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Tools for Normalizing the Bike Commute

by Josh Lipton

Come on now.  I know that you think of yourself as a bike commuter. But all too often something gets in the way. As a small business owner who also likes calling himself a bike commuter, I’ve become quite familiar with all of the reasons (excuses) that it often seems much easier to take the car instead.

  • “I was going to ride my bike but I was running late.”
  • “I wanted to ride into work, but I had a flat tire.”
  • “I wanted to ride but the weather was terrible out today.”
  • “I wanted to ride my bike today, but I had too many things I needed to schlep into work.”

I believe that a way to describe the solution to these sorts of obstacles is figuring out how to normalize the experience of bike commuting. By this, I mean finding simple reliable solutions for overcoming the simple obstacles to commuting by bike.

Josh LiptonTo begin normalizing the bike commuting experience, I recommend first looking towards acquiring a basic level of reliable bike commuting equipment.  High quality bike touring tires (or commuter-specific tires) is the best place to start.  Other moves towards reliable, sturdy commuting equipment include installing a rear bike rack, a kickstand and lights. If the opportunity to choose or upgrade your drive train comes along, going with an internal geared hub would be a very positive step in this direction.

Normalizing the bike commuting route in relationship to weather can be very challenging.  For cycling in winter months, my number one recommendation is the combination of studded snow tires and fenders.  Put these on your bicycle and you’ll wonder why you ever stopped riding in the winter.  When it comes to clothes, investing in a breathable waterproof set of rain pants and a jacket will be one more step towards considering your bicycle as reliable consistent transportation.  Buy a quality set and store them in your bike panniers so they are ready when you need them.  I’m a big fan of Showers Pass rain gear.

When it comes to being able to deal with all the stuff that life throws at you, keeping a bike cargo trailer around is certainly worth considering. Or if transporting loads is a nearly constant part of your routine, a longtail bike is an even better way to go.  What comes up in your life that makes you consider taking the car instead of driving.  Here are a few of my recent potential bike commuting deal breakers from the past couple of weeks:

  • “I’ve got to bring in brownies and that set of accounting books.”
  • “I should stop off to pick up those cleaning supplies along the way.”
  • “I should bring home my dirty dishes and extra clothes piling up on the shelf next to my desk.”
  • “I need to bring in my power drill and tool set.”

When you hit these stumbling blocks can you say “Good thing I’ve got a bike cargo trailer to pile it all in..  Or instead, “Umm I think I’ll just drive.”

If you haven’t made the leap already, maybe now is the time to help normalize your bike commuting routine by investing in a bike trailer or longtail bike.  My favorite new bike commuter trailer is the new Burley Travoy, based on its multi-use aspect and very clever design. From the bike commuting perspective, I also recommend the Carry Freedom City for it’s convenient fold-ability and the Wandertec BONGO for it’s open-platform, large-load multi usability.

Despite my own recent effort towards normalizing my bike commuting routine, the demands of running a small business have caught up with me and I’ve been compelled to commute with my pickup. My current excuse? Well we have recently moved our business from behind my house to about four miles away.  With this move, I’ve been shuffling all sorts of stuff back and forth from our old location to our new location..  For example, the other day, I had to bring in some rakes, shovels, a ladder and some plywood.  I suppose I could get a Bikes-at-Work trailer. Even the combination of a longtail bike and a bike cargo trailer might do the trick for quite a few of the recent loads I’ve had to deal with.  I’ll admit it though, more often than not, I took the easy way out and went with the pickup.  These experiences make me appreciate the dilemma of moms with kids and all their stuff, tradesmen with their tools and materials, all types of business owners, and everybody else that has to shuffle around stuff on a daily basis.

So, how can those of us with the best intention to bike commute, normalize bike commuting when there is always a significant amount of bulk that needs to be transported to and fro.  Part of my normalization is accepting the fact that I’ll probably drive once or twice a week and beginning to plan around it.  I attempt to maximize my driving time by condensing as many of my large loads into my weekly pickup trips as possible.

Lately, I’ve been considering an additional attempt to further normalize my ability to consistently bike commute, by adding in an electric bike hub motor into the equation.  I’ve been considering electric assist from several angles, mainly speed, consistency and increased cargo capacity:

  • The electric assist will likely help normalize my commute by speeding it up a bit.  I often deal with a very strong headwind on the way to work that can add up to 10 minutes to my commute time.
  • Electric assist will help compensate with an additional power boost.  Personally, arriving to work slightly disheveled or sweaty from a hard commute is not a personal concern of mine, but it certainly is to many bike commuters
  • By setting my bicycle up with an electric assist, it becomes more feasible to consider always bringing a bike cargo trailer with me (the trunk of my bike) whether I need it or not.  The electric assist will normalize my bike commute by eliminating having to decide whether I bring my bike trailer or not.  I will just always have it.

