Bicycle Commuting Guide

Doug Shidell
Little Transport Press

What’s the key to bicycle commuting?

It’s the will to ride.

Making the switch from driving to bicycling requires overcoming some barriers. It’s a lifestyle change. Bicycling requires being out in the weather; it means supplying the power that gets you to work; and it requires negotiating a traffic system that is tilted heavily toward the automobile. Those barriers are real and overcoming them requires a commitment from you, the potential bike commuter. Without the will to ride, the barriers will stop you before you get a chance to appreciate the benefits of bicycling.

Without the will to ride, none of the information in this article will get you on the bike.

What’s the key to making bike commuting a regular part of your life?

Enjoying the ride.

You are reading this because something about bike commuting appeals to you. That’s the motivation to get you started. Once you’ve started, however, you will only keep going if you enjoy bike commuting.

If you have the will to ride, the information below will help you enjoy the bike commute. Some of it is prescriptive, but much of it is about giving you the information, options and underlying fundamentals of riding that help you customize your commute to fit your needs and personality.

What’s the best bike for commuting?

It’s the bike you own.

There’s a long American tradition that says before you can participate in any activity, you must first spend a lot of money. The bike industry is ready to help relieve you of spare change, but if you want to spend your money wisely, kick back on your heels a bit and get some experience first. After some time, then go into the bike shop as an informed consumer.

Get your current bike tuned up and start riding. After you’ve ridden a few times, you’ll get a feel for what works and what doesn’t. You may realize that you want a softer ride and a more upright position. On the other hand, you may go the other direction and want something a little lighter and more responsive. You may decide that you want fenders to protect you in the rain, or you may realize that you hate riding in the rain. Some riders like the funkiness of a single speed bike with a fixed gear sprocket while others prefer the easy, upright position of a hybrid or city bike.

There is no right answer-just personal preference-and the more experience you have, the better you will know what your preferences are. You may even want to try out a friend or co-worker’s bike to see how different bike styles work for you. If you decide to replace or upgrade your current bike, the experience you gain from riding will make you a better-informed consumer. You will go into the bike shop with a pretty good idea of what you want in your next bike and chances are higher that you will get that perfect ride.


The following items will get you started. You can add to them as you feel the need:

Helmet: Helmets are like seat belts in a car. They’re a minor annoyance everyday, and a lifesaver in an accident. All helmets are pass/fail on safety. You can’t buy a bicycle helmet in the US unless it passes a minimum standard for safety. The key to buying the right helmet is whether it fits comfortably. A properly fitted helmet will rest lightly on your head. You shouldn’t feel pressure spots on your skull. The straps will straddle your ears without touching them and they will clip together snugly under your chin without restricting your breathing. The sales person in your local bike shop can help you with a proper fit for the helmet.

Bike Lock: A bike lock is important unless you have the option to store your bike in a secure spot. The strength of the lock will depend on your needs. The most secure are the heavy duty U-Locks; however, they are heavy awkward to use and clumsy to carry. If you park your bike downtown or after dark in a dangerous area, the U-Lock is the next best thing to an actual bike locker for security. On the other hand, if you work in a suburban corporate office where the bike parking may be in an area where there is good visibility and people pass it throughout the day, chances are you can get away with a lighter weight cable lock that is designed primarily to keep honest people honest.

Backpack or panniers: You will have to bring items back and forth between work and home. It might be a laptop, working papers, toiletries, change of clothing, lunch, or any number of things. There is no “right” way to carry the load. Most riders fall into one of two schools of thought on how to carry gear.

Backpacks: They’re convenient. Throw the pack on your back, ride to work, lock your bike and walk inside. Everything comes with you. The downside is that backpacks can get hot in the summer. Some are designed to allow airflow between the pack and your back. However, on hot sticky days, you will still end up with a sweaty back. Backpacks also put extra weight on your shoulders, hands, and butt.

Panniers, or saddlebags, attach to a rack on your bike. The bike carries the load. You ride carefree and easy. No sweaty back and no extra weight on your back and butt. The downside is that you have to attach and remove the panniers to take your gear inside.

It’s strictly personal preference. Try one way. If it doesn’t work, try the other.

Clothing: How much of that fancy bike stuff is useful, and how much is for show? The simple answer is that all cycling clothing has some function and some show; just like every other piece of clothing you wear. The distance you ride and your personal preference will determine the clothing you wear on your bike commute. Here are some general guidelines:

Distance to work is less than 5 miles: No special clothing needed. If you ride slowly and don’t work up a sweat, you can easily wear street clothing. Otherwise shorts, jeans, and sneakers will do just fine.

