Planning an unfamiliar route

I recently had a coworker ask me how to find the best route from her house to work.  Previously, I wrote about how to find a route to work, but it can be challenging when you are not familiar with the area and don’t have anyone to ask. When planning a route for you or someone else in an unfamiliar area, the internet can be of great help.

With the bike commuter challenge about to start, she wanted to commute using bike paths.  For someone new to bike commuting, finding a safe route is probably the most important consideration when commuting to work.  I was totally unfamiliar with the area near where she lived, but luckily I knew that Google Maps and Strava are useful in figuring out the best bike route. Using the informational overlays on both of these websites, I was able to find a suitable route for her, making the most of trails and quiet streets.  These online tools are great for someone new to commuting, or for someone wanting to bike in a city they’ve never been in before.  For experienced riders who already have their favorite route(s), it’s also interesting to see where other cyclists go.   The following is how I go about figuring out a new route in an unfamiliar location.


Planning using Strava

Strava’s heatmap is a great tool for initially planning a route around roads that other cyclists actually take.

Strava’s heatmap compiles all the data cyclists have logged on their smartphones and is a good indicator of which roads are bike friendly and well traveled by other bicyclists.  I use this as a guide when searching for or optimizing a route.  I wish this type of thing was available back in 2011 when I started bike commuting.  Recently, I didn’t realize I had other options on my route until I looked at Strava and found that a lot of people take a shortcut on one side street on my regular commute.  Even with all of these years being familiar with the area, I had never explored or seen anyone take that street before, but the heatmap showed me that it was an option.  Now I try to track my rides on my commutes as much as possible since I know my data will be used to help others when planning their route.

Chicago roads frequently traveled by bicyclists.  You can determine your best route by looking at heatmaps.   Screenshot from Strava.


Google Maps for route planning

Google Maps‘ Bicycling function does a fair job of indicating roads which may be good for cycling.  Just type in your start and end points and see the routes it suggests.  Be careful though, since Google suggests the shortest routes that  do not always make sense and may put you on busy roads when a longer route is safer.  You can change and drag the route around, but I find combining Google Maps’ suggestions and Strava’s real world use is best.

I also switch to street view to visually gauge how the streets are laid out.  Then you can virtually test your route. Rotate the map at intersections to see where trouble spots might be.

Going southbound on Damen at the Damen-Elston-Fullerton intersection.  My least favorite intersection to ride through.  Screenshot from Google Maps.


Final considerations

Once you’ve found a good route, then I suggest you try it out on your bike, ideally at approximately the same time of day you’ll be commuting.  On a bike you are much more aware of traffic patterns and the actual road conditions (potholes, hills).  If the road seems too narrow or dangerous, find another alternative.   Bring your directions on your bike if you need it by using your smartphone or writing it on a piece of paper or a piece of tape.   If you want to drive the route, the advantage is that is that you will see how much space you have when you share the road and also what drivers see from their perspective.

Above all, just relax and ride and trust your good judgement.   Pedal out of your comfort zone and just enjoy the commute.  With all of the knowledge you’ve acquired you’ll be much more confident while on your new route.

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:

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!

Staying Safe

Safety should be your number one priority when bike commuting.  If you’re going to ride around all timid thinking you’ll be run over, then you will be.  It is up to you to be ASSERTIVE and take your place on the road.  What follows is a quick overview of the basics.


Plan your route as well as alternative ones

A well planned route avoids heavy traffic on major streets and parallels your normal commute.  Google Maps, especially in street view can help guide your planning, but always use your best judgement and scope out the route ahead of time if you can.

One day, construction might shut down the road you usually take.  Do you know an alternative route?


Listen to your body and mind first

If you don’t want to bike commute that day then don’t.  You may be too tired, or just not in the mood.  If there is bad weather (thunderstorms, icy conditions), then wait until the weather clears up.


Wear a helmet

You want to protect your head in case of an accident.  They do not have to be expensive and many give your head enough ventilation.  Your local bike shop should carry a wide selection of helmets that you can choose from.

