Counting the Miles

Yesterday’s post on multi-modal commuting triggered some interesting comments on commuting distances. There seems to be a consensus that bike commutes under a certain length are too short, while others are too long. Those that are too long can wear down a rider and may be unsustainable over time, while those that are too short don’t provide the physical exercise and enjoyment we bike commuters have come to expect. (Funny, but it’s hard to imagine a person who commutes by automobile complaining about a commute being too short!)

Obviously, what constitutes an ideal bike commute distance will vary depending upon the rider’s physical condition, time constraints, and other factors. Still, I thought it would be interesting to set-up a poll to look at what our readers consider to be an enjoyable and sustainable bike commute distance.

What do you consider to be a perfect bike commute distance (one way)?

View Results

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32 Responses to “Counting the Miles”

  • doug in seattle. says:

    I read in Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic that most people prefer to spend an hour per day commuting.

    My old commute was ten miles in each direction and took me about 35 minutes since it was literally flat as a pancake the whole time. Now that I live in Seattle, a ten mile commute would likely contain a multitude of giant hills. I would still like to have a longer commute than my current 1.3 miles, however. 10 miles would be awesome.

  • Finley says:

    Alan,

    A thought on your polling- I think it might be an interesting experiment for you to either put your polls at the beginning of posts instead of the end, or (particularly if polls have to go at the end because of your formatting) to post a poll by itself one day and then post the explanation/your personal opinion the next. I have noticed that in most of your polls, your readership tends to agree with you when you post your opinion before the poll, whereas with the polls where you just put it up there without weighing in, the answers seem to be a bit more spread out. You certainly tend to tap in to the cycling zeitgeist a good bit, or you wouldn’t have the large readership that you have, but I am curious how much people agree with you on your polls because you have your finger on the pulse, and how much people agree with you because they are voting right after reading your argument(s) for or against a certain option. I realize that these polls are informal and far from scientific, but I think it would make for an interesting experiment, and it might give you a clearer picture of the thoughts and opinions of your readership.

    Thanks for all the hard work!

  • Tal Danzig says:

    Right now my commute is too short (3.2km) and transit is convenient, so most days I do the 20min walk+transit commute rather than the 8min bike ride, especially if it’s rainy. I usually take my bike when I know I’ll be doing something before or after work that will be more convenient by bike. Luckily the ride is short enough that I can commute in my work clothes.

  • Tim says:

    This is a great post. One thing to note, however, is of course these distances mean different things to different people. Even though I’m a fit 27 year old and could ride a bike for hours, commuting through NYC can certainly wear one down. Even on streets with well marked bike lanes, weaving in and out of traffic is inevitable and staying hyper aware of stray pedestrians who don’t look before crossing, or car passengers opening doors without consideration to an approaching cyclist can be harrowing. Add a dash of not-so-nice weather and that can turn a normal 20 minute commute into a life threatening 45 minute commute.
    I say 5 miles is a perfect commute distance because in NYC, any longer commute might turn into a burden. Unless, of course, you’re a messenger.

  • Tal Danzig says:

    Tim,

    Great point. Today was one of those days where I choose to ride in, and despite the short ride I had to deal with a fair bit of traffic, including several drivers who passed me way to closely, and one who passed me only to cut me off by taking a right turn. I’m pretty comfortable in traffic, but it was enough to get my heart rate up.

  • Rob in Seattle says:

    Right now I’d say 5 miles. Another year of bike commuting and better fitness might allow me to up that a bit. As Doug said, here in Seattle almost any commute that involves traveling east-west includes at least 300′ of elevation change. That’s fine for the way home, but it’s nice to be able to arrive at the office after a pleasant five miles in my street clothes and sit down to work. Rumor has it showers and bike lockers will be installed in the building within the year….

  • Graham says:

    I have to agree with Tim that context is much more significant that actual miles. Hikers and bicyclists both know that maps are damn liars! In my case I’ve only got one bridge crossing in my 10 mile commute that requires me to even think about shifting gears and I live in a small town where the drivers are reasonably nice, so the miles just roll by without much effort at all. If I tried a 10 mile commute in my hometown in western PA I’d probably have to call and have someone pick me up (hopefully they’d bring oxygen) at about the halfway mark.

