Beyond the City Walls

At least anecdotally, it appears the number of suburban and rural utility bicyclists is on the rise. I suspect this group of transportational bicyclists is much larger than most people realize — even rivaling urban bicyclists in numbers — yet it has been largely ignored by the bicycling press who seem to prefer to focus on the more hip and trendy aspects of urban/transpo bike culture (i.e., cycle chic, tweed, fixies, etc.).

While I understand the issues surrounding sprawl, there are still a number of valid reasons people choose to live in the suburbs and beyond, including an aversion to the intensity of city life, work that involves suburban/rural activity, the need to be near family, etc., etc. Whatever the reasons, and regardless of the current emphasis on re-urbanization, a large number of people are going to continue to live in suburban and rural areas. And while long commutes and freeways full of cars are certainly not the answer, we have to acknowledge that a complete restructuring of our cities and their suburbs is not going to happen for a very long time, if ever. It’s in our best interests to promote utility bicycling and transit use among this group, and get on with fully integrating our transit and biking infrastructures to efficiently and sustainably move people from the suburbs to the city and back.

I believe there is tremendous potential to increase the use of bicycles for transportation among those who live outside large urban centers. Sure, the distances outside the city tend to be longer, and bicycle-specific infrastructure can be sparse, but the roads are also less congested. I live in the suburbs and I’ve made it work; if it works for me, it can certainly work for many others as well. Changing perceptions about what’s possible, as well as educating people about how to integrate with transit, are key. And because suburban trip distances are greater than what are typical for the city, the potential rewards in terms of reduced emissions are enormous.

I’d be interested to know what percentage of our readers live in either suburban or rural areas.

Where do you live?

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33 Responses to “Beyond the City Walls”

  • Jennifer S. says:

    I live in the suburbs and work from home. There is no bus service in my county and very little cycling infrastructure. For example, there is a bike lane on a 4 lane, 45mph road where cars go much faster. It’s very dangerous to ride a bike on that road. I try to ride my bike to run errands that are within 3 miles from home. I hate being trapped in my car!

  • Janice in GA says:

    I live in the suburbs. There are practically no bike lanes. A lot of the roads are 2 lane, or 2-lane with a center turn lane. (I like those.)

    I have a few places I go that are within a 2 mile radius (Kroger, Target, Costco, a few restaurants). The local town center is more like 5 busy, hilly miles from here.

    I can deal with the traffic, more or less, but the hills really kill me.

  • Chad says:

    I live in a much maligned suburb of Sacramento and ride my bicycle to the store, for haircuts and for recreation. I am not comfortable enough with the drivers in my neighborhood to make the trek over the freeway toward my job near downtown.

    Being somewhat anti-social, I can only think about getting MORE rural as the nest empties in a few years. Living around a bunch of other people isn’t for everyone.

  • Jeff says:

    I have recently made a commitment to take the train more often into the office (about 25 freeway miles, 28 trike miles from home). On days where I have meetings that conflict with the train schedule, etc., I try to work out of the home office to avoid the drive.

    What I would really love is much more bike locker availability at my train station, as that would mean I could ride to the station vs. drive. Right now the waiting list is longer than the number of available lockers. Of course, given that I ride a trike, the lockers may not work – but it also may inspire me to invest in a folding trike.

  • Moopheus says:

    It may be that suburbanites drive more miles than city folk (probably true), but city driving involves a lot of stop and start, idling, looking for parking, etc. It’s extremely inefficient. Eliminating ANY car trip is a good thing.

  • Alan says:


    “Eliminating ANY car trip is a good thing.”

    Agreed! I certainly didn’t mean to imply otherwise…


  • Matt says:

    I recently moved from a relatively urban area (by some standards) to a very rural area (by anyone’s standards) for a seasonal job. I’ve always been a utility cyclist and I’ve tried to maintain that since the move. I was car free before the move, but decided to buy one before coming out here. I do my best not to use it, but it is much more difficult to be care free in the country. The nearest grocery store is 4 miles away on a very busy rural road with a 55mph speed limit, quite a few hills, and a huge number of irate motorists, and long stretches without shoulders. I’ll still hook up the trailer and make the trip a few times a month, but it takes up most of a day. There’s a large sport cycling population around here, though, and my trailer and street clothes get some strange looks.

