Urban Cycling for Fun and Profit

(and by profit, we mean strength, fitness, community, and, oh yeah, hella money savings!)

You can ride your bike to work, to school, to the grocery store, to the park, or to the party. The possibilities are endless! Here's how to get started.

MOTIVATE

Cycling is its own reward, but if you need more reason than that, consider these points.

Save money. How much does it cost you to not bike? If you drive, factor in gas, parking, maintenance such as oil changes, repairs, and of course the price of the car itself and any payments you might be making on it, including interest. The average annual operating cost of a bike is less than 4% that of a car (source)! If you take mass transit, how much does each ride cost? We bet that even if you spend a little money to get started riding, it'll quickly be worth it. Plus, you're getting built-in exercise, eliminating the need for that pricy gym membership.

Save your health. Cyclists live longer than non-cyclists and take less sick days (source). Riding your bike provides great cardiovascular exercise, as well as increasing stamina and muscle tone. But you don't have to break a sweat, and it's okay if you're not in great shape when you start. Ride as hard and fast or as slow and easy as you please. Your mental and emotional health will benefit, too.

Save the environment. Driving doesn't have just an economic cost; it has a major environmental cause, too. Cars burn oil and emit carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrous oxides into the air. They also emit organic compounds that combine with nitrous oxide to form ground-level ozone, which causes shortness of breath and aggravates asthma (source). According to this article, a short, four-mile bicycle trip keeps fifteen pounds of pollutants out of our breathing air, compared to a similar trip made by car.

Bikes are better for the social environment, too. Cars discourage neighbor interaction and connection with the natural world. When you ride your bike, it's easy to stop and chat with a friend, check out community artwork, rummage through a yard sale, or smell the roses.

Have fun! Bikes are just plain fun to ride. Remember the freedom you felt as a kid when you got your first bike? Go reclaim that. You can ride anywhere and everywhere, under your own power. Some cities even have whole organizations dedicated to helping people have awesome fun on their bikes, like Portland, Oregon's SHIFT. Find a similar group in your city, or just get some friends together and ride to the ice cream shop. Even running errands can be fun when you're not stressed out about traffic, parking, and gas prices. Just enjoy the sun on your face and the wind at your back.

GET A SWEET RIDE

Or, dust off the one you've already got, pump up the tires, check the brakes, and you're set. If you already own a bike of whatever sort, chances are it'll work okay for riding in the city. Later, once you've had some time in the saddle, you'll have a better idea of what kind of bike you want for city riding, and you can buy or build your perfect machine.

Don't have one yet? We do have some ideas on what makes a good urban bike. We've also got an article on the various types of city bikes out there, so you can pick and choose what will work for you--click on "The City Bike Menagerie" on the right sidebar. Or, here's our quick-and-dirty list of things you should think about when you're looking for a bike.

Fit. If you're not comfortable on your bike, you're not going to want to ride it much. A bike that fits you well will make cycling a breeze and a joy. Check out REI's easy advice for picking a bike that fits you well.

Gears. Are there lots of hills in your city? That needn't limit where you can go on your bike. Having a bike with a wide gear range will mean you can conquer pretty much any slope without too much difficulty. That said, many urban riders love their single-speed or fixed-gear bikes, and the fewer gears you have, the less maintenance your bike will require. There is a compromise: some city bikes come with internal gearing. These bikes have gears encased in their rear wheel hubs, where they aren't exposed to inclement weather and are protected from impact damage. As a result, they require less maintenance than derailleur systems (the type of gearing you see on your average road bike).

Fenders. If you live in a rainy climate, you'll want 'em. Even when it's not actively raining, they'll keep wet road muck from soaking your shoes and from forming a "rooster tail" behind your back.

Cargo. How are you going to carry all your stuff? A messenger bag or backpack might work great for you, and has the added advantage of easily following you off the bike when you park it. If you carry a lot or don't want to carry your stuff on your back, consider equipping your bike with a rear rack and panniers, or a big front porteur rack or basket. Or, for major hauling, consider one of the pick-up trucks of the bike world: a longtail such as an Xtracycle, a box bike or Long John bike with a huge cargo platform in the front, or even a cargo trike.

A lock. Don't let your bike get jacked. We recommend a u-lock or a heavy chain. Cable locks just won't do--they're easily snipped. Make sure you put the lock through your frame--if you just lock your wheel, you might return to find just your wheel! In some cities, you may want to use more than one lock. Secure your frame and one wheel to a bike rack or immoveable object with a u-lock or chain, and then use a cable lock to secure your other wheel to your frame.

