So you’ve decided to bike to work instead of taking the T

June 22, 2020

Not-quite post-pandemic, lots of people (including me) are not going to be super-enthusiastic about taking the T to get to work; unless everyone on the bus/train is wearing a mask and wearing it well, there’s some risk.  And with many other people sharing this opinion and electing to drive instead, it’s very likely that the roads and parking lots will be filled beyond capacity; driving will be slow and un-fun.  That doesn’t leave too many choices, a lot of people will be biking, I read that bikes are flying off the shelves.  If not biking, then perhaps using a skateboard, or some other small thing with a small electric motor in it; except for the reduced exertion, very much like a bicycle, much of what I say here will still apply.

Cambridge and Somerville have also recently designated some streets for no-through-car-traffic.

In my case I was already riding my bike most places  (literally, my everyday commute plus on-the-way shopping, over 3000 miles per year) so this is no change.  But for some other people this is a new thing.  Here’s my advice for how to enjoy it more. Why should you listen to me?  I’ve been biking for over 50 years, been commuting by bike on and off for over 30 years, over 2500 miles per year for the last 14 years, and exclusively by bike for the last five years.  I raced a little bit when I was a kid, worked in a bike shop for a little bit, I understand the logic and assumptions behind a lot of popular advice that I now think is wrong.  I have (ahem) made some mistakes, some of them painful, some of them merely a waste of money.

And before someone gets fired up about how “I cannot possibly bike because reasons, you are clearly an out-of-touch idealistic dirty hippie” — the first section below is all about things that will make a commute difficult on a bicycle and perhaps make it not your choice.  So not you.  But maybe, if you want traffic flowing faster than a walking speed, and some place to park when you finally arrive, somebody else might ride a bike?

I’d separate my advice into three parts — things that generally hurt a bike commute (that you can’t do much to control), bad things you can avoid, and things that help.  All of this is specific to the area where I live, and to commutes that are roughly parallel to mine, into Cambridge towards Kendall Square.

Things that hurt a bike commute

These things are part of your situation, that you cannot easily change, that will affect whether your commute is pleasant or not.  If too many of these are negative, you might not have a good time biking to work.

Long commutes.  Too long means it will take too long, and you’ll be too tired (especially at first) and perhaps more sweaty than you can tolerate.  I am a middling-speed rider, nowhere near as fast as I used to be when I raced.  I did a 10.5 mile commute a few days per week for about 9 years, so it’s possible, but notice how I didn’t do it every day.  It took too much time out of my week.  On the other hand, my current commute is just over 6 miles (almost exactly 10 km) and I am quite happy to do it every day, it takes less time than driving at peak rush hour, only a little more when traffic is flowing freely.  BUT — I’ve been doing this for years.  If your commute is five miles or longer, maybe start off by biking it on the worst days for driving, till you feel stronger. I made a point of doing my 10.5 mile commute on days when traffic jams were usually worst.

Hills.  Hills tend to be somewhat demoralizing, especially at first.  Shortest route for my old commute (9.5 instead of 10.5 miles) was up Belmont Hill to Park Avenue and up to the water tower in Arlington.  I could save a few minutes that way, but it was too much like work so I almost never did it and took the long way Instead.  This was actually a shame, because from an exercise point of view that sort of serious heart-pounding work is very good for you — but it was just too unpleasant to do it every day.

One additional problem with hills, especially if you are a (re)new rider — you can go very fast on the downhill side.  High speeds are much less safe than low speeds; drivers will misjudge your speed, you‘ll have less time to react, and if something goes wrong, the resulting crash will be much, much worse.  So, should you find yourself descending a hill at a good pace just coasting, then just coast, enjoy the short rest.

Lack of good bike parking. Ideally, there will be some place secure and protected from the weather.  A room or “cage” where the door requires a card for access is good, video monitoring is good.  You’ll need to lock your bike up anyway, because thieves sometimes manage to work their way past the door lock.  Bonus points for clean and well-lit; that’s often not the case.  For smaller vehicles, like electric skateboards, hover boards, or mono wheels, you might be able to store them at your desk instead, and you might want to charge them anyway.  One thing to be wary of is building (landlord) policies; where I work, bikes are not allowed indoors, and it’s possible that the electric batteries on some of these devices would be banned for “safety” reasons.  One problem with asking is that you might accidentally generate an anti-policy, as in “better to ask forgiveness than seek denial”.  So inquire carefully.

Despite all this, I frequently day-park a $2000 bicycle on the street in Kendall Square.  It’s near a cab stand, the cabbies know me, it’s also within view of the security guard’s desk.  It helps that it’s a weird bike (difficult to fence, easier to trace) that doesn’t look like it’s worth $2000.

