Grist editor tries out bike commuting in Seattle (and has some great advice)

Getting started as a regular bike commuter is the equivalent of jumping into a cold pool instead of slowly moving, cold inch by cold inch, into the water. Unlike a recreational ride where you can stick only to friendly bike paths, a bike commute forces you to forge your way between two fixed points, no matter what lies in the way.

And, like Laura Schlabach at Grist found, the experience is liberating (if not a little hairy at times).

I’ve read a whole lot of overly-complicated advice pieces for beginning bike commuters written from people who have been doing it for so long they have their own unique solution to every little issue. But Schlabach’s advice essentially boils down to: Watch what other people biking do, and let yourself make some mistakes:

Watch experienced bikers and don’t be embarrassed to imitate them. Watching a guy I call Blue Helmet Dude, a fellow bike commuter I see most mornings if I leave my house on time, I learned to use hand signals and check behind me before changing lanes.

Following a woman one morning, I took note of her cute dress and leggings, which helped me feel better about my lack of actual bike clothes. She also coasted through a four-way stop after scanning for oncoming cars and pedestrians — kind of a varsity move, called an “Idaho-stop,” that is actually illegal in my state, but even Randy Cohen, The Ethicist, thinks it’s OK.

Don’t be scared of asking questions or making mistakes. The first time I tried to load my bike onto the rack on the front of a bus, the driver had to actually get out of the bus and come help me. (Hey, it’s more complicated than it looks!) He seemed amused though, and I realized I was kind of proud to be forging ahead through new territory.

In order to get more people on bikes, I think we have to be kind to ourselves. My progress has been gradual, over the course of an entire year. Do a little prep work beforehand, but there will always be unforeseen challenges or surprises when you actually start riding. Don’t be afraid to give yourself a little grace.

Read more…

I would love to crowd source a beginning bike commuting post specific to Seattle. What (relatively simple) advice do you have? I’ll wrangle your thoughts and mine into a future post.

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32 Responses to Grist editor tries out bike commuting in Seattle (and has some great advice)

  1. Connie says:

    Take a cycling class, or several, before you start. It’s much easier to deal with traffic, pedestrians, and everything around you if are physically ready to to ride. Fit or not, riding uses different muscles, and a cycling class is a safe place to get used to riding.

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      Are you talking about spin classes? I’ve never heard that suggestion before. Interesting.

      My partner Kelli teaches spin sometimes, and she thinks people who take spin classes (which are often grueling) might leave the gym thinking cycling is harder than it actually is. But for someone whose biggest reason for not bike commuting is that they feel out of shape, I could totally see spin classes as a way to gain some confidence. Great tip!

  2. David Amiton says:

    Hi Tom – We have a pretty decent list of “Getting Started” tips on the UW Commuter Services website (https://www.washington.edu/facilities/transportation/commuterservices/bike/getting-started), but we could totally benefit from crowd sourcing new and different ideas for helping folks get on bikes. It’ll be interesting to see what folks suggest!

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      That’s a pretty good guide! I feel like there’s a bit too much gear for my tastes (I can’t stand rain pants, but I know some people swear by them). And those are the kinds of things that people should figure out as they go.

      Acquiring a bike probably deserves a post of its own. You have some good advice there. It’s surprisingly hard for someone to find their first bike, especially if they can’t afford a new one (AKA, ppl with a budget of $500 or less). So maybe the bike acquisition post would have two parts: Those who can afford a new bike and those who need one on the cheap.

  3. Tom Fucoloro says:

    Is anyone interested in helping to create some graphics/illustrations of some kind for this guide? I don’t know what of yet, but that could be a fun addition (and I have no such skillz). Email tom@seattlebikeblog.com if interested.

  4. Bryan Willman says:

    You can do utility riding such as commuting well into the dark months in Seattle because the temps are OK and snow/ice aren’t much of an issue. But sunlight will be. It’s probably best to start in the spring/summer/early fall, get comfortable commuting by day, and then keep going into the winter, adjusting clothing and lighting as you go.

    Multiple redundant cheap lights are probably best.

