Start Bike Commuting With These Simple Guidelines

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Now that the ruthless winter is behind us, will you give up your precious parking spot to search for one downtown?

Or will you dust off the bicycle?

More and more of my friends and acquaintances are choosing the latter.

These new cyclists are over thirty and none are athletic.

Know what?

None have gone back to using a bus or the car. They’ve been losing weight and feeling more alert and energetic — the kind of personal improvements our culture spends billions searching for. They’re saving money on gas and parking or transit fares. Their travel times are usually as good, if not better, than when they were dealing with traffic and searching for a parking spot.

To top it off, they report experiencing the mild euphoria that comes with using your body to barrel down the road. They actually enjoy their commute.

That’s the beauty of traveling by bike — you don’t need to be young, fit or decked out in fancy gear to get started. Making the leap, however, can take guts.Growing up with cycling enthusiasts as parents (my father was biking up and down the east coast long before anyone had heard of the East Coast Greenway), I started biking shortly after I started walking and for the past eight years, my bike has been my primary source of transportation.

Yet, when I moved to a major city, I felt like I was learning to ride all over again: How do I know which roads are safe? If the road is narrow and traffic’s moving quickly, am I safer on the sidewalk? (Answer: you’re not) How do I keep my bike from getting stolen?

People tend to view the bike commuter’s world as a contemporary wild west full of youthful athletic types boldly weaving between live machines. Yet, according to the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, bicycle fatalities are incredibly rare — about 15 percent as common as pedestrian fatalities.

Several of our staff members at Traffic Safety Store are longtime bikers and as members of the growing urban cult, we’d like you to join us. So we gathered our combined cycle-smarts, did some extra research, and put together these guidelines to help you get safe, get confident, and get where you need to be on a bicycle:

1. Riding With Cars

Sharing the road with vehicle traffic is safer and more manageable than it appears. There are tried and true methods and tons of free resources that help you adopt new skills. Remember, bike commuting is a lifestyle change so don’t pressure yourself into dangerous or uncomfortable situations. Instead, focus on growing your abilities in stages:

Biker’s Ed: There’s no shame in taking cycling lessons as an adult, especially if you’ve never biked in the city. The Ride Smart Program by League of American Bicyclists trains and certifies thousands of instructors who provide classes to adults in locations across the country. Check the Ride Smart homepage to find the nearest class/instructor or to view educational videos and tips sheets. You can also reach out to your local cycling coalitions or statewide advocacy group for workshops or download education manuals published by transportation agencies, such as Baltimore Commuter Resource Guide.

Practice: Start out on low-traffic residential roads where drivers are less rushed. Once you’re ready to take on more, find an experienced bike buddy or ask around at work for a fellow cyclist who shares your route. Partnering not only keeps you motivated and helps you learn, it makes you more visible. Do a “dry run” of your commuting route on a Sunday or non-peak hours.

Common Sense: Beyond core principles and practices, the golden rule is just because you can doesn’t mean you should. You should be aware that:

  • Listening to music cuts out honks, warning shouts, bells from passing cyclists and other vital safety cues.

  • Riding on the sidewalk endangers pedestrians and drivers don’t see you approaching the intersection

  • Hugging on-street parking while riding at high speeds increases your risk of getting smacked with a driver-side door (called dooring) — the cause of up to twenty percent of bicycle accidents .

  • Bicycling while intoxicated is as prevalent in bike accidents as driving while intoxicated

2. Your Route

Biking is a great way to explore your city. While you’re getting the hang of it, avoid hazards — including potholes, narrow passages, high speed bridges — by planning ahead.

Mapping: Check with your local cycling coalition for maps of protected or painted bike lanes, routes that combine biking and public transit, and locations with public bike parking or storage. You can also use the bicycling option on Google Map (it’s the “…” after the walking symbol). Just be sure to check the street view on unfamiliar roads. Spend some time familiarizing yourself with the directions before you leave.

Judging Distance and Time: Expect bike trips to take at least 6 minutes per mile or 30 minutes for a 5 mile commute. If you’re out of shape or just starting, factor in a little extra. Multiply your estimated time by 1½ so you have some padding. As you get comfortable, don’t be afraid to take on a few extra miles. Extended commutes tend to give bikers extra energy — you might be surprised by how much distance you can cover.

