In 2015, I started bike commuting in a city which was absolutely not oriented for bicycles, pedestrians, or anything besides cars. For some reason, I was enthusiastic to begin. My disillusionment with car ownership, combined with cyclist evangelization, had finally converted me. But I quickly found that bike commuting isn’t always so idyllic. Don’t get me wrong: biking is awesome. I wish everyone could bike. But when you live in a city like mine, there are some very real, sometimes ugly, truths that you need to be prepared to encounter.
If you’re deep in a car-oriented system, then transitioning to biking isn’t easy.
You’re going to have to radically adjust your lifestyle. Not only will your route to work have to change, but your whole daily routine will too. At first, it will probably feel like you’re making sacrifices, that you’re just saying “no” to options that a car could provide. Unless you really want start focusing on living within your local radius, then transitioning from a car to a bicycle will probably be difficult. But if you’re anxious for the challenge, really do want to cut the fat from your lifestyle, and maybe even move to a more people-oriented neighborhood, then biking is up your alley.
Bike shops are your friends, but you can’t rely on them for everything.
When I purchased my bike, I told the salesperson I needed a bike for commuting. I rode out with a Giant Escape, which is a fairly decent bicycle. I also got a helmet, a lock, and a front light. Everything you need, right? After riding for a bit, I noticed something: the bike had no reflectors. In my state, it’s illegal (and dangerous) to ride at night without them. After it rained for the first time, I realized I also needed fenders. The lesson is that you can’t just assume that your bike is ready to go.
DIY skills are a must.
Chances are, there isn’t an abundance of bike mechanics in your neighborhood. And bicycles are highly personal objects; there’s no one-size-fits-all product. During my first year of bike ownership, I was constantly making changes, adding racks, upgrading locks, researching the best tires, and so on. If you like to nerd out about gear and read guides like this, then you might be cut out for bike commuting.
Be prepared for questions from your peers.
For most of the people in your community, someone who rides a bicycle is an exotic curiosity. Although people may ask you “why” you bike, which is usually asking if you have a DUI, most questions are genuine and friendly. People will wonder how far your ride is, where you like to bike, and so on. Take advantage of this. It’s an opportunity for you to talk about how awesome biking is.
Also be prepared for strange assumptions or prejudices.
Even if you don’t embrace “cyclist” as a part of your identity, it will be a major part of how your acquaintances know you. I’ve had people act overly concerned for my wellbeing when I bike (which, really, is a blessing to have). Sometimes people act surprised to hear that I visited a big-box store which isn’t very bike-accessible. I’ve even been complimented for my punctuality, “even though I ride a bike.” These are just comments from people trying to be friendly but who don’t understand bike commuting.
Weather matters a lot, but also not as much as you’d expect.
This is a subject that car-commuters will ask you about a lot. “Will you be okay in the rain today?” or, “wow, you biked here even though it’s cold?” For someone unprepared, the weather can indeed make a bike ride miserable. But a small bit of forethought eliminates most concerns. Get some warm gloves and get a rain jacket, and maybe pack a change of clothes. Unless there’s a tornado in town, then the weather won’t be any more inconvenient than off a bike.
You’ll Know Who Sheldon Brown is.
You’ll also understand why some people refer to him as “Saint” Sheldon. Maybe you’ll be one of them?
You’ll become attuned to your local bike laws, and they won’t make any sense.
Details of the law vary state-by-state (I can’t speak for those outside the US) but bikes are generally treated like vehicles and expected to follow most of the same laws as vehicles. On paper it makes a lot of sense. You ride with traffic and stop at stop signs. Same road, same rules. But in reality, you’re biking because you don’t want to be a vehicle. The whole point of bikes is that they provide freedom from the miserable regulations of car culture. Still, that won’t stop you from wanting to correct someone every time they claim that bikes should get off the streets and ride on sidewalks.
You’ll probably still use a car sometimes.
When your city’s infrastructure is only built around car transportation, then this is inevitable. There are going to be business and neighborhoods surrounded by dangerous stroads that are too stressful to take a bike on. Your friends will all be car-dependent, which means that doing anything with them will mean using a car. If your job takes you off-site, then you’ll need a car for work. And yes, it will feel awful. Even if you don’t feel like you’re “cheating” on your bike (as some people do), slogging through traffic and filling up gas tanks will be a brief return to a soul-crushing world that you would rather have forgotten about. Did I really use to do this every day? What was wrong with me? You’ll wonder.
You’ll need a support group.
On days where you feel beaten-down by the oppressions of car-culture, it’s good to have at least a few people you can turn to cope. According to American FactFinder, 0.3% of citizens in my city commute by bike. In that situation, the internet is a great refuge. There are tons of websites and forums for bike commuters or bike-commuter cliques inside larger websites. I learned a lot from my anonymous online acquaintances. Writing this list is kind of my way of keeping that cycle going.
When I began bike commuting, I quickly noticed that there weren’t a lot of other bicycles on the streets with me. Not one to be unsettled by the lack of company, I wondered if I might finally be that person who proves that it’s okay to ride a bike. Look, I’m doing it! It’s fine! But my real role soon became clear: I’m the exception that proves the rule. Biking in a car-oriented city requires a degree of energy and commitment that few citizens have the patience for.
Which brings me to my final point: You’ll have to accept that you aren’t normal for biking, but that’s okay. With enough exceptions, we can eventually rewrite the rules.