  • Tal Danzig says:

    Alan,

    Another interesting poll would be “What do you consider to be a perfect bike commute time (one way)”. Like others have stated above distance doesn’t really translate well across ridership or terrain. A commute that would take one rider 20min, might take another rider 35, and 10km on flat ground is different than a super hilly 5km.

  • rdhd says:

    Ditto on the context issue. My commute (which I only ride in nice weather and just a couple days a week) is only 6-7 miles, but it’s basically downhill to work and uphill home. I’d happily ride twice the distance if it were flat both ways.

  • Anatoly says:

    I commute 6.5 miles each way daily, and it’s a bit short. Takes me about 25 minutes, and I don’t even go hard. I used to commute 14 miles each way, and I feel like that was a bit much – mostly because I didn’t feel like doing it after a full day of work – luckily I live in a metro, and I could take the rail home. I wish my commute was about 7.5 – 8 miles, with some decent hills. I live in Phoenix, and it’s pretty flat, other than the handful of parks with big mountains that I don’t leave near. And I also wish that it wasn’t 115 degrees in the summer. I still commute in the heat, but have to leave home earlier in the morning.

  • townmouse says:

    I voted for the shortest. Not because I don’t love riding my bike, but because at 2.5 miles, there’s no way I’d ever use a car, so it’s bike or walk and the bike would save me time. The less time spent commuting the better…

    Also 2.5 miles is the sort of distance that you can do without getting too sweaty, and show up at work looking merely exhilarated rather than exhausted – good advertising to your colleagues of the joys of the bike commute

    But then, what do I know, I quit my job & my commute is down the hall…

  • Fergie348 says:

    Thanks for this post – a topic near and dear to my heart!

    I live in central Marin county, just north of San Francisco where I work. One way distance between home and work is about 22 miles which is a bit long for a regular back and forth by bike (I wish I could..). I have the option of riding my bike to a ferry that drops me off minutes from my work and the distance to the ferry terminal from my house is 6.5 miles. I ride almost every day, mostly to and from the ferry but I mix in a full distance ride as often as I can. My goal for this summer is to have one week where I commute solely by bike, which will be a challenge. If my ride to work were 15 miles instead of 22 I’d go both ways much more often. I find the 6.5 mile leg to be a bit short, I’m just getting warmed up and it’s over.

  • Arie Dekker says:

    In The Netherlands it has been assesses that historically a one hour commute (one way) is generally accepted in the human brain/society. So in the old days people would walk up to about 4 kilometer from home to work. In the first half of the 20th century this distance increased due to the bicycle to about 20 kilometer. In the first decades after WW2 mopeds again increased the generally accepted commute to 30 to 40 kilometer. While the large scale use of cars now has increased this distance to up to 80 to 100 kilometer one way. Message is that it is not so much distance but more time that determines the accepted distance. Cycling for about one hour would mean a distance of anything between 20 to 30 kilometers.

  • Tali says:

    I voted for 2.5 miles because it seems likely that it should be very compeditive with other transport modes, such as walking, driving or transit. If a people won’t commute 2.5 miles by bicycle in an area, then this suggests that there are significant natural or artificial barriers to cycling.

    My own commute is about 4 miles, and what ensures that I ride whenever possible is that the alternative, a direct bus, takes about 10 minutes longer door to door (assuming it runs on schedule). The bicycle is just too convenient compared to the bus, even though it runs every 10 minutes. The financial and health benefits are just a bonus, and not what keeps me doing it.

    I did have a 10 mile each way commute over rolling terrain in the past. After about 6 months, I got worn down, especially with riding home in the evening. A bus seat and a book won out over slogging through the dark each evening. A folding bike would have been nice.

  • Sharper says:

    5 miles here. If we’re looking for an idea commute distance, I can say that my 5.3 mile commute is just a hair longer than I’d like. I run it in roughly 20-25 minutes each way, which takes just an hour off of my day, and I’d rather be home than commuting. I love cycling, but I’d rather be home than getting home. On days where I’d rather be out pedaling, I can always take the long way…

  • Jonnny says:

    My commute is a only about 5 to 7 miles depending on the day. The distance would be lovely if it were flat but I live in Studio City, CA and work near Melrose in Hollywood which means I have to go up and over Laurel Canyon (or Nichols or similar) or the deathtrap that is the Cahuenga pass. I happily do it most days but it definitely gets dicey on days where I have to look especially presentable or have multiple appts. in different parts of town. Someday maybe I’ll retire to Davis or Copenhagen but for now I’ll charge on until they start construction on the bike tunnel… a guy can dream right.

