2014 Bike Commuter Challenge

The Active Transportation Alliance’s Bike Commuter Challenge ended last Friday, and I wanted to share some of my thoughts. Overall it was a very positive experience, and I had a lot of fun being captain and inspiring people to at least think about bike commuting. I’m very proud of my team for putting in such a tremendous effort.

I found out about this through a brochure I had received for Bike The Drive, another event in which I had a lot of fun. Since I already enjoy bike commuting and do it as much as possible, I figured this would be the perfect opportunity to let my coworkers know about a fun challenge to bike commute. Registration was free, but I donated a bit to Active Transportation to show my support.

 

Forming the Team

I sent out an email the Friday before the start of the event to interest people in the challenge. It was well received, with people talking about wanting to join, or asking me how I go about commuting on a bike. Ultimately, our team consisted of five people, all of whom gave their best effort. One person had good intentions but could not ride due to family obligations, but the rest of us really cranked out the miles.

The Challenge

We endured carrying our lunches, change of clothing, heavy U-locks and rode through bad weather (rain, humidity, tornado warnings, heat) to make it through the 6 days.  We ate “healthier”, needed more sleep and paced ourselves for the duration of the challenge. As a team, we found the strength to make it through by asking each other about our rides, talking about our strategies and anticipating weather patterns. We rode as much as possible, but set realistic goals for ourselves. If the demands of work or family were too much, then it was OK not to ride in. If the weather looked uninviting, then it was better to be safe than sorry.

As captain, I felt I had to be mentally strong and ride everyday to set an example to others that it was possible, even on bad weather days when I normally would not commute. I also sent out some emails offering encouragement with some tips. My coworkers and I were really lucky the worst of the weather seemed to hit while we were all still at work. I only got drizzled on twice.

What also excited me was that one of the ladies on the team used this challenge as motivation to finally try commuting to work. She had thought about it and finally decided to make the plunge. Thinking back to when I first tried bike commuting, I would’ve loved to have been part of a group.

Team Results

As of this writing, we had 14.5 trips, for a total of 384.6 miles and a 2.7% participation rate. The trip log will not be closed until June 30th, so we’ll have to see when the numbers are locked down.

At a total of 384.6 miles, this came out to be 384.6 miles/5= 76.92 miles/rider, which looking at the stats, is the highest among any company in Chicagoland. This ranks us 23rd out of 86 companies in the “For Profit 100-499 Employees” category. This is truly impressive for such a small team, and reflects the tremendous individual effort of each rider.

Personal Results

Individually, I am 14th out of 6000+ riders overall in terms of miles. I also believe that I am the top ranked female in terms of distance (188.4 miles). These are all verified miles using the Strava Mobile app on June 13th, and June 16-20th.

I rode everyday of the challenge but was unable to bike as much as I wanted to on Thursday, June 19th.   The Metra did not allow me and two other bicyclists to board the train as there were already too many bikes exceeding their capacity.  It was disappointing since I had intended on biking at least 30 miles a day.  That meant taking the train in the morning and then biking to work, and then biking the entire 20 miles back home.  I learned this week from a conductor that Metra had been swapping out their cars for some reason and they had given the train I take two cars which didn’t allow bikes.  It just doesn’t make sense why Metra decided to do this during Bike to Work week.

I could’ve waited for another train, but that required waiting another hour for the next one and I didn’t want to risk having the same situation. I could’ve biked all the way to work, but had not mentally prepared myself for the distance, and also felt uneasy about biking in the drizzling weather. Defeated, I decided to turn back home and drive (boo!) to work. Friday I made up for it by biking 57 miles and finished strong.
As I was nearing the end of my final ride for the week, I was having so much fun and going very fast that I wasn’t really paying attention and hit a speed bump so hard that it caused a flat in my front tire. Luckily, it was the last block before home.


Overall, this event was very satisfying and highlights the fact that many people are willing to give bike commuting a try. If you see how many people signed up and entered their stats on the website, it is very encouraging. I am a true believer that participation in events such as this make people realize that bike commuting is a viable means of transportation. With time, people’s perception of biking will change for the better.

Finding a safe route

Biking to your destination is different than driving there. Plan your bike commute around your usual route, but seek out quieter roads and avoid the major ones. Ride on roads that you feel comfortable on. I would avoid very busy or narrow roads so that there is enough space between you and the cars. I also avoid intersections which are “dangerous”, such as when there are angle streets intersecting with other busy streets. For my 20 mile commutes to and from work, I know of several routes. They are mainly on roads which parallel busier roads, or shortcuts through residential neighborhoods. In the city, busier roads can be hectic, but once you understand the flow of traffic and other bicyclists sharing the lane with you, then it is not so bad.

You can drive the route you want to take to familiarize yourself, but there is no substitute for actually biking the route. I suggest biking the route at a less busy time so that you can understand the traffic flow and judge how much spacing you have between yourself and cars. If you don’t have the time to bike the route before you commute for real, just take your time when you first try it out. As an alternative, “drive” the route by using Google Maps, but don’t depend on Google Maps to tell you which route is safe by clicking on the bicycle route option and seeing roads appear in green. Most of the time it is ok, but you really don’t know. I once trusted a route Google Maps suggested, but it turned out that during rush hour, cars didn’t want to give me space. The same road at 6am is safe to bike on, but in the evening rush hour it is not. Bike paths are OK if you are not going very fast or want a more leisurely ride, but you will find that quieter roads will allow you to travel more quickly.

The diagram below gives a cartoon version of the idea:
WhichRoad

Roads
You will want to consider the conditions of the roads. You’ll want to watch out for cracks and bumps in the pavement. Wider roads will allow you to have more space between you and the cars and I avoid narrow roads unless the speed limit is very low or with speed bumps. Also pay attention to when construction on roads will happen, as you’ll need to plan for an alternative route.

Public Transportation
If you live far from work, don’t feel like you have to bicycle the whole way. I live 20 miles away from work and found that a bike-train-bike mode of transport is great.
Go ahead and use public transportation to break up the route and bypass roads. The CTA and Metra have restrictions on bikes based on the time of day and which way you are traveling, so check their websites before you decide to bring your bike.
Once you become more fit, you may realize that you can eventually bike the whole distance and save yourself some cash.

Closing thoughts:
By knowing your main route along with other alternative routes, you can be flexible and handle any unexpected situation. Finding a safe route makes your commute easier by minimizing stress so that you can fully enjoy your ride. Once you are comfortable with your route you can use that knowledge to your advantage. For instance, on hot summer days, I know which route can offer me the best shade. I also remember certain houses which have their sprinklers go off near the street so that I can ride through the spray and be momentarily cooled.
Once you get your route down, the amount of time it takes you to bike commute will be fairly consistent. Don’t listen to people who say they can ride xx distance in xx time. You could be faster or slower, depending on the traffic and how hard you want to ride. Also, bike commuting is not a race. Take your time, follow the traffic rules, and BE SAFE!