  • Roger says:

    I live in a very rural setting, the type that appears on Vermont post cards. My commute is almost 20 miles each way to Vermont’s largest city Burlington.

    So I go from very rural to urban during my ride in and the reverse on the way home. The challenges are unique as the terrain changes.

    Starting out in the AM I share the road with the mostly blue collar crowd, (many who are required by law to own the largest possible pick-up truck, even if they don’t need it so it seems) scream by me along with fleets of food delivery trucks. Some too close for comfort at times, this gradually gives way to the herds of prius & flocks Subaru in town.

    I love it and hope to extend my biking season at least until freezing. In spite of the challgenges I still considermyself very lucky.

    I’ll be shopping for that light system come fall.
    In the past couple years, improvements to biking paths in the south part of the city have made the commute more pleasant. As soon as I cross the city line, into poorer towns, the difference becomes obvious.

  • Sharper says:

    I’m so stuck in the city that my biggest complaint with the great new apartments and houses my girlfriend is finding on Craigslist is that they tend to be “too far” from midtown…

    …by being a stupendously bikable two miles from where I currently live.

  • townmouse says:

    Like Matt, I’ve moved from very urban (central London) to very rural (southwest Scotland) and also had to get a car to survive. I was worried when moving up here because rural roads have a bad reputation for ‘boy racers’ and intolerant 4X4 drivers but fortunately for me, the roads around here are narrow enough (single track with passing places for the most part) that everyone has to drive slowly and treat each other with courtesy to get around – bikes included. I’ve had to expand my mileage to get any errands done by bike – the nearest shop is 5.5 miles away. Most cyclists around here are of the lycra persuasion although always willing to say hi as they zip past me as I plug along in my normal clothes. I have recently persuaded a few others to come out and use their bikes for rides which combine fun and errands. The quietness of the roads and the courtesy of everyone more than makes up for the hills – although nothing makes up for the rain.

  • Helton says:

    I live in the city but am really upset lately, coincidentally or not since I started going to work by bike. Then I noticed how crazy and unhealthy urban rush is, too noisy, too dangerous, too demanding on senses and psyche.
    When it is possible (maybe few years from now), we are planning to move to a “slower” setting.
    I think living in the center of a small place (small county) could be better than living at the edge of a big place (metropolitan suburb). Well, we’ll see if it will happen, but I very much hope so…

  • Ride like an Urbie says:

    “as well as educating people about how to integrate with transit”

    Here are some ways an Urbie integrates with transit:

    Aware and adept riding with agility in traffic.

    Safe and savvy making smart split second decisions.

    Confident and controlled communicating clearly with motorists.

    Positive and proud riding with predictability.

  • Alan says:

    @Rike like an Urbie

    While I like your tips, I was referring to education for potential passengers on how to best utilize public transit such as buses and trains to extend their reach as bicyclists.


  • L says:

    We live right on the city/county line in a neighborhood that is surrounded by 45 mile an hour (read 60mph) 2 lane roads to town 5 miles away. Strangely when we lived in the city it was harder to bike though. I’d love to see bike lanes into the city at least though. Just got some Axiom urban shopper panniers and can’t wait to use them.

  • RDW says:

    I live in a rural area and have a 7 mile commute to work with a choice of two routes, one paved country roads, one semi-rural / semi-suburban with a two mile stretch along a busy state highway. Both routes have pluses and minuses but the country route is on hilly roads with little or no shoulder and no posted speed limits, which means they default to 55 mph. I usually choose the less attractive, flatter, and safer route instead of nice, quiet country roads with cars coming over blind hills at 50-60 mph. Really I think there would be 2 significant differences between bike commuting in my environment and in an urban area – First, no practical mass transit for multi-modal travel (only seven miles, not a big deal anyway) – Second, rural and semi-rural roads up here in the northern states are generally not maintained suitably for safe winter riding IMO.