  • Jody says:

    For me, 5 miles is enough that it makes it worth putting on special clothing etc, but not so long I don’t have time or energy for other physical activity.

    We also have a moderately tall hill, so if I lived somewhere flatter, 7 miles or so might be fine. Basically 20-25 minutes.

  • anonymous says:

    It seems the favoured distance is around 5 miles one way. My ride to work is 10 km one way. I find that I cover that distance on my bicycle in close to the same time it takes to drive; but the bike ride is much more fun. There is nothing as frustrating as sitting stuck in traffic in a car.

    I have heard people say their bike ride to work is the most enjoyable part of their day. There was an ad for one of the big bicycle companies on t.v. that showed a bike commuter dragging along through wet weather with a grim look on his face. I couldn’t identify with that. I don’t like the word “commute”, it makes it sound like drudgery. I prefer to call it just riding my bike to work. If it wasn’t fun I probably wouldn’t do it.

  • Jamie says:

    My current commute is 30km (20 miles) and I do that 4-5 days a week, on the way home (if time permits) I like to extend it a little so my usual round trip is about 70-80km (in winter I will be down to 60km round trip as the light fades). I couldn’t imagine riding any less than that for a commute it is perfect around 1 hour to 1.5 hours each way.

    I have been doing the daily commute for about a year now and found when I started I could barely do 1 commute per week, now I find myself yearning for more and if I miss a commute I go stir crazy (mostly because I keep eating and end up on a sugar buzz). I also find that time (it is more about the time than the distance) is perfect for clearing my head. So on the way to work I can plan my day in that hour and on the way home I can clear all the junk out so I am fresh minded when I get home to spend time with the family.

    There is another fellow who used to commute about 50km per day (25 each way) and he did that 3 days a week, now he commutes one way and has his wife take him home about 4 days a week and he has found that he just doesn’t have the energy any more. My point is, it about the “base miles”. I have build my base up to the level it is now and I can manage my commute distance day in day out.

    So for me my perfect commute distance is 25 miles.

  • john in nh says:

    my first real commute was in the spring of last year when I was in the uk. classes were about 2.5-2.7 miles away from where I lived, depending on the route I took. I could do a bit of an uphill route which went down for a bit and then back up, nice and gentle, or I could do a steep downhill a looong flat and then a steep uphill. I could do the legs of the triangle or the hypotenuse and the fastest I could do it was in 11 minutes, typically was about 15. I really enjoyed this commute every day. It was totally urban, and went right past my bank, natural food store, and second hand shops, as well as two parks. I typically did it faster than the bus that ran the same rout, even without rush hour traffic.

    Now I have a 5.3 mi commute to campus (back in the US) which is pretty flat, but involves a slight downhill during the first half, and a slight uphill during the second. The biggest thing though, I don’t mind the distance, its the urban miles vs the rural miles. I am 3 miles outside of the city and in farm country, I hate those 3 miles quite a bit, its a chore to bike them and the time goes slowly. However once in the urban environment even though I am going almost the same distance, I don’t have that feeling, I love it, even with the increase in cars, issues with possible dooring, stop signs, traffic lights and so forth.

    About 5 miles is perfect for me, I can do it in 23 or so with a tailwind, though typically runs 30 minutes from my room to the classroom. However I could do longer if the commute was all urban cycling, while I would not like 5 miles if it were all rural commuting…

  • David in Seattle says:

    I’m very nearly 7 miles each way and find that it’s just right. It’s long enough and hilly enough that I get a decent workout but is <35 minutes, so it doesn't take a big chunk out of my day.

  • Tim D. says:

    Right now I’m commuting 10 miles one way. I do this commute in about 35-40 minutes, but it is HILLY. I’m 25 and cycle a lot, so I can keep a moderate pace and not be dead when I get to work. I put down 5 miles on the poll, because if I only had a 5 mile hilly commute, it would be pretty easy to do year round. 10 miles flat (or flatter) would also be swell. I still like my ride, except for the two miles or so of horribly bombed out gravel road I have to take.

  • Robert Larson says:

    I commute 15 hilly miles 2-3 times a week. It takes me about an hour and is usually the best part of the day. Well, except that steep last half mile on a Friday evening :-)

    I just stumbled across your site and love it. Kudos!

