Bicycling as Transportation


Inside this Article

A merging bike path.
One of the author’s trusty steeds, loaded for a typical weekend or week-long trip. Even the guitar comes along for the ride.
A typical trip to town—the author and his newest bike on a ferry.
Local and regional buses offer bike racks, helping extend your travel range.
One of the author’s bikes and others loaded in an Amtrak train’s baggage car.
Smartphone apps can suggest bike-friendly routes and track your rides, including distance, speed, elevation changes, and even your heart rate.
The author regularly uses this old rail line, converted to a bike path, to cut across a bay near his home. The alternate route is longer, with dangerous high-speed automobile traffic.
Bike routes help separate you from dangerous car traffic. Then, however, you become the “high-speed” danger—ride with respect to pedestrians and equestrians.
You don’t have to figure out how to “tow your own,” as the author does here with a wheelbarrow­—bike trailers connect safely to your bike and can expand your load-carrying capacity.

Home Power senior editor Ian Woofenden has bicycled more than 20,000 miles in the last five years. Here, he shares his advice on how to get out from behind the steering wheel and behind the handlebars!

I read two things in my youth that had a lasting impression on me. One was that a bicycle is the most energy-efficient way for a person to travel. The other was that if you count up all the time we take to buy, finance, license, insure, maintain, repair, and drive a car, we’re really only going about 10 miles per hour. I haven’t done the research to confirm or deny either statement, but the general drift made complete sense to me as a young person, and started a love of bicycles that has lasted for decades.

But like most Americans, I got caught up in the car culture while raising a family and leading my busy life. My kids are now grown, and I’ve lived without a car for the last five years (I do own a dump truck, and borrow and rent cars as needed). I enjoy the benefits of exercise, lower cost, closer connection to community and nature, as well as what comedian Robin Williams called “the closest you can get to flying.”

Use the Bike You Have

Most of us learned to ride bikes when we were young, and the old adage is correct—you don’t forget how to ride, even if you haven’t done it for years. The biggest stumbling block to using your bicycle more is you. Many people find ways to work bicycles into their transportation scheme, ranging from it having a minor part to being a key player.

I encourage you to get on the bike you have, but if you need to buy one, try different bikes first. Borrow friends’ bikes. Rent bikes. Try cheap yard-sale bikes. Talk with local bike nerds and bike shop owners. You’ll gradually find a bike that is suited to your needs. Real-world experience combined with input from others is the best route to improving your rolling stock. Meanwhile, you’ll get all the benefits of getting onto your bike.

Why Bike?

  • Decrease your carbon footprint. Cars are a significant portion of the typical American’s environmental footprint, and depending on your situation, needs, and determination, you can take a big bite out of that by using bikes.
  • Save money. For a few hundred dollars, it’s easy to find a quality used bike that will handle most of your transportation needs. After my bike’s initial purchase, my annual bike-maintenance budget is just a few hundred dollars. Compare that to the cost of fueling and maintaining even an “economical” car, not to mention its purchase cost.
  • Improve your health. My body gets a boost from regular exercise, my mind gets stimulated, and my emotions are calmed by a regular ride.
  • Engage with your community. I often see birds, mammals, reptiles, plants, and even rocks that I never would have seen if I’d been whizzing by at 60 miles per hour. And unless I’m very focused on my schedule and destination, I have time to make eye contact with other humans, wave and smile, and sometimes even stop to visit.
  • Lighten up. Traveling by bike affects how much stuff I use, own, and travel with, and forces me to prioritize what I really need. I can easily travel for a weekend or a week with only two panniers to carry my clothes and office (plus my travel guitar strapped on top).

Comments (4)

Marc Fontana's picture

I find that commuting by bike is less stressful for one because you can depend on your route taking about the same time every day regardless of traffic. Years ago, a friend and I went on a week long bicycle tour of the San Juan Islands - I loved it ! (we did it in June). I would have been happy camping, but she insisted on staying at B&B's. I'm tempted to put an electric motor on my bike, but I worry it will make it too easy to ride and take away one of the best opportunities to exercise.

Ian Woofenden's picture
Yes, Mark! Biking in many cases can also be faster than driving. I frequently get off the ferry, bike to the post office, and get to my second stop only to meet up with an islander who had to wait for all the cars to unload off the sam ferry and deal with the traffic. On the other hand, at times when I'm in the city, I need to adjust to traffic and stops where there isn't dedicated biking infrastructure -- and it's a lot slower than when I'm on my own turf and know the fast routes. The San Juans are great biking country, and ferries are a sweet transportation connection, taking you in some cases from the country to the city very directly over the water. I use two electric-assist bikes, primarily when I have big loads or am feeling tired or lazy. Different styles of e-bikes can give you more or less control over the amount of exercise you get. I would warn you not to get a single-speed pedal assist bike, since my experience is that I can't work hard enough on the flat, or go fast enough, and it's a bit of a workout up hill in some cases. I would always recommend having gearing choices, and my personal choice is to choose when I turn on the assist and when I don't (though automatic pedal assist is pretty handy...). And e-bikes don't work for longer distances, since you run out of juice and then have a relatively heavy bike to ride. I tried taking one of my e-bikes to Seattle once (80-90 miles), but even using it sparingly, I ran out halfway there. Different bikes for different jobs... Best, Ian
craigmerrow's picture

I bike every chance I get! I'm mostly a mountain biker, but I often bike through town (often taking local trails) to run errands, although I'm much happier way out in the woods amongst the wildlife, brooks, blueberries, and general solitude and quiet.

Ian Woofenden's picture
Thanks for your comments, Craig! I also prefer the woods, and bike there when it's an option. Some of my appointments in town allow me to spend 20-30 minutes in the woods going from one place to another. It's therapeutic in more ways than one! Regards, Ian
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