We’ve almost reached the end of 2016. Time to start those annual New Year’s resolutions that you never keep. Only this year, pick something that will really make a difference in your life, like riding a bike.
Whether you do it for recreation or to get where you want to go, owning, maintaining and riding a bike should become a part of your 2017 goals to make it a great year.
For the first time, I tracked my cycling miles and routes in 2016. It started out as an experiment but became very addicting and definitely spurred me to bike more often. I used the Strava cell phone app, but there are many similar options. I didn’t begin the year with a mileage goal, but once I started seeing a consistent measure of how far I could ride, how many calories I could burn and how little time difference there was between my motorized commute versus my cycling commute, I was hooked.
I eventually targeted 100 miles a week, which ideally would include mainly commuter miles. My goal was to eliminate car miles. I biked more than 4,000 miles in 2016, with slightly more than 2,000 miles during my 115 commute rides this year — not including about 400 additional miles to work assignments. I also biked another 600 miles for errands, volunteer events, meetings and more. I biked so much that I dropped my rarely-used gym membership ($91 monthly), a parking deck fee at my old job ($40 monthly) and saved about $3 a day in fuel (plus wear-and-tear on my car). I lost about 10 pounds too, a nice bonus.
The benefits of bike commuting didn’t stop there. I’ve made it a habit and look forward to riding every day. At no point have I dreaded my commute (although unexpected storms have caused me to alter plans). I have seen and appreciated so much more of the Richmond region by bike than I could ever see by car. Not so much the cool and iconic places around town, but the little things. Biking is performed at the right speed to absorb what you are seeing and it is so much easier to stop and have a closer look without having to find a parking spot. Also, it is much more convenient by bike to take a different route every time, making each commute an opportunity for a discovery adventure. I have even used off-road routes to ride my mountain bike to work on occasion, which really does turn a commute into an adventure.
By adventure, I don’t mean competing against vehicles on fast-moving 45 mph roadways. For the majority of my commutes, I ride neighborhood streets with posted speeds between 25-35 mph. It makes for a more pleasant experience. There are places where you have to cross major roads or mix in with traffic, which may take some courage and time to build your confidence, but don’t get discouraged. Follow proper biking techniques and ride predictably so drivers can adjust to your speed and give you space. I ride in a travel lane in the same direction as the rest of the moving traffic. I almost never ride on a sidewalk (though it is legal in Virginia) because it creates too many potential problems for pedestrians (and vehicles too). I use hand signals and communicate with motorists and pedestrians as best I can and expect them to reciprocate.
I’ve spoken with dozens of bike commuters in the past year, learning from their habits and best practices. Distances ranged from 2-3 miles daily to more than 30 miles round trip. Their reasons for biking varied from saving money, better fitness, better mental health to being more environmentally friendly. A few were able to reduce the number of cars they owned. Some combined their bike commute with a bus ride. Many talked about how biking improved their social life and helped them make new friends. For those commuting year-round it gets much tougher in the peak of the summer heat and the freezing low temperatures of the winter. Planning ahead matters.
Need more motivation? Here are a few suggestions for anyone planning to commute by bike:
Get a bike. Simple. It doesn’t take an amazing and expensive bike, but find one that fits your body and your commute.For instance, years ago I used to ride my mountain bike long distances on paved surfaces because I didn’t own another bike. Then I bought a used road bike with a rack and my comfort levels went way up. Also, make sure the bike is tuned up, the tires are pumped and the brakes work. Bike shops can do this cheaply or an internet search can teach you. Add a bike bottle cage to hold a water and I suggest you travel with a bike lock just in case. Consider a bike repair kit too.
Accessorize. There are things you’ll need to make a commute safer and more fun. Bright clothing is encouraged, but not required. Helmets are encouraged, but not required. I almost always wear one and end up having to wash it occasionally because of sweat. I wear regular athletic clothing, including my footwear. If you’re going to ride longer distances and plan to change your clothing once you reach your destination, consider padded bike shorts too. Dress in layers so you can remove them if you get hot or can add if you get cold. In the cold months, a good pair of gloves or even bar mitts (shields for your hands to protect from the wind) will make a ride more comfortable.
Bags. Get a bike bag of some sort, especially if you add a bike rack. Panniers, saddlebags, bike bags…whatever you call them, they can become essential to enjoying a daily bike commute. Backpacks work too, but they will make you sweat and add weight to your body.
Lights. Bike lights for the front (white) and back (red) are required by Virginia law when it is dark. I suggest rechargeable USB lights that are easy to attach and remove — worth the extra money. Get in a habit of recharging them often so you don’t get stranded if they lose charge.
Plan your route. Know where you are going before you bike. Use an online mapping tool to plan and measure the distance. That will help you to know about how long it will take to ride and you’ll know where you are (most of the time). Ride the route for fun before you do it as a commute to become more familiar. Pick safer routes away from high motorized traffic volumes whenever possible, even if it means you might ride a little further. Enjoying your ride and removing stress from fast-moving cars is worthwhile. Don’t like a route? Change it. If you get tired of a route, try a new one. Add routes past your favorite beverage and food stops. Become a bike tourist in your town.
Establish a routine. For me, this was the key. Eliminate the excuses and commit. Start with the essentials and don’t be too hard on yourself when you forget something. Put all your bike gear in a consistent location. Packing ahead of time helps so that you can double check and hopefully not leave essential items behind (keys, wallets, credit cards, access passes to a workplace, etc.). If you are packing clothes to change into once you reach work, make sure you pack everything (including shoes, belts, socks/hosiery, undergarments, etc.). I usually pack my lunch ahead of time, often the night before so that I gain a few more minutes in the morning. It all adds up to more time to ride if you plan ahead.
Of course, not every day will work out to be a bike day, depending on your line of work. Knowing your day and what meetings and out-of-office times ahead of time is essential. For some, keeping a nice set of work clothes at the office for those “needs to be pressed” days really helps. Not every office has understanding employers, bike parking, showers, company car to borrow, access to public transit, etc. Parents with little children have to plan around daycare and school schedules and often around their spouse’s schedule as well. Find your comfort level…and then gradually push yourself until you’re able to bike more often.
If your bike commute isn’t safe enough, ask for better bike infrastructure and for more consideration to be given to non-vehicular travel from your locality. Be prepared to ask several times and make time to attend public meetings and events where your voice can be heard. Check in with Bike Walk RVA for more advocacy information. If you bike commute by trails, consider volunteering with rvaMORE, the local trails advocacy group.
If transit can help boost your commute, consider adding a bus, taxi or some other mode of travel before you slump back into the cocoon of your personal vehicle. I’ve taken the bus about 10 times when weather was predicted to be a factor in my bike commute but I really wanted to avoid the car. Again, it takes planning ahead, but definitely worth the effort.
NOTE: Phil Riggan is a transportation planner for the Richmond Regional Planning District Commission. This article was not written as a part of his work program. However, if you have any questions or want to share your bike commuting tips, post them in the comments or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org page