8:45 a.m. December 14, 2010 — Allentown, PA (US)
17 degrees F
NW winds 20 to 30 MPH
As usual, I’m cycling to work. On this day my fingertips are numb upon arrival. But as I walk to the locker room I notice — of all things — sweat!
What’s not to love about bike commuting?
Every ride offers different sensations and constantly changing scenery. I save money. I exercise. I don’t have to wish for physical fitness. It’s built into my daily commute.
I have to get to work in the morning and home in the evening. Why drive when I can pedal?
I’ve often wondered: Why don’t more employees bike to work? I’ve come to believe that perceptions — of safety, time, and appearances — keep people off their bikes.
Is It Really Safe To Ride In Traffic?
Since 1991 I’ve made more than 9800 trips. Many of these were on big and busy roads. More than 1100 of my trips were after sundown. Dangerous, right? Wrong! In all these years I can say I’ve had just two close calls.
To demonstrate how unusual such an event is, I’ll detail the first — which is seared in my memory, even though it happened decades ago.
On a quiet suburban street in 1997, I was towing my 8-year-old and 5-year-old to school in a bicycle trailer. We were behind a large pickup truck belonging to a commercial landscaper. The truck stopped mid-block. We stopped behind it. Then the driver put the truck in reverse! Nothing bad happened except for me yelling out “STOP” at the very top of my lungs while quickly scampering aside with my rig.
The truck driver and I then spent a few minutes consoling my sons. They’d been upset by my yelling, not the traffic situation. Since then, whenever I have to stop behind a truck, I first merge to the left side of our common lane so I’ll be visible in the driver’s side-view mirror. That way, what happened once in forty years is now a lot less likely.
I learned that safety technique by experience. But you don’t have to make my mistakes! CyclingSavvy was designed to help you avoid the School of Hard Knocks.
I wouldn’t ride if it weren’t safe. For me, 68,500 miles of bicycle commuting has been safe and provided physical fitness. And it was cheap. Timewise.
It’s So Much Faster To Drive
From 1991 to 1998, my route to work was 8.7 miles each way. My transit time on bicycle was typically 35 minutes. I had motored that same route for a couple of months in the winter of 1990/91. The transit time by motor vehicle was typically 20 minutes. Why is motoring only 1.75 times faster than pedaling? The local road system with intersections, stop signs and traffic lights acts as a slow pass filter. When I used Allentown’s Airport Road, motorists passed me doing 45 mph. Often, I pedaled up right behind them at the next traffic light.
Regular bike commuters know this phenomenon well. You’ll have several stretches on your commute where you and the fastest motorists cover the same distance at the same time, therefore having the same effective average speed. Bicycling is still done at low cruising speeds. If you’re going any distance at all, it probably will take longer to ride. But is it that much longer? And should time be your only consideration?
In 1984 I bicycled to work occasionally. My route then was 12.5 miles each way. I love to bicycle so much that I still consider that distance optimal. Biking time was 45 to 50 minutes. Motoring time was 25 to 30 minutes.
The average US commute time is 25.4 minutes. So most US employees live close enough to bike to work. Bicycling will be slower. But you’ll be getting good exercise during every minute of the short overtime.
Safe. Good exercise for just a slight time commitment. Smart.
Normal People Drive Cars
A third reason many employees don’t bike to work is appearances. Does biking to work appear unwise? Once you understand the truth about safety and relative travel time, there’s nothing dumb about biking to work. Rather than sit at your desk and plan a run after work, at quitting time you can bypass the parking lot and have to exercise to get home. And still enjoy the ride.
Bicycling can be taken up no matter what shape one is in. Bicycles can support any weight. Special bikes and accessories are available for special situations. Best safety practices can be learned quickly — and tested and refined on your route. As time goes on, you’ll be amazed at how distances “shrink.” What used to seem far and intimidating becomes easy and routine.
A major social objection toward US bike commuters is that they might slow down motor commuters. Sure, this happens sometimes. But this perception is way out of proportion to reality.
There are times when a motorist has to wait behind me for an opportunity to pass. No doubt some of those motorists grumbled to themselves: “14.7 mph on Airport Road is ridiculous!” But see again the example I gave above. He’ll pass me. Then there’s a fair chance I’ll pedal up right behind him at the next traffic light. He might be third in line; I’ll be fourth. Therefore, I did not delay him. Had I been using a motor vehicle, I would have wound up ahead of him still at that light. So by choosing to bicycle, I reduced his delay.
And while all of us are stopped at the intersection, I doubt very much he’ll be looking up at the red light and complaining: “Zero mph on Airport Road is ridiculous!”
Regular exercise. Safe exercise. Low-cost exercise. That’s how I feel the moment I push off every workday morning and evening. Smart. Even when T=17F.