Why Transportational Bicyclists Need Public Transit

Transportation planners talk about something they call “the last mile problem”; it’s the challenge of bridging the gaps from people’s homes to public transit stations and from public transit stations to their workplaces.

Generally the problem is dealt with by building “Park-n-Ride” lots. We’re all familiar with these large parking lots where transit riders park their cars while they make the remainder of their commute on transit. In the suburbs where I live, a large majority of transit riders use these lots. It’s not a terribly bad system; it reduces congestion and cuts down on fossil fuel consumption, but the parking lots are a blight and they cause heavy localized traffic conditions during rush hour.

A much smaller percentage of commuters walk to their transit stops. My guess is that these are people who live within a mile or so of their pick up point. Of the large group I ride with everyday, I only see a handful who appear to walk to the transit stop from their homes.

Arguably, the bicycle is best solution to the last mile problem. Bicycles multiply a person’s human-powered speed and range by at least four, 4-6 can be parked in the space it takes to park one car, and, of course, they’re eco-friendly.

Arguably, the bicycle is best solution to the last mile problem. Bicycles multiply a person’s human-powered speed and range by at least four, 4-6 can be parked in the space it takes to park one car, and, of course, they’re eco-friendly. They can also be carried on buses and trains, extending the rider’s range on the opposite end of the trip.

Most bicycle commuters ride their bikes from point-to-point. In other words, 100% of their commute miles are covered on their bikes. For riders who live within 5-10 miles of their work, or for those who are athletically gifted and can maintain a long commute on a daily basis, this is an ideal way to get to-and-from work.

But obstacles arise when commute distances are too long, or a rider’s physical limitations are an issue. A physical handicap, injury, or even the rider’s age may limit the distances that can comfortably be covered on a daily basis. My commute is a good example; at my age and with my physical limitations, my 60-mile round trip would be impossible to sustain over time without at least some portion of it being covered on transit.

If you’re fortunate enough to live near your workplace and you’re able to make a point-to-point commute by bike everyday, you may not be interested in transit. But we’re all getting older, and most serious riders eventually end up with a bike-related injury at some point. Plus, in these unstable economic times, it’s not possible to know with certainty where we’ll be living and working a few years from now. So even though transit may not currently be on your radar, that could change overnight, and you may find yourself depending upon a bus or train in combination with your bicycle to get yourself to work everyday.

36 Responses to “Why Transportational Bicyclists Need Public Transit”

  • Duncan Watson says:

    I was a mixed mode commuter for 15 years, cycle + train/bus. I have used this type of combination transit in NY, NJ, VA, OR, WA and Munich (Germany). I love this method and wish that more train stations had bike boxes or other forms of secure storage. I hate carrying 15lbs of chain and locks to secure my bike, and have to strip it of all accessories to carry with me.

    I currently commute end-to-end by bike, but if I were to go mixed mode again I would get a folding bike. I do prefer facilities that accommodate larger amounts of regular bikes though as a policy since that is what gets people to use facilities. Expecting bike commuters to buy specialized gear like a folding bike really limits the field to dedicated bike enthusiasts.

  • Brittany says:

    And this is where bike sharing comes into play.
    Solving the last mile with a private bicycle is difficult when bus and regional rail systems have negative policies towards buses on transit.
    WIth a public-use bicycle system, the last mile on either end (if within a dense enough transit network) can be covered with a borrow bicycle that you use for the connection to work, to run an errand, etc. All one way and short term.
    Pretty ingenious!
    Philadelphia, PA
    (Thank you for your website, it really is an excellent resource and beautifully done!)

  • Brittany says:

    I apologize- bikes on transit is what I meant.
    Our regional authority (SEPTA) does not allow bikes on rush hour trains, same with Amtrak. Therefore multi-modal commuting from suburbs to Philadelphia and vice versa is unnecessarily difficult- so much so that most people just choose to drive- no transfer barrier, at your door convenience.

  • Nico says:

    Obstacles arise also when there’s no secure bike parking. I would never leave my bike near a train station.