My other thought was to switch my main commuter over to a longtail bike like the Surly Big Dummy setup with an electric bike kit like the Bionx system or the Stoke Monkey.  This would also have the normalizing effect in that I would always have plenty of capacity for cargo or even a passenger.  I could use my bike cargo trailer when I really have a lot to carry as well, increasing my standard bike commuting payload as well.

Adding electric and cargo capacity to the bike commuting equation while offering some great benefits does complicate the system–taking away from some of the brilliant simplicity that makes it the tool of choice for many bike commuters.  Electricity and cargo capacity add cost, maintenance requirements, size and complexity to your transportation solution.  The comparison of these factors to a basic bicycle makes them daunting.  But comparing them to the complexity of an automobile makes them seem quite appealing.  And if the goal is to eliminate those nagging excuses that come up to “drive instead” they become quite intelligent and accessible solutions.

Normalizing the bike routine doesn’t have to be as complicated as buying lots of gear and switching to an electric bike.  These solutions will certainly have a return on investment if implemented thoughtfully.  But I suggest that before making major purchases and changes, perhaps try some basic and very simple adjustments to the daily routine.

  • Wake up 20 minutes earlier.
  • Do some maintenance checks on your bike when you arrive home from work so that your bike is ready for work.
  • Make sure that your commuting gear is organized and ready to go.
  • Always remember to enjoy the ride.

Josh Lipton is founder and President of BikeShopHub.com a network of online specialty cycling shops as well as the editor of UtilityCycling.org.

 
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28 Responses to “Tools for Normalizing the Bike Commute”

  1. One of my favorite quotes: “There is no bad weather, just bad clothes.” I road through last winter after buying the right clothes. Many of my friends were spending money on trainers to ride indoors for the winter. I decide to spend the same money on clothes to extend my riding season. We had a few days too icy to ride. I know it was too icy because on some of them I road anyway. Black ice on the paved trail is easier to deal with at 5 MPH than 12 MPH. Refrozen snow filled with footprints from school being closed the day before is impassable.

    The other thing I like to do is pack (or at least pull together) my stuff the night before. But I have learned I can do that in the morning if I didn’t get to it the night before. That eliminates one reason not to ride.

  2. Erich says:

    Great article. Lots of good stuff here. Thanks.

  3. Richard says:

    Rain gear is nice in cool weather but useless in the heat of South Florida. Breathable or not a rain shell will have you soaked in sweat rather than soaked in rain in temps over 80F. I found the best bet is to use your regular wicking clothes, shoes that can handle water, and a clothing stored in a pair of panniers that is easily changed into and out of. Most synthetic wicking fabrics will dry off in the few minutes your out of the rain and you can just throw your clothes on over or change in a bathroom. For work commutes I find this method to be best or take a weeks worth of clothes in a garment bag on the day you drive. I prefer to just have the clothes in the pannier because it provides you flexibility and an added level of preparedness.

  4. Bob P. says:

    I used to grapple with the whole arriving at work sweaty thing, and would stop at the gym and take a shower. But let’s face it, even a shower can’t make your hypothalamus stop telling your skin to sweat. So I’d sweat into work, shower, continue sweating, and arrive at my office damp.

    I now ride a commuter bike, and ride much slower. I arrive dryer, and don’t take a shower. It used to take me 35 minutes to ride, and 20 minutes to clear the locker room and shower. I now take 50 minutes to ride, have less stuff to carry since I’m wearing my work clothes, and all is well.

  5. BluesCat says:

    I cannot commute on Mondays or Fridays because I almost always have to take a trip to our satellite office 50 miles away.

    On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays I have only one real commute by bike deal-breaker/excuse/whine in Phoenix: when the summer temps head up above 10°F.

    Hey! Josh! I are an alumnus of NAU!

  6. jdmitch says:

    Great article, I have to agree it’s all about making it normal rather than an occasional event.

  7. Ted Johnson says:

    One of my favorite methods is making it as easy–or easier–to get to your bike as it is to get to your car.

    Is your bike hanging upside down on hooks in your garage? Do you have to move anything out of the way (i.e. your car) in order to get to your bike? If so, that creates a hurdle. One good intention is outnumbered an excuse and a hurdle. Remove the hurdles, and you even the odds.

  8. peteathome says:

    The right tool for the job, I say. If you need to move a large quantity of materials to your new shop, why not use a light pickup? No point in being a purist or obsessive. Automobiles have a very useful place, we’ve just let them get out of hand.

    And if it is just 3-5 FedX boxes, why not use the bike trailer.

