bike commuting in Bethlehem

Commuting Perceptions & Reality

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.

bike commuting in Bethlehem

The author on the rear right — part of normal traffic last September in Bethlehem, PA

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.Biking reduces delay for others.

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.

gary madine

The author, whose helmet offers a friendly reminder that “normal” is overrated

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.


9 replies
  1. John Brooking
    John Brooking says:

    Nice article, Gary! You’re right on about travel times in many urban and suburban situations. One of my co-workers once told me I must be pretty fast, because she saw me on the road a few minutes before we both got to work, at close to the same time. I’m in shape, but I’m not a racer. It probably has more to do with having traffic lights about every few hundred feet around our office, which is near a mall. I call traffic lights “the great equalizers”. My commute is about 5.5 miles each way, about 10 minutes by car, 25 minutes by bike. Long enough to warm up, short enough to not take too much time.

    One minor annoyance is that I could participate in an employer benefit of having a gym membership paid for, which I don’t do because I don’t care to go to a gym, but they do not offer a bicycle commuting benefit program. Our Boston office, on the other hand, offers a parking benefit. But for me, who combines my transportation and healthy exercise? Nada.

  2. Joe Bob
    Joe Bob says:

    Again, this article is subjective to the author’s location. I am an avid cyclist living in an area where it is unwise to commute to work by bicycle. People do, and contrary to the author’s statement and the one in the email that said it is impossible to delay a motorist, I have been delayed 30 to 40 minutes by a cyclist on a four lane road with heavy traffic in both directions that has no bike lane and no way to pass if you are in the lane behind them as the traffic in the left lane is solid. And cyclists usually ride right back to the front of the line at traffic lights and vehicles have to work to pass them again.

    This is the second article I have read from Cycling Savvy that has disappointed me. Your authors are publishing opinion and subjective findings as cold fact, and that is detrimental to people looking for solid information.

    • Karen Karabell
      Karen Karabell says:

      Joe Bob, I’m currently writing the emails to announce each week’s Savvy Cyclist post. I’ll take the blame for anything you find objectionable.

      I stand by what I wrote today. It’s impossible for a solo bicyclist to significantly delay motorists. Momentary delay, maybe. But think about all the things that cause momentary delay.

      How about traffic signals, road construction, transit buses, school buses, trains, taxis, people looking for parking spots, people making a left turn, people who are lost? When you sit through two or three traffic lights, why? When you’re barely moving or stuck on an interstate, there are no bicycles there!

      Nothing causes as much delay as the sheer volume of autos on the road. It sounds like you live in a traffic-heavy area, so no surprise if you have to be in your car a lot and lose hours due to traffic congestion.

      Regarding cyclists who you pass safely…and then they ride to the front of the line, making you pass them again: Yep. I’m with you. That’s just rude.

      Savvy cyclists know it’s very bad form to make a motorist pass them twice. :-)

      • Karen Karabell
        Karen Karabell says:

        P.S. We’re publishing posts every week now, so if we’ve had only two that disappointed you, we’re doing a good job!

    • Marc Caruso
      Marc Caruso says:

      You know why you were delayed for 30 to 40 minutes because motorists were most likely not following the law. If everyone stayed in the right lane unless turning left or passing you would come up on the cyclist see no traffic in the left lane. Put on your blinker pull out into the left lane pass the cyclist put on your blinker again and pull back into the right lane. And everyone would do this and it would take mere seconds to pass the cyclist. When people start using that passing lane as a regular lane it becomes congested and if the person ahead of you in the right lane is going slow you can not get out to pass them because others are breaking the law.

    • Todd Nelson
      Todd Nelson says:

      “…delayed 30 – 40 minutes by a cyclist on a four lane road with heavy traffic in both directions that has no bike lane and no way to pass if you are in the lane behind them as the traffic in the left lane is solid. And cyclists usually ride right back to the front of the line at traffic lights and vehicles have to work to pass them again.”

      Perception. Your problem is your fellow motorists (or, possibly, your driving technique). Either your fellow motorists are ignoring your signal light to change lanes by not giving you a break to allow you to change lanes or you don’t know how to seize the opportunity to change lanes. Either way, if traffic is so heavy, it’s probably not moving very fast anyway. In my experience, a bicyclist as part of traffic in these situations tends to mellow the flow of traffic, if the motorists are paying attention to the road ahead and each other.

      It’s not the CyclingSavvy way to filter forward at a stop light either. Broader acceptance and adoption of CyclingSavvy principles would reduce this behavior and enhance respect for all road users.

    • Todd Nelson
      Todd Nelson says:

      ” Your authors are publishing opinion and subjective findings as cold fact, and that is detrimental to people looking for solid information.”

      Take a CyclingSavvy course and you’ll discover how solid the information is. I don’t know what you are considering unqualified subjective opinion. It is person experience presented as personal fact. Nothing cold about it. A CyclingSavvy course will give you the personal experience that you need in order to find that it does indeed work and would most likely work for the area you live and commute in, unless you are limited to limited access expressways for your commute.

  3. Todd Nelson
    Todd Nelson says:

    You are simply too much, Karen. “Taking the blame” assumes you did something wrong. I can think of a better way to put it, but I don’t want to editorialize too much here. Is this guy for real? Joe Bob? Really?


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