To Commute Or Not To Commute…

Background Reading


Lady with Folded Brompton

Lady with Folded Brompton

If you are a cycling advocacy group and you want to better understand why a mere handful of possible riders are up to the challenge of commuting consider the following:

  • Chicago has a well earned reputation (of late) as a dangerous place to ride. This is largely due to our overabundance of gun shot victims. Regardless of the reasons for the shooting that fact that they are happening and the numbers are said to be increasing it puts fear into the hearts of those who have to travel through “rougher” neighborhoods. But with the pandemic of shootings spreading into the “safer” neighborhoods people begin to wonder if the effort is worth it.
  • Commuting Requires Logistical Efforts. Riding to work a distance greater than 5 miles probably requires a shower after the ride. Few if any offices provide that kind of convenience. There are places to park your bike during the day and get a shower as well (e.g. McDonalds Cycle Center). But these have added costs and may require the rider to walk to their office which means additional time and effort at the end of a longish bicycle commute.
  • Chicago has nasty winters. When you look at video footage of Europeans riding their bikes to work in snow you may fail to understand just how warm the climate is adjacent to oceans. Chicago’s Lake Michigan has a warming effect but it is nothing like the Atlantic in and around the Netherlands or the North Sea areas near Copenhagen. Most Dutch canals never freeze all winter. Our freezing and thawing cycles break up our roadways each year regardless of the automobile traffic that passes over them. Coupled with the time honored use of salt you have a recipe for potholes the size of Kansas on just about every busy thoroughfare.
  • Drivers In Chicago Can Be Selfish. Of course the same could be said about bicyclists as well. You simply have to enter a intersection like the one where Damen, Clybourn and Diversey coalesce at Rush Hour and you have an introduction to what an indifferent driving population looks like. It is every man for himself on the best of days and when traffic gets snarled tempers flare. There is little about commuting through such an intersection or eventually reaching the one to the south where Damen, Milwaukee and North Avenue converge that would make you nostalgic for the experience.
  • We do not educate our youth on the benefits of cycling. With the waning emphasis on Vehicular Cycling many school age children never got a chance to attend a bicycle rodeo. And because many municipalities no longer had a cadre of League Certified Instructors to turn to for guidance at least one generation of youth have grown up with no practical bicycle riding training. So it is not surprising that as adults they do not return to their experiences in traveling to school by bicycling when considering how to move around a college campus or to commute to their first place of employment.
  • Bicycle Commuting can engender aggression. Riding a bicycle can be fun. But it can also be frustrating and the fear that results from being continually subjected to life threatening experiences can bring about aggression. You only need to peruse the “Missed Connectionthread on ChainLink to see how pervasive this experience really is. Reading through this diary of confrontations takes away a bit of the luster of being a commuter.
  • Adult Cyclist Training is missing. I fear that the League of American Bicyclists has allowed the current rush to Protected Bike Lanes to deter them from pushing forward with their former agenda to train cyclists using the Vehicular Cyclist strategies. What we are left with are poorly designed PBLs that sometimes require lane changes and cyclists who either are uncertain how to ride out in “auto traffic lanes” to effect turns or are “unaware that they are allowed to do so“. Either way when a lane design puts a rider in a situation where they must improvise they are not prepared for that activity.
  • Bicycle Clubs Need To Sponsor Bike Buses. Because riding alone can be both dangerous and uninviting, bicycle clubs need to step in and organize “bike buses“. These are essentially groups of commuters who have an agreed upon pace and route each morning to pick up commuters that join a peloton of riders on their way to a general destination. It provides safety as they ride through rough neighborhoods and help should a novice rider develop mechanical difficulties.
  • Cycling Organizations should sponsor seminars for commuting that are held as “brown bag”events. When you want the working stiffs of a metropolitan area to understand what is involved in commuting you need to hold ‘brown bag” events in their staff lunch areas. This means that groups like Active Transportation Alliance have to rely on more “hands on” outreach than just a Bike-To-Work Week Rally in Daley Plaza. Contact the HR officers in companies and offer to send out representatives who can show a video and then hold a practical “question and answer” session afterwards to help people understand what sorts of benefits and preparations are required to commute.

Bicycle Commuting Is For Short Distances

Commuter with Brompton

Commuter with Brompton

Is my opinion, commuting by bike is practical only for shorter distances. My take on distances above 5 miles is that they should be crafted into multi-modal experiences. For instance:

  • If you live to the west of the city you could ride your folding bike to the train station for a distance of no more than 3 miles.
  • Board the train with a folding bike (e.g. Brompton Folder) and ride to the Loop.
  • Unfold your bike and ride the remaining 3 miles to your office of the McDonald’s Cycle Center (for example).
  • Optional: Grab a shower and change clothes (only if you managed to work up a sweat).
  • Ride to your office and stow your bike either under your desk or in the hallway closet.

The TCO Makes Commuting Too Expensive For The Poor

Poor people and especially immigrants from foreign countries find buying a “good” bike for commuting purposes difficult. There are very few shops in poor neighborhoods and little in the way of a bicycle culture in many urban black neighborhoods. Bicycles used for commuting purposes are vastly different than those upon which a person must rely for actual transportation. Bike Arvada addresses this in a blog entry on Operating Costs:

Operating Costs

The late Ken Kifer, in 2003, calculated that the average cost of operating a motor vehicle to be 93.8¢ per mile and the parallel costs to operate a bicycle to be 12.8¢ per mile, a difference, and benefit to riding a bicycle, of 81¢ per mile. I’ve been using that figure to tout the merits of full-time cycling, but I’ve had the nagging feeling that those figures were horribly outdated.

Then I found this nifty online calculator to determine the cost of operating a motor vehicle. Currently, based on recent reported fuel costs, this calculator figures the direct cost to the operator of a motor vehicle to be $1.02 per mile and the combined cost—including all indirect expenses—to be $1.41 per mile.

If you are working minimum wage even the small costs associated with owning a bicycle can be troublesome. Repairs require extra money as does emergency work to either fix or replace punctured inner tubes or to replace frayed tires. Anyone who is not aware of how to approach these sorts of problems is unlikely to want to ride through city neighborhoods which are possibly dangerous on a bicycle which they do not know how to repair.

Because we have seemingly given up on Vehicular Cycling and the additional training on how to do simple bike maintenance we have again lost an entire generation who might otherwise see a bicycle as a fun way to travel rather than an impenetrable set of problems without resolution.