[Ken Kifer's Bike Pages]
ARTICLE: Problems and Solutions to Riding a Bike to Work
It's easy to find reasons for not bicycling to work, but if you're looking for answers and solutions, these might make commuting possible. Includes solutions to dangers, lack of time, routes, distance, day care, weather, need to clean up, flats, carrying a laptop, parking, and social acceptance.
Questions What kinds of reasons are given for not bicycling to work? Why is it important to know your real reason for not bike commuting? What solution is there to bicycling being too dangerous? How can one bicycle to work since it takes too long and there is a lack of time? What if there are not usable routes to work? What if the distance to work is too far for a cyclist commuter? How can a cyclist deal with hot weather, cold weather, and rain? Won't a bike commuter arrive at work too smelly? What about flats on the way to the job? How can a bicycle commuter carry a laptop and important papers? Where can he find a safe place to park the bike? How can a cyclist deal with social criticism?


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Problems and Solutions to Riding a Bike to Work

More people indicate a desire to get to work by bicycle than ever try. There are three kinds of reasons given for not trying: unsolvable problems, unresolved problems, and excuses. While some would consider any problem resolvable, I don't. Some hardy soul may be able to trailer three kids to daycare before riding another 35 miles to work, but most people can't. While I will be providing solutions to all kinds of problems, I do not expect all solutions to work for all people. Excuses are at the other end of the spectrum, but most people's interpretation of an excuse is incorrect: an excuse is given when we don't know (or don't want the other person to know) what the real problem is. I'm not going to accuse anyone of making excuses. This is between you and yourself. But look at your own reasons for not riding with a hairy eyeball. Perhaps the reason you have been giving yourself is not your real reason at all. Discover what your real reason is, because bike commuting will be impossible until you identify the real problem. Finally, there are the resolvable problems. I'm going to include a very wide spectrum, not only practical problems but social and mental ones as well. I can't guarantee that these solutions will work for you, but they may give you ideas which can lead to something that will work.

Unlike my usual practice, I am going to list all the problems and excuses for which I think I have solutions, and you can click on your problem and jump straight down the page to it (don't do this if you intend to read them all): Bicycling to work is too dangerous. The trip would be too slow; you don't have that much time. There are no usable routes anyway. The distance from home to the job is too far. You have to take the kids to daycare or school. You could die of heat stroke, freeze to death, or be drowned in torrential rains along the way. If you ride a bike to work, you will arrive too dirty or smelly, and you have no place to change and clean up. Besides, you could have a flat along the way and be late for work. You can't carry your important papers, your laptop, and/or extra clothing on a bicycle. There's no safe place to park the bicycle. Bicycling is socially unacceptable anyway.

Too Dangerous

The notion that bicycling is too dangerous has been propagated to provide an excuse for those who feel guilty for not cycling to work. About 24 times as many people die on stairs and ladders as die on bicycles. Nonetheless, some motorists have terrible driving habits, especially when late for work. I suggest 1) starting a little early and 2) taking roads generally avoided by the rest of the traffic, 3) obeying all of the traffic laws, and 4) keeping alert at all times. Read my articles on Is Cycling Dangerous? and How to Ride in Traffic.

If the real problem is not that cycling is too dangerous but that you are afraid, remember that fear of doing anything new is quite normal and healthy. While I was a construction worker, I was assigned to working in an area high above the ground with only narrow forms to walk on. For three days I crawled around until I adjusted to the height, and I was only well-adjusted by the end of the week. At that time while we were talking during lunch, I thanked everyone for not laughing at me, because I surely would have quit. But one of the carpenders said, "Hell, we were all crawling around on our first day up here." The way to get over your fear is by gradually acquiring experience by riding on the weekends. Get used to traffic gradually, and get the wobble out of your riding, before you try to ride to work. That's what all of us experienced cyclists once had to do.

Too Slow, Not Enough Time

Very few people are unable to average at least ten miles an hour, which will get them to work within half an hour from up to five miles away. Motor vehicles seldom average better than 30 mph and often average less than 13 mph in town. My best time by car for five miles from the suburbs to the city was about 15 minutes, with more than five minutes of that time spent waiting at red lights. The long walk from the parking deck or lot to the job can often make bike time and car time nearly equal. At any rate, you have gotten your exercise and your fellow worker has not, so you are time ahead.