  • Andy says:

    I currently bike 4 miles each way from point to point. The distance is easy, but there is a 400ft elevation gain on each end (I live on one hill, swoop into a valley, and climb out in both directions). If there was no transit, it wouldn’t affect me too much. I would still bike everyday, but possibly taking it slow when I’m sore or when there’s a lot of snow or rain. There is a bus route that goes from very close to where I live to very close to where I work, which makes that an easy option, although I prefer to get the exercise by biking.

    However, I don’t think that the main problem with people’s commutes is with transit. I think it all has to do with where people choose to live. I specifically chose to live in an area that is easily accessible with bikes and buses. I can bike to work, and my S.O. can walk to work, and our one car is used occasionally for the necessary trips around town and the even less frequent trips out of town. Maybe we pay a tad more for housing, but the benefit of infrequently using cars and staying active by walking and biking is a no-brainer to me.

    I hear people complain about the lack of public transit in areas, and I just don’t get it. There are a lot of cities that have public transit, many of which also reach to some suburban areas. Move there, or stop whining! We can’t expect to have rural service to reach the few people that would use it – that just doesn’t make sense. No one chooses where you live but yourself.

  • Tom says:

    I currently bus/bike to work. I live 23 miles from work and it would be impossible to complete the whole trip by bike. My local bus system has bike racks on the front of the bus so it is possible for me to take the bus to the train station 13 miles away and ride the last ten by bike. The train is about 20 minutes faster but I save $6 per day and get a regular workout.

    The bike racks on the bus have been a real blessing for me. When I first the racks installed on the buses I thought they were a stupid idea. I couldn’t imagine any reason why someone who had a bike would want to also take the bus. I still don’t see many people, beside myself, using them but now I wonder why everyone else can’t see the genius in the idea.

  • Don says:

    I have been commuting 32 miles to my current job approximately 11 years, year around. Up to five years ago riding during the winter which is typically dark and rainy, I would ride 2-3 days a week. Five years ago our town businesses decided to fund free transit bus service to replace paid bus service provided by Trimet in Portland. Since that time our family has been able to eliminate one car because now during inclement weather when riding the full distance to work can be wet and cold, I can now ride to the transit center in our town,about 1.5 miles, put the bike on the bike rack (all buses have room for at least two bikes) ride the bus to the transit center in the next town, which coincidentally is on my normal commute to work, and ride the last 6 miles to work. This makes things much more manageable timewise and comfortwise. On nice days I can ride the full length both ways or one way. For me this has been an almost ideal situation, because it allows me a lot of flexibility in my schedule.

  • Alan says:


    Absolutely, bike-sharing is a fantastic solution when combined with public transit.

    I’m sorry to hear that the transit systems in your area don’t encourage bikes onboard. I’m fortunate that the Capitol Corridor Amtrak line actively encourages bicyclists to bring their bikes on the train. The City also provides secure bike lockers, though there aren’t nearly enough and the waiting list to get one can be long.

  • Don says:

    I apologize, that should be 32 miles round trip.

  • scott says:

    In response to Duncan and Nico, here’s where I think making these “park-n-ride” lots into something more more akin to bike-hubs would help. It would offer those using bikes much more than just a bike rack, while still being far less expensive than full-sized car lots.

    Hubs, for example, might provide cyclists with small, rentable lockers similar to those that once were available at airports and train stations where riders could stash their helmets, locks, etc. when not in use. Better yet, as far as the locking issue is concerned, how hard would it be to design locking bike racks where riders could secure their bikes for a very small fee or even a refundable deposit?

  • Duncan Watson says:

    Limiting numbers of bikes on transit is always a sad thing for me to see as bikes and transit should be friends. I don’t want to get a folder to be guaranteed a spot on a bus/train. The lack of decent bike locker or equivalent locking facilities at transit centers is also disappointing. A bike locker cost is about $1000/bike, typical car garages cost $15,000/car. The car facilities have higher maintenance costs. Every converted car commuter saves money.