3. Staying Visible To Cars

Drivers are typically looking out for other cars. Be obvious.

Clothes: Wear light and bright clothing in daylight hours and reflective clothes at night. Government regulated high visibility clothes offer the maximum protection and cost significantly less than gear sold by specialty retailers. Mesh fabric is breathable and lets wind pass through so it won’t slow your ride.

Lights: Most states require a front headlight and rear reflector. Choose a light that’s water resistant and USB rechargeable. Cygolite brand headlamps are high quality and tend to be less expensive. Make sure your headlamp is securely installed between your handlebars and angled slightly downwards so it illuminates to road ahead and doesn’t blind oncoming drivers.

Road Skills: Keep straight. Jumping on and off the sidewalk, swerving between gridlocked cars, or moving between the onstreet parking lane to the bike or vehicle traffic lane makes you less visible and less predictable to motorists. Use hand signals to warn drivers before you stop or turn.

4. Helmets

According to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, wearing a helmet reduces your risk of head injury by 85 percent.

Purchasing: Any retail product with the label “bicycle helmet” has been certified by Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) so you can expect the same safety benefits from a $40 helmet as a $140 helmet. Do not get a used one unless you know its history. Recommendations on when to replace a helmet range from one to five years, depending on use. Once the interior padding flattens — or your helmet receives impact due to an accident — it’s time to get a new one.

Putting it on: Less expensive helmets are “one size fits all” with an adjustable back. A secure fit should lightly grip the base of your skull. You can test this by unhooking the chin strap and bending over so that the top of your head faces the ground. If the helmet stays on — and you don’t feel pressure on your cranium — it’s a good fit. A helmet be worn parallel to the ground, not tilted upwards like a hat:

5. Protection From Outdoor Elements

Cycle commuting means spending more time outside. While that’s often a welcome lifestyle addition, it means more exposure to sun, wind and other elements. Here’s how to prepare:

Eyes: Wear flexible UV-blocking sunglasses that wrap around your face and protect your eyes rain, pollution, construction dust, debris and other urban elements. Lightweight protective glasses are anti-breakage, designed for active use and cost less than designer frames.

Face: Sunblock and moisturizer are a must!

Hands: When cycling, your hands have direct exposure to wind so they tend to get colder than other parts of your body. When choosing gloves, make sure you have full mobility in all five fingers. Smartwool is a popular option. Some riders rely on biker gloves but ski gloves work too.

Ears: A headband or skullcap can protect your ears from wind or tailwinds and prevent earache.

Clothing: Fitted clothing is better, but the main thing you need to worry about is keeping fabric away from your gear chain. Roll up your right pant leg or wear a band around the ankle and avoid wearing long, flowing skirts. Put on biker shorts or tights underneath shorter skirts. Remember bright and reflective clothes (Lesson 3: Visibility). Other useful garments include: windbreakers, rainproof outerwear, galoshes/rain boots, and a rain poncho.

6. Theft Prevention

Bikes in the city get stolen all the time. Police are notorious for ignoring low-grade theft and many stolen bikes end up in unofficial chop shops where they’re sorted into parts.

Locks: Never buy an inexpensive lock or rely on a coil or chain-and-padlock combo — these are easy to break. U-locks, particularly certain Kryptonite products, have extremely good deterrent records. That said no lock is 100 percent theft proof. Make sure you secure all detachable items — including wheels and helmet — and keep accessories on your person. If your wheels are quick release, detach one wheel, stack it against the other wheel, and run a U-lock through both wheels and the bike frame.

Common Sense: Don’t buy a top-of-the line touring bike if you’re planning to use it for commutes. Avoid locking your bike on an empty or unfamiliar street or leaving it outside overnight. Beware of corners with loiterers. If work or school allows, bring the bike inside. If not, find the closest bike corral or bike parking rack.

Registry and Reporting: Free online services for theft prevention and reporting include BikeShepard and StolenBicycleRegistry.

7. Tire & Chain Care

Start building a relationship with your local bike shop. If you get a used bike (like many new commuters), make sure to get it inspected for issues with the brakes, cables or gearshift. Eventually you’ll want to seek out a maintenance workshop and learn how to change a flat. Regular at-home upkeep includes:

Tire Pressure: Keeping your tires full is the best way to avoid flats. Check your tire pressure at least once a week using a gauge on a bike pump (available for use at many local bike shops). They should have 80-100 pcps of air pressure (90 or less in the front and slightly more in the back). Keep a spare tube and a patch kit with you.