No Usable Routes

People get habituated to automobile routes, and it's easy for them to fall into the belief that there is no other way. Get a map of your city or town and explore the roads on the weekends. If your town is small, you can find a free map at the town hall or court house, usually with the city streets on one side and the county roads on the other. The idea is to find residential streets or lightly trafficked roads which parallel the main drag. Towns and older cities have a regular grid, so if one street creates problems, try the next. Newer cities have mile square blocks of mostly dead-end streets with heavy trafficked arterials between. However, by studying a map, it is often possible to find a fairly short route through.

Many roads with heavy traffic are still quite bikeable because they have good shoulders or wide lanes. In riding on such a road, don't hug the edge of the pavement because you will be less visible to motorized traffic. Pay special attention to vehicles that may turn across your path, as some motorists either ignore or fail to see cyclists. Don't ride on sidewalks, however.

A solution that may work for some people is to arrive at work at a different time than eight o'clock and to start back home at a different time. Roads that are dangerous to travel by bicycle between 7:30 and 8:00 AM and between 5:00 and 5:30 PM are often quite safe half an hour earlier or half an hour later. Arriving early provides a chance to wash up and/or cool off.

Too Far

The distance can be too far under two conditions: 1) if it is beyond the distance you are used to traveling by bike or 2) if the distance would leave you too tired or would take up too much time. In the first case, the problem is solvable by training up on the weekends. You may also or in addition try the following:

A) Ride part of the distance: 1) Ride to a friend's house and carpool the rest of the way. 2) Carry your bike on the car, and park some miles from the office, riding in the rest of the way. 3) Ride your bike to the transit station and leave it there. 4) Ride to a bus or train that allows you to carry your bike, then you can finish your trip on two wheels. For some of these solutions, you might want a folding bike.

B) Ride part of the time. 1) Drive to work, and ride your bike home. The next day, ride to work, and drive your car home. 2) Ride with someone to work each day who is willing to carry your bike, and bicycle back home. 3) Take transit one way, and ride your bike the other way. A folding bike would be handy here too.

C) Ride part of the year. Ride to and from work from the late spring to early fall, when the days are longer, giving you more time.

A Japanese student of mine reported that on her way to school in Japan every school day, she would ride her bike to a train station, take the train to another station, and then ride a second bike to school. She arrived back home using the same methods.

Need to Take the Kids to Day Care or School

One method some have used is to put the kids in a trailer and ride to the daycare, leave the trailer there, and ride the rest of the way to work. Or drive to daycare with the bike on a car rack, leave the car there, and bicycle the rest of the way.

As for taking kids to school, I think it's much healthier if they can walk or ride bikes. I walked to school as a child, and doing so was good for my health. If you wish to provide an escort, you might bicycle to the school with your kids and then ride the rest of the way to work.

Too Hot, Too Cold, Too Wet

I have ridden to work in Alabama at noontime in the summer, with high humidity and temperatures above 90° Fahrenheit, and sometimes above 100°. Yet I wore my normal working clothes to work. How was I able to survive? The bike creates its own breeze, so sweat was quickly evaporated as I traveled, cooling me off.

In the wintertime, the secret is to wear layers of clothes. In the coldest weather, I use thermal underwear underneath my clothes, topped by a down vest and Gore-Tex jacket and pants. I wear two pairs of light-weight but warm socks. With less-cold weather, I wear a little less, perhaps a sweater in place of the down vest. Gloves complete the picture, a thin pair for cold weather, and some insulated ones to go over those for really cold weather. The heat produced by bicycling plus the warm clothing keep me comfortably warm. If I start to get too hot, I stop and put my sweater or vest into my pannier bags.

In rainy weather, I can depend on the Gore-Tex jacket and pants for all but the heaviest showers.

