29 April 2011

Bicycle Commuting: Challenges and Obstacles

Part II of a Three-Part Series

In Part I of our series on bicycle commuting, we introduced some real-life commuters across the country and how they got started, what inspires them to keep going, and how they make it work.

Now, it's one thing to venture out on your bike when it's a sunny 72 degrees and your route is designated bike paths and low-volume surface roads. But what about commuting when Mother Nature, poor roadway designs and the convenience of the single-occupancy motor vehicle might tempt us to do otherwise? Part II of our Bicycle Commuting Series is dedicated to addressing the challenges of bicycle commuting, and overcoming obstacles in one's path.


Paul Moore, an English high school teacher in Fresno, CA, penned a short list echoing concerns many bicycle commuters share while on the road.

What I don't love about my commute:

1). "I feel like I am VERY much a member of a minority. Although more people are riding their bikes to work, I see about 100 cars for every cyclist I see on my commute. I would be even happier if I encountered more people like me...on bikes."

2). "I get frustrated by people who demonstrate closed-mindedness when it comes to bikes. As soon as a conversation turns to cycling, people seem obliged to relate to me how dangerous they think cycling is, and as proof of the 'fact,' they share with me their nightmare story about 'this one cyclist' who did this or that. I try to find a way to let them know that cyclists don't like to be stereotyped any more than any other 'minority' does. And do they really want me to respond in kind regarding the dumbest things I've seen drivers do? Not every cyclist is a dangerous menace, and neither is every driver. I know which I prefer, though."

3). "I would like a discount on my insurance. I probably save my health plan provider thousands of dollars a year by staying fit and eating well, and I'm a lower risk to my auto insurer by driving fewer miles. If there were any real justice in this world, people with the least healthy habits would have to pay more for the damage they do to the environment, while those of us who minimize our impact on the environment deserve a tax break or some other kind of incentive."

"A little snow never hurt anyone"...But a pair of Nokia studded CX tires isn't a bad investment, either.

Bob Palkon from Joliet, IL acknowledges the challenges to bike commuting "are significant, but not insurmountable." The top three on his list:

1. "Road conditions and traffic. I heard a story recently that kind of scared me a bit. It was about a teenager texting while driving and killing a bike rider. The story was intended to illustrate how texting and driving is dangerous, but that doesn't bring the rider back. So, I have to admit I am more acutely aware of the traffic now. I think that if the whole 25 miles was on the road sharing with traffic I don't know if I could or would do it.... which, makes me sad to say. Thankfully, most of my ride is on the bike trail."

2. "Most work places, including mine, don't make any accommodations for riders. So cleaning up after the ride to work can also be a challenge. I get cleaned up in a slop/janitor room. It works fine for me. but it would be nice to have a shower at the end. I have asked management, even offered to split the cost, but to no avail. Thankfully I just wear jeans and a t-shirt at work."

3. "Cost of equipment can be difficult initially. A good headlight and tail light are essential and the clothing to ride in. In addition I have to carry water, food and clothes to change into. Really, though, with the money saved in gas I recover those costs pretty quickly."

Overcoming Car Culture: Not just an "American" Problem

Chris De Farcut, who hails from Perth, Australia, believes, "The most dangerous aspect of my cycle commute is the attitude of some car drivers that cyclists shouldn't be on roads at all. Yesterday, on a residential street I take to avoid as many cars as possible, a carload of young guys gestured abuse at me, apparently because I took up a metre of road. They were clearly on probation to becoming full blown idiots. My suggestion is educate kids in yr 11-12 before they become completely ignorant of cyclist road rules."

Residing in Ontario, Canada, Louise Langlais shares, "I commute when there is no snow, because Cambridge [ON] doesn't have bike-friendly shoulders for part of my commute. In warm weather, I use the road where it's safe and occasional pedestrian-free sidewalk to cross the freeway (it is full of snow in winter). I walk to work if possible, about 2 miles each way. Cars don't watch for bikes nor pedestrians, so I have to be very careful either way."

