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Introduction to Bike Commuting. Why commute by bike?

Adam Dluzniewski | Published on 6/6/2014

This was posted elsewhere as an intro to a bike commuter blog and it was edited as a general introduction to bike commuting.


Bike commuting isn’t for everyone. That’s because it’s not about the bike, the gear, the route but it’s about the rider. Whether it’ll work out for you depends on your attitude, your expectations and your personality. You can buy the best gear but if you’re not mentally ready it won’t work out for you. It’s not about your physical shape and riding abilities either, those can be learned if you have the right mindset.

Bike commuting is one of those things that can be extremely simple or extremely complex. Whatever you want to make it. You can commute on any bike, riding on any street, wearing anything and carrying your stuff any way you want. There is nothing special needed to commute by bike.

So why bother with all this?!? Because not everyone can do it this way! If you can ride whatever bike you have, wearing jeans or your work clothes and laugh at the traffic and the pedestrians without breaking a sweat, then you’re fine. Then you’re tougher than most people are.

Here is my biking philosophy in general: I ride for fun, for health reasons and I really hate getting stuck on subways and waiting forever for a bus. I don’t want to be like everyone else: being squeezed on a hot and smelly subway train, waiting in long lines on bus stops in bad weather. No, I’d rather be sweaty on a bike.

I want to be free to go wherever I want, skip traffic jams, detour at will, stop whenever I feel like stopping. I don’t ride as a way to show off my shiny stuff, fancy clothing, latest sunglasses and ripped muscles (I don’t have any!) or because it’s hip and cool. I’m not the fastest guy on the bridge, I stop at red lights, I yield to pedestrians, and… I was never hit by a car, never had an accident other than skidding in Winter. I’m careful, I ride defensively, I pay attention to my surroundings, I enjoy the ride and feel safe.

Bike commuting is not just about getting your behind from point A to point B, but about doing this comfortably, safely and being fun and healthy at the same time. I don’t want your commute to be a chore and misery that you have to put up with. You might as well take the subway and be miserable without any effort.

Is commuting by bike safe?

No. It’s not. If you act like a crash test dummy, you will eventually end up like one. If you leave common sense and respect for the law and other people at the door, you will get hurt or you will hurt someone else. Riding a bike on the streets and the bikeways isn’t play. There are rules to follow and you have to pay attention. A bicycle going at 20mph can seriously injure a person.

Don’t be scared though. Serious bike accidents are not that common. You are more likely to die in a car crash, or even while crossing the street as a pedestrian by a curb-jumping maniac, than while riding a bike. Reassuring, eh? Although, while most bike accidents are minor, they can be a nuisance enough to make it worthwhile to be prepared properly. A minor, non life threatening injury can put you out of work for several days. Then it may take a long time before you can ride again.

Most bike accidents are preventable if one is prepared, uses common sense and is alert and aware. Finally, most serious bike accidents happen at intersections so that’s something to keep in mind while riding! I’ll talk about this in the Bike Safety section.

Experts say that cyclist safety increases with the number of bikes on the streets. NYC is much safer now to bike than it was only a few years ago. There is a bike culture flourishing in NYC and drivers are getting used to sharing the road with increasing cycling population. Plus, NYC is doing a lot to improve the bike infrastructure, to increase cyclists and pedestrians safety and encourage biking and walking. It is going to get better and safer from here on. Hopefully.

OK, enough of the scary stuff, but keep in mind that disrespecting laws and other road users will make you look like an arrogant jerk and complete idiot. So even if only for this reason, learn how operate your bike in public space properly.

And you can also get a ticket just like when you’re driving a car.

Do I need previous biking experience to commute by bike in NYC?

Yes, you do. If you haven’t ridden for years and feel out of shape, shaky and rusty don’t take it to the streets yet. Go on some nice weekend rides first in the park, on dedicated, separate, traffic-free bikeways or join a bike club such as 5BBC. We offer organized day rides throughout the city so you will get used to riding on the streets, learn cycling skills, get in shape and get to know some more experienced cyclists. Anyone can show up for their weekend rides, you don’t need to be a club member to ride with 5BBC. This is a great way to get your feet wet with urban cycling.

You need to be able ride whatever your commuting distance is without getting exhausted and confused. You have to get stronger and get used to your bike. Being tired and distracted is the best way to get hurt on a bike while riding in the traffic. Also, starting your workday exhausted won’t serve any purpose if it takes you few hours to recover from a 45 minute ride.

If you’re already a cyclist with enough riding experience and in good shape, enough to tackle the few miles you need to ride to work, then you’re off to a good start. But don’t do this yet!