    • Jeff Dubrule says:

      I go with a single helmet-mounted USB-rechargable setup (http://www.amazon.com/Light-Motion-360-Helmet-Tailight/dp/B003YLTUDA)

      This way, you don’t have to spend forever detaching & stowing junk from your bike, if you’re about to lock it up someplace mildly sketchy. Also, the head-mounted spotlight means you light up what you’re looking at, give good indications to drivers about where you’re looking, and, if needed, you can zap someone in the face at night, if they haven’t gotten around to noticing you.

      The blinking feature is also nice during the day, which I didn’t appreciate until I turned it on, and noticed a huge difference in how I got treated when cars noticed me a second or two earlier.

  5. Nikki says:

    I would like to echo what Laura says above – you do NOT need cycling “gear” or the Spandex in order to commute. I throw on a pair of leggings under dresses just for modesty’s sake, but many many women in Seattle don’t – and it’s okay!! I think what people think they need to wear to cycle is what holds a lot of (particularly women) back.

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      I agree. I spent a lot of money on a synthetic rain jacket that turned into an oven whenever I went up hills on rainy-but-not-too-cold days. Then I bought an old wool jacket from Value Village for $9 that is the best rain jacket I’ve ever owned.

      Don’t have a rain jacket? Try using a wool sweater you already own.

      • Kirk From Ballard says:

        Personally, I like cycle clothes for cycling. But I think the most important thing is to wear a really bright top, especially during the daytime. I pretty much always wear a limey green jacket or jersey. Being visible is paramount!

  6. When riding streets, act like a predictable car and follow traffic laws. You don’t have to be perfect, but you must be aware of how your actions affect other road users.
    You can also use sidewalls, but following a different set of rules at a much slower pace

    • Kirk From Ballard says:

      Good advice. Ingnore any advice not to use the sidewalks; they are often the most prudent route. Know the laws too, http://www.seattle.gov/transportation/bikecode.htm

    • Timmy says:

      be aware of how your actions affect other road users.

      That’s it in a nutshell. You can never predict with 100% accuracy how a driver or a pedestrian will react to the utterly confusing sight of a bicycle in the road, but if you’re alert, you can minimize your chance of getting hit or hitting something.

      When there’s no traffic around, do whatever the hell you want.

      But while running with the bulls, be intent on maximizing your visibility and minimizing erratic or sudden moves.

      “Act like a car” is oversimplifying the matter. If you’re climbing a long, steep hill at 5 or 6 mph, you really can’t always “take the lane.” You have to pull over as far as you can, or get on an alternate route or something.

  7. Tyler says:

    I think lots of people are probably intimidated by traffic and by how hilly Seattle is. A couple of ways to address both of these is to use Google Maps to figure out your route ahead of time, which usually shows which roads are more bike friendly (and if you add the “terrain” layer, you can see where the more moderate hills are vs the steep ones). For example, I find Pine to be a good way to/from Capitol Hill and downtown because of the bike lanes and the moderate elevation change.

    And adding multiple lights on the front and back make me feel better about biking in the dark/winter.

    Good advice to act like a car, follow the rules of the road, not worry about gear, and get tips from other riders.

    • Jeff Dubrule says:

      MapMyRide will also let you click out a route, then show you the elevation graph, which can be handy. Good rule of thumb: a low-key daily bike commute should not involve any tour-de-france rated climbs (not even a category 5).

  8. Doug says:

    1. Take your bike to a shop for a safety check, especially if it hasn’t been ridden in a while.

    2. When planning your route, give yourself ten minutes per mile. This gives you enough time to deal with problems along the route. Or stop and enjoy a nice park for a few minutes.

    3. Learn how to repair a flat tire.

    4. Invest in lights. Bright ones are pretty cheap these days. Carry them on every trip, even if your not planning on riding after dark.

    5. Consider using panniers or some form of on-the-bike luggage solution. Backpacks can be uncomfortable and sweaty.

  9. Kay says:

    I ride to and from work a few times a week.
    Often in a dress and heels, which seems to blow people’s minds.

    I am not an expert rider. Here are my guidelines:

    1. I ride slowly. I’m not racing anyone. I’m going to work. It’s nice. Enjoy it.
    2. Make eye contact with drivers.
    3. Big hill? I get off and walk for a block or two. I am not ashamed to admit that I cannot get my single speed uphill from Alaksa to 1st Ave. I walk those blocks.

  10. shannon says:

    I wear bike clothes and carry work clothes carefully folded in a plastic bag. My work clothes are always dry–unlike those of colleagues who must stand around waiting for the bus or walk from an uncovered parking spot.