    I ride end-to-end by bike right now so only the mediocre quality of my workplace bike storage facilities bothers me. Given how most companies lease buildings there are often annoying barriers in place to get facilities like this upgraded. My company can point to the lessor and there is very little incentive for him to put in real facilities for bikes.

  • Duncan Watson says:

    If more transit centers had bike storage facilities such as available at some of the Portland Tri-Met ones detailed here http://www.trimet.org/howtoride/bikes/bikelockers.htm , I would be much happier.

  • Alan says:


    On the one hand, I like the fact that the Tri-Met lockers are available on a first-come, first-served basis, but on the other hand, what happens if you arrive at the train station on your morning commute and a locker isn’t available?

    In my home town, lockers are assigned on a yearly basis; you’re given the key and sole access to the locker for a year, with the option of renewing for a second year. At the end of the second year, you start over and go to the bottom of the waiting list. The up side is that your locker is always available, the down side is that there aren’t enough lockers to go around and the wait can be ridiculously long.

  • Duncan Watson says:

    Tri-met has both first-come/first-served and reservation based ones. In my old stop (Quatama Crossing Blue Line) there were some of each type there. I didn’t actually use either as I lived 300 yards from that stop.

    Though if there is a problem with first come/first served, then the obvious solution is for tri-met to add more. Obvious to me, not necessarily to tri-met. But as I pointed out bike facilities cost less than car facilities, so every conversion from auto->cycle commuter is money saved for the community. That is in addition to congestion, health and road savings.

    Unfortunately for me I now live in the Seattle area and miss the bike facilities I had available to me in the greater Portland area.

  • Duncan Watson says:

    Here is the note about reserved bike lockers from tri-met
    Reserved bike lockers

    If you’re a regular rider of MAX Blue/Red line or WES, you might want to rent your own secure bike locker. Lockers are available at most Blue and Red line stations, at some Park & Ride lots and transit centers, and at all WES stations.
    Rent a bike locker

    The fee is $15 for 4 months, plus a $50 refundable key deposit.

    * Check availability and contact us to rent a bike locker

  • 2whls3spds says:

    @Andy not all of us have the option of living near work. Work moves. I had a job in a plant for 7 years, got laid off. I had to take a job in another town. Mass transit in the USA outside major cities is non existent. The job I took in that other city only last 3 years before the company went bankrupt. That would have meant another move. I have a friend that took a job with a company, he and his wife were living in the town near the facility, both were commuting to work by bike. The company decided to close that location, he was transferred to another facility on the opposite side of the county. Now what does he do? Move so he can commute by bike? Sell his house, uproot his family and make his wife get a new job?

    One house I used to live in was on a transit route, now that area has no transit service, the closest bus stop is over 4 miles away now. Unfortunately, especially in the US there is no one size fits all solution.


  • Elaine says:

    For a couple of years, I biked to a big-box store about 2 miles from home, then vanpooled another 30 miles. I locked up my bike there, and only twice had problems related to theft: helmet that I’d forgotten got stolen, and my lights got stolen. (After that 2nd theft, I was meticulous about removing my lights & taking them with me.)

    Now I have a 5 mile each way commute — when I started, I did a mix of bike & bus, because part of my commute was a little squirrelly. (They’ve since expanded the bike trails.) Unfortunately, one of the bus drivers decided that the Townie I was riding at the time was too big for the bike rack, and the supervisor agreed with her. (This after 3+ years of putting the Townie on bus bike racks. Go figure.) And the bike I commute with now is on the big side (29er), so I’m pretty much all bike or all bus.

    Right now, with the weather as it is, that’s been all bus for a while. ::sigh::

    In response to Andy: choice is a funny thing. In my part of the world, the exurbs have been moving out and out and out, especially as closer in gets more expensive. So a lot of people choose what they can afford at the time. We, in buying our house, got almost stupidly lucky, both in the location (just a few blocks to bike trail and stops for 5 bus lines) and in timing (rates were low, owner had to sell ASAP, prices in my particular burg hadn’t yet skyrocketed). Plus we were willing to take a house that wasn’t all that fantastic, and we don’t have kids, so we don’t care (yet?!) about school districts.

