Monday, April 27, 2009

Bike There – Part One

The League of American Bicyclists (LAB) has named May “National Bike Month,” and May 11-15 is National Bike-to-Work Week. In honor of this auspicious-but-mostly-ignored event, I am going to post some mostly serious blog entries advising how you, too, can ride your bicycle to work.

Today, I am going to talk about how you can design and implement the perfect bicycle route to work. Later this week, I will discuss what you need for your ride and some tactics to help keep you safer in rush hour traffic.

Step One: Pick Your Route

For most folks, the road that you use when you drive to work is not going to be the road that you use when you bike to work. Finding the perfect route to work on a bike typically takes research and time, and may result in a few mis-steps. But, once you get it right, it will make all the difference.

First, look at the distance that you ride to work. If it’s over 20 miles, you may want to only bike part of the way. Yes, you ride much further than that every Saturday, but fitting this in with eight hours of work will soon drag you down.

If you can ride your bike to a good bus line (with a bike rack on the front of the bus) or the train, do that. Or maybe you can drive your bike to a good spot and bike the rest of the way.

Next, consider how flexible your work hours are. Many roads that are busy during rush hour are fine for cyclists at other times. If you are comfortable riding in the dark (more on lights later), maybe you can come in early or late.

With these factors in mind, you are now ready to start looking at some maps. The easiest way to do this is to go to Google, click Maps, and then use the Get Directions feature to get a starting map from home to work. Make sure you select “Walking” from the drop-down list under the address fields.

You now have one way to get to work that will avoid interstates; however, it may still include some roads that aren’t good for cyclists. If you know of some better options, drag the blue route line onto that road and see what Google does for you. Eventually, you should be able to come up with something.

As you plot the route, follow these guidelines:
  • Bike lanes are good; bike routes may or may not be. In Nashville, most bike lanes don’t go anywhere, but at least you have a piece of pavement to call your own. Bike routes are usually just signs, but they do force (hopefully) drivers into considering that you may have some rights to that road.

  • School zones are good. People have to drive more slowly in school zones (except during the summer) so you aren’t slowing them down. Also, crossing guards like bicyclists … or at least they like me.

  • Speed bumps are good. It means the road goes somewhere that people are frequently trying to get to (e.g., work), but via a neighborhood that has enough political pull to get speed bumps installed. The cars will still sprint from bump to bump, but they can’t roar past you at 60 mph.

  • Roads that parallel two or more busier, wider options are usually good. For example, Franklin Pike is on my commute. It runs right next to I-65. Franklin Road, with four lanes, is just on the other size of I-65. If there’s an accident on I-65, people may get onto Franklin Road, but there’s never enough screw-ups to force people to bypass both I-65 and Franklin Road and get onto Franklin Pike.

  • The shortest distance between two points is rarely the best way to bike. Going an extra two miles to avoid a nasty intersection may mean two extra miles, but you arrive at work in one piece.

  • Sidewalks are the last option … but they are an option. When I am in a hurry, I can cut almost two miles off my route by going down Old Hickory just east of I-65. I only have to go about a quarter of a mile on that road, and there are three lanes there; however, cars don’t want me to have any part of any of those lanes. To keep the peace, I just get up on the sidewalk (there are never any other pedestrians) for that short stretch. If you must do this, however, keep in mind that when you are on the sidewalk you are no longer a vehicle, but have become a pedestrian. Don’t expect cars to be looking for you as they turn in to or out of side streets (of course, they barely do this for cyclists), and play nice with the other pedestrians on the sidewalk.
If you are unsure about the traffic on any road, talk to other area cyclists that live in the area. They can usually give you a good idea of the conditions, and may be able to offer alternatives.

Step Two: Test Your Route

Before you bike the route to work, drive it to work one day. Of course, if the route uses a path or greenway (lucky you!), you won’t be able to drive this part, but test whatever portion you can. This will enable you to discover the hidden foibles – such as gravel roads or closed bridges – of the route.

If the route still seems good, try it on the weekend. This will let you spot things that you won’t notice from a car, such as very steep hills and roaming dogs, and determine how long your new-found commute will require. It will also make the route a little more familiar when you try it on a work day.

The evening before you first try your ride in, get everything ready. Pump up your tires and load your bag. Review the weather and determine what clothing you will need for the ride in – and what clothing you will need for the ride home. Pack your bag as best you can, and make sure your lights are working.

Then, ride.

Step Three: Improve Your Route

The more you ride your route, the more you will learn about the patterns of your route. When does everyone in that neighborhood leave for work, and which roads do they take? When does the school bus come? When does the lady with the rottweilers let slip the dogs of war?

When you have time, be willing to explore. Take a road that is marked “Dead End” all the way, and you may find that there’s a path there. Cut through a new neighborhood and you may find a short cut that isn’t on Google maps, even though the road has been there for two years.

You can also improve your route by just playing nice with the cars and pedestrians. Call out “Good Morning” to the neighborhood joggers, dog-walkers, and bus-stop parents. Don’t take more of the road than you need, and when they come up on you and you can see that it’s clear over the hill or around the corner, wave them around. When they go by nicely – giving you enough space and not going too fast – give them a smile.

As cars get used to seeing you on their way in to the office, they realize that you are not just somebody out playing while they are trying to work. You are a working stiff like they are, just trying to take a slightly different path. Once people see their reflection in you – the cyclist – they will treat you as they would like to be treated.

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