Distance to work is 5-10 miles: You will be on the bike for 30-45 minutes each way. That’s enough time to experience some discomfort.

If you ride in soft-soled shoes, for example, your feet may get sore because the sole of the shoe bends on each pedal stroke. Your foot will get tender right at the spot where the shoe bends around the back of the pedal. Correct the problem by wearing a hard soled shoe. The rigid sole will spread the weight across the bottom of your foot instead of focusing it at the back of the pedal.

You may also notice that the seams of your jeans or dress pants are aggravating a tender spot. Cycling shorts relieve the problem by adding a layer of padding (chamois) to the inside of the shorts and by using a design that moves the seams away from the areas that you sit on. You don’t have to buy skin-hugging, bulge showing Lycra to get comfortable cycling shorts. You can buy cycling shorts, with or without padding, that are looser fitting and look like casual dress clothes.

Distance to work is greater than ten miles: You could be on the bike for an hour or longer each way. This is where cycling clothing works best. In addition to the shorts mentioned above, consider a shirt or jersey that wicks away moisture, gloves to cushion your hands and cycling specific shoes to make your pedaling more efficient and less tiring.

Route Planning

Don’t expect to ride the route you normally drive. The reason you drive your favorite route to work is because that route was designed to make your drive faster and more convenient than any of the alternates. Your route probably carries a lot of traffic, and heavy traffic usually means an uncomfortable biking experience.

The best bike route may not be the most direct and it may have more stops signs and slower speed limits than your preferred driving route. This is one of the most important barriers new cyclists face. Instead of a direct route, which usually includes a highway, you have to negotiate a number of turns and stop signs to get between home and work. This is a temporary problem. Each time you ride the bike, your route will become more familiar and more comfortable until you begin riding it on autopilot, just like in an automobile.

Bike route planning is personal. Some prefer the most direct route, regardless of traffic. Others will do almost anything to avoid riding in traffic.

The following hints are designed to minimize your exposure to traffic without adding a lot of miles:

Find a parallel route. This is easiest in cities and neighborhoods designed in grid format. Often moving just one or two blocks off the main thoroughfare will put you on a low traffic, reasonably direct route.

Ride a road that is interrupted by a park. Often the park will have a bike path that will take you to the other side where you can continue on the road. The park stops through traffic, reducing overall traffic on the road.

A bike path may take you out of your way a little, but the traffic-free riding will more than make up for the extra distance.

Frontage roads are a mixed bag. Some run parallel to a freeway and carry very little traffic. They have the advantage of very few cross streets so stop signs and lights are minimized. Some frontage roads serve many businesses. Traffic can be high and cross traffic is heavy because of all the driveways into and out of the retail businesses.

Freeways and rivers create barriers that often force you to cross on high traffic bridges. You can often get quite close to the bridge using quiet residential streets. Move from the residential area to the main thoroughfare at a safe intersection, cross the bridge, then turn off the main road and move back into the residential area.

Use the knowledge of others. Often you can find a good bike map (see, talk to your local bike dealer or ask fellow bike commuters at work for their suggestions on good bike routes.

Test the route. Ride it on the weekend or test the route in your car before riding in. Don’t try your route the first time on a day when you have to worry about getting to work on time. It will create unnecessary stress.

Riding in Traffic

Riding in traffic is perhaps the biggest barrier to getting started in bike commuting. The route suggestions above will help you avoid traffic as much as possible, but it’s nearly impossible to avoid traffic altogether. The key to riding in traffic is to act like a driver. That means, if you wouldn’t do it in a car, don’t do it on a bike. For example:

If you don’t normally drive the wrong way down the road, don’t do it on a bike.

If you don’t normally drive on the sidewalk, don’t do it on a bike.

Why wouldn’t I ride my bike on a sidewalk? The sidewalk is separated from traffic. There’s a curb there. You could be 15 feet away from traffic. Wouldn’t it be safer?

Not necessarily. Sidewalks, like roads and freeways, have a “design speed.” Freeways, for example, are designed to handle traffic that flows at 70 miles per hour. Sidewalks are designed for traffic that flows at three miles per hour, or the speed of a walking person. Intuitively, we all understand this, even if only on a subconscious level. Consider your actions as you approach a sidewalk from a driveway. You automatically check for pedestrians, either through your peripheral vision or by checking a couple of feet to the left and right of your car. Any pedestrian beyond that distance is far enough away that you can safely cross the sidewalk without hitting him or her.