    I think the changes that really need to happen are those that can only happen at a larger scope, of which additional bike lockers are a small example. (From conversations with co-workers, child care is a key component; I know several people who drive because of the location or hours of their child care arrangements.)

  • Adrienne says:

    I consider myself yo be very lucky. I am able to take my bike on the BART train I use to get across the SF Bay. There are some stupid time restrictions that can make bike commute vary from 9 to 18 miles round trip, but I am always able to use the bike/train comb in one ratio or another.

    My challenge has always been how to use my bike with my youngest child in tow. He used a Burley for the last year and it is too big and cumbersome to get on a bus across town or through the gaits at the train station. Just recently I was able to purchase a rear seat for my bike that will hold up to 75lbs. so that my son (4 years old) can ride on the back of my bike without making my bike bigger. Now we can get on any train or the racks on the local bus to get us to and from anywhere. It means I can take the bus home with him from preschool instead of biking home, 5 miles all uphill with 45 lbs of kid on the back.

    This new seat has allowed me to drop my driving to an average of 9 miles a week (there are some days when even a bike rack is not enough to get me across town!).

  • Dottie says:

    Which is why Chicago’s ban on bikes on trains (metra and elevated) during rush hour is ridiculous. Helps the folding bike market, though.

  • beth h says:

    I would ride a whole lot less in the winter without multi-modal options. As I get older and the winters take more of a toll on me, I am SO glad that TriMet (Portland’s transit system) is open to having bikes on busses and light-rail trains.

    Now, if we could just get them to learn how to plan multi-use streets more carefully…



  • Geoff says:

    I was a daily bike commuter from my home in Arlington, VA into downtown Washington, DC, to three different Fed jobs and six different job sites for 27 years. About half of that time, I rode all the way from our home and back — about 19 miles per day R/T. During that time, the Metro subway system matured and the nearest station opened up just 3/5 of a mile from our home (easy walking distance). But the trains became ‘packed out’ with folks during morning and evening commutes and I had grown to CRAVE that daily bike ride! The DC metro area governments — with prodding from cyclists — began many years ago to develop a broad network of dedicated off-road and designated on-street bike trails…it’s among the best in the nation now. The only problem on my routing was several long hills (coming home) that took time and on hot days were kind of brutal. So I found a place to park my Toyota station wagon (with the bike tucked inside the rear cargo area) on a small residential loop road in the Rosslyn area, right NEXT to (just 15 feet away) the sidewalk-designated bike trail going into the city. There were no restrictions on parking there, and from that point, the bike ride averaged just 5 miles to secure bike parking in our buildings. At one jobsite, I had a bike stolen from an outside railing one foggy morning (in plain sight of a lobby guard’s station), so I had to gain permission from GSA higher-ups to bring my new replacement bike into the building after that. Since I worked on the ground floor, it was only a minor hassle getting through three doors to a small alcove near my own office. At another jobsite, we had a lovely secure bike parking room with personal lockers in the garage area for 100 bikes — a national award-winning installation and one of three such rooms in our HQ complex of buildings. That made biking a true pleasure — every morning and evening. I was able to pass most all of the best monuments…and in Spring, I’d go by the cherry blossoms at the Jefferson Memorial Tidal Basin almost every day, just to see them. The DC Metro system’s busses ALL have bike racks installed on the front and they are being increasingly patronized. Britanny in Philadelphia might want to check out folder bikes, as they ARE permitted on subway trains in DC during rush hour; they just need to be folded and bagged (to prevent chain grease from fouling other folks’ clothing). It was a 5-year fight to get that capability, but now Metro encourages bikers. For help in getting ideas to use with Philly’s officials, contact Eric Gilliland at the Washington Area Bicyclist Association at (202) 518-0524. For an idea of what folder bikes are available, check out the website for Bikes at Vienna at: http://www.bikesatvienna.com/products#sec-folding. The shop specializes in folders. The Bike Friday “Tickit” folds to a quite small package, easily carried into/out of subway cars. It can also be packed in a travel suitcase and carried on planes internationally — so you have transportation wherever you go — and the carrying case becomes a bike trailer. Smart design work !! Friday makes many models like this, even some tandems. Often the greatest impediments to expanded bike commuting are the weather…and just the will to give it a try. Inclement weather can be overcome by getting the right accessories and learning how to dress (layering) and keep dry (ponchos or rain suits). The problem with the “will” to try is a bit tougher, but just take it gradually. The beautiful days and the freedom of setting your own course and time of day to ride — and the quietness, and being in nature certainly is a ‘grabber’, especially when compared to riding public transit — “the land of the living dead” as I call it. Seeing morose faces on most folks and having someone’s “pit” close to your nose on the ‘crammed-in’ days is a “downer” for sure, compared to clouds, red cardinals, and Canada Geese (I used to hand-feed stale bread to the ones by the bike trail next to the Potomac). Bikes are truly BETTER, by far !! And they keep you independent, give you some peaceful time to yourself to think twice a day, and give good, healthy aerobic exercise to boot. Life doesn’t GET better than that !

