Hello there, fellow citizen of the rest of the world, person living in the suburbs, or an annoyingly sprawled American city. I’m here to give you some good news: you — yes, you — can reduce your carbon footprint, improve your physical and mental health, save money, and have loads of fun by commuting by bike.
If you don’t live in an awesome, urban wonderland where biking is the norm, I’m right there with you. My husband, daughter and I live in the #1 city in America for pedestrian deaths, a city that practically invented suburban sprawl, but even in this really-not-ideal place, it is possible for us to use our bikes daily. Consider this: the average North American bicycle commute is 7.5 miles and takes 30 minutes, and, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2009 travel survey, 40% of all U.S. car trips are two miles or less. With things cooling off in the Northern hemisphere and kids heading back to school in the U.S., now is a great time to try replacing some of those short drives with bike rides.
The first and most important thing you must do when you start riding your bike is learn the traffic laws for your area. In the U.S. traffic laws vary by state, so I will offer only two pieces of advice:
- Learn the rules.
- Follow the rules.
As a general reference, I haven’t seen a better bike safety video than this one from the 1950s:
Any bike that is safe, well-tuned, and comfortable can work as a commuter. I used a beach cruiser for my five-mile commute for more than a year, but a commuter or hybrid-style bike is ideal. These bikes are sturdy but lighter and faster than cruisers or mountain bikes, and the pedaling position is more comfortable than being hunched over on a road bike, especially in work clothes.
Your local bike shop can help you find a bike that fits your body and your needs. Even if you end up buying a used bike, the bike shop can tune it and make sure everything’s adjusted properly for your comfort and safety. If you’re comfortable on your bike, you’re more likely to ride it.
You will need some gear to commute or run errands, but there’s no need to go overboard. Think about what you have to carry with you. Lighten your load. Besides the usual wallet, keys, and cell phone, I carry a laptop to and from work. Riding with a backpack on is hot and makes me feel off-balance, so I invested in a pannier with a built-in laptop case. I also have a collapsible basket that lies flat against my back wheel when I’m riding to work and expands to hold groceries when I need it. This set up feels secure and comfortable for me, but it’s important to find what works for you. If you’re just hauling your purse or lunchbox, a front basket is probably fine and adorably Parisian.
Speaking of being all cycle chic, dressing to commute by bike takes some forethought, but it doesn’t take a new wardrobe. There are a lot of biking and style blogs that can give you suggestions for dressing to bike in the heat or the cold, how to avoid helmet-head, etc. In general, I dress in layers, carry a rain poncho, and embrace the fact that riding a bike means being affected by the elements. Print dresses are great for hot weather and gloves and earmuffs are essential for cold.
Finally, remember that biking is supposed to be fun. My commute is about five miles and takes about 30 minutes each way. That’s one hour of exercise built into my day, one hour of time alone to mentally prepare for work and decompress before I get home. It’s a chance to be out in the world with nothing between me and the elements and my neighbors. I feel more connected when I ride.
In our sprawling city with its not-so-great pedestrian infrastructure, we still need a car. I drive to work once or twice a week when I’m tired, or the weather is bad, or when I have errands to run that are difficult on the bike. But when we’re in the habit of biking we don’t want to get in the car. My daughter summed it up like this, “Riding in the car sucks. We don’t see any wildlife and it’s bad for the polar bears.” Can’t argue with that!