Commuting sucks. It’s expensive and often frustrating, especially when you live in a high-traffic area. However, there are ways to make commuting less frustrating, even fun, while simultaneously saving money and reducing your carbon footprint. Enter bicycle commuting.

I know many of you are probably scoffing at the idea. Biking can be tiring and can increase your commute time, but stay with me for a while to make my case. I’ve been bicycle commuting for over three years, so let me try to convince you that bike commuting is actually amazing.

(This is quite a large guide, so scroll to the end of the post for a TL;DR outline.)

Why you should do it

(1) It saves you loads of money

Let’s first consider the cost of commuting by car. What are all the things you tend to spend money on for upkeep and maintenance? Gas, tune-ups, oil changes, replacing tire, spark plugs, brakes, fluids, filters, light bulbs, and washing your car are some. The less you drive, the more money you save on all of the above-mentioned things.

For comparison, I’ll go over bike maintenance costs. Because I’ve been commuting by bike for years, I actually do know the cost of these. Also, everything except the tune-up does not include labor costs, as replacing these things are actually very easy to do yourself.

  • Annual tune-up (for electric bikes) – $75
  • Replacing tubes – $2/tube
  • Replacing chains – $10
  • Replacing tires – $160 (for good tires, which you want)
  • Replacing helmet – $50
  • Replacing brake cables – $15

And that’s about it, friends. There are other considerations based on the type of bike you have, like replacing brake pads if you have disc brakes, but most of these things are replaced VERY rarely (chains, tires, cables). Like, less than once every two years. I spend about $90 a year on my bike, total. Does this miniscule amount of money please you? It should.

(2) It spares the air

Simple enough, right? It spares your city and its people from having to choke on more vehicle exhaust.

(3) Get fit!

This really only applies if you choose a manual bike. It’s an absolutely amazing way to get and maintain fitness if you do it regularly (i.e. commuting). Electric bike riders will not get the same benefit, sadly.

It’s fun!

If you already enjoy riding bikes recreationally, then expect commuting to work to be more fun than driving (unless you like driving more, which I’ll never understand). When I ride my electric bike, it’s so much fun going fast, passing by all the cars stuck in traffic, and the wind brushing against me. I also find myself taking in the surroundings more, noticing little local landmarks, shops, and restaurants. The best part is that I get to play Pokemon GO and clock in those sweet, sweet kilometers.

What bike should you get?

There is actually a lot to consider when choosing a bike, so I’d like to bring up some of the more important considerations.

First, consider the distance your destination is from your home. If you live farther away, I suggest an electric bike. Most electric bikes max out at around 20 mph. On a manual bike, you probably won’t be going faster than 12 mph. Although, some experienced cyclists on nice road bikes can do a pretty good job at keeping up with me. On the other hand, if you live really close, a manual bike may be a better, more affordable pick. The best thing you can do is pull up Google Maps and find out the travel distance and time. Google Maps assumes you’re biking at 10 mph when calculating travel time by bike. In my experience, riding an electric bike at 20 mph shaves off about a third of the time.

Second, you’ll want to consider the weather. If you live in a very hot climate, an electric bike is probably a better pick. You can stay cool and enjoy a breeze while you ride. If you’re in a colder climate, a manual bike is probably better. Putting in the work to bike to your destination keeps the body warm.

Naturally, consider your budget. In general, manual bikes are cheaper than electric bikes, but there are some very affordable electric bikes out there. My bike (Magnum Ui5) was about $1800 after tax when I bought it several years ago, and it’s probably a mid-range bike. They can run as low as $600, however. My manual bike was $300. When it comes to bikes, you get what you pay for. The more money you spend, the better of a bike you’ll get.

With all this in mind, and with the expertise of your local bike shop, it shouldn’t be too hard to find the perfect bike for your needs.

What gear do you need?

Unfortunately, bikes involve a little more initial spending than just the bike, itself. You need the right gear to make your ride safe and comfortable. To keep things simple, here’s a simple shopping list. You don’t need everything on this list, so the absolute essentials are in bold.

