How to Find the Best Urban Bicycles for Commuting

 

The rise of dedicated bicycling infrastructure in cities and towns around the globe has compelled more fossil fuel refugees to pick up the healthy habit of commuting to work and making small trips across town by bicycle. In fact, since 2000, bicycle commuting has proven to be the fastest growing commuting method in the United States, increasing by 62 percent. The rise of the bicycle commuter is certainly an encouraging sign for those of us who work in the bicycle industry.

Chances are if you are reading this article, you too are considering joining the bicycle commuter ranks. Welcome! This article serves as a guide to help you research your options, and inform your decisions on identifying the best bicycle to help you bring more joy in your daily commuting trips, whether they be for work or play. To best match you with a machine that aligns with your needs, consider some of these simple guidelines:

Bike sharing in New York

Buy or Share?

If you’re fortunate to live in a city like New York, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, or Beijing, the first big question you’ll need to answer is whether you should invest in an urban bicycle, or if you should join a bicycle share. Depending on your budget and desired price point, you should consider the savings you could accumulate from purchasing an annual bicycle share membership, instead of buying a $500+ commuter bicycle.

If you’re still not sold on the safety of your community’s bicycle infrastructure, or if you’re not sure you want to invest in a new or used bicycle, purchasing an annual bicycle share membership might be the most economical starting point. There are a few considerations I would advise before going this route, however. First, you need to ensure that there are bicycles kiosks available near your home as well as where you work, or spend most of your time throughout your city or town. The cost of an annual bicycle membership vary from city-to-city – in New York where I live, the cost is about $150/yr. With the annual bike membership, you get unlimited number of trips of up to 45 minutes, which is a tremendous savings if you aren’t traveling over long distances exceeding a few miles, and really want to take advantage of the most efficient way to move about the City.

For a cyclist like me, this option isn’t cost effective. I’m typically commuting to work everyday, traveling around 45 minutes, and often longer because…well, I love riding my bike. Also, there aren’t bicycle kiosks close to my home, and the ones near my office are usually empty. In addition to my weekly commuting routine, I also enjoy cycling over longer periods of time on my weekends. Given the length of my trips, and how I often enjoy spending my leisure time on a bicycle, I ultimately landed on purchasing my own commuter bicycle. The cost differential between yearly bicycle share membership fees, and the cost of the bicycle quickly offset over a few years.

Happy cyclists

Get Off the Internet

Head over to your trusted local bicycle shop (LBS). The sales and service team at your LBS will have a good sense of your community’s riding conditions year-round. This insight will give you a better sense of the type of bicycle models you’ll need to consider. The professionals at your LBS will have YEARS of collective bicycle commuting expertise that you can benefit from when considering all of your options. They’ll be the first to let you know if there is a bicycle share or lending program in your community, and what the benefits are compared to purchasing your very own commuting bicycle. They will also have their fingers on the pulse of what new technology exists to make your commute more pleasurable and safe.

The National Bicycle Dealers Association (NBDA) offers some helpful tips on how to find a trusted quality LBS near you, along with some basics on how to consult with shop staff. A good LBS is one that will welcome you, is patient to learn about what your cycling needs are, and will encourage you to take your first steps as a budding bicycle commuter. NBDA encourages prospective bicycle buyers to avoid considering purchasing cheap bikes sold directly from big box discount stores. If you buy from a big box store, you’ll often be required to put your bicycle together, and you will have limited to no support after your purchase, should problems arise. Most importantly, if you purchase from a big box store, you’ll miss out on important community building events with other cyclists that use their LBS as a way to stay connected with one another.

Even though I volunteer for a local bicycle coop, and stay connected with a number of bicycle professionals and enthusiasts, I always learn something new after visiting my LBS. Technology in the bicycle industry is ever evolving, and you’ll always find a way to be humbled about how much you don’t know. The bottom line is that whenever you’re considering making an investment on a new bicycle, connect with LBS professionals who can give you important insights that you just won’t be able to find online or through your own self-study. Stay open-minded, curious, and receptive to the information your LBS has to share, and you’ll be on your way to finding the best urban commuting bicycle that aligns with your needs.

Man relaxing next to folding bike

To Fold, or Not to Fold?

That is the question. And if you answer with the former, you’ll likely realize many benefits. With the advent of bicycle technology comes the rise of the durable, fast, and stylish folding bikes. Companies like Brompton, Dahon, and Raleigh have perfected frames designed to endure the punishment of daily bicycle commuting in all the elements. The leading folding bicycle manufacturers typically use steel as their frame material of choice, which is ideal for absorbing streets riddled with potholes and debris. They have also made it easy for commuters to easily break down a bicycle, or build it back up, in less time than it would take to refill your subway transit card.

