Advice for New Urban Commuters

Recently a friend contacted me on the Internets and asked for some advice for her daughter who was beginning to commute to and from work by bike in Salt Lake City. I put together my short list of advice and sent it off to her. After writing a couple of screens worth of advice however, I paused and thought, man I should probably package this up as a blog post. So, after some editing and a few additions here’s my advice for the new urban bicycle commuter.

Information to Read

There are many out there, and I haven’t read them all. However, one of my favorite books on the topic is “The Art of Urban Cycling: Lessons from the Street” by Robert Hurst which I recommend to friends getting into it. There are several more, but that’s a good place to start.

I also follow a couple of blogs Taking the Lane & NYC Bike Snob are really good. Again there are others, but both of these have enough commuter specific information to be worth of RSS addition if you’re thinking about making this sort of change.

Things You’ll Need

Helmet

Helmets get a lot of press both for and against them. If you’re butt still gets sore when you ride for only a little bit in the saddle, my opinion is that you should probably be wearing one. Yes, I agree six ounces of blown Styrofoam probably isn’t much better than a wet toilet paper seat belt if you’re struck by a car. However, think about all that pavement and those many, many curbs you’ll be riding over and near. A fall from a bike will do damage (ask me how I know) and your brain shouldn’t have to take that kind of beating (ask me how I know).

My personal favorite bike helmet of all time is the Bell Metropolis later known as the Bell Citi Bike and finally and most recently known as Bell Piston.

I like this variety of helmet because you can get all sorts of extras which fit very well for this like ear covers and a rain cover. Also you won’t look like a Lycra™ clad, semi-alien, overly aggressive, ass-hat when you ride. Ok, given a little on the mushroomy side, but believe me that’s way better.

Lobster Mitts

Swix Lobster Mitts are invaluable in the winter or cooler weather. I own a couple pair because my hands sweat in them which makes them less effective while riding. Generally, I dry one pair out and wear a second which is ready to go. The fact that my hands sweat in them **is** what makes them worth owning. My hands are almost always freaking cold. When its below freezing and my hands are warm enough to sweat we’ve got a winner.

Good lighting

Good lighting is a must. If you’re like me and you are preferential about which streets you ride you’ll inevitably choose a route with little to no street lighting. Soon the sun will be setting before you leave the office. It may be raining or snowing on that day. So, then, what are you going to do? Get off and walk because you can’t see two feet beyond your front tire? That’s a 14 mile stretch of road, you could cover in less than an hour if you were in the saddle. Its going to take you hours to walk it.

Get a light, a really good one. Charge it at your office or place of work so you know its ready to go when you leave.

May I recommend this wonderfully low priced knock-off.

Also, if you’ve seen my Randonee bike you’ve also seen my generator hub. A much more expensive solution to the same problem. Its main advantage, you never need to charge it and the battery won’t crap out in the cold because there isn’t one. If you’re building a bike for your commute (not just buying one ready to go) this is the correct path. Ask me what I think works.

Rear lighting is also a must to have, but they’re a dime a dozen. More blinkies and reflectors are better.

Fenders

Don’t forget fenders. The fenders do a wonderful job of keeping off the gook in the winter. You’re warm feet and backside will thank you at the end of the ride. I don’t much like those little race fender things, they don’t do a good job. Get some full-coverage ones designed for the worst weather you can think of. Make sure the front fender drops below your toe-clip or peddle at the quarter stroke mark.

Panniers

Bags take mechanical advantage of the frame and free her body up to move and be seen. If you’ve got crap on your back or slung over a shoulder you’re carrying that crap not the bike. Also its going to bother you and move around while you ride. You know I love to tour on my bike and loading a ton of junk on it is my way of saying “meh” to my ultralight, super-speedy brothern and sisteren. But if you’re going to get your own butt to and from the office every day do yourself a huge favor and put some racks on it.

