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what makes a bike commuter?

March 23, 2011

Fall is coming

What constitutes a bike commuter? This was a recent point of discussion in Momentum Magazine’s 50th issue in the “Bike Lifestyle” feature. It’s an interesting question that got me thinking about how we quantify something to be able to label or categorize it better. How can you quantify what makes someone a bike commuter? Is it a bike ride a day or a certain amount of weekly mileage?

My answer to this is that being a bike commuter means using a bike whenever it makes sense to do so.

Being a bike commuter, in my mind, does not entail great feats of cycling accomplishments nor does it mean eschewing cars altogether. My husband and I still have two cars (we each had a car before we merged households and since they’re both paid off, it made sense to hold on to them for now). Most of the time, we only rely on one car. We carpool to work on days when riding isn’t feasable (on harsh winter days or during downpours) and we use the car for long distance trips that would not be possible by bike.

We also rely on buses, sharing rides with friends, walking to the nearby grocery store, and other such modes of transport, trying to choose whatever means makes most sense for the task at hand. Even with cars at home and readily available, living in a small town means that a bike simply makes more sense much of the time. We don’t have to worry about parking, it’s free to use, it gives us the added benefit of a workout and fresh air, and it reduces our carbon footprint by even just a little bit.

{screen shot taken from Momentum}

I don’t think one needs to villafy cars altogether or to suffer through horrible or unsafe weather to make a statement that one is a bike commuter. I think the joy of biking comes from doing something that makes sense in a given context, that is fun, and that one can do in good conscience knowing that it’s better for the environment.

It just makes me sad when I see people not even consider biking. When people get in the car to drive a mile down the road to buy groceries to go work out (the irony!). It also frustrates me when I see neighborhoods built with no bike lanes or sidewalks or cities designed to only accomodate cars, but not pedestrians or cyclists. I would guess that most cyclists are not of the all-or-nothing mentality but that they simply understand that cycling is a healthy, cheap, and eco-friendly alternative to driving some or even most of the time. It’s alright to not cycle daily. Even just substituting some of one’s trips by car with bikes makes a difference.

And, anyway, biking is a slippery slope. You start cycling only a few trips here and there, and before you know it, you’re looking for studded winter tires and oversized cargo bikes. It’s just about flipping that switch and considering cycling as a viable form of transportation that makes someone already part of the community. Welcome!

What do you think makes a ‘bike commuter’?


11 Comments leave one →
  1. March 23, 2011 10:21

    Biking IS a slippery slope! I have a beautiful Batavus that I’ve been using to bike to campus and to my favorite coffee shops. Because I’ll be moving soon, I recently got a new car (my old one was just that–old!–and excruciatingly unsafe) and I’ve haven’t been driving it as much as I would have imagined I’d want to drive a fancy new (used) car. Biking just makes so much sense! And, its so relaxing and energizing.

  2. March 23, 2011 11:11

    I have to admit, I kind of dislike the term “commuter” – since that implies just the trip to work and back. Though, I agree with the sentiment, that a person should just critically think about what means of travel makes the most sense for each trip, and use that – of course based on what is available/feasible. For most of our trips in Portland, it is easy and reasonable to use a bike or just walk. When we really need a motorized vehicle to go out of the city, carry large loads, etc, we can rent one or borrow one. I know that not everyone is in the same situation, so I don’t expect everyone to get rid of their car and live exactly like me, that would just be silly.

    I would, like you, love to see more cities and states and even our federal government put more serious efforts into making our country more accessible to un-aided humans. It’s starting to get some lip service nationally, now we just need people to really start DOING something about it.

    Incidentally, making places more accessible to people on foot and on bicycles and increasing the number of trips that don’t require a car will actually make it more convenient and safer for those who do use automobiles, because it will reduce traffic and calm the streets.

    It’s a win-win for everyone, really.

