Bike Commuting 101: Route Planning

It’s not unusual for beginning bike commuters to make the mistake of hopping on their new bike and riding the same routes they were taking by car. Major automobile commute routes are often the most dangerous and least enjoyable routes for bicyclists, so it behooves bike commuters to identify bike-friendly routes that bypass busy automobile traffic patterns.

Do Your Research
If you’re already riding for fitness or pleasure, take advantage of those rides to scope out possible commute routes. If possible, try to fit in some rides during the approximate time of day you expect to make your commute so that you get a true sense of traffic patterns.

If you work in a large office, ask around to see if there are any experienced bike commuters riding in from your area. Fellow commuters can provide a wealth of information regarding safe routes and secret short cuts.

While not foolproof, the Google Maps “biking directions” site can be a powerful tool. Run a few queries and see what it delivers, but be sure to verify the suggested routes by pre-riding before your first commute.

Take the Long Way Home
Don’t hesitate to choose a longer route to avoid heavy automobile traffic. Circuitous routes that take full advantage of quiet backstreets and bike paths may take more time, but they can also greatly improve the quality of a commute.

The Dry Run
Once you’ve settled on a route, take a dry run on the weekend prior to your first commute. This will allow you to check the route without the pressure of getting to work on time. And if you don’t like the route, a dry run will give you an opportunity to make changes before the big day.

Leave Plenty of Time
Schedule in an extra 10 minutes for contingencies. There’s nothing that will spoil a pleasant commute faster than walking out the door late. One of the greatest benefits of bike commuting is starting your day with a relaxing bike ride; don’t ruin it by turning your commute into a race against the clock.

Mix It Up
Once you’ve established a good route and you’ve settled into a groove, don’t hesitate to mix it up now and then. Occasionally changing your route will help keep your commute fresh and interesting.

The most important thing to remember is that the route you’ve been taking by car is unlikely to be the best route on your bicycle. Taking the time to identify a bike-friendly route will make your commute safer and more enjoyable.

23 Responses to “Bike Commuting 101: Route Planning”

  • Wayne says:

    In many areas, is better than Google Maps for finding recommended or official bike routes. You can also contribute to OpenStreetMap to make it better for other cyclists. Yet another way to help build a cycling community.

  • david says:

    I used to also look for routes when I first started biking to work

  • Stephen says:

    Good advice. I would echo the idea that a commuting route should be as pleasant as possible. I’m more likely to ride if I don’t have a feeling in the pit of my stomach that my route is dangerous, congested, or simply obnoxious. And as my confidence has increased (and my hostility and fear of drivers has decreased) over the years, I’ve modified my route several times looking for that balance between friction, safety, and efficiency.

    Riders may also want to have several choices if they can. If it rains on the way home, for example, that busy stretch may get risky from reduced line of sight or just plain yucky. Or if you want to minimize time under the hot sun, then choose a route that is shaded if longer.

    Make it fun, and you’ll want to do it even when the weather turns.

  • CedarWood says:

    Remembering that this section of town has no curb cuts on the sidewalks, or there’s road construction going on over there, or that particular intersection has crosswalks on 3 sides only for some silly reason can be a lot of mental effort, especially when certain errands are done infrequently.

    Since I hate stressing out about the route detail I can’t remember, I keep a small notebook with the date and road detail. Having a separate section for each nearby town further organizes the info for those occasional longer jaunts. Really anal, but it helps me relax and enjoy the ride.

  • Pete says:

    Also remember to look for “unconventional” parts of your route – alleys. parks, etc. Sometimes a short-cut thorough a parking lot can avoid a dangerous intersection, for example. I save a lot of time on my ride by using a short bit of road that is closed for construction on a bridge further up. The cars have to go all the way around a long detour, but not bikes. I’m NOT advocating riding all over the place indiscriminately, just reminding new commuters that there are many advantages to not being a car!

  • Jack Bulkley says:

    Don’t hesitate to mix driving and riding. I drive 4 miles to get to safer roads and then bike 11-12 miles. When I was first riding I was able to drive a little farther to keep the distance manageable.

    My current route takes two different greenways and has a lot of turns to minimize my interaction with traffic. It has evolved over time.

  • Chris J. from DE says:

    I would like to add another thing that rushing does — it lowers your ability to ride safely because there is the temptation at each stop sign / stop light to make a decision that gets you there fastest, not safest. I notice this in my own commuting when I need to get home to meet the babysitter. If I wait until 30 min. before the deadline to do my 30 min. ride home, I’m a much less safe rider.

    I need to constantly remind myself that getting to work 10 minutes later is better than the alternative of getting smooshed by a car because I was rushing.

  • Aaron says:

    I find to be an interesting resource. while plotting your course it will give you elevation so you can avoid those big hills!

  • brad says:

    If you like a high-tech gadget approach, you can use a dedicated bicycle GPS (or one of the automobile GPS units that allow you to choose a different mode of transportation) to map your route. In bicycle mode, a GPS will avoid major roads and try to put you on quiet streets. Former Google engineer and bicycle touring enthusiast Piaw Naw offers his suggested routing settings for Garmin GPS units here:

    I use the Garmin Edge 605 and it does a decently fast job of routing if you’re traveling a relatively short distance, but plotting a longer route (e.g., an all-day ride) can be slow compared to an automobile GPS.

