Tips for suburban bike commuters

By Jeff Teppema
Fall 2012

Source: ActiveTrans > Mode Shift

Old Plank Road Trail Bridge in Frankfort, IL

Old Plank Road Trail Bridge in Frankfort, IL

As a suburban bicycle commuter who is committed to safety and having a pleasant riding experience, I need to take precautions that my urban counterparts may take for granted. Because there are far fewer marked bicycle routes in the suburbs, detailed route planning and backup plans are essential. As drivers are not expecting to see cyclists during their commute, making oneself visible is critical. Often a busy road is the only option without adding distance to the ride, so riding the line between safe and assertive is necessary.

Thankfully, more suburbs are installing bike lanes, bike route signage and bike racks. There is a decent path system in many suburban areas, but often each town is responsible for its own section of path, so the quality and accessibility varies from municipality to municipality. On my 34-miles-round-trip commute, I pass through as many as seven towns, each with its own idea of what constitutes a safe riding experience.

Path vs. streets

Trail Bike Rack Along Suburban Path

Trail Bike Rack Along Suburban Path

I generally prefer paths to streets, but there are several things to keep in mind. First, a path-only route is not always possible, or it may add several miles to your trip. Also, many paths include tunnels under busy roads that make them vulnerable to flooding. I always avoid paths after a heavy rain because of that possibility. There’s nothing more frustrating than riding several miles on a path only to discover that the only point of passage is blocked, forcing one to retrace all of that distance.

Many paths are covered in crushed gravel, which isn’t bad during dry weather, but after a rain or thaw, the path may have the consistency of wet sand, which is very difficult (and messy) to navigate. Finally, paths are rarely plowed, leaving them impassible after heavy snowfall. Because of these hazards of paths, it’s always a good idea to have at least two or three predetermined routes—both surface road and paths—to choose from.

Get noticed

Since I like to have drivers see me well in advance, I usually wear bright orange, which is very easily spotted. I also wear reflective ankle straps and put reflective tape on my helmet so I’m literally seen from head to foot. It’s important to keep in mind, too, that fewer street lights exists in the suburbs compared to city. Front and rear lights are essential for personal safety if you’re riding between dusk and dawn.

My favorite visibility safety trick, though, is to pull a brightly colored trailer. My job requires that I carry more than will practically fit into panniers or a backpack, so the trailer serves the dual purpose of gear hauling and being highly noticeable. Most drivers still associate a trailer with a child passenger, so they are more likely to slow down and give me a wide berth.

Route planning

Illinois Prairie Path by saumacus

Illinois Prairie Path by saumacus

To plan my route, I start with the most direct and then begin to compromise. A direct route is often the busiest surface road, which I try to avoid. Usually, there are parallel roads a block or two off the main route that are much less traveled; however, these side streets tend to dead-end into highways or toll roads. When I am forced to use a busy road, I will try to ride on it for the shortest distance possible, and only if it has a wide shoulder. For example, one of my routes takes me on Illinois Route 53, but only for a half mile of shoulder riding, before I cross at a traffic signal onto the next road.

Whenever practical, I adhere to the “same road, same rights, same rules” philosophy, but there are certain places where it is simply foolish to ride a bicycle at certain times. One of my routes takes me onto a busy four-lane road with poor visibility and a long bridge sans shoulder. Cars zip around blind curves, two abreast, at 50 mph, with nowhere to go should they need to swerve to avoid a cyclist. In this case, I ride on a pedestrian walkway that runs adjacent to the road. Because this is a busy road away from a residential area, there are rarely pedestrians on the path, but I still keep my speed down on this stretch.

While more suburban communities are seeing the benefits of creating better biking facilities, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to make suburban towns and villages safer and more convenient for cycling. With this in mind, I remain hopeful that more suburbanites will follow in the tracks of city riders and start cycling to work.

As the numbers of suburban cycle commuters grows, we will begin to receive a higher level of support from our local elected officials. We need to remember that being part of the change is as easy as riding a bike.

Jeff Teppema is volunteer writer for Active Trans.