Wool

You may have noticed that a lot of my advice is focused on the cold weather commute. That’s because I’ve seen too many folks who worked hard all through the summer and in parallel watched me commute joyfully on bike who then make it to September and decide to join me in the commute. Its not a good or bad time to start, but the winter will be hard on you if you’re not prepared for it. Hell, the fall will be hard on you if you’re not ready to handle it. And then you’ll quit riding your bike, which is a shame all by itself, but gets worse if you consider that you may regret trying to commute by bike at all. You may end up resenting those of us who continue to show up at the office with ice hanging off our eyebrows and from the corners of our huge grins.

So, get ready. And by that I mean get some wool. Doesn’t have to be expensive. In fact, it probably shouldn’t be, but don’t settle for synthetics or worse Lycra™ because while you may show up to the office with ice and a smile you’ll also stink to high heaven. There are a million companies making a great marino base-layer, start there. Then look for a nice rag wool sweater. Mine has a huge turtle neck which is freaking awesome in a headwind. Maybe a scarf if you cant get a cool sweater like mine. Finally, wool pants that you can ride in.

You can get shells to wear over the wool, but you may not need to. I carry a shell and rarely use it because I’m nice and warm in the wool (and the lobster mitts) even though I may be a bit damp.

Video Camera

I also recommend a video camera such as the GoPro or like. These are really useful for a couple of reasons. I mount mine to my bikes to ensure that I get all the information I’m going to need when (not if) people break the law. The video of people breaking the law and endangering me is compelling in court and even before hand. And should I ever get hit again its bound to ensure I get coverage from their insurance.

Finally, the camera makes me behave even when my hackles are up because someone just tossed their drink at me or buzzed me too close. I know my actions are being recorded so if I misbehave then they now have recourse to point this out.

North Americans haven’t yet figured out what a Vulnerable Users law is good for. This means you’re getting out there on the road and knowingly putting yourself in a vulnerable situation. Don’t help a system which has already stacked the deck against you. This is a basic level of protection only you can ensure is on your side. Plus, you might catch some cool video of a neat bird or some pretty fall colors or what ever. I really enjoy mine.

Things you can do for yourself and others like you

I’m sure you do this already, but encourage others to give cyclists a break and some space when passing. Talking about bike safety — and not in the us and them mode — promotes bicyclist safety. Get as informed as you can become on the topic. You don’t need to be preachy about it, but people will see you if you make this a part of your daily routine. Some will even ask questions because they’re actually interested in doing the same thing.

There are three laws you ***need*** to look up for your state.

The Three Foot Rule

Not everyone has this, but it will be worth your time. Some of the states have a statute which says that a motorist must pass you with at least 3 feet on their right. Often these laws say that if its not safe to do so, they must also follow you until it is.

Knowing this statute for your state and how to get it quickly will save your butt. I suggest you look it up, if it doesn’t exist look for similar passing laws in the motor vehicle section of your state’s revised statutes.

Bicycles are Traffic not Pedestrians

This is the law that gives cyclists the right to ride on the road. You may not believe this but I’ve had to find this one in the past because I was cited for “not riding on the sidewalk”. Riding sidewalks is seriously wrong and exceptionally dangerous. Basically what this one says is that if you’re on a bike, you’re driving a non-motorized vehicle and are subject to all the other restrictions a vehicle pilot must obey (including not driving on a sidewalk). This is a good one to print off and carry with you.

Taking the Lane

This is the law that says you should ride as far right in the lane as is safe. It will have a list of exceptions when you can take the lane. Taking the lane is when you stick your butt out into traffic. This is a super important move to know how to do and when to do.

Find this statute, print it off, carry it in a plastic baggy in one of your new panniers. Law enforcement is almost never on your side in this situation even though the law is.

Right to Ride

If you integrate public transit into your commute (and if its even an option) your state probably has a Right to Ride law. It may or may not be in the same chapter as the bicycle regulations mentioned above, but its basically going to say that you can take your bike on-board in the event that there isn’t stowage which will work for you.

Drivers and stewards may try to stop you if you can’t fit your bike onto an overly full bike rack. Whip this baby out and show ’em and you’ll always make to that important morning meeting on time.

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