  • Willis says:

    I agree with Alan on mixing it up. It is so easy as a new bike commuter to get so excited about your new mode of transport and all of the benefits it provides that after awhile it can be a bummer when you begin to realize “hey, I’m just going to work like I always do.” and forgetting that a different route may provide some needed change in scenery to liven things up a bit. I am gracious for my commute which involves travel though the park and across the James River but I forgo that many days just to see what has happened on another street or with a construction project in another neighborhood that I may have missed while I was taking my usual trails. Change it up and you’ll be much happier.

  • Larry says:

    Another aspect to route planning in some areas: topography. If your area is hilly, you can make use of the terrain feature in GoogleMaps to look for a flattest route.

  • RI Swamp Yankee says:

    Yup. Asymmetrical routes are a must if you have killer hills – if you’re rocketing down the street at 40mph without touching the pedals, you will not be a happy camper on the way back, unless you like long, slow slogs climbing in low gear.

    Look for alternate routes that tackle the elevation obliquely – it will be longer, but far less steep. My ride into the train station takes 20 minutes or so. The ride home takes closer to 45 minutes – all up hill, and up hills selected to get me where I need to go without needing to walk up them.

  • Moopheus says:

    My route to work is actually pretty close to the way I drive, with a couple of small changes–there’s an underpass I go around, a park I cut through–but Cambridge is pretty flat and the streets have marked bike lanes. So the direct route works pretty well. I live close enough that if I want to go for a longer ride after work, I just go home first, drop off my work stuff, then go out again.

  • Adam says:

    I was thinking the other day about how the routes we choose dictate our riding style and clothing. I have a short commute (2.5 miles) but half of it is on 4 to 6 lane roads without bike lanes and includes a rather steep overpass over a major freeway (this is the safest way to cross the freeway, unfortunately). As such, I ride drop bars and try to stay between 15 and 20 mph in order to flow with traffic better. Therefore, I wear spandex, though I really wish I could get away with more normal-looking clothes.

  • Dutch JaFO says:

    Prepare your clothes and any ‘emergency’ supplies (bike repair kit, and rain clothes) the day before.
    That will save time in the morning and prevent you from having to rush.
    Check your bike as well.

    In fact … prepare for your first commute as if it would be a long ride.
    It may seem overkill at first, but until you know your route and the traffic it’s better to be safe than sorry.

  • kanishka new england says:

    prefer walking directions on google maps first. most bike commuters don’t have comfortable bikes for off-roading. google maps defaults to using unpaved bike paths in bike mode if available

    i love playing with routes. even shaving off one or two minutes (: . since the places i’ve lived teh last few years have had a mix of low to medium density, i stick near the car populated roads, because they are more likely to have 24 hour stores and gas stations, in case my bike fails or i get a flat. seems crucial in the winter, if its 17 degrees to not be too far walking distance from some sort of commercial development

  • dwainedibbly says:

    Excellent post with lots of good tips. A couple of route-related additional things I would add:

    1. I don’t carry flat-fixing tools. My commute is paralleled by bus & streetcar lines, so if I have a flat I’ll just walk to the next stop & use public transportation. I’d rather fix a flat when I get home than worry about it on the side of the road somewhere.

    2. Be polite to everyone. Other roadway users may be commuting, too, and you’re likely to see any given individual multiple times per week. If you have any sort of “incident” and you react rudely, you may not be an anonymous as you think.

  • Gareth Evams says:

    In the UK and the Bike Hub iPhone app help tremendously.

  • David says:

    It took me almost two years of bike commuting to figure out my non-car-like routes. The other aspect is time of day. The volume of traffic on a particular route can vary greatly by the time of day you ride. My basic rule of thumb to avoid heavy traffic is ride in earlier and ride home later.

  • Stephen says:

    I second the “be polite” meme. I used to flip off drivers on a regular basis, but since I sometime appear on TV in public meetings, well, no town is THAT big. I even used to chase down people who gave me a hard time, but that’s not worth doing most of the time, and it’s even happening less as more and more people get out on bicycles, in my opinion and observations.

    I think any route you choose will work best if you ride carefully but assertively. I found that if I hug in the curb in fear, drivers will scoot by closely, but if stay close to where their right wheels would be, they’re less likely to try to sneak by. Florida has a new three-foot rule, but most drivers are probably clueless about it. However, most of them give me plenty of space anyway. My new PDW rear light helps too–it’s VERY bright, even in the day.

  • chuckAZ says:

    Thanks all, your comments encourage me, starting commuting to work one day a week, and I’ll go from there! Developed a route with Googlebikemaps, have driven it both ways several times to fine-tune, got a decent headlight and am excited about my prospects! I’ve always fled from traffic, even on my weekend rides, but a recent urban ride led me to break out and try something new. This site is a great resource.

  • Dutch JaFO says:

    Things to check for on your commute (or any route) are :
    – places to wait just in case it starts raining (good tree cover will do)
    – places that can repair your bike
    – alternative modes of transport (like bus routes) so you won’t have to be late for work if something happens.

    Of course the ultimate luxury is a bike-repair service that can be called anywhere … (there are a few here in the Netherlands).

  • Ted says:

    Ca-rudd! (That’s ‘crud’ for all you outside a’ Georgia). I need help planning my route TO my bicycle. My bike can’t hold the shirt and socks that I left on the kitchen counter while leaving for work today! rrrrrrrrr :l

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