  • Carl in San Angelo says:

    I live in a small city of approximately 100,000 people. While distances aren’t a problem (less than 20 miles from one end of town to the other), the infrastructure is pretty poor – it’s not a very bike friendly town. Fortunately for me there’s not a lot of traffic In the parts of town I live and work in, but that’s not the case in a lot of areas.

    There has been some recognition lately of the growing number of cyclists, and some talk about adding bike lanes and trails. Hopefully the city can find the budget and the will to make cycling easier and safer.

  • Tali says:

    I’m sure there is great potential to increase cycling in suburban and rural areas.

    However, I’m pretty sure that suburbia looses a lot of its appeal to the average home seeker without easy access to the cars it was built to favour.

    A couple of miles of cycling to the local train station, followed by a 30 minute express train ride is not a bad way to travel to work. But then, if you’re job is 20 miles away in another suburb… Or if that train line doesn’t exist and building it will cost hundreds of millions of dollars and the government is terminally broke…?

    I get a little tired of people who move to a suburban/rural location and then when fuel prices rise, they complain that the trains/busses don’t run often enough off peak, never mind that those vehicles run at 5-10% capacity.

    I just think that suburban sprawl / rural “lifestyles” make a lot less sense without the car. Sure you can still do it by bicycle/public transport (I have), but it just isn’t as appealing.

  • Charlie says:

    In New England, we have lots of small towns, ~5 miles apart. The small towns are walkable (a bike lets you live further from the center and still get places in a hurry); the distance between towns bikeable. I have my cake and eat it too.

  • Kate says:

    I chose “suburbs”, but it’s right on the borderline with urban – I can bike almost anywhere, except to the strip malls out in suburbia! :-)

    (am jealous of Charlie above!)

  • Mark says:

    I live in a suburb just south of Albany, NY, and I’ve ridden around here, a few rural areas in upstate New York, and in the city of Syracuse, NY. I greatly prefer riding in urban or rural areas. In the city, drivers are aware that cyclists will be around, and traffic is only slightly faster than I am anyway. If I’m lucky, there might even be bike lanes. In the country, traffic is fast and things are far apart, but drivers are usually nice enough, and there’s fewer of them. In the suburbs, the only cycling infrastructure is a crumbling, foot-wide shoulder with the words “bike lane” painted on it (I don’t usually use them), and the drivers are substantially less patient and considerate. They’re generally not aggressive or otherwise antagonistic, but they apparently think that it’s perfectly acceptable to pass me close enough that I could reach out and touch them. I have to be careful to plan my trips when there is likely to be little traffic. I’m willing to still bike in all of that, but it’s much more stressful than in the city or the country.

  • Supp Suppinger says:

