Unsolicited Advice For People Who Might Want Advice on Bike Commuting

Have you noticed that it's spring? Sort of? Along with buds on trees, spring also brings us new buds in bike lanes- people who have decided that perhaps the time is right to begin or begin again commuting by bicycle. I think that's great. I know that when I first starting riding a bike to work regularly, I spent a fair amount of time (or maybe just once or twice) googling 'bike commuter advice' or 'bike commuter tips' or 'bike commute with toy poodle safe?' in the hope that perhaps the collective wisdom of the people on the internet might provide me some guidance on how to better do the thing that I had just started to set upon doing. Whether this was ultimately a fruitful exercise is not something I'm totally able to answer. In many regards, there is little substitution for lived experience and additionally, not everyone has the same opinions on these things (I know, people disagreeing on the internet? Well, I never!), but I offer below some musings on things that you can choose to acknowledge or ignore as you transition to sometimes or always riding your bicycle to work:

1. Keep your tires inflated. Seems pretty obvious, but surprisingly easy to not do. Floor pumps are better than hand pumps, but best of all would be a mechanism that incorporates Reebok Pump sneakers, but I'm assuming that intellectual property issues have prevented such an amazing technology from coming to market. Lots of bike shops have pumps available and if you happen to ride past one during the hours that the store is open or if there's always one outside, you can get by relying on those. There are a few public pumps in DC, but not a ton.

2. Give approximately zero fucks if someone bicycles faster than you. The speed at which you commute has approximately zero bearing on anything. Faster does not mean "better at bike commuting" and slower does not mean "worse at bike commuting." Bike commuting isn't college football. There is no AP poll of bike commuters and the top 4 bike commuters will not meet in a series of overhyped bowl games to determine which 2 bike commuters will compete for the national championship brought to you by Tostitos. If you like to ride fast, go crazy* . If you don't, don't. There is no right or wrong speed to ride your bike to work. You'll eventually develop your own pace and it'll work for you. If you want to ride faster because riding fast is a thing you want to do, then do it. Just don't feel pressured to do it by anyone. Also, say no to drugs and eat your vegetables. But what if you want to eat vegetables, but you need to take a drug in order to do so because you're allergic or something? What then? WHAT THEN? I have no answer for you.
* go crazy within reason. You can go fast without being inconsiderate.

3. Figure out if you can bike in your work clothes or if you need to change when you get to work. You really don't want to get this wrong. No one wants to work with the gross guy who bikes 8 miles uphill in his suit and arrives covered in sweat and smells really bad. Every office has a different dress code and different facilities (maybe showers, maybe a gym?), so you'll need to determine the correct level of grossness tolerance at yours and how your bicycling to work might impact your own individual grossness. Maybe it will, maybe it won't. Just don't be delusional about it.

4. Some rides will be better than others. That's ok. Some drives are better than others. Some metro trips are better than others. Some walks are better than others. Some sandwiches are better than others. Don't let one frustrating or tiresome or just plain crummy bike commute dissuade you from the whole enterprise. On balance, I find, that if you decide to stick with it (and ultimately, it's a decision. No one is forcing you and if you don't want to commute by bike, don't force yourself to do it) the good rides are more common than the bad ones.

5. At red lights where there is no bike lane, merge with car traffic. So let's say you're one of those lame bicyclists who lamely pays attention to lame traffic laws, and you're riding down a street and you notice that you're coming up to a red light. I find it helpful to move more towards the middle of the lane and get in line with the drivers who might also be waiting at that light. This does a few things, but most importantly, it keeps you visible and lessens the likelihood of your getting hooked by a turning car. It also clearly indicates when it's your turn to go, thereby lessening CONFUSION. Also, I think when bicyclists try to sneak by in the little space between stopped cars and the curb, it's sometimes awkward, at least if you have my level of coordination and depth perception. You don't really want to accidentally bump into anything or fall over trying to fit yourself and your bike through a space not wide enough to fit you. Anyway, this is just something I find to be helpful. I don't know if it's LCI approved or anything.

6. Know if public transportation is available on your route and if you can take your bike on it. Just in case of unforeseen mechanical problems or if you just don't feel like riding anymore or anything in between. It's always good to have a backup plan. If you can't take your bike with you and can't tarry in getting to work, disguise your bike using mud, twigs, and leaves and hide it amongst nearby shrubbery. Or throw your bike into the upper branches of a tree to keep it away from bears. Or lock it up somewhere safe-looking and get it when you can. I don't think I've ever left my bike overnight somewhere other than my workplace because I'm a big baby and worry about it getting stolen and also because I use my rear blinky light as a night light and to make sure that ships don't crash into our house, so I always try to get my bike back as soon after work as I can. Speaking of which...

