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Bike Commuting Practicalities

February 21st, 2014
bicycle

Yesterday I talked to some students fromOlin who wanted to interview people who commute on bikes in the winter. I haven't biked regularly since I worked at BBN but talking to them brought lots of pieces back into my head.

Why did you bike to work?
It was the fastest way to get there.
How far was it?
7.4 miles round trip.
Did you bike every day?
Yes.
How long did you do this for?
14 months, September to December. One summer, one winter, 2100 miles.
What did you do when it rained?
I kept a set of dry clothes at work, and if I got wet on the way in I would change there. I only ended up needing to do this a few times.
Did you shower when you got to work?
I would bike slowly enough that I didn't get sweaty. The time saved by biking faster would have been eaten up by the time showering after I got there. And I wasn't really interested in tiring myself out.
What about flat tires?
I think I got flat tires twice. I had decided not to carry the tools to fix a flat with me, so those two times I locked the bike up where it was and walked to work. I fixed the flats at home instead. I was using Schwalb Marathon tires, which are puncture resistant, so it might have been higher otherwise.
Did you have any accidents?
Once, the day after I got a flat tire. I didn't have a spare inner tube at home so I borrowed a bike from a housemate for the day. It had road-bike curved handlebars which I'm not flexible enough to use properly, which meant I was riding with my hands too far from the brake levers. As I was slowly riding up a hill that wasn't on my usual commute I came to a drain grate that had been installed with the bars parallel to the direction of travel instead of perpendicular. With my hands too far from the brakes I couldn't stop in time, and my front wheel fell in. I landed on my head, denting my helmet. My neck hurt a lot for a few days, but then I was fine. I wrote to the city and they fixed the drain promptly by rotating it 90 degrees to no longer be a bike hazard.
Did you have problems with black ice?
I used Nokian A10 studded tires in the winter, which don't help at all with snow but are supposed to be very good with ice. There was one day in the winter when there had been an ice storm and everything was covered in a thin layer of ice: I was more steady on my bike than I was on my feet.
Why did you stop?
I moved closer to work to where taking the bus was now the fastest way to get to work, and biking was hurting my knees so I was happy not to be dependent on it anymore.
Did you carry a backpack?
I didn't like having anything on my back while I biked because I would get sweaty and uncomfortable under the backpack. I put a pannier on my bike and if I needed to carry anything I would either put it in there or strap it to the rear rack. I carried several bungee cables in case I needed to move things on the bike, and they were often useful when I passed interesting trash out for the truck.
What was the most annoying thing about biking in winter?
Layers. I don't like being cold, so I would put on enough layers that I was almost warm enough, and then I would take them off as I rode. This took my commute from ~30min to ~40min.

It was also hard when there was a lot of snow on the sides of the road because bikes and cars then needed to share the same reduced space. This meant I was in the way of cars more often, increasing angry interactions.

Did you have lights?
I had a generator in my front hub which powered an LED light I made. At this time LED technology was advancing quickly enough that commercial designs were lagging pretty far behind what you could buy on your own as a hobbyist. By building something myself I could get a light much brighter than anything I could buy, at a much lower cost. On the other hand I almost never needed to use my light to see by, so a cheap battery powered white light would probably have made more sense.
Do you wish you were still biking
Not really. It was nice, but it was also a hassle and I like that I can now read on my commute.

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