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Making Bicycling Easy: 10 Things I’ve Learned 26

FatherSon

Father/Son/Velorbis by Gerry Gaffney on RateMyVelo.com

I didn’t have the luxury of growing up in a bicycle-friendly culture like they have in the Netherlands. I grew up in North America’s car-centric society, and although I used my bicycle as transportation prior to attaining my driver’s permit, I nonetheless grew up loving cars.

As a kid, I had always dreamed of owning a Jeep. The type of Jeep where the roof and the doors come off. So when I was a 3rd year student in 2001, I secured a decent job with a large Canadian bank, and decided to treat myself by buying a 1995 Jeep YJ.

I have come a long way since my young and immature SUV-driving days. I gradually made the switch from being car-dependent from 1996 to 2002, to being car-free in the city and using my bicycle as my primary mode of transportation.

Here are 10 things I’ve learned about bicycling that helped make bicycling easy in car-dominated North America:

1) Stop worrying so much about theft.

Do you own an expensive bike? Get a better lock. Still concerned? Then don’t spend so much on your bike. A bike is meant to be used and left outside. If you rarely use your bike because you fear it will be stolen, then you just aren’t living your life. Free yourself from that fear.

2) Slow down a bit.

Being in a rush is contagious. Try to slow down a bit – going slower is also contagious. If you move too fast you will miss some great scenery, and you will have less time to react to obstacles. Sure, there are times when we’re late for a meeting, but most of the time we can all probably take it a bit slower.

3) Use a bike that is street clothes friendly

In 2002, when I first moved to Toronto, I wrapped my pant bottoms with reflective Velcro to keep my pants from getting caught in the chain. Sometimes I would lose the Velcro strap and have to roll my pants up. It was bloody annoying. Use a bike that you can hop on without having to roll or strap your pants. You will thank me later.

4) Use bicycles when you travel.

If you travel a lot for work or otherwise, try to use a bicycle. In 2008 I spent two months on a work assignment in Calgary, Alberta. I bought a used bike on Craigslist for $30 and probably saved $1000+ in taxi/rental car fees for my employer. Not only that, I had the freedom to go wherever I wanted to go, whenever I wanted to go there. Pretty much any time I travel for work, the bicycle plays an important role (except in ridiculous Las Vegas where I’m heading later today for a work conference).

5) Don’t trust drivers, but don’t fear them either.

I always assume a door on a parked car is going to swing open at any moment. So I give myself enough space so if/when the door swings open, I will be safe. Always assume drivers can’t see you, and take control. But don’t let yourself become fearful and stop riding out of fear.

Dottie

“Dottie on De Fietsfabriek Oma” – by Dream Dottie on RateMyVelo.com

6) Try to ride where other people ride.

The most dangerous street is a street where drivers aren’t expecting to see you. You are safest when you are surrounded by other bicyclists – even if that means your ride will take a bit longer. It’s often worth the extra time.

7) Minimize your gear and don’t check the weather

If your bike has fenders and a chain guard, there are few occasions where you should need to ride in anything other than the clothes you would wear if you were walking or driving. The less gear you have, the easier it will be to make the choice to ride. To avoid stressing out over weather forecasts that may turn out to be incorrect, I always carry something light to cover myself in case I do encounter rain.

(Note: in the original article, “never check the weather” was included as item #9. It has been collapsed into this point to make room for the new #9).

8) Store your bike in a convenient location.

If your bike is locked up in a basement storage locker, you are far less likely to use it for quick trips. Store your bike in a convenient location, even if that means locking it up outside to a tree. I keep my bike locked up on my ground-level front porch, so it’s convenient to hop on for even the shortest of trips.

9) Use car-sharing services

One of the key tools I use to assist with car-free living is to use car sharing/rental services when the need periodically arises to use a car. An important difference between using car sharing services and owning your own car is that car-sharing services inherently provide an incentive to drive less. When you own a car, there is more incentive to drive it more often because you are paying for the car + insurance + depreciation regardless of whether you actually drive it or not.

(Thanks to a commenter for pointing this out. It wasn’t in the original article, but car sharing does in fact play an important role for me. The comment was subsequently lost by Blogger, but I hope Blogger will recover it).

10) Don’t give up / give in

Most bicyclists in car-centric societies have at one point or another been told by their friends or acquaintances that they are “crazy” or they have a “death wish”, and they are “risking their life”.

A colleague of mine is 6 months pregnant and has been chastised by her friends for continuing to ride her bike. Have you ever heard of a pregnant woman being chastised for being in an automobile on the highway? Not likely, yet they are likely putting their baby at a higher risk than my colleague.

These pragmatic, common sense tips will help make it easier to hop on a bicycle in a car-dominated world. Feel free to share your own tips in the comments. Everyone has their own perspective and suggestions to help avoid the plenty of barriers that block us from riding.

