The short answer to the question is easy: When should you ride a bike? Always. Any trip is better on a bike. It’s more fun, healthy and invigorating than driving a car. It’s often faster than public transit and always faster than walking. And it’s more affordable than Uber, a taxi or car-sharing program. In short, it’s, like, the best thing ever.
But using a bike for every trip in the real world only works if you’re a Dutch idealist or some kind of neighbourhood shut-in. Sadly, for the rest of us, particularly us North Americans, choosing a bike for many trips is a conscious choice. And as such, there are factors that go into making that choice. As someone who has spent years manipulating situations to accommodate bike rides, here is some advice on when it’s advisable to choose a bicycle.
In the ’hood
Research from multiple countries has found that bikes work best, and are the chosen as a transportation mode most often, for trips that are shorter than five kilometres. These are the no-brainer bike trips. At that distance, almost nothing is as fast in an urban setting as a bike. Most trips of this length can be completed without breaking a sweat (emphasis on most), you can roll right up to your destination rather than parking on the far side of an absurdly big parking lot, and you’ll arrive riding a wave of feel-good pheromones.
So maximize the number of times you choose a bike for short trips. Neighbourhood errands, trips to the local pub, joy rides for ice cream – all of these are the low-hanging fruit of a bike life. And put the grocery store at the top of your list. With a simple rack and basket, you will be surprised how many bags of groceries you can hump home with ease. And if you find yourself enjoying those grocery trips a little too much, look at buying a cargo bike. I once took a cargo bike to Costco on an experimental jaunt, and I managed to fill my cupboards for days.
Bicycle commuting is a surefire way of transforming what, for many people, is the worst part of the day into the best. With more workplaces offering amenities to cater to bicycle commuters, such as bike lockers and showers, it’s also easier to ride for longer distances and not worrying about getting too sweaty or rumpled on the way.
It’s not just you. If you have kids, riding with them to school sets them up for mind and body success in myriad ways. Plus, they’ll be burning off excess energy that might otherwise be directed at annoying you.
Either way, commuting is a simple way to get more saddle time in your life.
Automobile transportation is implied in many of our destinations. But it needn’t be. There are many times when a bike makes more sense. Few things are better after gorging yourself at a dinner party than a refreshing ride home. Date night on a bike is like two dates in one – nobody remembers the romance of the car ride home from a Nicholas Sparks movie, but they will if it’s a bike ride. Need to drop your car off for repairs (because, damn, those things require a lot of service)? Put your bike in the trunk and ride home. Home Depot? I’ve done it. New refrigerator need to be picked up? Yep, I met that person and their cargo bike. There are also endless photos on the Internet of couples riding their bikes to their wedding. Because why not?
The difficult part about living in a city that was built for cars is the long distances between places you need to get to. This can be discouraging if you have multiple places to be and your chosen mode of transportation is a bicycle. Unless you’re up for logging hero miles crisscrossing a sprawling city to impress your Strava friends, there is another solution. Go multi-modal. Most city buses and commuter trains these days welcome bikes, so take advantage. Bringing a bike on transit not only gives you more time on the two wheels, it shortens the amount of time for what planners like to call the first and last mile. This method of combining a bike with another method of commuting is also part of the reason bike-sharing programs have taken off in so many cities. You can take public transit most of the way to your destination, and then hop on a short-term rental bike for those last few blocks.
Just do it
You don’t have to be a automobile-hating zealot to recognize that replacing car time in your life for bike time will make your life better. If you aren’t ready to ditch your car completely, there are plenty of opportunities to make your life better with time in the saddle. You just have to find them.
Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling.