Saturday, July 7, 2012

Bike Commuting in Chicago: Tips!

Olivia v. The Big Bad City

I was talking to Dawn the other day about bikes and biking, and she shared that her city (Indianapolis) is trying to get more cyclists on the roads, create an infrastructure of some kind, and educate drivers on how to share the road. Having lived in Indy and visited often, my hat is off to them - this is not so much a modest initiative as it is a monumental task. The drivers there are not well-disposed toward the idea of sharing the road with other cars, much less with bikes. People think of Chicago as having terrible drivers, but in the city (not to be confused with the many expressways around the city, which is what most outsiders experience) the driving is not bad, once you understand the rhythm of it. There is generally more patience and caution here than there is in less-huge cities, which I attribute to the presence of cops who love to write tickets for Very Large fines, and the presence of pedestrians everywhere.

Thinking about how bike-lucky I am to live here, and how every place has its own cycling personality, so to speak, I thought I'd share a little about the act of bike commuting here. And since everyone at work knows I commute by bike (most days -but of course not in this wretched dratted dashed beastly sonofabitch heat wave, grrr), I often get questions about safety, clothing, and isn't it sweaty? That sort of thing. I think all bike commuters get this, especially women. Anyway, since I find myself saying the same things about it all the time, I thought I'd share the bitty bit of wisdom I've thus far attained. It IS only a bitty bit, but here's the stuff no one ever told me that I seem to be sharing lately.

Tip 1: Beware the Impatience "Hot Zones"
I've noticed that drivers in the city (those who drive cars, that is) are generally pretty careful of everything on the roads, including bicycles. When you drive in a densely populated city in rush hour, you just tend to be more alert and cautious. Plus, everyone's usually going pretty slow anyway, what with all the traffic.

But there are some places where drivers get careless, and I've learned to be super-vigilant. I call them the hot zones of driver impatience, and they are all places where the most patient drivers tend to just say "screw it, I'm going, I don't care!" because they just can't stand waiting anymore. These are:
  1. Entrances/exits to parking garages downtown
  2. Stop lights/turn lanes to get onto the expressway
  3. Anywhere that a delivery truck is blocking the lane and everyone including cyclists are just trying to get past the bottleneck.
Mentally put yourself behind the wheel of a car in any of these hot spots, either when you're just trying to get to work on time or just trying to get home after a long day, and you'll immediately understand the impatience and momentary lapse of caution that happens to drivers at those spots. There are probably more than just these three, but these are the ones I bike through on every commute. It's just a matter of slowing down, being aware, and making eye contact with the oncoming driver whenever you can.

Tip 2: Free and Semi-Secure Bike Parking
Finding bike parking downtown can be challenging in the summer even if you're just wanting to lock up on a bike rack. But what if you have a super-pretty, very nice bike (named Olivia) that you want to keep as safe as humanly possible? Well, if you're like me, your office building offers a locked bike room. If you're luckier than me, that building won't charge $35 per month for a spot. (SERIOUSLY. Highway robbery.) Luckier still if, when you're willing to spend the money, there actually are spots available to rent.

But luckier than all that is a nearby parking garage with a bike rack inside. This is like some kind of Advanced Biker Knowledge or something, or at least not anything obvious that would ever have occurred to me until I was walking by a parking garage a block from where I work and noticed a bike rack tucked inside, in a corner of the ground floor. I asked the parking attendant about it, and she told me it was free and that yes, there was always an attendant on duty and they can see the bike rack from where they are. The only kinda-bad thing is that this particular garage locks up at 6pm (I work til 5:30, but overtime is not unheard of) and I suspect that particular bike rack was only intended for people who actually work in that building.

Then my coworker Matt mentioned he'd seen a bike rack in the parking garage across the street. So I went and asked and yeah - free, several racks, open til 8pm, and THREE attendants are usually on duty (they do valet parking). So that's where I lock up know, always making sure to say hi to the attendants and thanking them for keeping an eye on my bike. It's so much more reassuring than leaving your bike on a random rack out in the open, a block away all by itself. The only bad thing is that they're those slotted racks like this:
So the best I can do is lock the front wheel to it. But since the attendants are there and I'd think bike thieves would target easier-to-plunder environs, I don't worry so much about it.

So there's my tip: ask around parking garages about potentially free, surveilled bike parking. (With a roof, even!)

Tip 3: Don't stress over clothes
This seems to be the first question most people ask when they learn I bike to work. "What do you wear?" they ask me, as though I should be wearing anything other than what's on my back. Honestly, if I said that I got to work via skydive, or teleportation, I wouldn't get this question, but somehow bicycling is some magical form of transportation that requires extra special clothes, according to most people.

Yes, I sweat. But honestly, if I do anything more strenuous than sit on my couch, I sweat anyway. Aside from cycling in Extreme Heat, I've never sweated on a bike commute the way I've sweated during workouts, because - and here's the key - commuting is not working out. Or at least it doesn't have to be. Here's an analogy: walking for 30 minutes is not the same as running for 30 minutes, even if both are good exercise and both use your feet, you know?

