What is Bike Commuting

by Justyna Frank
bike commuting

This is the first installment in our new series “31 Days to Becoming a Bike Commuter”. Each day we’ll share a post that addresses some some key aspect of bike commuting, so that by the end of the month we will have tackled most of the questions you might have as someone considering giving utilitarian cycling a go.

First of all, what exactly is bike commuting, and how it it different from other ways of using your bicycle?

Bike Commuters (note capital letters) can sometimes give bike commuting a bad rap. The die-hard enthusiasts of two-wheeled transportation can give the impression that utilitarian cycling is an endurance sport that requires grim determination, fierce resolve and high tolerance for danger, abuse from drivers and sub-zero temperatures.

For the last 25 years of my life (at my former store, and currently at Cosmic Bikes), I’ve been engaged in the battle for the hearts and minds of would-be cyclists, and I’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t win that battle with shock and awe. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating that you are unlikely to entice a new cyclist by painting visions of snot icicles, foggy goggles, blue fingertips and admonitions about the importance of layers. You will not smooth the way for them by describing the joys of your 40-mile daily commute, or the pros and cons of actually stopping at stop signs. And while there are those who find this appealing and fun, most of us are not ninja warriors, and certainly not every day.

In nudging people toward using their bike for transportation, at least some of the time, I definitely favor the carrot over the stick method. As with almost any other habit, easing into it and chalking up small wins will encourage you to keep going, and maybe increasing the level of challenge as you go and gain more experience. By all means, feel free to bike just a little. Ride your bike to get groceries when the weather is nice. Bike to work when you feel like it.

Some definitions of bike commuting may insist that bike commuting is something that needs to be practiced every single day. Or that in order to be considered and adherent, you must give up your car. I’m sure you’ve gathered from the foregoing comments that my definition of “bike commuting” is a little more relaxed. Strictly speaking, bike commuting is using a bicycle to get to and from work or school on a regular basis. But in my definition, bike commuting is fundamentally a choice to use a bicycle in situations when you might habitually use a car, transit, ride share or walking. This is a choice you may make daily, seasonally, or whenever the mood strikes.

Transportation biking differs somewhat from recreational, fitness or other non-utilitarian cycling trips. Not in the amount of grit or perseverance you need, but in a few key practical considerations:

  1. If you use your bike to get to and from work, or for running specific errands, your starting and ending points are strictly defined.
  2. You may be able to adjust your route to suit your preferences, but chances are you won’t be able to rely entirely on bike trails, and will have to share the roads with motorized traffic.
  3. You probably also have to arrive at a specific time, or fit your errands into an available time window, and you may be biking during the heaviest points of rush hour. (This may be a good place to point out that even though it may seem that covering the distance by bike would take longer than driving, you are much more likely to be able to set a consistent pace on a bike, regardless of traffic.)
  4. As a commuting or transportation cyclist, you will likely have to leave your bike unattended while you go to work or run errands, and therefore you need a solid anti-theft strategy.
  5. You may have to carry items, such as a change of clothing, gear needed for work, shopping or other items or packages, and sometimes even passengers.
  6. To get you where you need to go at the time you need to be there, your bike needs to be completely reliable.

If your bike is your primary mode of travel on any given day, you may have to be prepared to ride in less than ideal weather. However, my forgiving definition of bike commuting allows for making other choices on crappy weather days, and therefore I do not include weather-tolerance in my definition of bike commuter.

As in most things in life, so with bike commuting, comparing yourself to others is pointless. Be only as pure as you want to be. Some of us whole-heartedly embrace a car-free lifestyle. Many of us don’t.

Don’t feel like you’ve given up on biking if you happen to spend a rainy week stuck in traffic in your car or on the bus. Simply pick up your bike the next time it makes sense to you, start pedaling, and have fun.

We hope you’ll check in with us this month, as we address in more detail all the issues mentioned above, and more. Please feel free to post questions in the comments.

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