I wear an urban type helmet since it completely encases my head.  It’s colorful and I know it grabs the attention of motorists when I’m riding around.

Another advantage to wearing a helmet is that you can place reflective tape on it and mount lights on the helmet for safety at night.

I don’t really see any downsides to a helmet. You can ride without one, but why take the risk?


Obey traffic lights and stop signs 

Running red lights and blowing through stop signs is dangerous and makes you look bad.  I do advocate for slowing down and coasting through stop signs if there is not much traffic since it is hard to build up your momentum again after coming to a complete stop.  Just be sure the cars around you understand you are doing this and proceed with caution.


Ride predictably

By behaving like a vehicle, you gain the respect of motorists and pedestrians.  This means obeying traffic signals, staying off the sidewalk and signaling to make your intentions known.   So ride with the flow of traffic, not against it.  Ride in a straight line, but do not ride so close to the curb you become invisible.   Riding near the curb also makes you more vulnerable to getting flat tires due to road debris and potholes.

Don’t ride on the sideWALK.  You’re not going to get anywhere since you will be going so slow and going over bumpy curbs on every block.  A car may pull out of a driveway without looking, or a driver turning at an intersection may not have enough time to react to a bicycle suddenly crossing its path.  Riding on sidewalks sets you up for being run over and it’s something young kids do.  You’re grown up now and know better.

The only exception is where there is a sidewalk next to a road with a high (40+  mph) speed limit, where there is hardly any pedestrian traffic and a minimal chance that cars could pull out of driveways from businesses or houses.  I would personally find another route if possible, but if you are stuck in suburban hell, then this may be difficult to do.

Signaling your intentions is key when you are negotiating traffic.  This is your chance to communicate to other drivers that I am HERE and I want to go THERE.

If you have bad balance or are scared of signaling with your left or right arm, practice in an alley or a parking lot before you go out on the road.   Signaling your intentions eventually becomes natural.

Riding predictably gives drivers the chance to see you and respond to you better.


Rely on your senses

LISTEN and LOOK to be aware of your surroundings.  Be mentally sharp and pay attention to everything.

Make eye contact with drivers and make sure they have seen you.  They may be looking “past you” or just be staring out into space daydreaming.  Signal to them with your hand that you are turning or going straight.  It’s better to be sure you’ve really made eye contact than to proceed and be hit.

Gauge how fast traffic is going.  Be able to look behind your left shoulder to check for cars coming behind you and about to pass you. I don’t use mirrors since I feel that it gives you a false sense of  security and does not give you the full view of what is actually going on behind you.

Also be aware of distracted drivers and distance yourself from their path if you can.


Be visible

The easiest way to do this is to wear bright colored clothing, preferably with some reflective striping on them.

You’ll also want to invest in some front and rear lights for when you ride in the dark or when the weather turns bad.

You’ve probably seen some cyclists with varying degrees of flashing lights.  There are some lights which I find obnoxious since they are too bright or have a seizure-inducing flashing pattern.  Typically, any light which has the same amount of brightness as a car headlight and tail light will do.  I started off with a cheap 25 dollar tactical light I duct taped to my head.   I also bought a rear blinky at the local bike shop.  What was important was that these were bright enough and had a distinct pattern of flashing light.

Take a look at how people park their cars in parking lots.  You’ll see people parked over the lines and too close to other cars.  Their sense of spacing is totally off.   So imagine when you are sharing the road with them.  You want to be able to catch their attention so that you can give them fair warning you are on the road.

At busy intersections, I stand up on my pedals so that people can see me better.   This way, everybody sees me making my move.


Riding in bad weather

I check weather forecasts at, and for my city and region.  I also watch the morning news to confirm that no unexpected weather changes occurred while I was sleeping.

Avoid bad weather if you can, but as stated above, the most important thing is to be visible.  Take it slow and be aware of the vehicles around you.  Safety glasses are great for riding in the rain as they protect your eyes from droplets and help you see better since you can easily wipe off the water from the lenses.  Think of them as windshields.