Look Ma, no car! (from today’s Boston Globe)



Look Ma, no car! (from today’s Boston Globe)

Ditch the auto, saddle up, and reduce your commuting costs to zero

All right: Why not bicycle to work?

Gas is headed for $5 a gallon, and our government can’t bring itself to pass any meaningful climate-change legislation. You can keep paying through the nose and contributing to global warming, or you can actually do something about it: Dust off the two-wheeler and commute by leg power.

You won’t be alone. Bike sales have soared this spring and so has ridership: the recent Bike to Work Week in Massachusetts logged 125,000 miles in pledges as opposed to an expected 50,000.

Only one question remains for many area commuters: Is it possible to bike to work and get there alive? Boston has a horrible reputation on the national bicycling scene and for three good reasons: lousy roads, bad drivers, and car-centric civic attitudes.

Mayor Menino, a recent convert, has pledged to turn the latter around, but we’re still at the bottom of a steep hill.

Yet it can be done. I’ve been regularly bike-commuting from my home in Newton Corner to the Globe offices in Dorchester since moving to the city in 2002 – 10 miles each way, time off during the icy months – and I’m here to say that the ride’s almost always the best part of my day. If you’re willing to make some minor lifestyle changes, it can be for you as well.

What’s your ride? Whatever you’re most comfortable with. A $2,000 Bianchi road bike with top-of-the-line components isn’t a commuting bike, it’s a liability – it’ll get chipped and dinged if it doesn’t get stolen – so if you’re planning to buy new, go to a local bike shop (not a chain superstore) and tell them you’re planning to commute. (Whether you buy new or secondhand, a proper fit is crucial.) Straight handlebars and fat tires are the usual hallmark of a hybrid or city bike, but again, if you feel happier with drop-handles (I do), follow your bliss. Single-speed bikes – no messy shifting – are the rage among the bike messenger set and they’re cheap, but you’d better be in shape. Expect to spend at least $300; more than a grand and you may be buying too much bike for your purposes.

Is your commute less than two miles, with no hills? Great: You can bike in your work clothes. The rest of us have to bring our 9-to-5 uniforms in a backpack or saddlebag and wear some form of bikewear. Again, go for what works. If you want to dude up like Lance Armstrong coming over the Col du Tourmalet, feel free, but you’ll get funny looks. I use a combination of cloth shorts over bike shorts and loose moisture-wicking bike jerseys – they cost more than a T-shirt, but they’re much cooler on hot days. When it gets cold, layer up (this is where the fancy thermal bikestore leggings come in handy). Shoes with pedal clips are problematic for riding in cities, where you often have to stop in a hurry; I wear sneaks and go clipless. A helmet, obviously; they’re ugly, but so is brain damage.

Find a street map, and plot two routes to work: the fastest way and the safest way. Then ride them both on a weekend when there’s less traffic, looking for snags and bad patches. In general, you want to find a route in which the cars flow smoothly and predictably, with as few chances for unexpected right-hand turns as possible. Mass. Ave through Cambridge into Boston is a no-brainer central artery, for example, but it’s also a game of auto and pedestrian dodgeball that’s not for beginners.

Hit the bikepaths where possible: My own route takes me through Brighton to the Charles River bikepath (just repaved, and a delight), past the Public Garden and across the Pike, under the Southeast Expressway, then a straight shot down Old Colony and Morrissey. The easiest part? Downtown, oddly enough: the traffic’s slow and consistent. The worst? The suburbs, with all the soccer moms driving SUVs while gabbing on their cellphones.

The biggest deal-breaker of all. Most people cite safety concerns as the sole reason they don’t bike-commute, which is both sane and suggests we’ve become a little too used to being protected by two tons of gas-guzzling sheet-metal. Here’s the trick: Make sure you’re seen by cars – headlights, blinkies, and reflectors for night-time riding – while expecting that whatever you do, they still won’t see you. Bike defensively: no zooming into intersections against the lights, use hand signals, exercise caution when going straight at right-hand turns (since no one uses their turn signals here, assume every car is turning right and hang back accordingly), and make eye contact with drivers. All hot dogs eventually get eaten.

The most common bike accident, by the way, is getting “doored” by a parked driver, so leave space between you and the cars and watch for head silhouettes.

Backpack or saddlebag? The rule of thumb is the less you leave attached to your bike when you park it, the less can be stolen off it. Cable or U-lock? I’ve lost one bike to a thief with a wire-cutter, so pony up for the U. Depending on where you live and when you need to be at work, you can combine biking with public transport; bikes can be taken on the T (except for the Green Line) during nonpeak hours. Bike lanes and bikepaths? You’re right, there aren’t enough of them: Put pressure on your local city hall and/or find an activist group via the web. (A good first stop is massbike.org.)

OK, you’re at work, and you’re a sweaty mess – now what? In a perfect world, your office has a gym with showers and a locker. In a slightly less perfect world, there’s a nearby health club with showers and a locker, and your company’s willing to help out with the membership. In an imperfect world, they hand you a hose and tell you to like it or lump it. The shower question tends to be a deal-breaker; if you can’t clean up, you can’t commute. Which means you can go back to driving or talk to your bosses about showing some green initiative themselves. (Ask them about putting in a bike rack while you’re at it.)