What do I do if...? Commuter Edition

Bikewagon - BWCC

This is a new series of scenario-based tutorials that will address some of the common situations faced by cyclists in different situations. This article will focus on cyclists who commute through urban areas to get to work, run errands, or travel around, and some of the common issues that arise. So let's get into it!

What do I do if...

I find myself on a narrow two-lane road with no shoulder?

Unfortunately, this is a situation that cyclists face all too often. Fortunately, it's a situation that is declining as more and more cities are installing bike lanes. This issue can often be avoided, however, and this is your best option -- avoidance. Research your routes beforehand, using maps and tools like Google Maps Street View to get a good look at new roads before you ride them.

Bike commuter

Many cities have official bicycle maps that show preferred routes, and this can be very useful when planning routes. Oftentimes, back streets will allow you to bypass problem roads entirely, and this is usually a good idea.

However, when you can't ride another route, try these techniques instead. First, look for a sidewalk to ride. While this can be more dangerous than the normal road, a busy narrow street can make this the best option. If you do ride the sidewalks, go slow and be very cautious about cars pulling into and out of driveways and businesses.

If your only option is to ride on the road, it's best to take the lane: don't let yourself be pushed onto the side of the road. It's actually much safer to ride 3-5 feet from the right edge of the road. This space has two main purposes: it keeps you away from the portion of the road most likely to have broken glass, sharp rocks, nails, storm drains, and other hazards; and it forces cars to make room for you.

Rather than being able to mostly ignore you and rush past you on the side of the road, claiming more space (which is well within your legal right on city streets) makes drivers slow down and consciously plan for passing you. The reality of this method is that drivers will sometimes get angry at you; however, it is a safer method in general -- better you inconvenience some drivers by slowing them down for a minute or two than you face a serious collision.

While this method can be scary, the feeling will fade over time, and it actually provides more safety than the other options. Believe it or not, collisions from behind are much rarer than sideswipes. If you need to feel a bit safer, a rear-view mirror that mounts on your handlebars, glasses, or helmet allows you to see behind you and helps quite a bit.

I go out for a late afternoon ride, and when it gets dark, I realize that I don't have a light? Help!


This has happened to most of us, and there are a few things you can do. Firstly, it is a good idea to leave your rear light always in place on the back of your bike or stowed safely in a seat bag that stays on your bike.

Many riders also preempt this problem by carrying a small emergency light in their seat bag. These can be bought very cheaply and are very small, but they are not very powerful and don't have very long battery life.

Regardless of what you do have on you, as long as you don't have a powerful front light you should use the same strategy. Avoid riding if at all possible. Take public transportation, call for a ride, or simply walk.

If you do have to ride, stick to back roads, and avoid main streets. Ride slowly and very carefully, and remember that you are invisible to cars and pedestrians -- they won't defer to you or give you space if they can't see you! Watch out for cats and other animals, and be very cautious of the road itself -- if you are on back streets without a light, you won't be able to see the potholes and cracks as well.

I'm out for an afternoon ride and it starts pouring rain?

Cycling rain jacket

Summer thunderstorms are all too common and can be a real problem for riders. If you get wet, you can get uncomfortably cold, even in the summertime. In other seasons, getting wet can be downright dangerous. So how does one deal?

The best way to deal with this problem is avoidance. And if you can, always carry a light windbreaker jacket or thin poncho with you in a small pocket.

However, if you didn't plan ahead, there are a few things you can do. Try to find shelter in a nearby building or under some trees. Call for a ride from family or a friend (always keep a cell phone on you for situations like this), or try to catch public transportation back home.

If you are truly in danger, use whatever is available to repel water and add insulation to your clothing: leaves, newspaper, plastic bags -- all of these materials can be stuffed inside clothing or over shoes to keep you a bit warmer. Better to look like the leaf-monster than risk serious illness.

My commute is too long to jump right in and start riding? How can I work up to it over time?

The best way to start riding is to jump in feet first. Of course, this doesn't mean exhausting yourself doing something that you are obviously not prepared for, but it does mean jumping on your bike and riding.

One good way to get started with your commute is to do a half-commute. Get a ride or take public transit one way, and ride the other way. If you have a safe parking space, you could even leave your car at work and ride home in the evening, then ride to work the next morning and drive back home.

Don't be afraid, especially when you are just getting started, to take breaks! Start with just one day a week, then gradually increase the number of days you ride every week.

Another trick is to really take your time. Give yourself however much time you think you will need, then add a bit more time -- 30 minutes or an hour to let you have a relaxing time. Your commute should be relaxing, not stressful!