Tips for commuting by bicycle
September 9, 2004 5:19 PM   Subscribe

In a couple of weeks I'm going to start bicycling to work every day (excepting rain or snow). There'll be hardly any traffic to speak of, since I'll be biking on the Charles River bike paths in Boston. I've never biked to work regularly before: any commuting bicyclists have any tips?

I actually learned to ride a bike only about a year ago, so I'm pretty new to the whole biking thing -- but it seems like a manageable trip (about six miles, if that) and it'd be good exercise and good quality outdoors time. I'd like to know more about gear (should I buy panniers? how big? or should I get a courier bag? should I get those yellow-tinted sunglasses everyone has?) and about ways to integrate biking into a workday (i.e., how to arrive at work without being nasty and gross -- I won't have really easy access to a shower, necessarily). What about biking in the cold in Boston? For any Bostonians, I'm going from Beacon Hill to Harvard Square, more or less.

I'm really excited! -- but I want things to go smoothly so that I keep it up and make it a habit.
posted by josh to Travel & Transportation (25 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Six miles on level ground is a doddle if you're in OK shape. I wouldn't worry about getting sweaty and gross unless you ride hard or have sex on the way.

Gear: panniers make your bike handle a little funny, a messenger bag is more apt to make you sweaty and disshevled.

For riding in traffic, you could do well to read Effective Cycling by John Forester. I don't agree with everything he says, but his general points are good: conduct yourself like a car, be assertive, visible, and predictable.

Riding in the cold: you'll want a jacket that's breathable.

Get a decent headlight and taillight if you'll be riding in the dark.
posted by adamrice at 5:57 PM on September 9, 2004

You could take side roads to get from Beacon Hill to Harvard Square. I've walked the distance as such.
posted by bitpart at 6:05 PM on September 9, 2004

I asked a very similar question a while back and got tons of good advice. Happy biking!
posted by dicaxpuella at 6:11 PM on September 9, 2004

If you run even one red light, under any circumstances, I will be there to knock you into traffic. I can't think of anything cyclists do that is more annoying, irresponsible, or stupid.
posted by uncleozzy at 6:23 PM on September 9, 2004

Response by poster: dicaxpuella, your question is full of great stuff -- somehow I missed it when I googled. Thanks!
posted by josh at 6:35 PM on September 9, 2004

I travel that area by bike almost every day(JP to Kendall Square). The 2 best things you can get yourself are a helmet and light. I've been knocked down by cars not looking where they were going in the area and nearly knocked down by cyclist who forget that they too need to obey traffic laws (what uncleozzy said- I sometimes want a really big stick to poke in the spokes of ever cyclist who sees me stopped at a red light and cruises on through.) Back on topic- the light is essential as more than likely you'll be biking in the dark if you have a job that keep regular business hours.

One more piece of advice for the trip on Memorial- Stay aware. Those bike paths are used by so many people and few seem to pay attention to anyone else. Oh and the longfellow bridge is scarier than it looks to bike.

And finally- Mass Ave actually has a bike lane past MIT and into Central that goes pretty much to Harvard.

The whole trip should be really easy, especially on the Cambridge side- nice flat paths.
posted by rodz at 6:38 PM on September 9, 2004

as for riding in traffic, there is one rule i adhere to: never trust that anyone else sees you unless you make direct eye contact with them, and always anticipate that they will do something stupid to put you in danger. other than that, have fun.
posted by garethspor at 6:39 PM on September 9, 2004

Response by poster: rodz: Right now I bike on the river path to the MIT bridge, then cross and bike the path the rest of the way to Harvard. I've found (as I think you're saying) that the bike paths can actually be a little harrowing, especially as you go from MIT into Central Square. In fact, even though the trip is short I do end up finding it strenuous for whatever reason -- hills, narrow paths, who knows.

Anyway: would you recommend the Mass Ave bike lane over the path? I'm not hugely experienced riding in traffic; I'm not sure which one is better.
posted by josh at 6:45 PM on September 9, 2004

Make sure to have your u-lock readily available for swinging at cars driven by people who attempt to kill you. Taking a chunk of paint off might make them think twice the next time they're talking on their cell phone while eating a donut while trying to turn into a bike lane that you currently occupy.