Bad weather. Weather is less of a problem than people who drive think, but it can take some getting used to.  In the beginning, maybe you only bike when the weather is nice in the morning and predicted to be nice in the afternoon.  After a while, maybe you bike in the morning if the weather is nice, and if it turns bad (that is, rainy) on the ride home, that’s fine, change out of your wet clothes when you get home.  Eventually, you might just ride in the rain. There’s two reasons for this approach.  One is that it does take a certain mental load to do a new thing, and adding rain (and puddles, and potholes, and drivers who fail to adequately compensate for their reduced traction and vision) can be more than you want to deal with.  Second is that rain can be cold, and in the beginning you won’t be as strong.  “Strong” in this case has an aerobic component to it, and the stronger you are, the more heat you can make, and you can keep yourself warm.  But in the beginning this won’t work, and instead you’ll be cold and miserable.

Weather also includes high winds, and snow.  For large enough values of “high wind”, you can’t ride a bike, you’ll just be blown off of it.  For likely values of high wind, it will definitely interfere with your steering, and no-hands will be off the menu.  For snow, if there’s any chance of ice at all, you’ll want studded tires.  This is why you don’t start biking in the winter; studded tires are noisy and draggy, and when storing the bike you have to be more careful because they scratch everything.  The good ones (Schwalbe Marathon Winter) are also expensive.

Really hot weather will tend to make you sweaty, and the longer and hillier the commute, the more this is true.  If there’s showers at work, that can help, otherwise, many people bring or leave a change of clothes at work, and change.  Slowing down also helps.  But this can be a problem.

High-stress traffic.  There are higher- and lower-stress roads  My old commute was completely tolerable for the first eight miles, but the last 2.5 were horrible (out the Middlesex Turnpike into Burlington, past the mall).  Bad hills, bad traffic, and in the winter, terrible snow clearing.  My newer commute has no big hills, quiet neighborhood streets, a separate cycle track section, more quiet neighborhood streets, and finally a 2-lane stretch where there’s room for a bike but the car traffic is so clogged it must go slow.  Slow traffic is good because slow traffic is safe.  But, imagine if you have a commute that is entirely on terrible roads — is that really something you want to do every day?

Too much stuff to carry.  I put this here because it’s a common problem that isn’t really a problem if you decide that you really want to ride a bike —  with a cargo bike, or a trailer, a moderately experienced biker can carry silly amounts of stuff.  But this advice is not for the moderately experienced biker, this is someone starting from near-scratch.  It is generally a good idea to get a rack, front or rear, so you don’t have to carry a backpack all time; those can make your back all sweaty, and wear on your clothing.  I pack my work stuff in a backpack, but normally it rides on the bike.  If there’s enough shopping on the way home that the bike ends up completely full, then I wear the backpack for the last two miles home.

Things to avoid

These things make your commute worse, but you can avoid them, either when they appear, or by choosing routes where they are rarer.

Big trucks. Big trucks are deadly.  In the unlikely event of a crash with a car, your odds of survival are actually pretty good, walking away with bruises and scrapes is common.  That’s not so with a big truck — anything with exposed wheels that can roll over you, can kill you in an instant.  If it seems like a truck driver might want to pass you, find a way to make it easy, find a way to get lots of clearance.  Pulling off to the side is one way to do this.  One place to never, ever be is to the right of a truck at an intersection; when they turn right the rear of the truck tracks a tighter line than the front, and that might end up rolling over you.

Massachusetts Avenue.  Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, especially west of Harvard Square, is not a safe place to ride a bicycle.  It is better now in places because some protected lanes have been added, but they’re not continuous.  It helps to know why Mass Ave is so unsafe, because it’s not the only unsafe road around here, it’s just the one you’re most likely to end up on.  First, it is mostly businesses, meaning parking for shopping, so cars are constantly parking and leaving and every time a car parks, its door opens.  That is, the risk of dooring is relatively high.  Second, it has more than one lane in each direction, which means that drivers have more things to keep track of besides you on a bicycle, and also that they will be looking for ways to use the other lane to go faster.   There’s other roads, use them when they get the job done.

Trolley and railroad tracks.  Trolley tracks and railroad tracks can grab your bicycle’s tires if you are traveling nearly parallel to the track and attempt to cross it.  This will throw you off your bike, it’s not fun.  So, avoid these, if you cannot avoid these, try to swerve so that you are nearly perpendicular to the track when you cross it.  If all that fails, stop, wait for traffic to clear, or just walk across.  Wider tires help, but it’s more a matter of better odds than solid protection.

Riding too close to the curb.  If it’s been a while since you were on a bike, you’re going to tend more wobbly.  At the same time, because you want to stay away from moving cars, you’ll tend to ride close to the curb or the edge of the road.  If you wobble into it accidentally, you’ll probably crash.  In time you’ll wobble less and can ride closer to the curb, but in the beginning it is about as dangerous as cars are.

Things to do

Get good tires.  If you’re commuting, you want the fattest smooth tires that will fit on your bike.  Thin tires aren’t good at tolerating potholes, require frequent reinflation, and you’ll feel every bump in the road.  They’re easier to get caught in cracks, and their rolling resistance is higher, which matters at typical commuting speeds (this is not conventional wisdom, but I’ve actually measured.  People use skinny tires for racing because at 20+mph the smaller tires have lower wind resistance.)  If you want a specific brand recommendation, Schwalbe.  One of the easiest bike upgrades is to replace the knobby tires on a mountain bike with Schwalbe Big Apples, Big Bens, or Fat Franks.

