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Commuting by Bike

Ride Your Bicycle to Work, School, and the Grocery Store!

BY JOHN SALERNO

Eric Hurlin
The hardest thing about biking to work is changing the way you think about it. (Photo by Gabe Walker)

“[A person...] on a bicycle can go three or four times faster than the pedestrian, but uses five times less energy in the process. He carries one gram of his weight over a kilometer of flat road at an expense of only 0.15 calories. Equipped with this tool, [a person...] outstrips the efficiency of not only all machines but all other animals as well. “ —Ivan Illich (20th century philosopher and energy usage expert)

With ever-escalating gas prices these days, folks should seriously consider leaving their cars in the garage more often and using their good ol’ human-powered bicycle for commuting around town, whether it’s to work, school, or the grocery store. Yes, I believe human-powered energy should be considered an alternative form of energy—especially for transportation. Bicycling is a simple and excellent way to keep physically fit while at the same time minimizing the growing economic impact of higher gas prices.

Biking is the Epitome of Fuel Efficiency

In a recent address, President Bush remarked that Americans are “addicted to oil”—and this rings so true! With only 4 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. guzzles a whooping 25 percent of the world’s ever-dwindling oil supply, and uses between 25 and 45 percent of its total energy on fueling vehicles. In terms of transporting people, 250 million Americans allocate more fuel than is used by 1.3 billion Chinese and Indians combined for all purposes! One has to stop and think: maybe we really are oil junkies! Maybe there is something wrong with our lifestyle that we use our motor vehicles as often as we do. Even with an obesity epidemic among our young and heart disease prevalent among our aging baby boomers, we still insist on driving short distances around town in our gas-guzzling SUVs.

Give Bike Commuting a Try

As a long-time advocate of bike commuting, I have weaned myself away from using the car for short trips. My wife and I are a happy one-car, two-bike family, even though we work several miles apart.

After many tens of thousands of miles biking around Iowa over last 20 years, I’ve heard a big list of excuses for not commuting by bike more frequently. Here are a few of those excuses, followed by my replies.

EXCUSE #1: I live too far away from where I work.

Well, if you live less than five miles away from your workplace, bike commuting should be easier for you than you think. If you live between five and ten miles away, it’ll be harder but it’s still within your reach. To handle a long commute, try driving halfway and then biking. Or drive to work carrying your bike and bike home at the end of the day, then bike to work the next day and drive home.

If you live 20 miles away from your workplace, you’re excused. However, where I live, in the rural town of Fairfield, an “island” of approximately 11,000 people, bike commuting is much easier, quicker, safer, and more pleasurable than if I lived in the sprawling suburb of a big city. But even then, it can be almost as fast to bicycle to work than it is to drive if you commute through streets clogged with traffic.

This is especially true if you also consider that it is usually easier and faster to park a bike than a car, and it is certainly less expensive—if not free—in almost all cases.

EXCUSE #2: I’m really out of shape!

You’ll get in shape faster than you think, but I would advise taking it slow at first. You may start out stopping to catch your breath a few times or walking your bike up that killer hill. But with a little persistence, you’ll eventually be riding up that hill in no time.

Interestingly, bicycling is easier for out-of-shape people than many aerobic sports and is also low-impact. Unlike exercises like jogging, bicycling doesn’t stress your knees as much. Research shows that regular cycling can cut the chances of heart disease in half. According to a study by the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, 80 percent of bicycle commuters improve their heart and lungs in as little as eight weeks, resulting in less sick time and lost work. This kind of regular exercise can also help you manage stress better.

EXCUSE #3: I don’t have the time because it’ll take too long.

Because of traffic in urban areas, cycling does not necessarily take more time than driving for short trips of two miles or less, especially if you include the time needed to find a parking space. For longer trips, consider that you’re saving time by combining your daily exercise with your commute instead of using the extra time at the gym. Also, let us not forget the savings of time and money and the environmental benefit when you reduce your number of visits to the gas station.

EXCUSE #4: I can’t afford a specialized commuter bicycle.

You don’t need one at first. Your old beater bike gathering dust in the garage will suffice if properly adjusted and maintained. Besides, it’s less attractive to thieves. If you have a recreational bicycle, you can outfit it with a lightweight rack and bag or use a backpack to carry personal items. With the fixed cost of operating an automobile at around $.30/mile, the money you would save commuting by bicycle on an average 10-mile round trip per day would be enough to purchase a decent $400 bicycle in six months’ time.

EXCUSE #5: I’ll get sweaty!

At some point you probably will sweat, especially if it’s a hot summer day and you ride longer distances. I would suggest wearing a T-shirt and carrying a change of clothes, then freshening up using the washroom before heading for the office. Some bicycle commuters, especially for shorter distances and in cooler weather, simply ride in their business attire—some say they get more respect from motorists! Most ride in casual or cycling clothes and change when they arrive. You can carry your change of clothes in a backpack or in panniers on the bike.

EXCUSE #6: There’s no secure place for my bike.

There is probably a storage room or closet where your bike can be secured behind a locked door. Maybe you can even take it to your office. Otherwise, it is best to fasten it to an immovable object with a high-security lock.

EXCUSE #7: It’s rainy and cold out!

I would suggest simply starting as a fair-weather bicycle commuter—when the forecast is bad, don’t feel you have to strain to bike. Some strong-willed people may try to conquer the elements and commute every day, but it doesn’t mean you have to. If you only ride when the weather report is favorable, it will still make a dramatic improvement. The more you enjoy bicycle commuting, the more you’ll look forward to your daily ride. Then you may eventually decide to invest in special bikers’ rainwear and cold-weather gear so you can commute year-round!

EXCUSE #8: It’s not safe to ride in traffic.

Motorists know that they must share the same road with bikers. You can easily share the road with cars by riding lawfully and assertively on the right side of the road (same direction as the cars), although it is best to avoid major highways and of course, interstates, which are illegal anyway. The fear of riding in traffic for novice bikers is often much greater than the actual danger. Most bicycle accidents involve children and cyclists who don’t obey the law. In fact, 85 percent of all serious accidents between a motorist and a cyclist that end up going to court are usually the cyclist’s fault. Minimize risk by riding predictably and following all traffic laws—and always wear a helmet. In stop-and-go traffic, a fit cyclist can generally keep up with the traffic flow, so it’s acceptable to maintain your place in the roadway. Also, use a good lighting system at night and wear light-colored reflective clothing.

Your Car Benefits, Too

Besides the benefit of gas savings, bicycle commuting also saves money by reducing the wear and tear on your automobile’s engine, not to mention the brakes, clutch, etc. So many trips in our cars are such short distances these days. We insist on driving our kids to school several blocks away when they could easily bike or even walk. Many people also drive less than one or two miles to the grocery store or bank. For these kind of repeated short trips, much of our car’s engine wear is due to a high number of starts per mile driven. Why? Driving short distances and stopping before the engine gets a chance to warm up and circulate the oil creates raw metal-to-metal wear and tear. It is well known that cars continuously driven at highway speeds take on far less wear and tear for the overall mileage than short-distance, stop-and-go, around-town driving.

You Can Start Today!

Bikes are so efficient and versatile that running errands or riding to work on them shouldn’t be a chore. In most cases, the hardest part is changing your way of thinking.

Whether you’re zipping to work, exploring a new neighborhood, or just enjoying the spring flowers, riding your bicycle makes you more physically fit and saves money while doing it.

For more articles on biking, see: Biking Jefferson County Back Roads and Bike Buying Made Easy.

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