A bicyclist, riding 10-15 miles per hour, travels much further than a pedestrian. When a car and bicycle collide on a sidewalk, the most common reaction on the part of the motorist is that the bicycle “Came out of nowhere.” Sometimes that is literally true because sidewalks aren’t designed to allow a motorist to look for a fast moving vehicle approaching from that far away.

The same thing applies to riding the wrong way on the road. Again, as a motorist, consider your actions when you come to the edge of the road. You look left to see if any cars are coming at you in the near lane, then you look across the road and to the right to see if anyone is coming from that direction. If all is clear, you pull into the road. What you didn’t do was look down the near lane on your right. You logically expected that anyone in that lane was moving away from you. You could easily miss a bicyclist coming at you in that direction.

Be predictable: This brings up the most important rule of the road. Be predictable. If you look at the flow of traffic in a larger picture, you see that everything about traffic rules and regulations is about making everyone’s actions predictable. If you use your turn blinker, others expect you to make a turn. Rear brake lights broadcast that you are slowing down. Stop signs, stoplights, turn lanes, median strips, no passing paint- all guide you down the road in a predictable manner.

We all know what happens when someone makes an unpredictable move. If a motorist, for example, passes you on the freeway, then suddenly turns into your lane, your blood pressure goes up. You may hit the horn, curse, or worse. That motorist did something unpredictable. It caused you stress, and it could have caused an accident.

The same concept applies to bicyclists. If you do something unpredictable, like riding on a sidewalk, running a stop sign, weaving through traffic or making unexpected turns, you are doing something unpredictable, and increasing the chances of an accident.


What do you do when the wind is blowing, the rain is coming down at a sharp angle, and the temperature is dropping rapidly?

You drive! As a beginning commuter you are dealing with a lot of new things like the new route to work, traffic, where to park your bike at the job, where to change your clothes, and clean up. Don’t add bad weather to your challenges. Start as a fair weather commuter. Ride when the weather is comfortable, the sun is up, and the wind is minimal.

Dial in the basics while establishing a habit of bicycle commuting.

Eventually bicycle commuting will work its magic on you. You will get hooked, and you will redefine “fair weather.” That is when you can add a windbreaker for cool mornings or carry rain gear if the day turns to overcast. You can add fenders to the bike if your definition of fair weather is occasional rain while attaching a light if you want to continue the season when the days get shorter.

Getting Started

This is perhaps the toughest challenge you will face. You can plan and plan and plan, but at some point the rubber has to hit the road. How do you get to that first big ride? By knocking down some barriers before you get on the bike.

Things to do ASAP

Get the bike tuned up. Make sure the tires are inflated, the brakes work properly, and the gears shift. If you aren’t mechanically inclined, take the bike into your favorite shop and ask them to tune it up.

Buy the necessary accessories. While you’re at the bike shop, pick up a helmet, lock, and backpack or panniers.

Work out locker and shower arrangements. Do you have access to a locker at work? A shower? Do you have to sign up for a locker or do you just use one that is open? If no showers, do you have a roomy bathroom where you can freshen up with a washcloth?

Find a parking spot. Where will you park your bike at work? Do you have a secure lock, and do you know how to use it? How will you carry the lock on your bike?

Add a phone number, for a taxi or a friend with a car, to your cell phone. You may never need it, but it will give you an important back up.

Two Weeks Before the Ride

This is the time for a dress rehearsal. Ride to work on the weekend. Make it a full dress rehearsal by carrying everything you expect to need including bike lock, snacks, water, change of clothes, laptop computer, toiletries, etc. A weekend ride removes the stress of getting to work on time. Use this ride to relieve some of the anxiety you may have about bike commuting. Think about the following on your weekend ride to work:

Test the route. Does it feel comfortable? Can you ride the distance without getting exhausted? Can you ride this route without getting lost? Does the ride to home operate as well as the ride into work?

Test the time involved. The first ride will always take longer than future rides, but it will give you a feel for how long it will take to get to work. Make sure you include all of the time involved, such as preparing the bike in the morning, locking your bike at work, walking to the shower/locker room, changing, showering, and getting back to your workspace. You will get more efficient with each trip, but this will give you a starting point.

Evaluate and adjust. If something still bothers you about the commute, make some changes and try again a week later.

One Day Before the Ride

If you have a place to store fresh clothes, toiletries, extra lunch, and anything else, bring them in the day before the big ride. Having everything already at work takes some of the pressure off your commute. You won’t have to worry about wrinkles in your clothes, how to pack the load on your bike, or forgetting an important item in the morning. If you only ride to work 2 or 3 times per week, you can bring in the extra gear each week on your driving days. The goal is not to go car free, but rather to develop a bicycle commuting habit that is so enjoyable that you continue riding year after year.