Safety Gear

  • Helmet (duh)
  • Lights (so you can see things)
  • Lights and Reflectors (so things can see you)
  • Horn
  • Tube changing kit (bike pump, spare tubes, bike multitool, tire-changing spoons)
  • Rear-view mirror

Cold Weather Gear (recommended mainly for electric bike users)

  • Gloves
  • Ski mask (also good for sun protection and some general anonymity)
  • Warm jacket
  • Wind breaker (a bright colored one for visibility)
  • Warm pants

Storage

  • Good backpack with sternum straps
  • Bike rack and saddlebags
  • Bungee cord
  • Basket
  • Handlebar bag
  • Trailer
  • Phone holder

Bike Protection (expensive bike locks are WORTH IT)

  • Ulock
  • Cable lock (I suggest using this in tandem with the ulock)
  • GPS Locator (handy if your nice bike gets stolen, but pricey)
  • Flat-resistant tires and/or tire inserts
  • Insurance (a good idea for more expensive bikes)

Regular maintenance

If your bike is now your primary vehicle, it deserves some TLC. Here’s a few things you can do to keep your bike functioning at its best and to help give it a long life.

Check tube pressure regularly

I do this before every single ride. Just give your tires a squeeze. Generally, there shouldn’t be any give. When you squeeze the wheel, it should feel firm and stiff. Low pressure can lead to a possible flat during your ride, and nothing is more obnoxious than having to change a flat tube on the go.

Check your brakes

Good brakes on a bike are as important as good brakes on a car. For rim and disc brakes, this might mean replacing cables or brake pads. For hydraulic brakes, this might mean replacing the brake fluid. Note: If all you need is some new cables because they’re worn out, they are very cheap to buy and easy to install yourself if you check out some online tutorials.

Annual Tune-Up

This one’s for the electric bike owners out there. Electric bikes have motors, and unless you’re quite the grease monkey, you’ll want to have a professional do a tune-up. If you commute by bike most of the year, an annual tune-up is ideal. If you ride only during certain seasons of the year, once every two or three years is probably fine.

Keep it Clean

Bikes can get pretty disgusting, so I suggest cleaning it often. I tend to just wash it when it looks grimey. You’ll be cleaning more than just the frame. The chains and gears need lots of love, too. You’ll also want to keep chain lube on hand. After washing a bike, you need to lube up the chains again. There are lots of great videos out there to help you out.

Replace Your Helmet

Helmets have expiration dates. Read the label on your helmet to find it’s expiration date. Replace your helmet as often as needed. I cannot stress how important a good-fitting, functional helmet is. Don’t skimp on this step. It’s not really bike maintenance, but it is ever-important safety equipment maintenance.

The Cons

I’ve been putting off talking about this until now. I wish commuting by bike was just all pros and no cons, then everyone would do it. Sadly, there are some downsides to consider.

You’re exposed to the elements

This was probably one of  your first concerns, especially if you don’t live in a very temperate climate. Freezing weather, dangerous heat, rain, snow, hail, and high winds can all be deterrents. The good news is, in most places of the world, there is good weather during parts of the year. If you can only commute by bike two or even one season of the year, go for it. That’s one season of gas money saved.

Increases Commute Time

Generally, riding a bike will make your commute longer. Use Google Maps to compare bike commuting times to car commute times (or public transit times if that’s your thing).

The dangers of biking

Have you ever known someone who’s gotten hit by a car on a bike or even a motorcycle? It can lead to some very permanent injuries. This can be a very huge turn-off for bike commuting, and I don’t blame anyone for choosing not to bike commute because of it. It is because of these dangers that I’ve included some tips for safe biking in the following section.

Tips for riding safe

Stay out of vehicle blind spots

If you’re already a driver, you know that cars have blind spots. Several, in fact. Know the blind spots and stay the hell out of them. All the flashy lights in the world will not make you visible if you’re in a car’s blind spot. If a car cannot see you, they cannot take precautions to keep you safe.

