Fall has to be the best time of year for bike commuting. The season’s awesome weather and beautiful colors always remind me how fortunate we are to be bike commuters.
The idea that bicycling is a sport is still deeply ingrained in the psyche of most Americans. Replacing a car with a bicycle is still seen as a bit odd, if not completely eccentric. And the idea of riding a bike slowly, and in street clothes, is unthinkable for many people, bicyclists and non-bicyclists alike. We still have some work to do!
The fear of cars tops many surveys asking why people are resistant to bike commuting, but the fear of sweat is always up there too. In talking to people around my office, you’d think perspiring only ever happens on a bicycle and that it’s something to be avoided at all costs. Well, I have a pair of secrets for you: 1) a little sweat never hurt anyone; and 2) it’s possible to ride a bicycle and perspire no more than if you were taking a leisurely stroll around the neighborhood.
I think it’s that bicycling=sport thing that trips up many potential bike commuters, especially those who don’t see themselves as athletes. In many areas outside of our few bicycling meccas (Davis, Portland, Boulder, Minneapolis, etc.) the majority of our role models are racers-in-training, consequently many people don’t believe it’s possible to ride a bike as an adult any way other than full-tilt and in full-kit.
Consider the following. The difference in effort required between averaging 10mph or 15mph on a bicycle is about equivalent to the difference between a casual walk or a jog/run. In other words, it’s the difference between barely sweating or really sweating. Now consider the average bike commute is somewhere around 5 miles either direction. At 10mph, the commute will take 30 minutes, and at 15mph the commute will take 20 minutes. So for a difference of 20 minutes out of a person’s day (10 minutes either direction), it’s possible to completely ameliorate the issue of sweat and bicycling. Seems like a reasonable trade-off to me.
Of course, there are times and places where no amount of “taking it easy” will prevent someone from perspiring (Arizona in August at high noon, for example), but I’d argue that even walking will cause someone to perspire in those conditions, so an easy bike ride is no worse. And if a person’s inclination is to ride hard, there are still ways to overcome the sweat issue including showers at work (if they’re available), sponge baths, and various hygiene products.
Sweat and bicycling do not necessarily go hand-in-hand! Perhaps potential street-clothes-commuters need to take a lesson out of racing’s playbook and start using heart rate monitors, not to set a high target for fitness, but a low ceiling to stay cool and sweat-free.
Transportation planners talk about something they call “the last mile problem”; the challenge of bridging the gap between a public transit stop and a person’s final destination. Typical solutions include walking, bicycling, and so-called Park-n-Ride lots. Walking is an option for able-bodied individuals, though time and distance can be major drawbacks. For obvious reasons, the Park-n-Ride solution is popular, though it presents a number of issues including neighborhood traffic congestion and limited flexibility. Bicycling combines efficiency with flexibility while solving the congestion problem; arguably, this makes it the best “last mile” solution.
Folding bikes are the perfect solution for a different, less-common type of last mile problem. Let’s say a car-lite or car-free person needs to travel to an area that’s not served by transit and is left to drive there. And let’s imagine they have to stay in that location for a few days but they were unable to bring a full-sized bike due to storage issues or lack of a bike rack on a rental car. Typically, a person would have no choice but to use the car more than they’d like. But, with the addition of a tiny folding bike, they can park the car once they’ve made their long trip, and then use the folding bike for getting around the area during their stay. This often overlooked use for a folding bike saves gas, cuts down on emissions, and provides some exercise while on a motorized road trip.
[I'm always surprised by how many bicyclists aren't aware that it's possible to trigger a traffic signal with their bike, so I thought I'd re-post this article from the archives. —ed.]
There’s nothing more frustrating than getting stuck at an on-demand signal and having to wait for a car to come up from behind to trigger the light. In some jurisdictions, if you’re unable to trigger the light, it’s legal to proceed after stopping, but that doesn’t help when you’re at a cross street with heavy traffic moving in both directions. The good news is that in many cases it’s possible to trigger a light with your bicycle.
On-demand signals use what they call “induction loop vehicle detectors” to sense when a vehicle is waiting at a light. These detectors are essentially metal detectors embedded into the pavement. They work by sensing changes in an electromagnetic field and have nothing to do with the weight of the vehicle. You can often see evidence of loop detectors as lines cut into the road surface just behind the crosswalk. Wire sensors are embedded in these cut lines, and it’s possible to trigger a light by placing your bicycle wheels directly on top of one of the wires to disrupt the magnetic field. Some sensors seem to be more sensitive than others; in those cases where the light isn’t initially triggered, I’ve had some success by leaning my bike over toward the inside of the detector loop. In cases where there are two side-by-side loops, lining up over the center where the two loops meet doubles your chances of triggering the light.
Once I understood exactly how loop detectors work, my rate of success at triggering lights considerably improved; I’m currently getting somewhere approaching a 90% success rate at the lights in my area.