My wife and I recently became a car-free family. I loved that old Subaru. It made the trip with us over from Seattle a few months ago, and like a faithful hound, we developed a weird affection for it. But here in D.C., a car just didn't make sense. My wife takes the Metro to her office, and we live only a couple of neighborhoods away from the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) headquarters where I work. So a few weeks ago we sold the old girl on Craigslist.org and used the cash to buy a couple of bikes as our primary means of transportation.
It seems we are not alone. All over the country people are making the switch to two-wheels as an easy and efficient way to get around in cities, but particularly to commute to work. And innovative bike-sharing programs, like the new Capital Bikeshare system in Washington, D.C., are making it even easier to cycle between destinations in town.
But as I found out, it's not always as simple as flicking up the kickstand and pedaling off into the sunset—particularly if you haven't ridden much before. Luckily, here at RTC I have access to a great network of bike friends and resources. Below are a few pointers I've put together help anyone thinking of making the switch to a pedal-powered commute.
Oh, how good it feels
Okay, first up, the benefits of biking to work are well known, from saving money on gas and Metro cards to reducing our impact on the environment. But the thing I've noticed the most is how my body feels. It's awesome. My ride is only about 2.5 miles each way—nothing too strenuous or long. But one key to staying in shape is to exercise moderately and regularly. What's more regular than your commute? So now, at the end of the day I feel nicely worn out, I've been sleeping much better, and none of it required taking an hour out of my day (and some big bucks) to go to the gym.
On top of that, I'm saving tons of time. I can walk into the office in about an hour, and taking the train or bus was taking me around 50 minutes. On my bike, I'm rolling up to RTC in 20 to 25 minutes.
Horses for courses
I had made up my mind that I wanted a mountain bike—thicker wheels, chunkier frame—so I could safely bash the thing around and be able to hit the mountains in West Virginia on weekends. Fortunately, I listened to my friend Kelly Pack (director of trail development here at RTC), who suggested that a road bike, or a hybrid—with thinner wheels and a lighter frame—would make getting around the city a lot easier.
Here're the basics. A mountain bike's small-diameter wheels and different gear ratios are great for tight corners and steep hills. A road bike's thinner, larger-diameter wheels mean you cover more ground with every pedal, which is perfect for long, flat city streets.
At first I thought, 'How much difference can it really make?' A lot, as it turns out. Riding a mountain bike to get around the city is going to be much harder work. That's why not many bike stores in the city carry more than a few mountain bikes. So in the end I chose a hybrid with mountain-bike-style handle bars, 29-inch wheels, frame and tire thickness somewhere in-between a road and mountain bike. That means I can zip around the city pretty easily but don't have any trouble on gravelly sections or dirt. I bought this bike. It's pretty awesome. I've named him Bill. Bill the Bike.
New or used?
I must admit, I've found you can save a lot of money by picking things up secondhand on sites such as Craigslist. With furniture, it's the way to go. But when shopping for a bike, I noticed that although used bikes were cheaper than buying new, they weren't that much cheaper. It seems like most people have a good idea of what a quality bike that is built to last is worth, which makes it hard to find an amazing bargain on the best brands. I also think D.C. is a pretty educated bike market, and sellers realize that a five-year-old Fuji or Specialized or Trek is still worth good money, because quality lasts.
So you won't likely find a $600 bike slipping through the cracks for 50 bucks. You might get it for $350, and I certainly know friends who've scored some great details with a used ride. If you do opt to do your shopping at a local bicycle store, you'll find a few worthwhile advantages, including being able to find the best frame size for your body. The difference of a few inches in the frame, after all, can make a pretty huge difference in terms of comfort and efficiency. Plus, many bike shops will offer free maintenance for up to a year.
Apart from the wheels, what else?
Cycling is known as being big on accessories, and there's a lot of stuff you can strap to yourself or your bike, for all sorts of reasons. If, like me, you are doing most of your riding to get to work or back, there are only two main things you really need:
- A helmet.
- A bike lock.
Wearing a helmet isn't compulsory for adults in D.C. That being said, just wear a helmet, okay? That tiny little piece of polycarbonate and foam could be the difference between a few scrapes and bruises and a cracked skull, or worse. Concrete is hard, and our heads are not.
