Opinion: Lessons in Bike Commuting from a Non-Cyclist
When my kids finished the school year in the Spring, I decided to try my hand at riding my bike to work. As the Director of Development for the 14th largest municipality in the country, I talk a lot about the benefits of having mobility choices, bike lanes, complete streets and other City Planner jargon.
I know that riding your bike to work isn’t for everyone, but I wanted to see if I could make it work as my primary way to get to work and what it would take. Could I pedal the talk, as it were, and could I make a financial case for the investment that it would take?
Yes, I was able to make riding my bike to work my primary mode of transportation, and it was a pretty significant financial savings even after the additional equipment I had to buy. Here are some of the lessons that I learned. My hope is that this will help you decide when the time is right to try using your bike to commute.
There were a couple of things that made this experiment/change possible that I need to highlight.
I couldn’t do it if I had to drop kids off at school or daycare. I have seen people bike pooling with their kids to school. I have seen a guy with two preschoolers strapped to his bike while he commutes home. Those are better human beings than I. My wife and I can barely get our boys up, fed and out the door to school in the morning.
I couldn’t do it if my wife wasn’t supportive. I have to leave the house a little earlier and get home a little later when I ride (although not as much as you might expect.) If you are going to put more pressure on your spouse to get dinner and kids moving in the evening or deal with the unexpected (it is hard to get a sick kid from school and to the doctor on your bike), make sure that he or she is on board.
Here are a few of the lessons that I learned:
Biking to work will save you money, even if you don’t pay for parking: In June and August (vacations, holidays, kid camp drop-offs, and a brutal summer cold knocked me out for July), I rode 238 miles while commuting to and from work. Using the IRS mileage reimbursement rate of 54.5 cents/mile, I saved $129 in commuting costs. Because I already had a bike and a lock, I only had to buy a rack and a bag. The gear cost me $80, so I saved a net of $49 on transportation. I was also able to cancel my gym membership (without guilt) saving another $75 per month.
If you pay for parking, the savings get big quick: Monthly parking in downtown Columbus is now about $150 per month, or $9 per day. In my riding months, I rode about half of the days that I worked. You would save an extra $50 per month even if you only ride half the time and still pay for parking on the days you have to drive.
Know the safest route to one of the bikeways: Of my 6.7 mile ride from home to the office, 4 miles is on the Olentangy Bikeway. The rest is on residential streets and through OSU. I could probably save half a mile by taking a more direct route, but it isn’t worth the stress or danger.
Bike vs. Deer: When you make it to a bikeway, watch for deer. I have had to dodge them a couple of times. In bike vs. deer, deer wins.
Bike vs. Scooter: Scooters make me want to ride faster to make scooter riders look lazy and slow. In bike vs. scooter, I suspect bike wins.
(A special note to scooter riders. Here is the basic law of commuting crash physics: the bigger machine wins. Car beats bike. Bike beats scooter. My tire and the top of my helmet will hit you before you or the scooter come anywhere close to me. I am not trying to be mean, I am just trying to keep you safe. If I had more space I would tell you the true story about my bike, a rollerblader, and a moose in Toronto to illustrate.)
The amenities at work are critical, but they don’t need to be extensive: There are a couple of locker rooms and showers for city employees on the City Hall campus. Many employers around Downtown have a shower facility, you just have to ask around.
Spend the money on a saddle bag: I did two rides with a backpack at the start of the summer. If I had kept using that thing all summer, it would have smelled like a teenage boy’s hockey equipment. Plus, everyone will look at you carrying your saddlebag to your desk and say, “Wow, she rode to work today.”
Wear a helmet and don’t wear headphones: You are not in a steel cage with airbags. If you collide with something (even a scooter) really bad things can happen to you. Protect your brain and be able to hear what is happening around and behind you.
The planning is the most stressful part: Do I have enough shirts at the office? Can I get to all of my meetings? What are my responsibilities after work? Will it be way too hot or will it thunderstorm? Getting one of those answers wrong is a much bigger deal when you don’t have a car.
I am a better person when I ride: It is that simple. Once you get comfortable riding, it can be like a really good yoga workout. It is about breathing and rhythm. Or, if I had a really bad day, I get to take my frustrations out on pedals.
Clothing is optional (cycling clothing that is): You really don’t need to worry about spending $80 on a pair of fancy shorts or a yellow jersey. In fact, please don’t dress like you are in the peloton on Le Tour; you will give bike commuters everywhere a bad name. If I am going far enough that I will be sweaty, I dress like I am going for a hike. Just make sure that everything you wear is long enough. Do I really need to explain why?
If you are fortunate enough to live close enough to wear normal clothes and ride to work, more power to you. For men, there are a ton of pants options that have a little stretch in them specifically so that you can ride a bike. Outside of needing to wear a suit, it is easy to find bike friendly, business-casual clothes.
I hope that this helps those of you who might have thought about getting your bike out and leaving your car in the garage on a Monday morning. If a mildly out of shape, 47-year-old dad with two kids and a spouse who has her own demanding career can manage to make it work, it should give you hope that next week, or next month, or next year, you will be able to pedal your way to a better work day.