New to Commuting? Come As You Are!

You may have noticed over the past year or so that there’s been a push in the U.S. towards a more practical approach to transportational cycling — sites that espouse this approach have grown by leaps and bounds, especially in the run-up to Bike To Work Month.

This practical approach is the one that suggests that no special clothing or equipment is required to participate — all that is needed is simply a bike and the interest in using it to take place of car trips. And you know what? This approach is dead on! Any bike will do, and the only “real” equipment besides a reliable bicycle is the stuff that keeps you legal in the eyes of the law. Usually, this means front and rear lights and perhaps some reflectors or a signaling device like a bell. Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it?

A couple weeks ago, we talked about reasons why more people weren’t trying bicycles as transportation, and many of the comments were quite thought-provoking. Generally, people on the fence about trying a bike commute are stymied by the logistical considerations — carrying things, safety aspects, time and route issues, appropriate clothing choices, etc. Certainly, these considerations shouldn’t be discounted, but I fear that people overthink this kind of stuff…as those of us who have commuted by bicycle know, it’s way easier than folks think.

So, what should a potential new commuter do to give this thing a try? Here it is in a nutshell: find a reliable bike (it doesn’t need to be anything special), take a look at some maps to find an enjoyable route and GO FOR IT.

From there, it’s pretty straightforward to build up to other considerations. If you need to carry things for work, try something simple like a backpack before you spring for expensive panniers or other carrying options. If you ride at night, look into some visibility devices such as lights and reflectors (check your local laws by clicking here and selecting your state…this may not be an option but a requirement where you live). Plan on riding year-round in all weather conditions? Fenders and raingear make a lot of sense in that case…and it’s easy to find cheap solutions to try before investing a fortune in such equipment. We’ve written about raingear in the past. Have to lock your bike outside once you get to work, school or shopping? Bring a lock. Here’s some basic information about bike security.

Most importantly, don’t fall for the elitist approach. When I first started commuting in 1989, I figured that the commuting “community” would be an egalitarian catch-all for people who didn’t fit any other niche in bicycle culture — we’re not specifically racers or long-haul tourists, we’re not aggro offroaders or freestylists, although we may participate in such activities when we’re not commuting. So, over the past few years, I’ve become quite surprised (and more than a little dismayed) by the attitude: folks who think any bike without fenders, chainguard, a rack, internal hubs and dyno-powered lights is somehow not a “real” commuter bike. Hogwash — any bike that gets you from point A to point B qualifies…whether it’s a fully-loaded Dutch citybike or a stripped-down carbon racer. Same with gear — there are plenty of people who insist that the only “right way” of doing things is to wear performance-oriented clothing (lycra race gear, special shoes and funny foam hats). This works for some of us, but is not at all required; plenty of people all over the world do just fine in their work clothes.

A further bit about those “funny foam hats” — helmets: I don’t want to get into a big helmet debate; after all, it’s your choice whether to wear one or not. I choose to wear one; I rather value the collected experiences, memories and facts I’ve gathered over the past 41 years and I’ll do what I can to help protect them from loss. But remember, a helmet doesn’t protect you from stupidity, either yours or the motorists you may encounter on the road. And a helmet is not some magic bullet that keeps you safe in all circumstances. They’re hot, they’re goofy-looking and people all over the world seem to get along just fine without them, and I’m cool with that. But I’m still wearing mine. Think about it, in any case.

Sites like and other bike-advocacy outlets are in a tough position at times. On the one hand, we love to encourage people to take up transportational cycling and present information on how simple and practical it can be. On the other hand, many of us are hardcore bike geeks at heart; we love getting our hands on different bikes and other gear to test, knowing full well that absolutely NONE of it is necessary in order to be a bike commuter. Our approach is to present a wide variety of options, giving a good overview of what’s on the market for folks to think about as they’re gearing up for something beyond the most bare-bones use of a bike rather than a car.

I’m sure many of you have experienced a coworker or friend who buttonhooks you in the hallway and has a bunch of questions about getting started commuting by bicycle. It happens to me all the time. Perhaps the best thing we can all do as ambassadors of this method of transportation is to demystify the process and stress just how simple it can be. Don’t bog people down with myriad details unless they specifically ask for insight; rather, encourage them to just give it a try one day using whatever bike they’ve got. Bike commuting really CAN be that simple!


  1. Kagi

    Great post! This is exactly what people need to hear. I’d only add: there’s safety in numbers. The more of us on the road, the safer it is for everybody. It’s easy, and it’ll put a smile on your face.

  2. Tom

    I’ve seen people ask, “What kind of bike do I need to commute 5 miles/day?” As you said the answer is – the bike that you already have or any bike, really. All the other equipment just makes life a little easier for some people.

    The reality is that most people commute with road bikes or mountain bikes in full sport lycra. If you go to a bike shop you’ll see the same… mountain bikes and road bikes and bike shorts and jerseys. Is that what people “need” to commute? Nope.

