Sustainable Community

You Can Do It: Start Commuting by Bicycle

May is national bike month, so now is the perfect time to start commuting by bike. Commuting by bicycle may sound intimidating, but I can tell you I have never arrived at my destination regretting that I rode my bicycle instead of driving. It’s worth facing that intimidation for the reward of daily outdoor exercise. If that’s not rewarding enough, I only fill my car’s gas tank every 1-2 months since I hardly ever drive it. Let’s break down those pre-conceived notions that are keeping you from commuting by bicycle.

Find a comfortable bicycle

The first step in becoming a bicycle commuter is finding the right bicycle for you by making sure it fits. The most important priority is to find a bicycle that is the right size for your height, which is mostly due to the length of your legs. If you already own a bicycle, you should still check to make sure it fits and adjust it to your height by following these easy steps:

1. Throw a leg over the cross bar. There should be about 1 inch between a straight cross bar and your body, or 2 inches for a slightly angled bar.

2. Have someone steady the bicycle while you take a seat. When you are seated on the bicycle the goal is to have the seat at a height where your leg will reach 80-90% of full extension when the pedal is at its lowest point. While seated on my bicycle I am just able to touch the ground by balancing on the toe on ONE foot. Sound scary? You can start out with the seat a little lower, but make sure to buy a bicycle that has room for the adjustment. Once you are more comfortable on the bicycle, you may be able to raise the seat a little each week, until you are at the appropriate level. This will increase your leg, knee and back comfort while riding and give you the largest range of motion.

3. Make any other minor adjustments to the seat location and stem so that you can comfortably reach the bicycle handles. You want to be able to reach while still having a slight bend to your elbows to absorb road vibrations. Locked elbows lead to neck and shoulder pain.

If you’d like a little more information, check out REI’s guide to fitting your bike.

Research local bicycle laws 

Every state has different laws regarding bicycling. Some cities have special laws as well. Make sure you know the laws where you will be commuting. Important things to check for:

Sidewalk laws.
In most places bicycles are NOT ALLOWED on the sidewalk. It’s illegal. Surprised? There are two good reasons for this.

First, it isn’t safe for pedestrians. An accident with a pedestrian will injure both the pedestrian and the cyclist. It’s the same reason slow moving vehicles aren’t allowed on the highway. A bicycle traveling at a high speed on a narrow sidewalk with pedestrians is bound to have to stop or go around pedestrians on a regular basis, sometimes failing to maneuver in time causing a collision and sometimes darting out into the street.

Which leads to the second reason it isn’t safe. Cars will not be looking for a fast traveling vehicle in the sidewalk or crosswalk. Cars backing out, cars opening doors, cars turning right, while keeping an eye out for slow moving pedestrians, will often not see (or be looking for) a fast moving cyclist.

If you are afraid to ride your bicycle in the road (or just in certain parts of town) and don’t have access to a bicycle lane or designated path, follow these tips for riding safely (if illegally) on the sidewalk.

A noodle attached to the left of the bicycle is an excellent deterrent for aggressive drivers.
A little social experiment I call the
Three Foot Noodle Project.

Rules of the Road. 
Luckily if you are a licensed driver, you already know these, the rules for a bicycle on the road are mostly the same as they are for a car. A few differences:
1. Bicycles can pass a car on the right. Be sure not to do this when a car is taking a right.
2. Bicyles can signal turning and stopping with either the right or left hand

Rules of Equipment
Most everywhere bicycles are required to have visible reflectors on the front, back and pedals. Many places require a light an hour before dusk and an hour after dawn. Some areas require bicycles to have a bell. Check your local laws to make sure you have the required equipment before you head out.

Review safe riding guidelines 

Two sexy ladies wearing their bicycle helmets at the beach.
All the sexy ladies
wear a helmet.

Make sure you are visible on your bicycle. Never ride at dusk, dawn or late at night without lights and reflectors. Bright clothing is a must at all times of day or night.

Obey traffic laws, be predictable and ride defensively. Even if you have the right of way, in a collision with a car you are the one who is likely to get hurt.  Remember, you cannot be a vehicle and a pedestrian at the same time. If you are riding through a crosswalk and are hit by a car, you will be at fault. 

For more educational materials, check out the League of American Bicyclists’ great education page. There is also Traffic Skills 101, an online course provided by the League.

Research a safe route to work/school/play  

Despite bicycles having the same rights on the road as a car (except on highways), I’m sure it is not a surprise that not every road is a safe route to work/school/play. Scout out a safe daily commute.

1. Review a map of the area and plot out a route. Look for bicycle paths, designated bicycle routes, roads with low-traffic, and roads with a wide shoulder.
2. Scout out your chosen route. You can do this in a car or on foot.
3. Do a test run. Choose a weekend or evening when you have plenty of time to work it out. Make sure you tell someone where you are going and have a way to contact someone in case of emergency.

Plan ahead

Have a plan in case of emergency. Spare tubes and levers come in handy, but only if you know how to change a flat. Have someone you can call to come pick you up should you get stranded mid-route or a backup ride home should you find your tire flat at the end of the day. These are great ways to ensure that worrying doesn’t prevent you from commuting by bicycle.

If you have time, pack the night before. When you wake up in the morning and everything is ready to go, that is one less excuse to take the car.

Ride to work!

Enjoy your amazing bicycle commute!

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