Front and back lights are very important.

Carry a bike pump just in case.
posted by cmonkey at 6:48 PM on September 9, 2004

I commuted through the worst, busiest sections of San Francisco for a few years and what I learned was to be extremely defensive. Remember when you first learned to drive and an instructor might have said "try to anticipate the worst?"

On a bike, assume everyone will do the absolutely stupidest thing possible, and you'll be surprised how often they do it (but you'll be prepared). Every car I rode past I would think "I bet a door opens up" and I'd hover my fingers over my brake levers, and when it happened one day, I was fine. Same thing when you're driving about the same speed as a car just ahead of you -- assume they'll make a right turn at any moment, and when they do, you'll be ready for it.

As to stinkiness, I find that even rides as short as 2 miles can get me kinda sweaty, but I used to bring a change of clothes with me, and that was the next best thing to a shower, being able to jump into fresh clothes (but I always carried my gear on my back, which is probably what caused the sweatiness).

Good luck, and remember don't ever wear headphones while riding -- it's probably illegal where you live and you'll need to hear everything around you to prevent problems.
posted by mathowie at 7:05 PM on September 9, 2004

Panniers or a bag will both work. Backpacks, less so---they make looking over your shoulder more difficult.

Good panniers should be weather resistant and have a good connection to the bike. Also, decent panniers are not cheap ($$). I like panniers for longer trips when I'm not making lots of stops: trips, commuting. It's possible, but expensive to get a good pannier computer bag. Here's an exhaustive comparison of manufacturers.

A good courier/messenger bag won't cut into your shoulder when you load it up and won't get in your way when you stand up at a light. Bags range from quite affordable to extrodinarily expensive. Most will work just fine. Bags are a better way to carry computers, in my experience (less vibration). A third-leg strap is a really nice feature, if you can get it. Bags are really nice for short distances with lots of stops: shopping and errands.

For work: At minimum, change your shoes, socks and shirt. Baby wipes work for clean-up. Clothes transport ok if you roll them up, but some prefer to bring clean clothes in on non-biking days. If the day is kind of manky, line your carriers with plasic bags before you go.

You won't need glasses for short trips. The sunglasses you already have will work just fine.

The key to biking in the cold is layers. It's quite possible to bike in sub-freezing conditions. Pick what's necessary for the day. You should be slightly chilly when you start out, but warm-up during the ride. For the top, I use up to three of: windproof shell, overshirt, lifa longsleeve undershirt, t-shrt. For the bottoms I use: shorts, light tights over shorts, waterproof tights over shorts. Add gloves and hat/helmet liner as necessary (the hat is more important than you think it is). On cold/wet days, put plastic bags between your shoe and sock. There's a happy synergy between cross-country ski and cycling clothes.

Equipment: check your local laws. Some things may be manditory. Around here it's a $120 fine to ride without a bell. Otherwise, a minimal list: a good lock (don't skimp), a decent light set (LED sets are very light and affordable: front and rear), a pump (I like Zefal frame pumps --- with adamrice's proviso in the previous thread about "beacon lights"). Carry a spare inner tube and tire levers in your bag and know what to do with them. Keep a small tube of chain lube at home, relube the chain after every wet day.

And, as others have mentioned, the key to riding in traffic is to assume that the car driver hasn't seen you (even if they seemed to make eye contact), and that, even if they have, they're on crack/juggling a cellphone/trying to quiet Jr. in the backseat. Also, car drivers are often surprised at how fast bikes are---if you approach a car at an intersection, they won't know that you're there. Your best defense is that you can see much better than anyone in a vehicle.

Have fun! I converted about five years ago and grumble every day I'm forced to drive the cage now.
posted by bonehead at 7:07 PM on September 9, 2004 [1 favorite]

The Cagers Are Out To Kill You. Always keep that in mind.

Scan for bodies in cars, because those are the guys who are going to open their door into you. Believe you me, that not only hurts, but could be the death of you.

Bike shoes are great. The stiff soles make an incredible difference in comfort and efficiency. Toe clips or clipless pedals are great stuff, too.