James D. Schwartz is the editor of The Urban Country. You can contact James at james.schwartz@theurbancountry.com.

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03707210159399914876 Rain

    Great stuff, James. Just one thought, though- what’s so stressful about checking the weather. Personally, I usually sit down for a few minutes with my oatmeal and a cup of tea and watch the weather on tv. Not stressful at all; kind of the opposite, in fact. And it gives me some idea as to whether I ought to simply stow my rain stuff just in case or actually start the ride off wearing it, if it seems way more likely than not that I’m gonna get dumped on.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04454437680686627778 James D. Schwartz

    @Rain, thanks for bringing this up – I didn’t explain my rationale very well. I sometimes see people checking the weather and seeing rain in the forecast, so they either leave their bike at home, or bulk up with their rain gear. Then when the forecast turns out to be wrong, they get angry at the weatherman. Or they get stressed out if it rains when the forecast didn’t call for rain. I find in this case, ignorance is bliss. I find being prepared for almost any weather leaves one less thing to worry about during the day.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04454437680686627778 James D. Schwartz

    Having said that, everyone has their own ways of doing things, and just because I enjoy doing things one way, that doesn’t mean it’s the only way to do it :) Cheers!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03707210159399914876 Rain

    Yeah, I suppose it’s also possible to catch yourself looking to the weatherman for an excuse to grab the car keys in the morning. And chances are you’d wind up regretting it later that afternoon when you’re sitting in traffic with your windshield greenhousing you. Cheers, indeed.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12056080802746709323 Green Idea Factory

    Pushing the fear? “Always assume drivers can’t see you, and take control.”??. I am not saying everywhere is AOC (Amsterdam or Copenhagen) but trust is necessary to build trust. Ain’t nothin’ bought “easy” in telling people to assume the worst.

  • Anonymous

    Agree with almost all the points except for the weather watching. I bike all year round in a large Canadian city, but I like to have a heads up on the gear (very minimal)to bring with me. I agree with the spirit of the post though.

    I to grew up immersed in car culture. Was one of the first kids in high school to have a car. -Busted my ass for that thing. I know every penny that goes into maintaining an auto. Had to start fixing the things myself and everything because I couldn’t afford it! This taught me to be mechanically inclines. A skill which is out to use, it seems, on every bicycle in my apartment building. My neighbours love me. I never say no to fixing a bike. Cars?, not so much. lol

    Today, I live car free. I have to admit, my dirty little sport is racing the quarter mile with my 1969 Oldsmobile 442, but this rig in seldom used and almost always locked up. A 600hp big-block is not a daily commuter! I will never buy a new car and give into the large purchase consumerism that ensnares so many of us North Americans.

    I love my life with a bike. Save money and enjoy living. Look past that Prius and if you have to drive, do less of it. It’s not as hard as it seems. Of course, this lifestyle may not have you toeing your boat to the lake out of your three-car garaged suburban dwelling, but the suburbs suck anyway. Enjoy your fellow humans and inject some quality into your life.

    Do like Schwartz and I, live as free as possible… on a bike :)

    PS I always assume that when I step into a car or onto my bike, that I am about to adventure into dangerous situations. I imagine myself broken and battered amidst a terrible accident, and this thought reigns in my more devilish riding tendencies. Keeps me on my toes and away from potential door prizes! I think this is what Schwartz was getting at – it works for him and it works for me. Others have their own way of dealing with their safety.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04454437680686627778 James D. Schwartz

    Green Idea Factory, I don’t think I’m pushing fear at all. I always assume a car door will swing open, and I think it’s good practice to make this assumption, because it forces me to give myself enough space when passing parked cars. Don’t forget that this is written in a North American context where drivers are less used to encountering bicyclists than perhaps Germany and definitely the Netherlands.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17528772139443165946 Lisa Corriveau

    Here’s another way to make cycling easier: ditch your car & join a car sharing organization. Then you’ve got occasional access to a car for Ikea runs or hauling dirt for your garden, but not the temptation of a vehicle sitting in front of your home saying, “Drive meeeee”. Car share vehicles are less convenient than the alternative of hopping on your bike, plus the pay-per-use aspect really forces you to think about how much driving really costs.

  • http://listwithtom.com/ Thomas

    I live in the sunbelt, how do you deal with the sweat? Most folks around here do not appreciate a smelly colleague. Most places do not have showers and changing facilities.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06199983680204710885 Mr. S.

    Can’t agree with everything you wrote, though I will agree with the value of your opinions. Here’s my more skeptical take: http://hanlonsrzr.blogspot.com/2011/05/universal-cycling-rules.html#more

  • http://www.theurbancountry.com James Schwartz

    I don’t think I’m pushing the fear at all. I think it’s just good practice to assume a car door will swing open, so my suggestion is to stay out of the door zone. Don’t forget this is written in a North American context where drivers aren’t as used to seeing bicycles on our streets.