    Well, You already mentioned it. Restructuring the cities will take some time, if ever started at all. But this would be the best and most obvious solution to all so called problems of mobility or transportation, which are all homegrown (or even made knowingly) over the past decades. People were made addicted on their cars, and they even didn´t realize it, because they were so happy to live in the suburbs in a big house and drive to work by car.
    If You change the strucutre, people easily adapt to it. You only have to change it.
    I live in Europe, in Vienna. Many people from all over the world use to look at the US as innovative, modern and great country (and it certainly is a great country I love!). But take a closer look at the modern cities with all the skyscrapers and so on. Very nice, very impressive. But built for cars, not for people. Some companies made billions with this. Now take a look at good old Europe. We were looking at the US and trying to copy a lot of Your modern lifestyle, because it is so nice, so cool, so irresistible. So we started changing our cities, which were built slowly, over hundreds of years, by people for people, and started to turn those cities into cities for cars instead. People were happy, that was called progress. But some people started realizing, that a lot of infrastructure was destroyed, and that the cities used to be liveable und loveable, and now many of them aren´t any longer. We all should take a very close look at some old, not changed villages and cities, where everything people need for their daily live (and this is to be honest not a lot!) is at walking distance. Well, walking is the best way of transportation, people only were made to forget about this. Perhaps we can learn more, if we take a look at old let´s say Czech, or Chinese, or Indian or African villages about people´s real needs. It´s not about getting into the car and drive dozens of miles into the next supermarket, eat some fast food, spend big money at the cinema etc. Well, this used to sound as progress, but probably we were only made to think it was. Maybe this was only one of a few steps into addiction (of some big companies) of oil, food, cars, entertainment, etc etc. For over thousands of years the best entertainment for the whole family was to sit together and listen, what the other were talking. This was entertainment, and learning, so it was already infotainment, but it had depth. The best consumer is addicted and unhappy. Start riding Your bike and You get rid of Your addiction and get happy!
    Most people are like sheep, if You change the structure, they adapt to it easily. I don´t want to offend You, but that´s exactly the fact what the people who are responsible for the structure know about You. That´s the reason why the structure is as it is.
    It´s close to impossible to change behaviour, without changing structures before! Only people with a strong rationality can change their behaviour by their own. The readers of this blog are probably among them!

  • Runjikol says:

    Just love those Civia bikes.

    I’m very lucky that my city in Australia (Melbourne) has many great bike paths and trails. In particular I can take a bike trail to work with only a few kilometres of road time – and they are suburban streets and feeder roads before back on shared paths.

    One of the big shortages of PT infrastructure here is for the suburbs. Although there has been some minor train-line improvement (really just to get the train lines out of the way of cars) there has been no train-line extensions or additions of any significance for over 40 years. A great opportunity was lost with the building of a toll-road that could have contained light rail to create a “ring-rail” on the east side of Melbourne. This would serve connecting four demographic centres: Ringwood, Knox, Dandenong, Frankston.

    Short version is Melbourne suburbs are good but missing opportunities to be great.

  • davidg says:

    Rural here, northern wyoming rural. I can definitely sympathize with the concerns over huge pick up trucks. It seems the cowboy way is to buy the most diesel truck you can’t afford and drive it drunk back to “the ranch”, “the farm”, “the homestead” all which loosely translated mean “the trailer out in the sage brush”. i have 8 miles to work and get some pretty odd looks November to March. Occasionally asked when I’ll get a car. Drivers in the urban south were distracted but not overtly hostile regarding my choice of transport. Fortunately, I don’t see any traffic at night on my way home.

  • doug in seattle. says:

    I live in the middle of urban Seattle. My job is 1.3 miles away and the downtown Central Business District is a hilly 2 miles away (a two way trip features 300 feet of climbing, nothing to sneeze at when you’re doing errands around town). Mostly I’m riding to other neighborhoods rather than downtown.

    I would actually like to live further from work — I used to ride 10 miles from one small town in California to another every day and that was pretty nice.

    My girlfriend has a job across Lake Washington in the suburbs and hates the commute, as it’s one of the worst in the Puget Sound region. We might relocate to a smaller, but vibrant and walkable community out there to make her commute easier. I would love to ride 35 miles a day to get to work, with a few bus trips when the 9 month rainy season gets to be too much. A bonus is that it would justify a dynohub lighting system!

  • Cezar says:

    I’ve found that there can be good and bad suburbs. It depends how they are designed. Some are giant places to drop your McMansion, others are nice railcar suburbs. Here in Chicago there are a few suburbs considered to be bike friendly.

    Also don’t forget that there is a difference in cities. Chicago is much different than Minneapolis. For me to get from downtown to a suburb would be a 20 to 25 mile trip. To get from downtown Minneapolis to a suburb can be as little as 5.

    There is city, then there is big city. Let’s not mention New York which kicks the pants off of Chicago.