    The question is, why OWN a pickup? If you could do MOST trips by bike, you could get by with a carshare, if you have one in your area, or maybe a truck rental once a week or less. In my area, I can rent a van or light truck for 8 hours for about $30. Even if I do that once a week, that only runs about $1500 a year, about the same as the insurance cost on the vehicle. I’ll admit I’m not sure if that rental includes insurance.I should check that our. I normally decline as I already have insurance. But it is a huge savings if you can drop insurance.

    If I need a truck more frequently, the convenience factor would kick in and I’d rather just own it even if it cost a little more.

    I’ve been using a Bionx 350 PL on my bike and it makes a huge difference. Most of the time I just use it at light assist and it can do this for about 40 miles. This much assist gets my cruising speed up to 18 mph and significantly reduces the sweat factor, if that is an issue. But it can offer heavy assist for about 20 miles on a charge. I use heavy assist when I need to haul a load or am not feeling well or I have to get somewhere fast ( 20 mph cruising).

    In spite of the assist, I am probably getting more exercise as I am routinely doing more long rides. I now think nothing of doing a 20 mile round-trip errand. Before, I would tend to take the car on these longer trips. I basically no longer need the car.

    However, at the rate I use it ( about 4500 miles a year) my very expensive battery is only going to last about 3.5 years. I’m at 2.5 years on the Bionx now, and everything still works great but the battery is down to about 80% of capacity.

  9. Sean says:

    Recent convert to bike commuting using an electric assist bike. It is now so pleasant I get real surly when I don’t ride in. (This usually happens on days I am going somewhere other than my office)

  10. John Smith says:

    I ride 99% of days and the thing I notice about switching is, one day in the car begets another. Why sweat and dodge traffic when you can crank up the stereo and burn petrol. I love my ride and I spend a lot of time planning when I am going to ride home, which route to take, shall I link to commuter train or do the whole 25 miles, etc… How many people spend their time at work fantasizing about their commute home (not fantasizing about leaving or being home, but about the commute and how to commute)?

    Every time I take a car vacation (business trip, massive mechanical problems, etc) I come back wondering why the car sucks me in after only a few days of use. I can feel normal in the car after one day – and I always feel like an oddity on my bike.

    My advice – cutover completely, don’t look back, burn the car.

  11. Kevin Love says:

    The best method is to get rid of the car. Or in your case, pickup truck.

    You can try to lower the stress level by saying “If something comes up that I really need it, I can rent a car.”

    You will be surprised at how infrequently you actually rent a car.

    Let’s face it, there is some inconvenience to renting a car. When the bicycle is the most convenient option, it will get used.

  12. Patrick Zyduck says:

    Since May 1, 2009 I have taken the car to work only 25 days. Of those 25 days, I had the flu, accompanied by rather high fevers, for 12 of them. (2 separate occasions) Biking to work WOULD have killed me! Then I broke 2 fingers on my right hand (bicycle crash) and was out for a week. The rest were weather related. No, not rainy wet weather. We are talking 12 to 16 inches of snow weather. I live in Wisconsin. Record cold day was 24 degrees below zero and I was sweating by the time I got to work. Just made up my mind that I was going to do it, and then did. Mental determination plays a big roll.

  13. RANTWICK says:

    Very nice article, you are dead right about removing the obstacles. I personally think that the popular notion that one can reliably commute in work clothes does a lot of damage. Just a few bummps in the process due to weather or mechanicals make commuting seem impossible if you insist on riding in what you plan to wear all day. Doing the work of preparing a process for changing clothes is important, and also solves some of the problems associated with getting wet or dirty.

  14. jdc says:

    I found that the easiest way was to sell my car, which I did two months ago. Other than that, it tends to be a case of getting your mind around doing it, especially when it comes to embracing those foul weather days.

  15. KRT says:

    Sold my truck in 2004. Now I ride everyday, (9 miles each way)Rent a car when I need one, 1-2 times a year. Went to NE Texas to visit my wifes family, Almost 1000 miles in 3 days, 186.00 for a rental. Much better than the 450.00 a month for payments and insurance on the truck. (not to mention gas etc.)

  16. Mark says:

    The Burley Travoy is awesome for city commuting. Riding through Manhattan with this attached to my Brompton folding bike, I can actually store them both under my desk, folded up.

    With so many different bike trailers, electric-assist bikes, and new bike lanes all over the country, why even bother owning a car?

  17. Paul in Minneapolis says:

    I’ve not owned a car in over 4 years. Now it is so natural using the bike for everything..
    Back in the begining many hurdels had to be removed. Like my front yard was on a hill, so I cut out a trail. I also found that somethings can not be compermised on, like clothes that actually work for the weather.
    Last winter, I was tired of ridig the bus on mornings below +5F. So, I baught new boots and toe clips, snow pants, a expensive wicking jacket (Love it), found a Ducth bike (Full chain case) and modifided it with milk jug hand sheilds.. Then I rode every morning, even the clodest of -15f on icey roads and trials and through snow storms ( I was as fast as cars – 8 mph)…
    Life on the bike is possible and very enjoyable. For over 5 years, my commute has been by bike and I have no desire for it to change!