  • Joseph E says:

    Most people spend between 15 and 45 minutes commuting (each way), and that sounds about right to me, though I prefer the lower half of that range.

    On a bike averaging 10 mph (with lights, on city streets), that’s 2.5 to 7.5 miles. My 3.5 miles city commute takes 20 to 25 minutes. More than 6 miles in the city seems like a rather long trip, to me, but I’ve only been doing this for a few months. Perhaps in a rural or suburban area you could go 5 or 10 miles in 20 to 45 minutes, if you could average 15 mph and didn’t mind showering and changing at work.

    On the other hand, average trips in Copenhagen are even shorter (1 to 5 miles), and bike speeds are lower, around 8 mph; people take it easy, stop at lights, and wear nice clothing while riding 50 lb bikes. Sounds great to me!

  • Jeff Lock says:

    My commute is 7 kilometers each way. I work shift work so I do it day and night hail or shine. Much to the amusement of my work colleages who think I am nuts. The joy of commute is that after a shift, if the weather is nice I can and often do ride home the long way which takes me over a very hilly 25 kilometer scenic route with the final ten kilometers along a trail following the shores of Boston Bay. It is just superb. I only wish I could take photos like Alan to do it justice. As I work in a high stress job the cycle commute home is a great wind down allowing me to leave work and its problems behind. It was a concious decision 4 years ago to move closer to work so I could commute by bike. My old commute was 130kilometers a day by car. My bicycle commute now equates to about the same amount of time but including a shower and relax before work. I love commuting by bike. It has so influenced what I do I now live as car lite as possible and my ambition(Which I have yet to convince the wife) is to never buy another car ever!

  • Sara C. says:

    I’m with Tal and Tim, as a New Yorker. Partially from the stress, and also because, as a Brooklynite who works in Manhattan, any commute of mine is going to involve one of the East River bridges, AKA a giant hill which, depending on the time and the bridge, is also going to feature multiple pedestrian hazards. (which are the kinds of bike confrontations that get my blood up the most – at least with inconsiderate drivers I’m not afraid I’m going to kill them!)

    If I were commuting without the bridges, I’d probably be up for a commute of 7 or 8 miles, but because of them my ideal commute is about 5 miles in each direction.

  • Gussy says:

    I wish i could have a longer commute. It takes me a maximum 15mins from one side of town to the other. Sometimes i just meander to keep riding, especially if the sun is out! :)

  • Tim says:

    I used to rent a studio on a hill in Santa Barbara and worked <2 miles away at a bike shop downtown. If I took the right route, and there were no cars at a couple 4-way stops (so I could run them), I could get there without pedaling. The ride home, however, was a sweaty one.

    I still work downtown and my commutes from different residences have ranged from 3/4 mile to my current commute at 4.3 miles each way. The 4.3 takes me 25 minutes there, 30 minutes back and that is the most time I'd want to spend commuting by any mode each day. I do miss that 3/4 mile 8 minute commute, I could ride home for lunch. If I ever wanted more exercise I could walk or ride a detour on the way home. The only day I drove the truck to work was Tuesday to avoid a street sweeping ticket in front of my house…classic.

  • MohjhoRyder says:

    My commute is about 4 blocks away, perfect. It’s quick when I’m in a hurry and I can simply take a longer rout if I want to ride longer, and I can commute home to lunch.

  • birdman says:

    My commute is 8-9 mi one way(16mi RT). It is pleasant, although I work in a warehouse where showing up sweaty is not a problem. I am older now and have switched to an e-bike, which makes the commute easier, but no less enjoyable. I do both hills and flats, I am also lucky to live in a city (Minneapolis) that has a great bike path system, which I am blessed to have close by.

  • Jim says:

    I would love to live closer to my work, but I don’t so it is 19 miles each way. I only do it 2-3 days a week, and only in the nice weather. I will admit that I am a fair weather bike commuter. I am looking forward to the end of the rain here in New England, so I can start riding again. As an aside, I am looking for a new, very bright, flashing front light, any advice? Thanks

  • Alan says:

    The Planet Bike Blaze 2W is a bright headlight and intense front flasher at a reasonable price:

    http://ecom1.planetbike.com/3045.html

    Alan

 
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