    No sweat. Literally!

  11. Frana says:

    Great suggestions! Here are a few more:

    Test out your commuting routes on the weekend so you’ll know what to expect, where the sketchy patches of road are, where the crazy intersections are, etc.

    Invest in water-proof panniers!

    Adjust your expectations on time – you’re riding to work, not racing traffic. Take your time and enjoy the brisk morning!

    Buy a skull cap layer thingie for under your helmet – very helpful for big downhills on chilly mornings.

    Prepare your stuff the night before so you can just grab and go in the morning.

  12. merlin says:

    Don’t count on the maps to tell you the best route. Bike maps often direct you away from the low-traffic neighborhood streets that are perfectly fine for biking – and maps also sometimes miss paths that are open to bikes and walking but not cars. For example on Capitol Hill there are a number of streets with traffic diverters that keep out cars but let bikes through. And the Seattle Bike Map doesn’t include many of the paths through parks that are closed to cars.

    To make a left turn on a busy street, you can do a “Copenhagen turn” – or a “two-step turn.” Cross the intersection in the right-hand lane (or in the crosswalk, moving at walking speed), stop at the other side, then turn your bike so it faces the direction you want to go and wait for the light to change (or the traffic to clear).

    Take advantage of the fact that with a bike, you can magically transform yourself from a vehicle to a pedestrian and back again. For example, if you are trying to cross a busy arterial at an unmarked crosswalk (every intersection is an unmarked crosswalk and drivers are supposed to stop for pedestrians), you can hop off your bike and wait patiently as a pedestrian for someone to come along who knows the law (this can take quite awhile). Smile or blow a kiss as you walk your bike across the street, then hop back on your bike. If you’re trying to get through downtown in rush hour, you may need to get off your bike and walk a stretch on the sidewalk. And as others have said, there is absolutely no shame in walking your bike up the hill. Or down the hill, or wherever you just feel like you’d rather walk than ride.

    Don’t hug the curb to stay away from cars. The worst potholes, sunken drain grates and general debris lurk along the curb, and when you ride close to the curb, drivers will try to squeeze by you when there isn’t room. If you ride well out in the lane, even going really slow, drivers will recognize that they can’t pass you without moving over.

    If you encounter a problem, report it. Potholes: report to the SDOT website (http://www.seattle.gov/transportation/potholereport.htm). No bike parking? You can request a rack through the Seattle Bike Program (http://www.seattle.gov/transportation/bikeparking.htm). Run into a road hazard, have a crash, or have your bike stolen? Log it on Bikewise (http://bikewise.org/).

    Make a habit of reading Seattle Bike Blog – and let Tom know your questions, your concerns and your great bike ideas. Welcome to Seattle and to the joys of riding!

    • Jeff Dubrule says:

      Also file a police report if your bike gets nicked, so if you happen to see it again, you have a paper-trail of its disappearance.

  13. Chris Covert-Bowlds says:

    Welcome to commuting by bicycle!
    Cascade Bicycle Club has great info & classes at
    http://www.cbcef.org/bike-commuting-resources.html
    & message board: http://www.cascade.org/Community/forum
    League of American Bicyclists has great info:
    http://www.bikeleague.org/resources/better/roadrules.php
    Seattle bicycle map shows better streets, not all noted on google bicycle maps :
    http://www.seattle.gov/transportation/bikemapOnline.htm

  14. Ellie P. says:

    Having started not all that long ago myself, here’s a few bits of advice:

    - Be predictable and bike like you are invisible.

    - Cycling on the street is scary at first. Take it slow; you’ll get more accustomed to it.

    - When planning a route, ask around and observe where others bike in your area. For example, Google Maps advises taking The Ave out of the U-District but that’s nonsense. Sharrows don’t make it any less crazy! Brooklyn is much wider, less trafficky, and has fewer stop lights.

    - When buying a bike (new or used), if you’re trying to choose between comparable options, pick the lighter one. You won’t regret it when you have to load your bike on a bus or lift it onto your porch.

    - Speaking of which, bus+bike is a wonderful combination, but the racks are finicky. Read up on how they work or ask a friend, and find a non-rush-hour time for lower stress practice.