Commuting by bike, at least in my book, has certain characteristics that make it different from cycling as a sport or from recreational cycling. It’s a combination of vehicular cycling and utility cycling. Although fun, relaxation and fitness are part of bicycle commuting, the main purpose of bike commuting is transportation, i.e. “utility” and, for most people, it takes place on public streets where they share the space on the road with vehicular traffic and where bikes are expected to behave predictably and follow the rules and laws just like motor vehicle drivers do.

When commuting you’re dealing with rush hour traffic, irritated drivers in a hurry, zombified, caffeine-craving pedestrians, people running late for work (they should be biking!), you probably need to carry some stuff (clothing, lunch, laptop, books, etc) and you have a whole day of work or school ahead of you, during which you don’t want to feel miserable.

Ride to work a couple of times on a weekend just get the feel for the road, the distance, etc. If you have any storage space at work then drop off some spare clothing and supplies. Do not drive the route! World looks different from a car! Ride it on your bike.

Will I need to learn stuff to commute by bike?

Yes, you will need to learn “stuff”. If you’re not willing to learn then go get yourself a subway map and we’re done here. Not only that, as a bike commuter you will face specific obstacles and you will have to be more resourceful and more creative that those “normal” people who take the subway.

If you want to ride a bike in public and be safe and respected you’ll need to brush up on some traffic laws. You will need to learn some basic bike mechanics, repairs and maintenance. This will save you money on Bike Shop bills and spare you walking a few miles during morning hours when bike shops are closed.

Seems complicated. Why commute by bike then?

If you want to commute only to save money, then don’t do this, take the subway and/or the bus. Seriously, commuting by bike won’t save you piles of cash versus taking mass transit. Daily biking to work will lower your blood pressure, perhaps will lower your stress levels (might increase it though), will cause you to drop 20lbs in couple of months, will make you sleep better, will make you less irritable, it will make you feel good overall and it may be faster than mass transit, but it won’t get you out of debt or save enough money for a new, shiny MacBook Pro.

Also, depending on your route, location, bike and skills, commuting by bike may or may not save you time. But, even if riding by bike takes longer it’s often worth it for all the other reasons mentioned above.

In my case riding a bike is faster than taking mass transit. My ride is 7 miles one way, and takes 35 to 45 minutes. The time it takes me to get to work and back home is relatively steady and predictable as opposed to taking MTA. I would have to take a bus in Queens to the L train, then either take the 1st Ave bus from 14th Street or walk 20+ blocks. In the morning it isn’t normally so bad as this is the first stop of the bus on the Queens side, so they’re relatively on time. On the way back, however, it wasn’t uncommon to wait 30 minutes to over an hour for the bus. I ended up walking home several times. In Winter my commute would often be in excess of two hours when buses and subways were messed up by snow and ice! On a bike it was 45 minutes in a blizzard! While the city transit and traffic were crippled I slowly pedaled along, having some fun and getting a decent workout. Folks at the 5BBC used to say “If it’s not too cold for skiing, it’s not too cold for biking!” You can get the right clothes and have a blast on a bike in Winter too.

The combination of bus and subway would take me 45 minutes, door-to-door in the best case scenario. In reality it was usually about an hour, anywhere up to 2 hours if there was “sick passenger”, “police activity”, track problems or if the bus was a no show. The L trains are packed. Getting stuck on that thing sucked big time. Often, all passengers were kicked out due to some track problem and I found myself out on the street, in unfamiliar neighborhood surrounded by hundreds similarly confused and irritated commuters.

There is a so called “express” bus that takes minimum an hour and a half because it has to crawl through the insane midtown traffic and it’s too expensive for what it provides. I think it’s $6 one way now.

I dreaded my commute. There was hardly a day when the L wasn’t delayed for some reason. I often arrived at work late, fatigued, sweaty and mad. If your commute is anything like mine was then commuting by bike may be for you!

Although, once I started riding a bike to work I started sleeping better, as well as I generally feel much more energetic during the day so I found myself actually getting up earlier than I used to! I find it much easier to wake up in the morning now. I like to leave early to give myself enough time at work to relax and clean up after the ride. I often stop by a park on my way or take a detour to vary my route a bit.

You will feel “uncaged”, you will feel in control, you will gain certain sense of freedom and even superiority as you look at the crowds at the bus stops. You will run up few flights of stairs without even breathing faster. You will look forward to rain and snow to test your new gear!

Now, biking versus driving to work, that’s a whole different story: considering gas used up, parking fees, tolls, extra wear and tear on your car, possible traffic and parking tickets and accidents, biking to work will save you a nice chunk of cash annually. Oh, and you don’t want to be considered “a pathetic cager” by cyclists zipping by while you’re sitting in a traffic jam, do you?