  3. Doug Jesseph

    I certainly agree that any bike in good working order is a commuter, and people should be encouraged to bike with whatever works. However, decent tires, a spare tube, a pump, and tire levers count as essentials in my book. Some of the roads I ride on are very tough on tires and even the bike lanes are strewn with all manner of nasty stuff. Nothing screws up a commute quite as thoroughly as being flatted without means to get rolling again. I tell anyone who is thinking of commuting to acquire the tools and skills needed to fix a flat and to invest in tires that are up to the punishment.

  4. db

    Well stated, Jack. Pretty much what all would-be bike commuters should hear.

  5. Ghost Rider

    @Doug, normally I’d agree with you: basic repair should be in the arsenal of the commuter.

    But, for newcomers, this is just one more thing to scare ’em away: “What? I might break down? And I have to learn all this stuff?!?”

    As with anything, it’s better to start commuting by keeping things simple and to build up skills and knowledge as you go. Once you’ve taken the plunge, it’s worth investing in some basic on-road tools and the skills needed to use them successfully.

  6. Donald

    I very much agree with the sentiment that all of the commuting tools and gadgets and equipment is far from necessary, and that a person can use any kind of bike to get around. This is especially true for newcomers to commuting.

    However, using a bicycle that is designed for some other purpose (like racing or mountain biking) is a little bit like commuting in a heavy-duty truck. It will get you there, and it will still work great if it’s all you have, but it’s not the most efficient way to do it.

    I find that all my gadgets and gear make commuting more fun, and I’m glad I upgraded from my little mountain bike that didn’t fit me to a properly-sized Trek “commuter” bike. But I agree that some people are elitist about this, and that’s terrible.

    My approach is this: encourage the person to ride whatever they have (as long as it’s safe). If they seem to like bicycle commuting but have some minor complaints about stuff that equipment/gear can fix, I point out the solutions and help them with it if they want it. If they get “really into it” and complain about stuff that a new/better bike could fix, I point out alternative bike styles.

    But the hardest part is the first step — getting them to ride what they have.

  7. Doug Jesseph

    @Jack: I see your point, but I think there are benefits each way. One thing that scares people off from taking the plunge is the fear of what will happen if they break down. But when they have the (minimal) tools and skills, there’s nothing to fear. By de-mystifying bike maintenance and showing people that changing a tire is only marginally more difficult than changing a light bulb, you can take away one more excuse for not cycling to work.

    I suppose it all depends on individual psychology: some people are scared off by the thought that cycling is dangerous, some are intimidated by the notion that they have to drop $1200 on a certified “commuter bike” in order to get started, and others think they need esoteric wrenching skills before they venture out on a bike.

  8. Tad

    Ghost Rider, I think you are right when you say ‘don’t give too many details.’ I mean, half the fun is learning for yourself. But may I add a few gentle guidelines? If I can be just a little bit facetious, I would certainly give the following details to new commuters:
    1) Do your best to go in a straight line unless you’re turning.
    2) Don’t compete with motorists, you will lose.
    3) Take it easy!

  9. Iron_Man

    Good advice. Once someone gets hooked they will seek out the advice, tips, and gear they need, but the biggest hurdle is clearly just getting them to try bike commuting that first time.

  10. Ghost Rider

    Iron_Man — remember that it was your comments on the other article that spurred me to write about this. I appreciate it!

    You are absolutely right…the less mystery we present, the more likely folks are to actually try this thing. And yes, once people have tried it for themselves, they’ve got plenty of time (and further inclination) to seek out answers for their questions and concerns.

    @Tad — don’t forget the most important one: have FUN. Folks have no idea what a blast riding a bike to work can be until they try it for themselves!

  11. Iron_Man

    My pleasure. I got a coworker that is just on the very edge of riding in. We’ll see this week if he gives it a try. He is coming from a zero fitness/zero cycling experience background. I’ll have to pick his brain for the experience. It’s been a long time since I was completely new to the concept of biking on busy streets.

  12. BluesCat

    The little exchange between GR and Doug — about spare tube, pump, etc. — got me to thinking.

    When have you ever seen somebody drive off a lot in a brand new car that DIDN’T have at least a doughnut spare, a silly little scissors jack, and a lug nut wrench which requires a person to have the strength of Superman in order to use?

    NO new car owner ever asks for instructions on how to use these devices. I can’t count the number of times I’ve helped a Damsel in Distress (including my dear wife) change a flat on their car. Car dealerships don’t give you instructions on how to do it, but they make a big deal out of showing you that your new ride is equipped for the eventuality.

    Which leads to the BIG question. How come a little bag with a low line spare tube, some silly little plastic tire tools and an almost worthless frame pump isn’t standard equipment for every new bike an LBS sells? An LBS certainly wouldn’t emphasize that “You could have a flat!” any more than a car dealer would, but it certainly would give some credibility to bicycles as serious transportation if the LBS made sure their bicycles left their shops automatically prepared to be USED as serious transportation.