Take it slow in traffic

It feels so nice to ride smoothly and speedily in the bike lane past cars stopped in traffic next to you, but don’t do this. Some drivers think the bike lane is an extra lane they can use. I have witnessed cars pull into the bike lane to get past traffic to make their eventual right turn. It’s annoying, but some will do it. Trust no one. Take it slow and steady.

Be predictable

Drivers are usually looking out for other cars, not cyclists, and some cars may not know what cyclists are allowed to do or where they are allowed to be. Make it easy for these folks. Be predictable. Don’t make sudden, fast turns or weave. Stop at stop signs and lights. Signal with your arms when you make turns. Let drivers know what you’re up to. Don’t make them guess.

Follow local bike laws

There are laws in most cities/counties/states that let you know how to ride your bike legally. Familiarize yourself with these laws. A big law and rule for safety is to bike on the correct side of the street and go with the flow of traffic. Often, bikes are not allowed on the sidewalk, so stick to the road. If you’re concerned about roads with no bike lanes, Google Maps is your friend. Google Maps bike routes try their best to keep you on streets with “share the road” signage, bike lanes, and even off-street bike paths. It’s very helpful.

Stay visible with good lighting

Light yourself up like a house for the holidays. At the very least, you’ll want a light in the front and one in the back. I also suggest a vest or windbreaker with reflective material to wear at all times. There are also sorts of other cool lights. There are lights that attach to your helmet and lights that attach to your pokes that make cool patterns when your wheels spin. I hate being the center of attention, but making sure everyone can and will see you, especially in the dark, will save your life.

Wrapping it up

There’s a lot of material that we’ve covered here. I hope it was a very helpful, extensive guide to get you interested in the prospect of bike commuting. If biking isn’t your thing, consider an electric scooter, skateboard, or hoverboard. The idea is to avoid the monetary and environmental cost of driving. I don’t have experience with these other electric vehicles, so I can’t speak to the value of those.

Well, this was a pretty lengthy post, so check out the TL;DR summary below to review what you’ve learned.

TL;DR

Why you should bike instead of drive:

  • It unequivocally saves you money
  • It’s good for the environment
  • It can help you get fit
  • It’s fun!

What bike should you get?

  • Electric
    • Good for going faster and taking it easy, but it can be pricey and requires more maintenance
  • Manual
    • Better on your wallet and good for fitness, but is a slower ride and you have to do all the pedling work

What gear do you need?

  • The shopping list in this section is easy to read and print, so check that out

Maintenance

  • Check tube pressure often
  • Keep your brakes working well
  • Annual tune-ups for electric bikes
  • Keep it washed
  • Replace your helmet when it expires

The cons of riding a bike

  • You’re exposed to the elements
  • It increases the time of your commute
  • It can be more dangerous for you if you’re not safe

How to stay safe while riding

  • Stay out of vehicle blind spots
  • Take it slow in traffic
  • Be predictable for drivers
  • Follow local bike laws
  • Stay visible with good lighting gear

Sources

  1. Gössling, S., & Choi, A. S. (2015). Transport transitions in Copenhagen: Comparing the cost of cars and bicycles. Ecological Economics, 113, 106–113. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2015.03.006
  2. Greenhouse Gas Emissions from a Typical Passenger Vehicle. (2020, February 18). US EPA. https://www.epa.gov/greenvehicles/greenhouse-gas-emissions-typical-passenger-vehicle#:%7E:text=typical%20passenger%20vehicle%3F-,A%20typical%20passenger%20vehicle%20emits%20about%204.6%20metric%20tons%20of,8%2C887%20grams%20of%20CO2.
  3. Oja, P., Titze, S., Bauman, A., de Geus, B., Krenn, P., Reger-Nash, B., & Kohlberger, T. (2011). Health benefits of cycling: a systematic review. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 21(4), 496–509. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1600-0838.2011.01299.x