
Laundry With lots of layers, there’s lots of laundry. The good news is that most riding clothes are designed to be quick drying. Good riding gear wicks sweat away from your body. This wicking ability means that the gear will hang dry overnight in a warm place. I don’t put riding gear in the dryer – it seems to wear out much more quickly.
Synthetic riding gear will start to skink after a while. Special sports wash works well to return your skanky jerseys to sweetness. I use Penguin sports wash to freshen up my riding gear every once in a while to keep things nice.