The Ups (and Downs) of Cycle Commuting


This post is part of series written by TreeHugger contributors about trading in your car for a bike for trips that are two miles or less in distance. The series is sponsored by the Clif 2-Mile Challenge.

For longer than I care to remember I've been a cycle commuter. For short to medium distances I can't think of a better way to travel.

I lived on the inner city fringe for roughly 20 years. For half of that time I didn't own a car. I rode everywhere, for everything. To work, to play, to study, to lecture, to shop, to eat. I rode to first dates. I rode to awards ceremonies. I rode to business appointments.

Like any activity undertaken on a constant basis, things will eventually go wrong. I have had my fair share of such 'events.'
Waiting for homewardbound commuter train. Photo: Warren McLaren / inov8

Once when doing a U-turn across the road my bike tyres discovered an oil slick and shot out from under me. My bicycle and I were soon sprawled out spreadeagle across the tarmac. That this occurred early evening on the busiest street in Sydney's central business district (CBD) may have been why the line of waiting bus commuters looked on with gaping mouths and faces drawn in disbelief. The odds of being run over were sky high. Fortunately I subscribe to the notion of "better lucky than rich."

Another time, sometime after midnight, returning home from visiting a friend about a business opportunity, my bike wheels decided they and a pothole were a match made in heaven. And duly embraced. Being superfluous to this relationship I was unceremoniously discarded. Within metres of one Sydney's most congested arterial roads. I still bear the war wounds from where I made unexpected contact with the bitumen. But I'm of firm belief that had I not been wearing a helmet, road rash scars would've been the very least of my injuries.

My most recent cycling hiccup was less dramatic but still serves as a reminder of the challenges of cycle commuting. I simply slept in.


Bike locked outside organic food store. Photo: Warren McLaren / inov8

These days I live not in the city, but the country, and a couple of days a week I work in an organic wholefood store, about 28km (17.5 miles) from home. It would take roughly 1.5 hours to ride such a distance, but as a hands-on father of an under one year old child I don't, alas, have that time free. So I ride to the town's rail station and catch a lift on the train three stops along, and then ride to work. The timing of the rail service happens to be perfect and the trains even have dedicated bike closets to stow my trusty metal steed.

But sleep in, and "perfect" goes right out the window. I awoke at the precise time I should've been pedaling to the station. Sure, I can drive, as a fall back, but not when I've allowed my car registration to lapse--I use my car so irregularly I was pondering if I really needed it.

So yes, cycle commuting is brilliant. (most of the time)

It keeps you fit. A regular cyclist is considered to have the fitness level of a non-cyclist 10 years their junior. A US study, looking at 18,000 women over a 15 year period, observed that the women who cycled for at least two or three hours a week were 46% less likely to gain weight. And children who 'actively' commute to school have higher levels of physical activity and improved cardiovascular fitness compared with children who do not walk or cycle to school.

It saves you money. To keep a compact car like mine on the road, costs about $800 annually -- just in registration and insurance. That's without even putting fuel in the tank, servicing, new tyres, freeway tolls, etc.

And like April noted last week, cycling is real. You're out there amongst the weather and the immediate surroundings. Be comparison driving a car is like being at the movies or watching stuff on TV. A screen separates you from those otherwise visceral sensations of cold, hot, speed, thrill, etc. There are no seat belts, anti-skid braking or air bags. You need to be alert, aware, conscious. You need to be alive.

And we aren't even discussing cycling's environmental benefits.


Bike storage on country commuter train. Photo: Warren McLaren / inov8

Commuting by bike does require two disciplines: Nerve and Time Management. Nerve because in the event of a bingle a cyclist is never going to trump a motor vehicle. And time management because to cycle (and/or use public transport) needs extra planning. It can often take longer (though more on that next time), so you may have to factor that into your day. It's not a case of simply jumping in the car and slamming on the accelerator.

Cycle commuting has much going for it. But we'd be foolish to suggest it can solve every problem. But it comes close.

That day I slept in, I ended up one hour and forty five minutes late for work, after arranging insurance, etc, for my car. If I'd just ridden my bike directly to work, I'd have been there in one hour, thirty minutes. I should've just got on my bike.

And that's what the Clif 2 Mile Challenge is all about. Getting more people on their bikes, improving their well being, and that of their planet. Give it go.

Ride Your Bike! More on getting out of the car and onto the bike
Let's Ride!
Better Biking
Take the Clif 2 Mile Challenge, and Get There by Bike
Lester Brown: The Welcome Return of the Bicycle

Tags: Bike Sharing | Biking | Ride Your Bike