Friday, August 29, 2014

Anatomy of a good bike commute

What makes a good bike commute? Here are a few of the key points that I can think of.


I've had great commutes with temperatures above 100 and high humidity. I've also had a great commutes in sub-zero temperatures. Snow can be a blast. Even rain can be fun. Strong winds can be great (as long as they are in the right direction.) Thunderstorms? I'll avoid those, but lightening in the distance looks nice.

A Danish friend once told me "there is no such thing as too cold, just not enough clothing." For bike commuting, that can be reworked to include "appropriate clothing". When I first started biking in sub-zero temperatures I boiled, then froze. I dressed so I was warm enough when I started. After pedaling a little, I was soon overheating in my warm gear. Then the sweat kicked in, and I started to freeze. The trick I learned was to start out a little cold, then the ride worked well. It was also good to make sure every part of the body was covered. The ski goggles looked weird, but they got the job done.

I used to hate getting stuck in warm summer downpours. I would try to pedal in it, then show up in my wet clothes, freezing in the indoor air conditioning. Then it dawned on me to bike in swimwear with sandals and bring a change of clothes (in a water-proof bag). Problem solved.

For hot weather, I like to load up on fluids beforehand. A place to shower afterwards is also really nice.

While there is no such thing as weather too poor to ride in, nice weather can make things very enjoyable. A nice warm ride with a pleasant breeze can't be beat.

Route options

A commute with one direct route, can get old quickly. I'm sure there are some people that enjoy going the same way every day, but I'm not one of them. I like to have multiple options that don't add significantly to the distance. The options may simply be alternate parallel streets. However, the ideal route will have different types of options. The scenic bike path can be nice for a gentle cruise at a consistent pace. The high traffic arterial provides the "fast" option. (I always seem to work myself faster when there is car traffic zooming along with me.) The quiet residential street can be the slow option. Different hill options are also useful. A steep hill with many traffic lights is great for going up, but not much fun for going down. The long, gently sloped downhill is great for going down (but may seem to take forever when going up).

On a bike route, there are often "choke points" You may be able to choose from many options, but everything will have to go through this point. The fewer the choke points, the better. Sometimes, I'll even take some crazy 20 mile detour just to "prove" I can avoid a certain choke point.

Traffic lights

Traffic lights are the bane of bike commuting. It seems they are always set to turn red right when I reach maximum velocity. The worst ones are those with an eternal cycle that sit at the bottom of a hill (especially when there is another hill to climb on the other side.) After commuting for a while, you get to know the timing of a traffic light. (I've found myself silently cursing the car that shows up just in time for the opposing left turn, thereby delaying my carefully plotted gradual slow down.)

Urban lights on timers are the lessor of evils. With a good sight path, you can see the change from a distance, and plan your approach so you hit it on green every time.

Lights that sense traffic can be more of a challenge. Occasionally, I've tried to time the approach based on the typical traffic pattern, only to be burned when it ran on a shorter cycle due to different traffic.

On my routes, I end up categorizing the traffic lights. The "evil" ones have ridiculously long cycles that often cause me to wait a long time. The "ok" ones tend to cycle quickly, thus not requiring me to worry about much. The "fako" ones are almost always green (though they'll probably pick my fastest day to decided to turn red.) The alternate fakos have an easy right turn option (or a one-way to one-way left turn option) if they happen to be red when I get to them.

Sometimes, I'll pick a route with a stop sign, rather than a light just because I want to be in control. It may mean a longer wait for a break in traffic, but the wait involves actively trying to find a slot to go, rather than passively waiting for a light change. The working brain cells seem to make a difference.

With lights, there is also the concept of "evil cars". Sometimes cars will block the bike lane turning right. Or they may simply crowd the intersection. It is the pits when you end up missing a perfectly timed light due to somebody else getting in the way.

Transit options

I love it when there are frequent, viable transit options connecting my home to my commute destination. (It is even better when my employer provides a free transit pass!) If my bike breaks down or I'm not feeling well, I can just hop on a train (or bus). I may rarely use it, but it comes in handy when I do. And the fact that it exists helps me to feel better about biking. Typically I've found biking to be a little faster than transit for different reasons. A train may be super fast, but add in getting to the station on both ends and it slows down. A bus may go directly from point A to point B, but meanders along at a slow pace. There is also the matter of adhering to a schedule. Transit just isn't as flexible as biking. But it provides a nice safety net.


I like options in terrain. I can always seem to get my heart pumping when I'm going up or down hills. "Dips" provide the greatest motivation. I want to power down as fast as possible to make it up the other side. Short, steep hills are also a great motivation to get going. Sometimes, however, I just feel like the easy flat route. If I am forced to go up, then I'll get a workout no matter what. Otherwise, I might try the "easy way up". Options are nice, but sometimes a forced hill gives you a needed kick in the pants.


Bike lanes are nice. A locker room and shower at the destination are extremely useful, especially for a long bike ride. A place to park your bike is also important. (A secure parking place is ideal - then you can feel comfortable bringing any type of bike.) Bike racks are a bit more of a gamble, depending on location. I once had a low-end bike that I parked daily at a bike rack. A coworker's nice bike was stolen the first day he parked it at the same rack. I also had a bike stolen from a bike rack the first day at a new job. Then I parked a new bike at the same place (with a better lock) for the next few years without a problem. It is also really nice to have a parking area indoors or otherwise sheltered from the elements.


I think somewhere around 10 miles is a good biking distance. I've had bike commutes that were under a mile. It is hard to justify something so short. (It was barely faster than walking once you added in the overhead of locking up the bike, etc.) Up to about 3 miles is a good distance for a "casual bike commute". Here you just bike in your regular clothes and don't need to shower or anything else. In this case, you are usually looking for the quiet, slow street. After about three miles, I find myself in the awkward range. I'll want to go faster, but that will cause me to work up a sweat and then I'll need to take a shower, slowing me down. There is also the matter of getting the "bicycle rip" in clothes.

Once you get up around 8 miles, you can easily justify putting on some bike clothing. I typically go with the padded mountain bike shorts and a t-shirt. Others may like "real" bike gear. This gives you the freedom to really pump it up as fast as you want. It is long enough to be a good workout.

Above 15 minutes, things start to be a drag. You are probably spending over an hour each way on the bike. While some people like it, I find that distance starts to get old quick. I've done 40 and 80 mile "commutes" a few times, but these are more "one off" things. It feels nice to provide that you can get somewhere on bike, but it is not something you would like to do every day.

Other bikers

It is fun when there are lots of cyclists on sections of a bike commute. Some days you just feel motivated to get in an impromptu race. Other times you see if you can try an alternate route that is faster than the one somebody else is taking. Other times, you may look back and see what looks like a pack of bicycle racers waiting with you for a bridge to go down. Other cyclists also help you to feel more confident about your route choices. It also increases safety and reduces obnoxious car behavior. (You are not likely to hear a "get on the sidewalk" yelled from a car when you are one of a dozen bikes on that street.)

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