Too Dirty, Too Smelly, or No Place to Change

When people work out, their bodies get hot, and this creates more odor. Those who are not used to cycling long distances will get hotter than those who ride regularly. Most of this odor will disappear simply by cooling off. Some of it is captured by the clothing. A simple solution is a shower after getting to work, but most work places don't provide a shower or a place to change. Here are some solutions for when they don't, which can work separately or together:

First, always take a shower before leaving the house using an anti-bacterial soap. Second, avoid cotton clothing, which hold odors. Third, if you have a private office, carry clothing to your office, and arrive early and change. Fourth, if you can't change, when you arrive, use a damp paper towel to remove sweat and help you cool down. Fifth, arrive early and stay away from other people until your temperature has dropped.

I worked in a computer lab, and I would often sit next to students to help them. Doing so created no problem due to following the above procedures.

Flat Tires and Mechanical Failures

It makes sense to have two bicycles ready to go. That way, if one bike needs repaired, the second bike is available. Replace worn tires before they can cause problems. When you travel to work, carry simple tools, a spare tube, an air pump, and a patch kit. Glueless patches go on much quicker, but don't waste time on an obscure leak on your way to work. If the tire flattens as you ride, rotate the tire, looking for a nail, piece of wire, or piece of glass. If the tire did not go down quickly, try pumping it full, and you may be able to make it to work with only a few stops without having to change along the way. If the leak is too fast to allow you to continue, but you still can't find it right away, replace the tube. Practice fixing a tire before you have a flat on the way to work. See How to Fix a Flat for more details. If you leave a little early for work each day, you will be able to fix your tire without being late. Besides, bosses are more forgiving of the worker who is usually early. Most repair problems will allow you to wobble on into work.

I can remember only one time when I had a flat on the way to work. I still arrived early.

Carrying Papers, Laptops, and Clothing

One solution with clothing is to make a car trip every week or two, preferable on a bad weather day, to carry clean clothes to work and to pick up ones that need to be washed. Another solution is to use a garment bag for clothing; one kind was especially made for bicycle commuting. Finally, clothing can be carefully folded and then carried.

As for carrying papers and laptops, they require no special care other than keeping them dry. I have carried my own laptops tens of thousands of miles without problem. I put the laptop in its case, wrap it in a nylon bag with a foam pad, and then I enclose that in two throw-away plastic bags from the grocery store, which I replace frequently. Papers should be wrapped with the same care.

No Safe Place for the Bicycle

First, I don't recommend making a habit of commuting on a $1,000 bicycle. Buy a used bike, and 1) the chances of its being stolen are much less, and 2) the monetary loss from its theft will be much less also. Second, take the bike inside if at all possible. It is usually better to just do it rather than ask. My experience is that most employers will find some excuse to say "no" if you ask, but they will ignore the bike if you don't ask. As long as the bike is not in anyone's way, it's unlikely that anyone will object. Many cyclists keep their bikes in their office (don't let the boss find you working on it during work hours, however). Third, if you must park it outside, park it somewhere where it is visible to everyone rather than in some hidy hole. Thieves are unlikely to steal a bike with everyone watching. See additional advice for locking the bike in Tricks and Accessories.

When stopping at a supermarket or store on the way home, park the bike right next to the front window, where you and everyone else can see it.

Bicycling Is Socially Unacceptable

How do you know that? If you are the first in your office, how do you know that you won't be a trend setter or an inspiration to the others? For years I hated having to wear a coat and tie as a teacher. Then all of a sudden, the bubble popped, and no one wore coat or ties any more. No one, it seems, wanted to dress up that much, but someone had to be first. The same happened with women's clothing years ago.

A recent study found that people who exercise regularly are considered to be more attactive sexually while sedentary people don't fare very well.

If you want to commute without being noticed, a simple solution is to arrive at the office each day before everyone else and to leave each day after everyone else. You will miss heavy traffic that way, and your fellow workers won't even know that you're bicycling.


Is Cycling Dangerous?  A look into arguments that cycling is a risky activity. Elsewhere

Is It Really Possible to Commute to work?  This is a group discussion of all the problems and solutions.

Why I Bike to Work and Why It's Safe

How to lock a bike and Where to park it safely.

Riding in All Weather Conditions

Lame Excuse: I Don't Have Enough Time to Commute  How riding a bike can save time.

Lame Excuse: Dressing for success.

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