MEC sells specialty commuter wear, designed for Vancouver's wet coast riding and Toronto's snowbound riding. Very good stuff, all of it.

With their raingear you'll have no problem cycling in storms.

Get lights. Wear retroreflective clothing. Wear a helmet and gloves. Learn to shift. Follow the rules.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:10 PM on September 9, 2004

I would not recommend the Mass Ave bike lane from MIT to Harvard. Despite the good intentions of the city of Cambridge, several rather grisly accidents have happened around Central Square. Usually, these accidents involve some driver who's just parked her car opening her car door and the bicyclists either hurdling the door, or, swerving into traffic to avoid it. I don't bike to work, though it would be nice, because every single one of my friends who has tried it has been in an accident within a year, usually involving a car who wasn't paying attention to whom it was sharing the road with. If you can avoid the roads, do so.
posted by Metametadata at 7:18 PM on September 9, 2004

I don't commute to work but I wish I did, and I do bike quite a bit during my free time. Some thoughts:

Remember that lights serve two purposes: to make you more visible and to enable you to see the road. Not all lights are good at both things, and many people use more than one.

Consider a rear rack (possibly a quick-release rack). You can get bags made for those, and not have to worry about panniers or another bag.

As you pass parked cars watch for people inside them. You should assume that any door might open and give as much room as possible but if you know someone's in the car it will make you even more alert.

Add cold-weather and wet-weather gear as necessary, of course. It's pretty expensive to buy it all at once, and you may not need it all.

Have a good locking-up solution at your workplace. If you need to leave your bike out in the open all day then lock like crazy. Some people leave a heavy lock where they lock up instead of carrying it on their bike. Remember to lock every major part that you'd mind getting stolen.
posted by Songdog at 7:47 PM on September 9, 2004

Wow. What an amazing response. I envy you, being able to cycle to work. Between being an attorney (SUIT), and the streets of NYC, I've never been able to cycle to work....
posted by ParisParamus at 7:50 PM on September 9, 2004

Response by poster: Thanks so much for all the responses! PP: I too used to live in NYC, and the first thing I thought when I moved to this new place in Boston was that I missed walking the blocks from work to home through the streets of New York. So, you win some, you lose some. :)

I will definitely stay on the path then: thanks for the advice. And it sounds like panniers or a bag for the rack are the way to go for sure. Hopefully my confidence in my bicycling abilities and the whole scheme will increase the more I do it!
posted by josh at 8:00 PM on September 9, 2004

Don't trust car doors, ever. And follow the rules.

Oh, and a hint from motorcycle training: establish your space with authority. If you don't ride in a manner that keeps cars from invading your safety zone, you won't have a safety zone.

In the motorcycle world, this means, among other things:
- in the rightmost lane, driving in the lane at about the same position as a car driver sits;
- in the leftmost lane, driving in the lane at about the same position as the car passenger sits;
- in a middle lane, getting into the inner or outer lane.

I suggest a bicycle riding in the left position of the right lane has a deathwish: not only contending with car doors, but also with drivers trying to "share the lane." That's a sick suicide approach to bicycling. Avoid it as much as possible: this may mean establishing yourself as if you were a car or taking an alternate, slower route where you can get away with establishing yourself as a car.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:19 PM on September 9, 2004 [1 favorite]

Gah! That's "right position of the right lane has a deathwish." The left position of the right lane would be where you're establishing your position as a car.

Left and right are such damnably abstract concepts.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:20 PM on September 9, 2004

...never trust that anyone else sees you unless you make direct eye contact with them, and always anticipate that they will do something stupid to put you in danger

Seconded. Strongly.
Just as if you were a pedestrian, even if you have the right of way you should make sure you get that eye contact and maybe even a nod or wave. Biking to and from work is more dangerous than biking on the weekends because of the increased level of traffic.