  • Fritz says:

    Alan, you’ve got it backwards: Transit needs bikes! Like you write, bikes are the last mile solution, and because of that bicycling can bring more passengers and fare box revenue to transit operators. We’re not a loud interest group for transit agencies to appease; bicyclists are a solution to their problem of overcrowded parking and low ridership.

    I like bike share, but bike share is not a realistic solution for the daily commuter. If you miss the bus or train, you wait 10 minutes for the next one; maybe you’re a little late, but at least you get there. If there are 10 bikes at the bike share kiosk, and you’re number 11 in line, you are really and truly SOL, unless you feel like waiting around until 5 PM when workers start returning the bikes. There’s no way I’d take that risk.

    Bike share is ideal for quick trips; it doesn’t work for the commuter scenario where the bike stays at the office all day, and stays parked in a kiosk all night.

  • Alan says:


    “Alan, you’ve got it backwards: Transit needs bikes!”

    LOL.. well, maybe so. I suppose the reality is that they need one another! :-)

    My hidden agenda was to point out that all bike commuters, even those who aren’t currently using transit, would do themselves a favor by paying attention to the stimulus debate and showing their support for including significant transit funding in the bill.

  • Duncan Watson says:

    I see it Fritz’s way as well and do like his post on his blog with the maps showing expanded ridership that caltrain could serve if bicycling to the train was increased.

    I would love more bike locker type solutions and improved bicycle parking. Of course that is because I love my bikes and don’t want to ride a folder or beater bike for transit purposes. I believe that converting automobile/train users to bike/train users saves public transit money. A parked bike is much cheaper for the city and/or state than a parked car.

    Fritz’s point regarding how improving the already bike-friendly Caltrain would improve ridership numbers is great as well. I LOVE how many bikes Caltrain is projected to allow and does allow per train. Tri-Met allows relatively few per train car and King County Metro allows 2 or 3 bikes per bus. 2 bikes per bus is pitiful, it only works if you get on the bus at the first stop and beat all the other bike commuters to said stop. Otherwise it is unreliable, unreliable means not usable for commuting. I don’t get a free pass if I am late to work.

    Folding bikes are nice but I am not willing to invest in one. I like my bike today and want to use it.

  • Alan says:

    Fritz wrote an excellent follow-up to this discussion over at Cycleicious:

    Why Transit Needs Bikes

  • Why transit needs bikes - Cult of the Bicycle says:

    […] transit needs bikes Yesterday, Alan wrote a thoughtful post at EcoVelo entitled "Why bicyclists need transit." Even though transit may not currently be on your radar, that could change overnight, and […]

  • Fritz says:

    Thanks for your kind words, Alan and Duncan.

    I didn’t even consider Alan’s secret agenda — for the end-to-end bike commuter, you indeed make excellent arguments that cyclists should support public transportation. I’ve been so embroiled in the whole Caltrain bike capacity issue that I hadn’t even considered there are cyclists who don’t use transit! :-)

  • Alan says:


    And thank you Fritz, for the link love at Cyclelicious and contributing to the conversation here!