    - Bring your perspective as a pedestrian and driver to your cycling–both to ensure your safety and to be considerate of everyone. If you drive, notice what cyclists do (good and bad). Don’t be a ninja cyclist.

    - Hand signals are great but not always safe! I got into a minor spill trying to signal, balance and brake similtaneously going downhill. Hands-free alternatives include looking over your shoulder, moving over in the lane, making eye contact, slowing down, etc.

    - Follow the rules of the road–not only is it safer, but you earn more respect from drivers when you’re following the same rules they are.

    - Take it slow if you want; don’t let the hardcore spandex dudes set your pace.

    - Make it fun and be proud of (and patient with) yourself.

  15. lisae156 says:

    I would advise people to start out with short trips around their neighborhood to get acquainted with the feel of being on a bike and in traffic, don’t go straight for commuting even 5 miles to work first off. I started with mile long trips to the grocery store and didn’t do much else for several months until I got used to things.

  16. Jeff Dubrule says:

    My main bit of advice would be to not be afraid to adjust your route several times until it’s safe, quick, and comfortable. Try a couple of different ways around hill sections, or see if there’s an alternate route around a traffic-y bit. Don’t be afraid to swap a shorter-stressful route for a slightly-longer relaxed route.

    Don’t buy gear until you’ve actually identified a need. Do you really need to be able to fix a flat-tire mid-commute? Is there a frequent bus route that could be your AAA if you break down, and take you to home or work, where you can fix it with real tools and a real pump.

  17. Josh Miller says:

    In collaboration with four local colleges, the Bicycle Alliance of Washington offers a “Go By Bike” bicycling safety and commuter tips course. The courses have been running since Spring 2012 and will be available at Bellevue College, Olympic College in Bremerton, Pierce College at Steilacoom and North Seattle Community College this fall quarter and again in 2013. The course is divided between classroom and on-bike education and we cover rules of the road, traffic law, lane position, safe biking practices, equipment, equipment inspection, bicycle handling, evasive maneuvering and more. The course is fun and interactive and open to the general public. For non-matriculated students taking only the 1-credit class the cost is around $100. I am the program manager and one of the instructors for the course. Please contact me with any questions, if you are interested in taking the course and feel free to refer prospective students to me (joshm@bicyclealliance.org).

  18. Josh Miller says:

    If folks haven’t loaded bikes onto bus racks they should practice before they are trying it on the bus for the first time.

    There are practice bus racks for bikes at several locations. I know there is one at North Seattle Community College (outdoors) and also at the Bicycle Alliance of Washington’s office at 314 1st Ave S (open 9-5 weekdays) in Seattle.

  19. jeanette says:

    for me, just diving headfirst into it was the best way to go vs spending too much time panicking and worrying about it. i went from not having ridden a bike for 10 years to buying a used novara buzz from recycled cycles and commuting 16 mi/day, 5 days/week year around. and believe me, if i can do it, anyone can do it. i was lucky that i was able to find a good used basic commute bike for $325. do a practice run of your commute with a friend beforehand, don’t worry about buying a bunch of gear (i biked in gym clothes until i knew what i figured out what i really needed), and make sure to get a tune up if you’re using an older bike that hasn’t been tuned recently. it’s worth every penny, and any issue with your bike will be magnified in rain/wind/crappy seattle weather.

    also, keeping your chain clean and greasing it regularly (and properly) makes a big difference. i paid way too much money getting my shifting adjusted and replacing parts (i really had no idea what i was doing) because i never cleaned and i over-greased my chain. and if you’re riding in seattle’s urban area, don’t worry about keeping a spare tube and learning how to change a flat on the side of the road when you’re just getting started. you can always walk your bike to a bus stop if you need to.

    but mostly, try not to get angry at the rude drivers and give a wave and a smile to the courteous ones. keeping a good attitude is key to managing the learning curve of bike commuting. and read this bike blog, or any other bike blog – you’ll pick up lots of little bits of random advice in the articles and comments.

  20. Darren says:

    All good advice posted in the comments. If you have a frustrating ride – we all do – don’t stop commuting! The more cyclists are seen, the more drivers will pay attention and accept that we are road users. And please, don’t blow stop lights when there are numerous cars – and cyclists – waiting for the green light. It doesn’t do anyone any good and you are frustrating ALL road users. Cheers.

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