I was riding home from work last Thursday afternoon. A car failed to stop behind the stop sign and hit me and my bike. I have a few bruises and my bike needs new tires and rims (courtesy her insurance company), thankfully, but it was an all-around not fun experience.
posted by rhapsodie at 12:02 AM on September 10, 2004

For a summer I bicycled from Reading to Arlington and back every day, about 5 miles each way. If you're biking these distances every day and aren't in otherwise very good physical shape, be prepared to get quite worn down. By the end of the summer I was finding every excuse I could to get rides, and I was really thankful for rainy days. In terms of strength/endurance/cardio I was probably in really great shape then, but I was constantly tired.

Along similar lines, most exercise regimens I've seen suggest that you only exercise heavily (at least on the same muscle groups) on alternate days - doing so every day greatly increases the likelihood of injury. Perhaps you could consider working up to riding every day?

Luckily, the company I was working for had a nice shower that I could use. Even riding a mile gets me pretty sweaty if it's warm out (less of an issue in the fall in Boston, maybe). You will want to at least bring a change of clothes.

I have always just used a backpack, but panniers are probably better if you aren't locking your bike often in places where you wouldn't want to leave them. These days I usually bike to a bus stop and take the bus (campus is up a very steep and long hill), so I like that my backpack goes with me and not the bike. Maybe mine just isn't very good but I carry enough stuff around that a courier-style bag becomes painful for any really extended use.

Finally, MA drivers are crazy and have no knowledge of what kind of behaviors bicyclists can and should have. I say this as a former MA driver who has moved to northern california, in a place where by and large people do know what to expect from bicycles, and act much more sanely around them. Like several people have said, be prepared for the worst behavior from drivers.
posted by advil at 1:06 AM on September 10, 2004

You know those crisp sunny winter mornings which put a rosey glow in your cheeks and make you glad to be alive? Well they may also make your testicles ache if you cycle 6 miles - don't have a solution but maybe you can come up with one for yourself if you're aware it could be a problem.
posted by biffa at 2:48 AM on September 10, 2004

As a former resident of MA let me say this: Eastern MA drivers are crazy, Western MA drivers are OK. They're the usual mix (but watch out for the numerous tourists).

As a current resident of NJ and a NYC worker let me say this: NJ and NYC drivers are crazy. Anything could happen.

advil's advice about the distance is fair but everybody (or is that every body) is different in this regard. You need to determine what your own comfortable range is, and what's an achievable stretch. And you need to pace yourself. I know people who would casually commute 20 miles each way from Westchester County into Manhattan by bike, and I know people who wouldn't consider riding a couple of miles. Kudos to you for giving it a go.

Another piece of advice I've run across and forgot to post last night: if your office doesn't provide a good place to shower or otherwise wash up on sticky days you can freshen up reasonably well with baby wipes. Keep a pack of these at your destination for sweat emergencies.
posted by Songdog at 5:40 AM on September 10, 2004

decent panniers are not cheap

There are pannier hooks that bolt onto plastic food buckets. They cost $20, but I don't know where to get them now. The buckets are ugly, indestructable, and completely waterproof. You can get them for free by asking around at restaurants. Mormons who are into food storage often have a source.

Don't carry a gun because car owners will make you angry enough to use it.

Zenfilter: climbing hills is all about gearing down and mentally knowing you can do it. The mental game is the most important part of the trip.

You sound like you have a great commute.
posted by mecran01 at 8:17 AM on September 10, 2004

Lots of good advice here.

My 2 cents:
When riding in traffic it's necessary to be hyper-aware of everything around you. If you see someone inside a parked car (or see brake lights on) assume they will either open their door or pull out in front of you.

Also make eye contact with drivers at 4-way stops, lights, etc. to be certain they see you (and even then don't assume they have). After a while confidence will build and it won't be quite as intimidating
posted by birdsong at 10:25 AM on September 10, 2004


I would suggest the bike paths to Harvard over the Mass. Ave bike lane if there's any doubt. Metametadata is right about the accidents and deaths that have happened in Cambridge around that area due to stupid drivers who don't look before opening doors. If you're not about the rush of urban biking, the trail along the Charles is great especially in the morning with the gold dome of the State house gleaming and the early morning crews on the river. It's one of the main reasons to bike in the city(IMHO).
posted by rodz at 10:34 AM on September 11, 2004

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