    I think you nailed it in the last paragraph – “It’s just about flipping that switch and considering cycling as a viable form of transportation…”

  3. March 23, 2011 19:40

    I agree with Portlandize Dave, “bike commuter” has connotations about going to/from work. Transportation cyclist or even utility cyclist seem to encompass more, but bike commuter is easily recognized.

    And I think that there is too much governmental emphasis on how you get to and from work (like the census) and not enough on other things you need to do. Just look at public transportation. Most of it is geared towards to/from work (assuming you work normal office hours.) There are lots of lines that are “commute hours only” and many transit systems/lines were planned with the idea of getting to work. Portland’s light rail (MAX) was originally planned to be commute hours only, but sounder heads prevailed and we got a most-hours transit line.

    Oh yeah, congrats on getting into Momentum!

    • March 24, 2011 17:50

      I also agree with Dave. “Commuting” is the problem word. For a lot of people in North America, thanks to our culture, few of us live in cities or in close proximity to where we work. I know that my oldest sister has a one hour commute to work by car — each way — , because she can’t afford to live in the neighborhood where her office is located.

      It really is just basic transport, but even the word transport might be offputting for some people. I’ve thrown around the phrase ‘transportational cyclist’ before, but it feels fake, and doesn’t really fit me at all.

      When I’m going to work, I’m just going to work. I’m not “going to work by bike.” Similarly, when I’m going to the store, I’m just going to the store, not “going to the store by bike”. Nowadays, the by bike part is the least important part of those activities, but initially it helped me to think of myself not as a cyclist, not as a commuter, but as a person who rides a bike. It humanized the activity, and it made riding a bike seem less like something only people on the fringes could do.

  4. March 23, 2011 23:52

    I’m glad you brought this up– I’ve often felt uncomfortable with the way “commute”/”commuter” is used. Marketing often frames a “commuter” bicycle as hardcore, “it’s a jungle out there”, long-distance. “Commute” is frequently used in a negative context, implying daily tediousness.

    I “commute” less than 2km to work, love it, and could do it on a 1-speed cruiser if I felt like it. I think your definition sounds like a great one.

  5. March 27, 2011 08:35

    Wow – I also was uncomfortable with the word commuter, and was just going to look up a few definitions to explain why. I think biking when it works for someone is GREAT! And when one needs to use an alternative form of transportation for them (cars) that’s okay too. We all do what we can do in our own way to make the world a better place! And on that note, I read this post with a huge smile. I think I will soon be making a move to a town where I will need my bike for going to and from work, (only doable by highway from this town), and not at all outside of that. A beach that lasts forever, a single little food store, the library, a coffee shop, and restaurants will all be a walk or ride away. There is even a free bus to the LIRR (rail road station to get train to city) So, a will be a driving “commuter” but that’s the only thing I will really need to use my car for. I am so excited about it all~!

  6. March 28, 2011 10:28

    I’ve recently started moving more of my transportation to a bicycle–work, outings, whatever. I live in Brooklyn, so I take public transportation everywhere, which is of course more efficient that driving on my own. But the thought of getting in my fitness while en route somewhere–plus not having to deal with all of the crazies on the subway!–seems like a no-brainer. All of the new NYC bike lanes are making me feel much more confident about pedaling around town, and because there’s such a backlash against them right now from drivers, I almost think of it as my duty to start using them–to show NYers that we really do need to promote alternative transportation, because people are using it!

  7. ridon permalink
    April 7, 2011 20:07

    well i don’t have a driver’s license so i used to get everywhere by public transit. i live less than 5 miles from work and it made sense to start biking. it started as just to and from work and only on sunny days. now it’s extended to errands and i’ll still bike in light rain or snow. i think bike commuters apply to all non-trail cyclists. whether that means you bike to a cafe on the weekend or it’s everyday to work, it’s not really important. people seem to look down on commuting but seem fine for sporty cycling/ touring. the latter is seen as adventurous where the former is seen as sad and economical (can’t afford car, can’t afford parking).


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