Bike Commuting (Part 13): What I’ve Learned Commuting

Bike commuters are people I envied for years until I finally one day said to myself, “I’m riding my bike to work tomorrow.”  I had spent all my life relying on a car for transportation, and using a bicycle for anything other than recreation was a concept that felt foreign to me.  At the beginning I did it occasionally, almost as if it was its own recreation ride, but quickly the bike surpassed the car as my go-to mode for getting around.

Starting Out Isn’t Always Easy

My first foray into bike commuting was actually before I had even moved to Charlotte.  It was unfortunately a short lived endeavor, as my workplace was not terribly supportive in giving me a place to safely secure my bike, my coworkers often teased me, and the industrial park I had to ride through to get to the office was full of poorly paved roads and incredibly hostile traffic. It was not a recipe for fun, and after a few weeks I conceded to driving the car again.

Rob Schweitzer at Bicycle UniverseThat all changed after I moved to Charlotte, though.  Charlotte provided me with bike lanes, something I never had where I lived in Massachusetts.  Then I found an apartment less than 10 miles from work, and between work and my home I was able to plan a route that was primarily in bike lanes.  Starting to commute by bike felt a little weird once again, packing everything in a backpack and riding to work instead of driving, but over the following months I was happy to find that not only was my employer supportive of my cycling to work, but it really wasn’t that hard!  Riding to work 2-3 days a week quickly turned into riding 5 days a week, and riding to work was no longer something I had to try to do, but rather something that became as normal to me as hopping in the car feels for most everyone else.

Pack Early and Leave Early

Morning routines may change as you prepare to ride to work instead of driving, but I’ve found getting everything ready the night before can make mornings a whole lot less stressful, especially when I was starting out. This has been a key factor in making cycling to work feel normal.  I put my lunch bag all ready in the fridge, get my clothes ready to toss in my bag, and check the weather before going to bed to make sure I know how to dress accordingly in the morning.

Flat TireLeaving early not only allows you extra time to change and cool down when you get to work, but it will leave you time to fix a flat tire should you suffer one on your ride to work.  Calling your boss to say you’ll be late because you weren’t prepared to fix a flat tire is never a fun call to make.

You’ll Become More Alert and More Aware

Bike commuting not only made me a more alert and safer cyclist, but I feel it also made me a more alert and safer driver.  Part of that is because I’ve spent a bit of time studying state and local traffic laws to understand how they apply to bicyclists, but a bigger part is because I am able to observe and participate in traffic from a perspective that most others never have.  You quickly find how invisible you can be to distracted drivers, which is strong encouragement to make yourself as visible as possible while riding.  That invisibility you may feel crosses over into your driving, as you may find that quick glance over your shoulder or in your mirror really isn’t always sufficient when changing lanes or turning into a driveway, or you may start to check behind you before opening a door when parked on the side of the street, or you may even discover how selfish or careless parking methods can negatively affect bicyclists and pedestrians.

Be a Good Example

When you are cycling on public roads you are a minority in the world of traffic, and that unfortunately means that the actions of one cyclist that drivers see often apply in their minds to all cyclists everywhere.  One driver seeing you blow through a stop sign will plant a seed of anger that fuels Internet comment sections everywhere, and suddenly that one time you went through a stop sign without stopping becomes “All cyclists run stop signs and they don’t deserve to be on the road!.”  Know your local traffic laws and be sure to make it a point to observe all those laws.  It will not only protect you from a liability standpoint if anything were to happen to you, but being a good example of a law abiding cyclist on the road every day will demonstrate that, contrary to popular belief, bicyclists aren’t the bane of drivers’ existence after all.

It’s Better to be Safe Than Right

Right Hook SwerveKnowledge of traffic laws as well as cycling infrastructure (especially bike lanes) may reveal, depending on where you live, that bicyclists can legally do some things that drivers of motor vehicles may not, such as passing on the right.  But the common phrase, “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should,” applies strongly here.  You may be tempted to pass a large truck on the right side in a bike lane as you go through an intersection since you have the right-of-way, but if that truck driver fails to check his or her mirrors and runs you over while making a right turn, with or without a turn signal, the phrase “but I had the right-of-way!” won’t matter so much from the back of an ambulance or in the emergency room.  It’s always smarter to avoid placing yourself in a dangerous position when you have the option to prevent it.

Cycling is Your Stress Relief – Keep It Fun!

I’d be lying if I said that cycling wasn’t stressful at least sometimes.  Occasionally drivers will harass you because they don’t believe bicycles belong on the road, or they accuse you of selfishly thinking you “own” the road that they believe is only for cars without understanding the irony of their accusation.   Sometimes drivers are careless in their passes and pass far too close for comfort or safety.  Regardless of the situation at hand, it’s usually better to leave the situation alone, or in extreme situations let the police handle it instead of handling it yourself.

Furthermore, retaliating (either verbally or physically) or otherwise escalating a situation will not only make you feel worse about the situation after the fact, but will leave a lasting impression on both the driver and any witnesses who see it because you – as the minority on the road – will simply look like a giant jerk.  Drivers behind you may not have heard the slurs hurled your way out the driver’s passenger window, or may not have seen how the driver swerved at you, but they’ll certainly see when you get alongside the car at a red light and start banging your fist on the window while screaming in anger at the driver for what they did to you.  Whenever possible, just take it in stride and move on.

Cycling is supposed to be fun and relaxing, so don’t be afraid to change your route or consciously adjust your attitude to keep it fun and as stress-free as possible.  Cycling is my mental therapy and it can be yours, too!

Coming up next week: Rob’s Favorite Gear.  I’ve tried a lot of gear over the years; some of it bad, some of it great. I’ll highlight some of my favorite things that I used for years, and in some cases still use to this day.

Rob is a New England native who has been living in Charlotte, North Carolina, since 2012. Upon learning how to ride at the age of five he quickly found that everything is better on a bicycle, and hasn’t stopped riding since.

If you want to learn more about bike commuting, we’ve put together a comprehensive 71 page step-by-step PDF guide that goes into all of the things you’ll want to know –