  • Steve Butcher says:

    I have lived and worked in rural Missouri most of my life. I started getting into transportation bicycling about two years ago having been bitten by the bike bug in general. My work requires driving every other week about a 55 mile round trip once and sometimes twice a day. The roadways for this commute are just not safe for bicycle commuting. On the off week my workplace is only a 3.5 mile commute. Automobile traffic is usually pretty light but the paved roads are narrow two lane types and there are no bike lanes. The first part of my ride is just over one mile on black-top that has a 55 mph speed limit. The remainder is either 1/2 mile of highway with the rest city streets with 25-35 mph speed limits or about one mile of gravel roads that transition into city streets for the remainder of the commute. To avoid the heavier highway traffic with the numerous trucks and pickups, I usually ride in the morning between 6:30 and 7:00. For the most part, motorists have been very courteous giving me ample space. My more limiting factor is the weather. It may be quite hot and humid, rainy with thunderstorms and wind, or ice/snow. When the weather is “pretty”, the ride is quite pleasant. So far, I’m a fair weather cyclist. Also, as far as I can tell, I am the only bicycle commuter in our very rural area. I have had people mention to me in passing, they have seen me out riding, though I ride as much for recreation as for commuting. I attribute Ecovelo for helping to encourage me to commute by bicycle whenever possible.

  • Molnar says:

    Like Charlie, I live in New England, but my New England is a different place. In the suburban area where I live there are many single access road subdivisions, which results in all through traffic, including cyclists, being funneled through a small number of narrow, often winding, roads. Drivers go too fast and are impatient to pass. Even if 95% of motorists try to be polite, it’s sill an unpleasant experience for cyclists. I felt safer when I lived in Los Angeles and had a wider range of streets from which to choose (although I was also faster in those days, which makes a difference). The thing that would help the most around here is not bike lanes, but the abolition of the single access road subdivision.

  • Mark says:

    I chose suburbs, though I really live on the border between suburban and urban areas in Arlington, VA. My commute actually takes me about 20 miles through DC and then back out to the Maryland suburbs. Arlington is quite bike friendly, so riding near home is easy with lots of bike paths and bike lanes available. DC is also quite bike friendly and easy to ride in most places since cars are generally moving a bit slower and drivers are on the lookout for pedestrians and cyclists. Unfortunately, the part of Maryland where I work is the worst section of the commute. There are no sidewalks, let alone bike lanes. In many places, the roads have a 12 inch “shoulder” and traffic moves very quickly (if only until they hit the next traffic light). I usually try to make that commute by bike 4 days a week, and on the other day, I work from our corporate office which is about half a mile from my house (I also ride there in about 4 minutes!).

  • Jay says:

    I live in Boston, and biking is easy enough in the city. A lot of people complain about it, but in general, cars are used to bikes being around, which I find to be one of the variables that makes a huge difference in how nice it is to ride in a particular place.

    My parents live in Dallas, TX, which is not a biking city at all. It’s large, spread out, and no one bikes – everyone drives, even the 1 mile to the grocery store. My parents have 3 grocery stores 1 mile from them, and they drive to them – and drive from one to the next (each on three different corners of a big intersection). The parking lots tend to be so crazy and dangerous I don’t blame them for not wanting to just park and walk from one store to the next. So Dallas isn’t a great place to ride a bike by normal standards, as there isn’t any bike infrastructure (other than a few buses now having bike racks on them, which is great). I’ve never seen an on-street bike lane anywhere in the city, in the downtown or residential areas.

    BUT – because the city is a grid, you can still get pretty much anywhere you want to go (assuming it’s within a distance you can ride), and never ride on a busy street. I rode around my parents’ area of the city, and I could take the residential neighborhood streets that all paralleled the main streets that drivers take, and I could get wherever I needed to go, and have a pretty nice ride with few cars. You basically just ride through the neighborhoods, and only occasionally have to cross a busy artery to get to the next set of quiet neighborhood streets. So even a non-bike friendly city can be somewhat bike-friendly, within limits, which is interesting.