Anyway, I feel like people think they need some special clothes, or some kind of Clothing Master Plan if they want to bike to work. Instead, you'll see every kind of outfit on a bike in this town, from full-on spandex to stretchy pencil skirts to jeans and t-shirts and sundresses and bathing suits and mukluks. If you're worried you'll sweat-soak your favorite blouse, then don't wear it - bring the blouse with you and wear something more casual and comfy, same as you'd do if you didn't want to walk from the train in high heels. Ladies can invest in a pair of bike shorts to put under a skirt/dress. Suit jackets can be folded and rolled and strapped to the back rack or tossed in the basket. Really, people, it's not rocket science.

Most importantly - at least I think it's terribly important, stuck as we seem to be in the false dichotomy of Athletic Cycling vs. Cycle Chic, is this: You don't have to look cute and picturesque, like some sort of fashion plate. You don't have to looks sleek and sporty like that classic image of Cyclist we all have stuck in our heads. You don't have to look like anything at all, you just need something that doesn't unduly restrict your legs. That's it. People really need to stop overthinking this.

Tip 4: Pedestrians Win. ALWAYS.

These are people. Not obstructions. Not speed bumps. PEOPLE.
You're supposed to stop at stop signs and stop lights - why? Because there is cross traffic, yes. But also there are human beings walking across the street. That crosswalk is theirs and they deserve to walk or run through it without you bending the rules so you can zip on through. Even when they don't have the WALK signal and they are jaywalking or whatever else, you STOP for them, okay?

Why? Because you just do, you big jerk, THAT'S why. You are a wheeled vehicle. Pedestrians have the right of way. Even when they're wrong, you try not to hit them. No matter how much smaller you are than a car and no matter the narrow little nooks and crannies you can zoom in out around through, you don't do it when there is a pedestrian there. Aside from being very dangerous, it's just rude.

This goes for the bike paths too, believe it or not. I know it's awesome to have these nice little places without cars where you don't have to worry about getting knocked down or mowed over or just buzzed a little too close for comfort. People who are walking on those paths want the exact same freedom as you do. So if the couple in front of you is blocking the path and walk soooooo slow, what do you do? Do you shout ON YOUR LEFT from several yards back and then maniacally plow through the 16 spare inches that have opened up (all the while cursing them for being in your way) so you can maintain your speed? No, you don't do that, because you're not a complete asshole. Instead, you slow down a bit, maybe ring your bell if you have one, and ask them if they don't mind letting you pass. Here is a direct quote, from me, of how you say it: "Excuse me, do you mind if I can just get by on your left please? Sorry, and thanks so much." They inevitably look back at you and that's your chance to flash them a friendly smile. They smile back, move aside, and you move gently on your way. This scenario happens to me 2-5 times every commute (I go through Lincoln Park) and it works out quite well for all involved.

Because I am never in so much of a hurry that I can't be a decent human being, that's why. If you think this kind of exchange takes too long, then leave 5 minutes earlier. Call these 5 minutes your Anti-Asshole Buffer Zone and feel free to tell everyone that you make a point to devote at least 5 minutes a day to being a better person. For God and country, y'all.

There will always be some times (they could even happen every day in some spots!) where it's not just a couple of people blocking your way. Maybe it's a swarm of kids heading into the museum. Maybe it's throngs of people heading to/from the beach. Maybe it's masses of joggers who are training together on your bit of path. So what do you do then? Well they're not going to part like the red sea. Here's my radical suggestion: get off the damn bike and walk it past the crowd. Sure, you could slow to a just barely-balanced speed and weave through. But that's rather assholish and it's not like you'll be going any faster than walking, anyway.

Tip 5: It Gets Less Scary
It is scary, to be on the road with cars and pedestrians and delivery trucks and there are traffic rules and what if the stuff you put on your back rack is falling off and oh god a lane closure ahead, etc etc etc. But you really do get used to it, so you should at least give it a try. If you find yourself wishing you could bike to work, or over to that one shopping center, or across town to that one pretty river path, or whatever - if you keep wishing you could, then you really should try it. Maybe not the whole ride and maybe not alone. But try it.

Stick with it a little while and suddenly you're not scared because it's not all new and different. You'll get used to it and you'll get comfortable. (and then you'll be in danger of riding like a jerk, what an evolution!) But it will never get less scary if you don't even try. Just pick out a street that makes you nervous and go one block on it. After a few times, you'll go a few more blocks. Maybe you'll like it, maybe you won't, and maybe it will always be too stressful to enjoy that particular stretch of road - but you'll find a way to not be scared, if you just go looking for it.

There, those are my long-winded tips. Now if only I could employ them myself soon, instead of riding the train and allowing poor Olivia to languish away in the basement, poor girl. The heat wave will allegedly end tomorrow, so fingers crossed that I can get back to my own commute.


Megan said...

Your posts what you've been learning as a bike commuter are really great--well thought-out, well-written, great advice. I'm sharing this!

Lisa said...

I just started commuting in May, and I just kept nodding my head while I read this wonderful post! Thought for the garage attendants--a small ( I really mean small, like a couple of bucks occasionally) tip will likely make them pay even more attention to your beautiful Olivia. Maybe you already thought of that.:-) It is still cheaper than $35 a month!

And, hooray! the heat is gone at least for a little while.

Beth said...

Thanks, guys! And that's such a great idea about tipping the attendants, Lisa.

Post a Comment