Don't think it looks cool? Then try these stylish little numbers. Or these bad boys. I bought my helmet and bike lock from BicycleSPACE and got both for a total of $100. I went there because BicycleSPACE puts on a lot of free public events and workshops, and they are good friends of RTC in supporting the D.C. bike and trails community.
Oh, get some chain lube, too. It'll run you about $9, and with an easy application every couple weeks, you'll keep your machine running a little bit smoother. And you'll know when you need to reapply. In normal conditions, you should barely hear your gears and chain gliding along as you pedal. When you start hearing that screeching and scraping with every revolution, reach for the lube—and your bike mechanic will think you're awesome for this easy bit of maintenance.
One other handy addition is a bike rack to carry extra gear. For about $30 to $50 you can get a sturdy frame fixed behind your seat. A rack is good for groceries, or your briefcase, but you can also find plenty of other creative, low-cost ways to fix a basket or box to your bike!
Lost without your talking GPS?
Don't worry, you won't have to navigate by the arc of the sun. There are plenty of bike map resources available for most cities. If you live in an urban neighborhood, the big thing is choosing a route that follows any available trails or bike lanes. RTC teamed with Google Maps to provide GIS data of the safest and most direct routes, including taking you along a trail wherever one is available. RTC's own trail-finder website, TrailLink.com, is a perfect place to start. For free, you can find interactive maps for some 30,000 miles of trails around the country, and we are constantly updating with new trails and pathways.
At most bike stores and tourist places, as well, you should also be able to find a local or regional bicycle map, like the one put out by the District Department of Transportation here in D.C. I've found this map to be pretty accurate on the whole; however, one important tip to remember is that what you find on a map may bear little resemblance to what you see on the street, with no sign of a marker or trail. Maps aren't always perfect, so don't be afraid to get lost once in a while. It will only take you a couple of wrong turns before you've figured out the route that best suits you.
If you're nervous about blazing these work routes by yourself, a great way to gain confidence is by finding a friend or coworker to share the ride. If no one else at your office is pedaling in, you might be able to seek a riding buddy via a local community group or blog. Last summer, RTC helped organize an online forum where people could set up commuting rides along the Met Branch Trail. Cyclists would meet up near the trail, ride into the downtown area and then fan out to their respective offices. It was a terrific way to meet other area cyclists and also learn some of the quick and safer corridors for cycling through the city.
Take 'er easy, dude
Let's face it, the relationship between cyclists and motorists could be better. We get in each other's way from time to time, and on the stressed-out rush hour downtown streets, people tend to lose their cool. So try and show everyone how considerate cyclists can be, and make sure you give proper signals when riding with traffic (slowing down, turning, etc.). Keep the 3-feet rule in mind—space between bike and car—and display the same courtesy to others you would hope for yourself. Be extra safe in crossing intersections, and be sure to give way to pedestrians.
The best thing about riding to work is how chilled out it is. Don't transfer your motorist rage onto your bike. The world isn't going to end if you don't make that light. A happy commuter is, well, a happy commuter. Just kick back, take in the scene, and feel good in the knowledge that the little machine under you isn't costing $4 a gallon.
Building a bike-friendly workplace
"Our employees are healthier, happier and more productive. We're attracting some of the best talent in the industry." This comment from Colle+McVoy CEO Christine Fruechte is indicative of the trend toward business owners making it easier for their staff to bike to work. From showers, lockers and bike storage areas to just somewhere to hang a spare shirt, there are plenty of things employers can do to encourage this healthy behavior in the workplace. Here are some tips from the Network of Employers for Traffic Safety (NETS).
Also, talk to your boss or HR person about the nationwide Commuter Bike Benefit program, which provides a reimbursement of up to $20 per month for bike-related expenses for employees who ride to work.
One last tip
Try shifting your work day around if you can. It is much, much nicer riding to work before the traffic gets bad and, during the summer months, before the day has started to heat up. So see if you can start and finish your workday a little earlier. This past summer, I started working from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. The earlier morning was nice and cool, it was quiet when I get to the office, and I'm done before the evening rush hour. It's amazing what a difference one hour can make.
I hope this helps those of you considering a pedal-powered commute. In my experience, it's been a refreshing, energizing and generally pretty fun thing to do. And don't forget to tuck your right pant leg into your sock, or just roll the bottom up a little. It really will get stuck in the chain otherwise, which is not funny. Trust me.