Tire Skins: Tire skins last about a year before they need to be replaced. In the city — where broken glass, loose nails, construction staples, and potholes are common– you’re more likely to puncture your tire and get a flat. Be vigilant about the condition of the road and if you hit a glassy patch, pull over and run your finger nails over the tire tread to make sure menacing shards aren’t stuck to your skins.

Spokes: Check your spokes every few months (or more if your bike is well worn) by pressing gently but firmly on each spoke of both wheels. They should be completely taught. Loose or even slightly wobbly spokes can throw a tire out of alignment and cause it to rub up against the brake pads making pedaling extremely difficult.

Chain: The city can add a lot of build up to your gears and chain so try to clean them at least once a week:

  1. Start by flipping your bike upside down so the bike is balanced on the seat and handlebars and the wheels are free to spin.

  2. With a dry rag over the palm-side of your hand, lightly but firmly grasp the chain between your thumb and two fingers.

  3. Use your free hand to rotate the pedal so that the chain passes through the rag collecting dirt.

  4. If your chain is extra dirty, use a toothbrush to clean between the links

  5. As the chain passes through the rag, add a drop of chain lube every so often. A few to several drops is generally enough.

  6. Keep rotating the pedals till the excess lube is removed and the chain is dry. Too much lube can actually make your chain slip out of gear.

  7. Wipe off any build up on the gear.

  8. If your chain is really dirty, you can take it off, wash it with soap and water and then add a little lube once it’s back on.

  9. Pay attention, when cleaning, to links that seem stiff. These may have fallen out of their link plate. Sometimes you can pop them back in, but if your chain is really damaged, you need to replace it.

8. Establishing a Morning Routine

Many sleep-starved commuters set their alarm for the last possible minute and grab breakfast on the way. That’s not going to work on a bike.

Pre-ride meals: You should be hydrated and have some food in your stomach before you head out. Use common sense. Oatmeal, peanut butter and toast, and banana smoothies are good fuel. Greasy or large meals will have you searching for a bathroom.

Leaving on time: If you’re in a hurry you’re less likely to notice your surroundings so be sure to factor your estimated travel time. Keep in mind that cycle-commuting is a repetitive physical task. Setting aside an extra 15 minutes for stretching or light yoga before you leave is never a bad idea.

9. Cargo

Commuting includes errands. Avoid tying bags to your handlebars or relying on backpacks –they leave sweat stains and can provoke repetitive stress injuries to your back. Use a messenger bag when necessary and consider installing a front basket, or a side rack and pannier to your back wheel. When pedaling, make sure the pannier provides decent heal clearance.



  1. The bit about bike helmets is terribly inaccurate, and uses information related to MOTORCYCLE helmet laws.

    The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, which is also linked in that section, has a breakdown of bicycle helmet laws around the country.

    In summary, there are no state-wide laws requiring helmet use by adults. Washington state has pervasive adult helmet mandates that apply to many (if not all) counties, but that’s been developed on a per-county basis. All other county or municipal mandates apply to children or working cyclists.

    Also, the claim of 85% effectiveness is discredited. It was based on the results of a single Seattle study that used a questionable methodology, and no other study has been able to reproduce those results. NHTSA has recently been forced to stop citing that study because its results have not been supported by subsequent research.

    At best, helmets appear to be the final layer of protection when everything else is already going wrong. Nobody wants to be in that situation, but suggesting a plan Z without also talking about classes to improve bike handling and accident avoidance skills, groups to gain riding experience, commuter convoys to share the trips with fellow cyclists, workshops and co-ops to learn basic bicycle upkeep and maintenance, really puts the emphasis in the wrong places.

    1. Hi Dave,

      Thanks for your comments. We removed the motorcycle stat shortly after the article was published and the mistake was brought to our attention.

      The 85% claim from Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute is still one of the most widely cited stats related to helmets and injury prevention. While we recognize the study is limited, Traffic Safety Store still promotes the use of bicycle helmets as a practical safety measure particularly for novice cyclists, the intended audience.

      We completely agree that learning safety skills, taking classes and getting practice is the most important safety measure when it comes to bicycle commuting. This is why that information and the appropriate resources are discussed at the very top of the list.

      Thanks again,

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