The Night Before the Ride

Pack your lunch. Lay out your clothing. Fill your water bottle. Check the tires on your bike. Do as much preparation as possible in the evening so you don’t feel panicky in the morning.

The Day of the Ride

You’ve already done all of the prep work. Get up, eat a good breakfast, and ride in. Congratulations. You are a bicycle commuter. 


Planning a Bike Route,

Bike2Benefits program,

QBP Commuting Program,

Read Up!

The Art of Cycling: A Guide to Bicycling in the 21st Century, by Robert Hurst, Falcon Publishers, 2006.

Pedal Power: The Quiet Rise of the Bicycle in American Public Life, by J. Harry Wray, Paradigm Publishers, 2008.

Minneapolis bicyclist Claire Thurman

Bicycle gear at the Hub Bike Co-op

Photos by Jessie Houlihan

Helpful Hint 1:
Buying a Bicycle

If you decide to buy a new bike, try this test. Walk into the shop and tell the sales person that you want a bike for commuting to work. If the salesperson walks you over to a bike and says: “This is our most popular commuting bike,” Walk out. This is not a store that is trying to fit you with the best bike. It’s a store that is trying to sell you a bike, any bike. A good sales person will begin by asking you questions: “How far is it to work? How often do you ride? How far do you ride when you go out for a bike ride?” Questions like these will give you a chance to discuss your needs and preferences, and they will help the sales person narrow down the options to those that best suit those needs.

Helpful Hint 2: Riding in Traffic

Years of experience have helped bicyclists develop an informal body of knowledge about safe riding habits. Here are a few to help you feel more comfortable on the road.

Don’t hug the curb. Hugging the curb seems natural because it gets you as far from traffic as possible, but it has some real disadvantages.

The curb is where all of the dirt, broken glass, nails and sharp objects gather. Riding the curb is an invitation for flat tires.

Hugging the curb reduces your options during an emergency. If a car pulls alongside you and suddenly makes a right turn, you want a couple of feet of maneuvering room to swerve out of the way. If you are hugging the curb, you won’t have that margin of safety. The extra couple of feet will buy you a second or two where a couple of seconds can make the difference between an accident and a near miss.

Relax about false dangers:

Statistical evidence demonstrates that motorists rarely hit cyclists from behind. When you consider that motorists swerve to avoid a cardboard box in the road or a piece of trash, it’s unlikely they will hit a cyclist.

The stats change after dark. A cyclist without a light is nearly invisible, even in the glare of headlights. Rear end collisions increase dramatically at night for cyclists who ride without lights.

Focus on the real dangers. Turning cars and vehicles entering from driveways, cause the most accidents for bicycle riders. Motorists don’t see bicyclists or they underestimate their speed, so they feel they can safely cut in front of an oncoming rider.

Cyclists used to recommend making eye contact with the motorist entering your roadway from a side street. This is not 100% effective. The motorist may not have actually seen you as he or she scanned the road for other vehicles.

A more effective approach is to look at the front wheel of the approaching car. If it is completely stopped as you approach the vehicle, the motorist has his or her foot on the brake. Whether the driver sees you or not, the time delay between taking the foot off the brake and giving the car enough gas to overcome the inertia of sitting at a dead stop, may be long enough that you will be past the car before it moves into your lane.

If the front wheel is moving at all as you approach the car, slow down. Try to get the driver’s attention and don’t move in front of the bumper until the wheels come to a complete stop.

Motorists often underestimate the speed of a bicycle. They will take a chance and cross your lane to make a left turn, turn right too soon after passing you, or pull into traffic from a driveway as you approach. Anticipate these common mistakes.

Riding into a rising or setting sun is dangerous. The low angle of the sun causes the light to wrap around the thin profile of a bicyclist, making him or her difficult to view. If the sun is blinding you, it’s also blinding the motorist behind you.

Ride defensively, but not scared. If you ride scared, you will tighten up and your reflexes will be slower.

Helpful Hint 3:
Avoiding the “Bonk”

Pack an extra snack in your lunch. It can be an apple, energy bar, sandwich, or whatever feels right. Eat that snack about one hour before the end of your workday. Here’s why: You burned extra calories on the way to work in the morning, and you will burn more calories on the way home. Your normal lunch works fine when the car does all of the work, but when you ride those extra burned calories can leave you depleted halfway home. It’s called the “bonk” in cycling. It leaves you pedaling slowly and feeling exhausted. The snack will minimize the chances that you will experience the “bonk.”

Bicycle Commuting

Leave a Comment

Our Sponsors