  • Lovely Bicycle! says:

    I agree with Jay above that Boston is a comparatively easy place to cycle in, even though people complain otherwise. Hopefully it will get even better in the coming years.

    As I discussed in a recent post of my own, I live in the city now but hope to move to a rural area as soon as the logistics of our life will allow. I am nervous about the winding country roads with high speed limits, but I am determined to research alternative routes, or to find a house along safer roads when the time for making the move comes. As some have pointed out, not everyone enjoys living in the city, despite the cycling infrastructure and other conveniences it provides.

  • j. pierce says:

    I live in Burlington, vermont. I ride my bike for pretty much everything, except work. I feel like kind of a jerk for that. Fortunately, work is only 3 or 4 days a week. It gets to be like that, because it’s 12-hour night shifts in a factory. After being on my feet walking for 12 hours, sometimes the last thing I want to do is hop on the saddle. The commute is under 10 miles, but theres a lot of hills. Really, I just need to stop making excuses.

    I’d like to take the bus one way, and bike the other, but I work on Sundays and every other Saturday; it so there’s no bus service those days.

    The big problem I face is the route-15 corridor between where I work and live; There’s no shoulder at all, and it’s a tight two lanes, so a lot of folks are a little closer than I’m comfortable with. Because of the river inbetween, there’s really only a couple of ways between the two points, and all on fairly busy roads.

    In the area in general, once I start heading out of town, there’s a lot of areas where sidewalks and bikelanes and shoulders just randomly dissappear. It’s nice when you make a bike lane, but what’s the point if every time there’s a turning lane it at an intersection, it disappears?

    In general, I echo what some of the other posters have said – biking in the “city” (Burlington’s not really that big) is no problem because there’s so many of us, people just seem used to dealing with it. In the country, more room, less traffic, (and there’s enough of the weekend rec. crowd people aren’t shocked by bikers) it’s okay. Get stuck on those congested arterial roads between points in the suburbs, and it’s a little stressful though.

    The bike paths are super helpful, and they’ve done a decent job in some areas of making them usable for getting places, not just recreation.

  • Mark says:

    I live in a very rural part of Vermont. I live in a town of 600 and commute 11 miles to a town of 5k. Nearest grocery store is 12 miles. It’s about 800 feet of climbing to get home. The only road is a typical two-lane-no-shoulder-50mph state highway. I manage to commute about 6 months out of the year and the rest is too cold, dark and icy to even consider. Still, I love my daily commute. I think it takes an extra dose of determination to transportation cycle in a rural area. I would absolutely love to be able to ditch the car entirely and just get around on my own power but that’s really not viable at all for me in this situation. I’ve lived in the suburbs too (not in VT) but that was a bit easier to manage. I have a great deal of appreciation for anyone that manages to cycle for transportation whether city, suburbs or rural. Keep it up!

  • Ann says:

    After spending my career in Washington, D.C., I retired to a rural area (I’m fortunate to live in a 2.2 million acre forest west of Glacier National Park). As much as I loved D.C., I just had to get to a less congested area for retirement. When I first moved here, my old runner’s knees gave me heck since most of the hills are steep. Last summer, I added an electric conversion kit to my mountain bike. All I can say is it made a world of difference for me. I’m riding my bike more than driving my truck. (I would agree that it’s difficult to be car-free in a rural area since most last mass transit of any kind.) I would encourage any of you who have terrain or distance obstacles that make cycling more daunting to consider adding a conversion kit to your bicycle. The price for a conversion kit doesn’t have to be steep, either. The one I purchased cost me $279 and included 1 OEM sealed lead acid battery (the price of this conversion kit, made by Currie, has gone up a bit; the vendor I bought mine from just raised their price to $299). This spring I built my own lithium battery pack (LIFEPO4), packing twice the power of the OEM pack–the OEM pack still works but it is starting to loose capacity. I should now be able to ride to a town that’s 20 miles away and have adequate energy for all the hills, coming and going.

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