Bike Your Drive: The 6 Basics of Bike Commuting

With benefits to your health, budget, time and the environment, it’s easy to understand why bike commuting is not just a viable alternative to vehicle transportation, but a desirable one. Green Cleaning Magazine interviewed bike commuting expert Tommy Bensko on what one needs to start bike commuting, how to address the reservations some may have, and helpful tips.

Why one would be interested in becoming a bike commuter? Tommy responds with the 5 Ms:

• Mind

• Muscle

• Mother Earth

• Money

• Mobility

Getting around by bike is great for each of these reasons, plus the simplicity, consistency, reliability, and practicality that comes with more freedom on the road. Especially in metropolitan areas where there is high density, biking is a way to get out of traffic jams and beat public transportation, even for long distances. “Public transportation can be late, and that can throw your whole day off, whereas you know exactly how long it’s going to take you by bike after you’ve done the route,” Tommy explains.

Bike commuting offers substantial boosts to your physical and emotional well-being. Especially in today’s computer culture, we know we need to get up and move, and biking dually achieves this aerobic exercise while getting you where you need to go. Furthermore, biking has benefits for your emotional state: “Aerobic exercise [such as biking] helps people think clearer, sleep better and be generally happier.”

To be safe, comfortable, and at ease on your bike, there are some essential things to prepare yourself with. Most bike shops will carry a variety of good brands to choose from for these essential items. Here is what Tommy has to say about each:

  • Bike Locks

Buying a decent lock and using it properly means the odds of getting your bike stolen are quite slim. A lot of stolen bikes are due to improper locking methods or cheap cable locks. Never use a cable lock – always use a U-lock!

  • Helmet

Get a helmet that fits you (try it on for size!) and make sure you are wearing your helmet properly. A misfit helmet is no good. As an extra safety measure, Tommy recommends wearing gloves. “If and when you do fall, you normally fall on your hands, and gloves will protect your hands from getting road rash.”

  • Lights

Really bright lights are important for both the front and the rear. Tommy also notes that it is important to have lights people can see from the side, as well, such as lights or reflectors in your wheels or spokes, or side lighting. Planet Bike Superflash is Tommy’s preferred brand for bike lights as they are the brightest battery-powered lights he’s come across.

  • Reflective Material

Reflective material is also important because it reflects the full brightness of automotive headlights back at the automobile, which can be brighter than blinking lights.

  • Cargo

Having a decent cargo rack to transport things such as groceries is important. A good cargo rack can cost around $50. Saddle bags (aka panniers) can turn into back packs and shoulder bags with quick release systems for easy detachment.

  • Tires

Good commuting tires are important. Slicks or hybrids are most efficient.

Being aware while riding is a necessary safety measure. Tommy’s advice:

• Not wearing headphones in both ears or being otherwise distracted.

• Knowing your route. “Whenever you take a new route, you want to be extra careful because there might be potholes, road signage you’re not used to, etc.” You can find out which routes are more bike-friendly with Google maps, and many bike shops have maps of the recommended routes for biking.

• Be predictable on the road and let cars know what you’re doing. Don’t swirl around or go against traffic – bike in a straight line and use hand and eye communication with drivers.

• Most large cities with a bicycle coalition have free classes to get trained in becoming more confident commuters. Checking out videos online about bike safety is also a helpful in illustrating safety tips.

Some people may resist bike commuting because of concerns about flat tires, inclement weather, or arriving to work sweaty. “There are a lot of excuses, but there are also a lot of solutions,” Tommy offers. “It only takes about 10-15 minutes to change your own flat tire if you have a little practice and a bit of equipment, so that is equivalent to getting stuck in traffic.” There is bike-specific rain gear and cold weather gear available to keep you dry and warm. If you’re worried about arriving to work sweaty, Tommy suggests arriving early to wipe down, using shower facilities if available, and/or bringing your work clothes with you and changing once you arrive.

Finding the right bike size and fit for your body and your usage makes a difference. Going to a bike shop and trying out different styles is a good way to figure out what works for you. Many bikes can be bought used for cheap (around $100). ‘Commuter bikes’ are the newest style of bikes being sold, also known as hybrids, which are an upright, relaxed style. However, if you don’t already have a hybrid, you can make a commuter bike out of any mountain bike by putting narrower, slicker tires on it.

Bike commuting benefits the environment and society by reducing air pollution, energy consumption, noise pollution, road wear, and drain on resources all across the chain of manufacturing to maintenance. “Besides all of the fumes from cars, a ton of energy goes into building and maintaining the infrastructure, roads, transporting gas, automotive repair, and building a car. It’s a much bigger issue than just burning gas.” A report from the Sierra Club notes that forty percent of all trips are made within two miles of home. As Tommy puts it, these car trips can be replaced with biking because they’re so short. If American drivers replace just one four-mile round trip each week with a bike, it would save nearly 2 billion gallons of gas, for a total savings of $7.3 billion a year, based on $4 per gallon for gas.

According to the Sierra Club report, the average annual operating cost of a bicycle is $308 — and if you do repairs yourself it could amount to even less, versus $8,220 annual cost for the average car. Societal costs add up as well: it can cost $60 million through tax payers to maintain just one mile of urban highway. It could cost the same amount to invest in city-wide bicycle Infrastructure, making it much more cost-effective.

Forget the parking tickets, parking spots, repair costs and car insurance. You will spend much less money maintaining a bike than a car, will benefit your health, and will contribute to more sustainable, breathable, and healthier communities.


Hand signals (.pdf file)

Changing a flat tire: video and step-by-step guide with pictures

Bicycle frame size calculator

Bicycle coalitions and associations by state

Bike safety introduction video and rights and duties of cyclists video (examples – there are many out there!)

Park Tool Repair How-To’s

For kids: Safe Routes To Schools info

More bike commuting tips

Tommy Bensko is the founder and director of the Bay Area BikeMobile program and its parent entity, Local Motion. The BikeMobile hosts free bicycle repair clinics for youth and low-income communities through hands-on engagement so they can make future repairs on their own. He is an avid cyclist and bike educator.