  • murphstahoe says:

    While I am almost as much a transit junkie as I am a bike junkie just on the merits of transit for all its obvious benefits, cyclists need good transit because we need “other people” to take transit instead of drive!

  • Why transit needs bikes « Bike Monkey says:

    […] Alan wrote a thoughtful post at EcoVelo entitled “Why bicyclists need transit.” Even though transit may not currently be on your radar, that could change overnight, and […]

  • News Round-Up: Density - Seattle Transit Blog says:

    […] Why bikes need transit. […]

  • John T. Hoffoss says:

    I don’t know about you, but I could get a lot more than 4-6 bicycles in a single parking spot. If you have ever been to the staging area of a triathlon, you have seen ~20 bikes packed into the space of one parking spot.

    Our transit authority provides bike lockers near some transit stations, and about three of these (storing six bikes) could be placed in a single parking space.

    Anyway, I live close enough to work that I could commute the whole way via bike about 8 months out of the year. The thing is, I have nowhere to secure my bike once I get to work. (Not to mention I’d have to buy a gym membership to get access to a shower…) My building has a secured underground ramp that I would be comfortable using, and there’s plenty of space where a bike rack could be placed in a corner where cars have no access, but they won’t do that. So I drive. Thankfully my parking is insanely cheap for an urban downtown, but it would be nice to have the option of biking every so often.

  • Doug Oates says:

    Is it just me? There is obviously an extensive pool of fabulous thought and energy regarding the potential of bicycling in combination with intelligent transportation planning and integration to address a multitude of challenges the United States is grappling with in terms of transportation, economic vitality, and environmental sustainability….

    Assuming the previous statement is generally accurate. It also seems that this “fabulous pool” is metaphorically, a sprinkling of thousands of droplets. Ergo, droplets are surely not recognizable as a visible influence in the realm of public policy and administration. For years I’ve felt a deep pain to witness the amazing energy and devotion of grassroots bicycling advocacy failing to reach any semblance of “critical mass” due to an apparent lack of national vision, coordination and organization. I believe concerned cyclists and others who seek improvement in sustainable transportation can become a collective interest of great influence. This moment in history seems to be ripe for this interest to be heard.

    Is it naive for me to think that our wonderful advocacy organizations, such as Bikes Belong, The Thunderhead Alliance, League of American Bicyclists, WABA, Chicago Bicycle Federation, etc., etc., etc., are not capable of rising beyond local agendas to create a national force of influence that sets a unifying agenda: where an integrated transportation system leverages the amazing capabilities of bicycling? Why are we millions of tiny voices, devoting significant energy and desire, yet time and again recieving modest to minimal representation in the national transportation agenda?

    My apologies if I’ve pontificated a bit too long. Or, if I am overlooking a national and integrated effort that is truly underway to promote bicycling as a key component in a sustainable transportation equation. Additionally, please do not interpret my comments as diminishing the fabulous effort and accomplishments of our advocacy organizations and sponsors. I truly believe we all deserve so much more.


  • Fritz says:

    Doug, take a look at the annual National Bike Summit — is that along the lines of what you’re thinking?

  • Matt says:

    As a side issue, Amtrak makes you box up your bike on many routes. I have travelled in Britain when you could roll your bike into the guard’s van and bungee it in place (this may have changed since privatization). This made for a terrific way of getting around. On our Amtrak route (Empire Builder, I’m in St. Paul, MN) you have to box up your bike and can only check it to baggage stops. No rollon/rolloff service, no getting off at other-than-baggage stops. Amtrak and bikes ought to go together brilliantly but these policies hobble the railway’s utility.

  • brett says:

    On Amtrak’s west coast trains (Cascades and Coast Starlight), no boxing is required, AFAIK: you just pay $5 and they put it in a freight car and you pick it up on the other end, or so I was told by a couple who were toting a pair of Bianchis from Portland to Seattle last month.

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