7. Lights at night. Always. This is non-negotiable.

8. Be obliging, but not submissive. So, this one is kind of tricky and maybe more an attitudinal stance than anything else, but generally speaking, I think that courtesy is paramount. Whether we like it or not and no matter how we're getting to work, we're pretty much all in this together. If you have the chance to be polite, taking that chance wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. For example, if your moving slightly over wouldn't in any way imperil or impact you and would give the driver behind you a little more room to safely pass you, I don't think there's anything wrong with doing that. Should you always ride two inches from the curb and jump to the sidewalk every time a car pulls up behind you? No. That's silly. I just think a commitment to convivencia, especially when there are no real negative stakes, is something worth pursuing. Some other points vaguely related:

a. Don't be hyper-legalistic about your "rights to the road" unless you're going to be hyper-legalistic about everyone else's rights to it too. That typically means that you shouldn't disrespect pedestrians. Think of them as bicyclists without bikes. Or gauchos without horses and a backdrop of the pampas and cattle of any kind.

b. Think "if I saw another person do this thing I'm about to do, would I think that person is being rude?" If the answer is yes, then maybe don't do it. If the answer is no, ask yourself again but pretend that person is someone who don't like. For example, If Jennifer Lawrence or Anne Hathaway just did that, would you be like "ok, that's fine" or would you be like "HOW DARE SHE!" [point of order: I don't have strong dislike towards either Jennifer Lawrence or Anne Hathaway, but I think some people do for some reason]

c. Karma is real and the universe has a way of coming into balance. I don't believe in a lot of things, but I believe unreservedly in this.

d. Very few grievances in the history of the world have been successfully redressed by shouting at someone through an open car window. Maybe I'm a pushover, but I try to just let things go. Sure, I'll flip a bird or make some remark at the moment of transgression, but then it's over. Unless someone hits you or threw something at your or otherwise created some seriously harmful situation, it's probably not worth trying to chase them down. I firmly believe that all people living in a city (not just bicyclists) have a civic responsibility to get over the tiny little annoying (but ultimately harmless) things that their fellow citizens do.Maybe you'll be happier not trying to seek out vengeance  for every tiny slight. Or maybe, because of that one time you yelled at the one lady who thoughtlessly did a jerk thing, you'll fix all of the grievances in the world and no one will ever do a jerk thing to anyone else ever again. I don't know.

9. Have fun. People listen to the radio in cars to make their commutes less boring. Same reason people read on the Metro. These commute modes afford the opportunity to partially accommodate a certain level of amusement. As does bicycling. Maybe you can't read or don't want to listen to music during your bike commute, but you can try to use the time to enjoy yourself. To clear your head. To think about funny dogs you've known. To look at contemporary fashion and wonder why it's not more Jetson-y. There are lots of ways to generally angle your disposition towards fun-having and doing that, I think, isn't a bad idea.

In conclusion, don't take advice from random people on the internet. Commute to work by bicycle if you'd like and pay attention to the world around you and try to be a mostly kind person when doing both of those things and that's pretty much all that I have to say on the matter. Enjoy spring.


  1. At thewashcycle, I do rank bike commuters. And you're in 2nd to last, just ahead of Anita Bonds.

  2. Thank you. Great advice. --Todd B.

  3. There is only one rule. Everything I learned in my long decades of bicycle commuting, starting in the days when cars were equipped with cowcatchers just to snag the unobservant cyclist, is gospel truth. That makes me right, and all the rest of you whippersnappers wrong.

  4. You forgot oil the chain occasionally. It just makes the bike go better and I've seen lots of commuters with a dry rusting chain.

  5. I would say, "Don't be afraid." I think my biggest hurdle to getting into cycle commuting several years ago was the notion of being paranoid about drivers hitting me. Which is not paranoia, like they always say, you want your pilot to be paranoid on a plane, just not your steward/ess. But the reality is that it's really not that bad if you're visible and you're aware of your surroundings (ie, don't wear earbuds in both ears--leave the left one out, don't make abrupt/unpredictable moves, wear bright clothing and have flashy lights). That's all I would add. Great advice.

  6. Ha, I wish I had seen this when it was current. I didn't need any of it and have nothing to add, but I enjoy fun and this was a fun read.

    Oh, okay. If you're sitting on your bike and your knees are constantly at a 90-degree angle throughout the entirety of your spin, you need to raise your damn bike seat. That is all.


  7. I usually wear an orange reflective vests (the type that they sell in running stores) when I'm riding at night. Pretty much look like a dork, I realize...but I often kinda look like a dork anyways, so no great loss there, I guess.

    Good post - it's always useful to have the reminder to 'be (mostly) kind' during commuting, regardless of the method one uses to get around.