Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Things I Have Learned: Bike Commute Edition

So it's a month or so since I started riding the bike to work and back. It's about 8.5 miles each way, and I have recently (like 2 weeks ago) graduated from the lakeshore path. Yes! I have achieved biking-with-traffic! And I have to say that the world of bicycle internet-ness was very, very, very helpful. (Dottie and Trisha and all their LGRAB commenters over the years: I am looking at you.) But I figured I'd add to the impressive body of work by listing out some things that I didn't know until after I'd hopped on the bike a few times.

So if you commute to work by bike, this may apply. If you bike to work in a sizeable city, this will probably apply. If you bike to work in Chicago, I am fairly positive this will all apply.

So here are my insights:

1.  I had already known to check the weather, of course – because I live in a place where sunny blue skies have no correlation to temperature, and one can easily wear/shed several clothing layers (and always carry both sunglasses and an umbrella) and STILL not be adequately prepared for the weather turnings. But now I know to specifically look at the wind. Anything more than 10mph means something significant to my commute, and which direction it's blowing matters SO MUCH now. One day I was 20 minutes late to work because of wind. Another time I got home in record time. This is the kind of thing that you want to plan around. So lesson learned: check the wind.

2.  If traveling on the north side, check to see if the Cubs are playing before you decide to bike up Clark Street. Never, ever, ever bike through that stretch of road on game day. The bike lane is full of drunks. It's also full of sober people who don't think anything of strolling slowly in front of car traffic, much less bike traffic. Avoid it at all costs.

3.  I got my first flat! Then I got my second flat, the same day. HURRAY. So I've learned how important it is to know how to fix a flat, how to have the necessary tools on hand at all times. I had everything I needed to fix the flat, except for the know-how and a pump. Both of which are really important. (What you need: tire levers, a spare tube, pump. It's actually ridiculously easy.)  Good thing my teammate and fellow bike commuter Matt had the time and the inclination to teach me, plus a hand pump to help the process along. But if you don’t have the tools or the bike-savvy friend on hand, then...

4.   Know where your nearest bus/train route is. This is obviously assuming you're in an area with public transit. If you're not (or even really if you are) then have a functioning cell phone so someone can come rescue you. Anyway, I knew where my nearest bus stop was, so I walked there. And then I learned how to use the bike rack on the front of the bus! Which is another thing you never learn until you have to, but fortunately the CTA driver was nice and helped me. Here are instructions with a video, if you are in Chicago and want to study before you are tested! (Of course, you can take it on the train as well, but not during rush hours, and you don't want a stop that has no elevator, and there are less train lines than bus lines, etc etc etc.)

5.  Like any other form of transportation in the city, it's never 100% reliable. Construction suddenly crops up at a previously peaceful intersection, a detour re-routes you to a street you don't know, the bike map you consulted turns out to be wrong - or you get a flat tire - or any number of other unexpected blips. This happens on trains and in cars too, so it's not quite right to think that commuting by bike is somehow more of a hassle. It’s actually kind of fun, if you're the kind of person who, like me, enjoys a good bit of adventure now and then. In a car, you just bang on the steering wheel and tear your hair out. On the train, you sit there fuming and waiting for the conductor to tell you what the hold-up is. But on the bike you wind up asking construction workers and friendly pedestrians and fellow bikers for suggestions on alternate routes. You try new paths down side streets you never knew were there. You learn how to put your bike on a bus. You feel like a modern-day Lewis and Clark, striking out into new territory with only two wheels and a determination to go forward, not back.

6. It didn't take forever to feel comfortable and non-terrified on the streets. Even the streets of a city as big and crowded as Chicago is. It took me like 1.5 commutes to be totally fine with riding in traffic. But I believe I've adapted so quickly because I already feel entirely comfortable driving a car in the city. And that DID take me quite a while, when I first moved here. But if you can drive it, you can bike it. Actually, the bike commute is a million times more enjoyable/less exasperating than the car commute along the same route would be.

7. It's easier for me, and safer for everyone, and just less likely to freak me out if I think of myself as driving my bike. Not riding it. I treat it as a vehicle, and that way I never wonder what the rules are, and I never take stupid chances that would hurt me or someone else. I am always making mental notes of where the cars are in relation to me, and I'm always looking out for pedestrians and other riders and rogue possums in the road.  Just like I do when I'm driving the car. (But I'm not allowed to drive the car through Lincoln Park, so driving a bike is way better.)

There, that's all I can think of for now. I'm sure I'll discover more as time goes on. Do you have any? If you're in Chicago, you should come by our happy hour tomorrow and tell me all about it. If you're not in Chicago, you can use the beer-less comments section below to tell me all about it.


Alex said...

I am a big fan of the bike/transit commute, especially as I do it almost every day. The ride alone is a bit of a trek for me, but I got a folding bike, so that makes it easy for me to take the train for part of it and then ride once I'm in riding distance of my office.

Beth said...

I love the whole idea of a folding bike, how you can just take it anywhere and store it so easily. Seems like the perfect solution for so much, especially the bike-to-train-to-bike trip.

Though I do admit that I dream of a commuter bike with all kinds of carrying capacity, and a full chaincase and skirt guard and stuff that is just not possible (or at least very difficult) with a folding bike.

I also admit that I want like 7 bikes for various purposes, so...

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