  18. paul says:

    I commute when I can here in NH, only about 2000 miles a year or so. The motivation to get up early and bike in is always tough.
    I certainly don’t do it to save money or gas, as Josh points out there is a lot of cost in gear involved with biking to work. Tires, goretex, winter bike with studded tires, expensive lights.
    Plus I’m sure I easily spend twice as much $ on groceries when I’m biking 44 miles round trip to work and back then when I drive.
    I don’t think I get too much health benefit either because I ride slowly. In the end I think its because I don’t like the driving and traffic even though the overall net impact of my driving is probably less than all the overhead and gear and trash I create when cycling.

  19. Cool article Josh, and great comments everyone!

    I want to add that creating an obstacle to driving your car/truck can be an effective way to choose the bike. Consider unhooking the battery in your car. It may not be as extreme as selling your car, but you probably would only use it when you really need to. Maybe you will get to the point where you end up selling your car, maybe not.

    I really dig my electic cargo bike because I can haul stuff and I get to enjoy being on my bike. I have been an avid commuter and mountain biker for over 20 years, and I think that electric bikes are a great way for many people to avoid driving a car. I’ll admit that sometimes I’m lazy and I want the easy button. I feel so much better being lazy on my electric cargo bike vs. driving my truck.

    I also think that electric bikes are a great way to get people into bike commuting. I think there are some who have thought about bike commuting but have stayed away because they are concerned with being totally exhausted and sweaty when they get to work. Electric bikes can provide an easy commute and get more people into the cycling world.

  20. Shetha says:

    The wonderful thing about removing mental obstacles is that you learn what you CAN do. Then you can no longer use that excuse. The tricky thing is convincing your passengers on the cargo bike that they won’t melt in the rain or freeze in the cold… that’s a mental challenge! :-)

  21. Gardengnome says:

    For me, a long train commute got me stared (rode to the station and then to the office), then us getting rid of the second car was a big force step as well. My commute is pretty short and flat. I think the trick is to be prepared like the article says. Make it easy to do, and the normal commute. Proper gear and a little planning go a long way, as well as sticking it out through the first bit of bad weather each year.

  22. Eric says:

    In my case, riding the bike 7 miles to work allows me to wake up 15 minutes later because I can avoid the subway and the unpredictable delays that go along with it.

  23. Julie says:

    Luckily, I’m in the same boat as a few others – Riding my bicycle to work means I can leave later. It’s always faster than public transportation. I live in NYC and do not have a car, but the bus is my lazy alternative.

    I love how fast riding gets me there and the sights & sounds I get to take in on my lovely little commute.

  24. Ginger says:

    I’m just starting to commute to work and while I can see some people can do without a car completely, it wouldn’t be possible for me. I have 2 sons active in sports and we just wouldn’t be able to ride all the places they need to be. Giving up the car just isn’t reality for everyone everywhere.

    HOWEVER… I can certainly bike to work a couple of days a week and that’s got great benefits. I have a gym and shower at work so I can clean up easily. Of my 8 mile commute, about 7 of it is on a great bike path along a canal with trees and birds and nature. Only one big danger point on the ride (entrance/exit ramps splitting off the road) so I just try to be extra vigilent there.

    Making bike commuting an all or nothing thing (ride all the time or drive all the time) does a lot to discourage people from trying. I’m not going to ride on days when I have 3 errands to run (dr.’s appts., etc.) but I can certainly ride to work a couple of days a week.

  25. Allie says:

    Good tips! The electric assist is a sweet idea for the summer … although I hate sacrificing my exercise in the process :-/

  26. Coburn says:

    I like the emphasis of your article – normalizing the commute by bike to work. Let’s face it – you can’t beat the services provided by a car in (a) getting you into work neatly attired, not sweating and (b) its capacity to carry a load. That’s why I like the e-assist development combined with the cargo bike. I would like to see more shielding from the weather provided in designs – and there may be more possibilities for canopies if based on a cargo bike frame than a standard bike frame.

  27. Jenava says:

    The thing that keeps me riding is that I sold my car and so my only other option is standing in the cold like a fool waiting for the bus while all my fellow bikers pass me by. Not to mention, the last time it snowed in Seattle it took 5 hours by car to get home (6 miles). Biking probably would have a taken just a touch longer than usual (30 mins)…This year I won’t be suckered into that hellish commute; I’ll definately be on my bike!

  28. barbara zeng says:

    Well, I really like to know what’s the difference between Bionx system and the Stoke Monkey system.

    Thank you

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