Regardless of what kind of bike you're going to ride, make sure it's in good working order. We recommend taking it in to your local bike shop (if you're in the U.S., check this directory for a bike shop near you, or just Google "bike shop" and the name of your city) for a check-over and maybe a tune-up. Don't skimp on this. You wouldn't drive a car with faulty brakes or questionable steering--reliability is important! Keep that in mind if you're buying a bike, too. Don't buy a cheap department store bike just because it's inexpensive. A well-tuned bike with durable parts that fits you well will pay for itself many times over down the road.

START SMALL

It's okay if you don't ride your bike very far. We're not asking you to ride your bike to Grandma's a state over, or to the state park, or even across town--at least, not yet.

According to Clif Bar's 2-Mile Challenge site, 40% of all trips made in U.S. cities are distances of two miles or less--and yet, 90% of those trips are made by car! Because of the extra energy required to start a car, short trips are more polluting than long trips (source).

So try replacing some of your short trips with bike rides. Draw a circle around your house on a map with a one- or two-mile radius, and ride your bike anytime your destination falls within that circle. Ride to work one day a week, or two, or three. Ride to dinner, and treat yourself to dessert with the gas money you saved.

The more you ride, the more you'll want to ride.

HIT THE STREETS

So get out and get on your bike! We'll have an article up soon about how to pick the best bike route to get where you want to go, and another one about how to effectively and safely share the road with motor traffic. In the meantime, here's some basic tips to get you going.

Stay visible. The most important part of bike safety is making sure other road users can see you! That means:

  • Lighting up your bike at night--inexpensive, easy-to-use LED bike lights are readily available at your local bike shop or online.
  • Riding in the road--drivers aren't looking for cyclists on the sidewalk or weaving in and out of parked cars. Be sure to take the space you need to be seen and safe.

Think like a cyclist, not like a driver. The routes you are used to taking as a driver or transit rider are probably not the best bike routes in your city. Check whether your city government or another local institution publishes a bike map, with good roads for cycling highlighted. Often, roads just one or two blocks over from major streets make great bike routes and get you where you're going pleasantly and efficiently. Some cities even have designated "bike boulevards." These streets have traffic calming devices to discourage cars, but have fewer stop signs and are more direct than other roads.

Explore! You'll figure out what the best routes are by riding them. Don't be afraid to get a little lost. It's the best way to get to know your neighborhood and your city. Once you've figured out a few basic routes, you'll be able to modify them easily to get anywhere.

Your city--and the world--is only a few pedal-strokes away.

Add Your Comments

Comments from our Readers

Nice article - great overview of cycling in the city

Jay(Portland, OR), submitted 9/11/2009

Your site is coming along well. Nice articles. Keep it up.

who writes this blog?

dan(oakland), submitted 9/29/2009

someone needs to take the credit for this great content! how can i contact you? can you make an 'about' page or something? or email me?

tru street riderz

TRU STREET RIDERZ(ATL), submitted 10/4/2009

nice news letter very informative keep us in the know. also for whats up new in the ATL go to this page we are working on a photo show also. thanks and keep plugging.

T.S.R.

Good info

Pharmc535(USA), submitted 3/17/2010

Hello! interesting site!

Good info

Pharmg766(USA), submitted 8/28/2010

Hello! interesting site!

Wonderful Article

NewarkKids(Newark, NJ, USA), submitted 9/19/2011

Wonderful advice for our non-profit Boys & Girls Clubs of Newark Bike Exchange Customers in Newark, NJ! See us ******

Spandex Warriors

Harry(Newport News, Virginia), submitted 9/19/2011

As an AVID Urban Cyclist I am always amazed at the amount of press that the "Spandex Warriors" tend to receive. Recently, here in Virginia, there was a case where someone threw tacks on the road where groups of these people ride. Now, I am not talking about the day-to-day riders like what I do. But those that spend far too much money on their equipment only to take it out on sunny days on the weekends. These people complained to the point of getting themselves on the news and THEN having the audacity to say that they often rode in groups of 20, 30, and 40 people. And wondered just WHY people didn't like to see the on TWO lane roads blocking the entire roadway.

Perhaps they should try riding in nasty weather on a day-to-day basis and then they MIGHT have a greater appreciation for the roads.

Let alone the fact that when I roll up on my bike I am ignored, ridiculed, and basically, made fun of for the entire time I am at the bike shop. Do I think myself better than those folks?...NO. But I do expect the same respect that they show one another. Just because my bike stands out and I don't count "grams" doesn't mean I am any less a cyclists than they are.