    Otherwise, bike shop owners shouldn’t be surprised if the only bikes they seem to selling are ones which can only be used for local, recreational toy purposes.

  13. Murali

    Fantastic post. I have seen potential cyclists scared away by thinking they needed a gender-specific frame, bicycle-specific clothes, etc. Your message really needs spoken more loudly and by more of us.

  14. Jack Bulkley

    While I agree with the idea of everyone making their own decision about a helmet, I once heard this saying: “People who think their hairdo is more important than their brain might be right”.

  15. burnhamish

    At the very least, the bike you use should be in good condition, regardless of age. Rudimentary repair skills and basic tools are important for any commuter, because you may not encounter a helpful stranger who knows how to fix your problem.
    I try not to give the impression to people who ask about my commute that they need to buy all the things I use in order to bike to work. The distance, terrain, and potential hazards I may encounter determine what I wear and carry with me (as well as my penchant for buying cool gadgets). My 90-minute commute in suburban Detroit is 19 miles (one-way) of street, shoulder, sidewalk, and a little rail-trail. The roads in my area are notoriously under-maintained, and for the most part, bicycle unfriendly (some of the people are like that, too, but I digress). Since I am pedaling such a distance, I prefer technical clothing, just from a heat and sweat management perspective. I decided many years ago that function follows form, and I don’t care if I look funny in padded lycra shorts. I have had the displeasure of flat tires, so I carry a spare tube and a myriad of small bike tools that fit in a saddle-mounted pouch, in case I feel the need to tweak something.
    I use a “commuter” backpack with a hydration system, and alternately use that, a pannier, and a rack bag to haul my work clothes, lunch, and other stuff I may have to bring that day (like a laptop computer or DSLR+lenses). I prefer no pannier, but I have the options available to carry what I need to. I use a bottle-cage mounted iPod speaker to help pass the miles (and I strongly urge people not to use headphones).
    After all this, I can only relate to people what I do and why, and that is because it’s simply what works for me. Do what works for you!

  16. Scott Cramer

    Here in Norfolk, VA, on my route, the three most consistent dedicated bike commuters ride a Magna full-suspension mtb, an old Raleigh hardtail with no rear brake and an ancient Roadmaster cruiser. They could drive if they wanted to, but instead they bike in on what they have and often put me to shame. I salute them.

  17. barefoot

    Let’s not forget that the audience here is self-selecting; the discussion is between people who are reading a blog called “Bike Commuters”. Some are experienced, some are newbies, some are commute-curious… but all have taken that leap of mindset.

    The main obstacle to getting people to commute by bike is that most people “aren’t the sort of person who would do that”.

    People will justify their position with all manner of reasons. Safety. Facilities. Time. Equipment. Helmet-hair. Embarrassment. Fitness. In reality, if all these blockers were removed, they wouldn’t ride a bike, because they don’t, and don’t want to, fit their mental image of an adult who rides a bicycle.

    That’s a difficult thing to challenge and change.

    Part of the cure has to be normalising the use of bicycles as transport. Appearing to be a normal person who just happens to ride a bicycle… but not making a big deal out of it.

    I have to admit that I struggle a bit with this, having still not really grown out of my attention-seeking rebellious late-teenage phase. Oops. I’ve been comfortable with being considered bit eccentric for about 20 years now. I know I don’t do the bike commuting “cause” any favours by being considered a bit unusual (and, coincidentally, one of those bike riding people). Many of us need to try to appear a bit more normal.

    Another big part has to be the token one-off novelty event days. Ride to Work Day or similar. Some (but certainly not all) of the “not that sort of” people can get their head around being the sort of person who could ride a bicycle to work for a special occasion. If they enjoy the experience it may break the ice, and help them to consider whether they could be “that sort of person” who could be seen in public riding a bicycle. These are the normal people who we need, to dilute the perceived “other”-ness of the cycling community.

  18. barefoot

    That said… spot on with the “come as you are” advice.

    For the commute distance that is conceivable for a non-enthusiast (a few miles at most), there’s no need for anything more than a bike… and not any special bike at that.

    I do my 4 miles each way, every day, in my office clothes (with trouser clips). I ride in office clothes partly to advertise cycling as a “normal” thing that can be done by “normal” people, partly because I’m too lazy to change, and mostly because I can.

    I ride year ’round (in winter I wear a rain jacket to keep the cold air out, gloves and a warm scull cap when it gets near freezing… as would anybody doing anything outside in those conditions), but for fair-weather commuting it really is a matter of just getting on the bike you already have, wearing the clothes you already wear.

    If the bug bites, then more gear might make it more comfortable. That’s all.

  19. Car Subwoofers

    I read some thing very much the same to your post at techcrunch… anyhow, I believe car audio is typically misunderstood but has a lot of great quality manufacturers too. -Regards, Shanice Hisman

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