Overcoming Obstacles


Randy Rocheleau from Albany, NY takes the mantra "BE SAFE, BE SEEN" to a whole new level. His Kona Major cross bike dons blinkies at all times: 1 on his backpack, and one on helmet, 1 one each fork blade, and 1 on each side of handlebars for a total of 5 flashing red lights in the rear. A NightRider headlamp projects a high beam of white light in the front so he can easily chart his course as well as alert other motorists to his presence on the road. He observes, "Being a commuter is different then being a roadie. When [motorists] see you out in the elements like that, they immediately give you a different kind of respect than a spandex clad person 'taking up there space'...They see me as using the bike as a form of transportation, rather than just a form of exercise. In the early morning, it's the same idea of sharing: we [both motorists and cyclists] use the same roads to travel back and forth to work."

Describing a potentially hostile situation when a car pulled up abruptly next to him on his way into work and rolled down the window, Rocheleau noticed the "uh oh, here we go" feeling beginning to form in the pit of his stomach, only to be replaced with pleasant surprise when the driver leaned out and said, "Nice to see you so well lit up. Thank you!"

"I think the biggest beef most motorists have is that we surprise them," says Rocheleau. Ensuring visibility on his bike from up to half-mile away, he somberly remarks, "I never want it to be said, 'Oh my God, I'm sorry I never saw them.'"


"My commute has gotten kind of hectic," Adrian Ortiz observes with a note of detachment. "San Diego recently chose my bike route to start fixing the roads. I have pavers, potholes, cones, gravel and transit buses culminating in a symphony of my destruction. With that being said, I have to keep my eyes open and head on a swivel...I try to control my space. I also try to make sure that everyone can see me with lights and reflectors. I don’t want to get hit because I was too cool for a real light. Dead isn’t cool. The main thing that I do is make eye contact and give a lot of hand signals. I see you and I’m turning, Yes, you see me taking this lane, fist in the air because, 'Your mirror almost clipped my shoulder!' "


Aussie Chris De Farcut says his home town of Perth lays claims to being one of the most isolated and windiest cities in the world. He writes, "With long, hot, dry summers, the 1 million ‘sand gropers’ extend their urban sprawl over 60 miles of coastline...Mornings feel like Mother Nature forgot to turn the oven off. Out of necessity, commutes are made at daybreak, and an otherwise unknown society of riders are found on the road, commuting or training. There’s a common bond between cyclists; a brief nod of the head in acknowledgment, and a willingness to help out when punctures occur. I regularly have the company of otherwise strangers, and many, once they find out the mileage I’m doing, take the lead and draft me for the time we share."

"Cycle paths are shared with pedestrians, and only the foolhardy would use them at speed, as dogs, kids and some adults have trouble discerning left from right. On the road there are what I call the ‘less than 1 percenters’ (in every sense), who want to make a point that cyclists are not welcome on the road. The car culture is engrained in Australian attitude and infrastructure. I change attitudes one car at a time by heartily acknowledging those that are courteous."

Making it Safe, Accessible and Convenient

According to the League of American Bicyclists, 50% of all household trips are 3 miles or less, yet nearly 90% of those are made by car. The key to getting more everyday individuals and families on bikes is to make cycling safe, accessible and convenient. Utilizing a bike for short trips (be it to work, school, the library or supermarket for a carton of milk) equates to improved health, reduction in congestion and heavy traffic volumes, and a noticeable savings in your wallet. Stay tuned for the final installation of our three-part series on Bicycle Commuting: Benefits and Ways to Get Rolling.


Andy said...

This is a fantastic comment: "I change attitudes one car at a time by heartily acknowledging those that are courteous".

By making these small gestures hopefully we can eventually change attitudes to cyclists on the road

Jill said...

I love biking in Boston. But whenever I see bicyclists doing something stupid like not wearing a helmet or talking on a cell phone or listening to music, I despair for the bike-riding culture. I hope people will see such choices as the minority and not the way most bicyclists ride.

Unknown said...

Jill: good point, but I'd say I feel just as much despair for cycling culture when I see car drivers displaying absolute utter disregard for their own safety (or that of others) by driving while distracted (talking on phone, texting, eating a hamburger, applying makeup, reading a newspaper article, stirring something into their coffee, brushing their hair...and yes, I've seen ALL of those!) On bicycles, we are in the open--where everything we wear is visible. Drivers can easily hide inside their vehicles walls. I like the ambassador statement. We need to display the kinds of habits that will make passing drivers think, Wow, maybe I could do THAT, instead of, Wow, what an idiot!

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