  • http://www.theurbancountry.com/ James Schwartz

    I don’t think I’m pushing the fear at all. I think it’s just good practice to assume a car door will swing open, so my suggestion is to stay out of the door zone. Don’t forget this is written in a North American context where drivers aren’t as used to seeing bicycles on our streets.

  • http://www.theurbancountry.com James Schwartz

    Thanks Mr. S – I enjoyed your more entertaining and cynical take on it :)

    “On a decreasing scale your responsibilities are to people’s lives, person, and property”

    If only our laws were more designed to address this rather than accommodating traffic flow at the cost of people’s lives.

  • http://www.theurbancountry.com/ James Schwartz

    Thanks Mr. S – I enjoyed your more entertaining and cynical take on it :)

    “On a decreasing scale your responsibilities are to people’s lives, person, and property”

    If only our laws were more designed to address this rather than accommodating traffic flow at the cost of people’s lives.

  • spare_wheel

    Do you really believe that going too fast is a major problem for new riders?

    In my experience, the vast majority of new riders feel they are going TOO SLOW.

    My advice to new riders is go at a pace that feels comfortable and safe. BUT….BUT…when you become more fit, then by all means feel free to crank it up. Ride FAST, if you like. Then RIDE FASTER, if you like!

    And if and when you feel comfortable take the lane. Don’t slow down for the iron bull, get in its way and slow it down!!!

    • http://www.theurbancountry.com James Schwartz

      Well, I don’t try to profess that everything that I do is what everyone else should do. But I find that one of the barriers to people riding to work is the sweat. If you slow down a bit, you can help avoid being sweaty when you arrive at the office. To each his own though…

  • spare_wheel

    Do you really believe that going too fast is a major problem for new riders?

    In my experience, the vast majority of new riders feel they are going TOO SLOW.

    My advice to new riders is go at a pace that feels comfortable and safe. BUT….BUT…when you become more fit, then by all means feel free to crank it up. Ride FAST, if you like. Then RIDE FASTER, if you like!

    And if and when you feel comfortable take the lane. Don’t slow down for the iron bull, get in its way and slow it down!!!

  • http://www.theurbancountry.com/ James Schwartz

    Well, I don’t try to profess that everything that I do is what everyone else should do. But I find that one of the barriers to people riding to work is the sweat. If you slow down a bit, you can help avoid being sweaty when you arrive at the office. To each his own though…

  • Rol

    Amen to points #1 and #5, thank you.

  • Rol

    Amen to points #1 and #5, thank you.

  • Peter

    Well said. #1 and #3 especially. Though I recently slipped into cycling dorkdom buying rain gear. In general, it’s been way too hard to buy a nice upright, 3-5 speed bike, with fenders/rack/chain guard and bike stand. Lately, Toronto shops have finally started offering that kind of bike. I hope the trend continues. Also I’ve abandoned being an “aggressive” cyclist and just avoid heavy traffic areas (though that is difficult).

    • http://www.theurbancountry.com James Schwartz

      Peter, Curbside Cycle has some great bikes that make it easy to ride in all weather. Agreed that it’s impossible to avoid arterial roads in Toronto, but there are some nice north-south routes through scenic residential neighbourhoods. Cheers!

  • Peter

    Well said. #1 and #3 especially. Though I recently slipped into cycling dorkdom buying rain gear. In general, it’s been way too hard to buy a nice upright, 3-5 speed bike, with fenders/rack/chain guard and bike stand. Lately, Toronto shops have finally started offering that kind of bike. I hope the trend continues. Also I’ve abandoned being an “aggressive” cyclist and just avoid heavy traffic areas (though that is difficult).

  • http://www.theurbancountry.com/ James Schwartz

    Peter, Curbside Cycle has some great bikes that make it easy to ride in all weather. Agreed that it’s impossible to avoid arterial roads in Toronto, but there are some nice north-south routes through scenic residential neighbourhoods. Cheers!

  • LBJ

    Great tips! I travel a lot for work too (different cities different weeks) and what I did was get a Montague folding bike. It means I can take *my* bike with me wherever I go, and I have the flexibility to take a cab or (tip #9) use a carshare if I need to. It’s a lot faster getting around on bike in the city and I get a firsthand experience of new cities too.

  • LBJ

    Great tips! I travel a lot for work too (different cities different weeks) and what I did was get a Montague folding bike. It means I can take *my* bike with me wherever I go, and I have the flexibility to take a cab or (tip #9) use a carshare if I need to. It’s a lot faster getting around on bike in the city and I get a firsthand experience of new cities too.