Get good lights.  Get spare lights.  You don’t want to be caught in the dark without lights, ever.  And it appears, based on one study of good quality, that running your lights in the daytime is also very helpful.  If you consider that cars and motorcycles tend to have daytime lights nowadays, and the number of times drivers will claim not to have seen the bicycle that they just hit, this makes a certain amount of sense.  If possible, get lights with a shaped beam so you can illuminate the road and be noticed by drivers, but also so you don’t blind pedestrians and other cyclist. Some people have real problems with bright light point sources, even in daylight (you may notice them wearing a hat with a brim).

Consider “upright” handlebars. You may discover, as an adult, that your hands and back are not as happy about that aerodynamic bent-over posture as they were when you were younger.  One fix for this is to replace racing handlebars with something “upright” — specific recommendations include Velo-Orange “Left Bank”, Rivendell/Nitto “Bosco” 52cm.  Sitting more upright is easier on your hands and back, makes it easier for you to see what’s going on, makes it a little easier for other people to see you, and if you need to stop fast, makes it a little less likely that you’ll go over the front of the bike (or so one study of moderate quality says).

Be nice to pedestrians. This ought to go without saying, but having watched other people and listened to how they describe these interactions, it needs to be said.  Be nice to pedestrians.  Stop for them when they are in a crosswalk (don’t just swerve around, the law says stop, they expect stop, so stop).  When you do pass them outside a crosswalk, try to pass wide, and try to pass behind, ideally both but at least one.  If you really really think that you need to say “on your left”, do you plan to wait for them to acknowledge you?  What if they are deaf? What if they are not paying attention? (That is legal, for pedestrians.)  What if they are listening to music or reading a book as they walk? (Also legal.)  It’s not your business to be the police for imaginary walking laws, and if not for you on a bike, there would be no problem, so yield, wait, be nice.

If you see small children or dogs, don’t assume that they are paying attention or using the same plan you are, assume that they could do something completely, nonsensically random.  My rule is that 3 kids or dogs means I should be traveling under 5mph with my fingers positioned on the brake levers — fast enough to pass someone walking, but also slow enough to stop on a dime.

Don’t run red lights.  It would be nice if we had Idaho stop, but we don’t.  The Cambridge police will ticket you for this, I have seen it.  All-ways pedestrian scramble is more ambiguous; technically you are running a red light if you ride, I have seen the Somerville police do this at the Mossland-Somerville-Beacon intersection (officer on bridge, over the railroad tracks, waiting to catch people coming from Mossland left onto Somerville, then taking a right onto Beacon).  It is, however, legal to walk your bike on a pedestrian scramble, since you are then a pedestrian.

Three simple tricks for saving time. For hills, work as hard as you can on the uphill, get your wind back on the down hill.  At stops, get yourself back up to a comfortable speed as quickly as possible.  Learn the light timings, and you’ll eventually figure out which lights you can make with a little extra effort, and which you cannot.  A block-long strategic push is easier, safer, and more effective than a last-minute sprint.

Consider slowing down.  If you feel like you’re too sweaty when you arrive at work, or the ride tires you out too much (especially at first), consider slowing down.  You’ll sweat less, be less tired, and you won’t be that much later anyhow — 6 miles at 12mph is 30 minutes, six miles at 10mph is 36 minutes (both of these, plus stops).

Other advice

https://twitter.com/jefposk/status/1258589011230126080 Twitter thread from another guy on a bike (SF)

https://bostoncyclistsunion.org/learn-to-bike-boston Web page, local bike org.

https://www.rivbike.com/products/just-ride Old fart in the bike industry with mostly-good opinions (we disagree mainly on top tube height, I think it should be lower or actually low).

I also enjoyed Bike Snob’s first book. Young fart, mostly-good opinions.

2 Responses to “So you’ve decided to bike to work instead of taking the T”

  1. Mike Kupfer Says:

    That’s fascinating information about rolling resistance and tire size. I thought tire pressure was also a factor…? It does seem like I have to work harder when I’ve let the tires get underinflated.

    I have a rear rack on my bike, but it’s mostly used to anchor 2 collapsible wire baskets, which is where my backpack and/or shopping bags go. My rear light is mounted under the saddle, so for night riding I need to make sure that items strapped to the rack don’t hide the light. The problem with baskets is that some backpacks might be too large. I ended up going to REI with a tape measure so that I could find a backpack that would work for my baskets.

    Best wishes from CA.


    • dr2chase Says:

      Tire pressure is a factor, but at constant sidewall tension (60 psi in a 60mm tire equals 120psi in a 30mm tire, imagine slicing the tire like a bagel and the force per inch along the tire that you just imagined cutting) the larger tire seems to do better. That was my experiment, rolling again and again down a gentle grade, swapping back and forth between the two wheels. There’s also road-surface caveats, but I think the less perfect the roads, the greater the advantage for fat tires.


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