One of the best benefits of commuter bicycles is that they can easily be stowed on commuter trains, buses, or airplanes. This means that during peak rush hour times, your trusty steed will easily squeeze onto public transit without exception, unlike non-foldable bicycles. Trust me when I say that there is nothing worse than getting the aggressive side-eye from a disgruntled public transit passenger because you chose to be the person who got stuck in a rainstorm, and are unsuccessfully trying to squeeze your non-folding bicycle into a jam-packed subway car. Chances are, at least in most cities beyond New York, you wouldn’t even be permitted to have the opportunity to take your non-folding bicycle on the subway platform during peak rush hour times.

Additionally, the folding bicycle can also easily fit into your office’s elevators, and office space or cubicle without compromising a significant amount of space. If your business welcomes professionals from around the globe with their rolling suitcases into their office space, chances are they will welcome your folding bicycle into your personal office space. Fortunately, in New York, we have the law (in theory) on our side for buildings to accommodate all bicycles, regardless of if they are folding or not. If you aren’t as fortunate in your community, the folding bicycle is usually one that gets an easy pass for being welcomed in the building given its small footprint.

Colorful bikes

Ditch the Fancy Stuff

This tip is a hard one for me to embrace. Personally, I love a lot of color, and I want my bicycle to receive a lot of attention, because I love biking and I want that love to reflect outwards – from my frame, to my components, to my clothing. At the same, time, I know the reality of bicycle theft in my city, which always seems to be on the rise. One of the simplest ways to deter thieves from targeting your bicycle is to have one that blends in, or looks a little run down. I know, I know, that’s hard…and at the same time pretty essential to prevent your bike from being stolen, which is an awful feeling to experience.

It’s especially critical for folks that have to lock their bicycles outside, either 24-7, or during the business day when you’re inside your office. General things to avoid when you’re searching for a commuting bicycle, would be to not buy a fancy carbon fiber racing bicycle. While this may seem obvious to many, when you’re new, and your attracted to the flashiest, fastest, lightest, and most expensive bicycle in the shop, it is easy to throw this advice out the window. Remember that if you do, the thieves will have their cable cutters ready to lift that sweet $2,500+ bike right out from under your office window (also – an aside – if your LBS encourages you to buy a $2,500+ carbon fiber, racing bicycle for daily commuting, you need to research alternative LBS’s; professionals that don’t dissuade you from such a purchase don’t have your best interests in mind).

A good rule of thumb is to stick to practical bicycle frames that are durable and are relatively neutral in color. If you’re drawn to the flashy hot pink and black fixed gear frame with the $2,000 HED Jet Black wheel set, keep this guidance in your back pocket, find your voice of reason, and adhere to the more pragmatic approach of looking into the $500 Purefix Coolidge, or the $600 Dahon Mariner D7. Not only will you save money on the front end with these more practical investments, you are going to be more successful in keeping them in your possession over the lifetime of your commitment to bicycle commuting.

Bike helmet on a handlebar

Handlebars Matter

If your commute is under 90 minutes, definitely consider investing in a bicycle with flat handlebars as opposed to drop-down handlebars. Frames that integrate upright handlebars allow the cyclist to sit in a more upright position with the hands placed far apart, which allows for greater stability, more control, and a wider range of seeing the road ahead. Those with mobility issues and less flexibility will often benefit from riding more upright.

Commuter bicycle frames that often integrate upright handlebars are called hybrid bicycles. These bicycles typically blend technology, frame design, and wheel sets from traditionally defined “mountain,” “road,” and “touring” bicycles. Urban commuting bicycle hybrids tend to offer a longer wheelbase, or the distance between the centers of the front and rear wheels. These longer wheelbases improve steadiness of the bicycle ride, yielding to greater control of the bicycle and increasing the rider’s confidence.

A flat handlebar integrated on a hybrid commuter bicycle is best for riders relatively new to cycling, or cycling in cities or towns where they will be required to share the road with many cars, pedestrians, and other cyclists. The upright position offered by these styles of bicycles will empower a rider to have a full view of the street, potential obstacles, along with potential escape routes. This type of defensive riding will enable a rider to pedal defensively and avoid potential accidents that could occur if their gaze was limited with the integration of drop down bars that place a rider in a more aggressive, aerodynamic position.

Man testing a new bike

Take a Test Spin

Before making any investment, whether joining a bicycle share, or purchasing your own commuter frame, be sure to test out all of your options. Start with the bicycle share, where you can easily pay-per-ride. Test out the shared bicycles, and see if the frame design allows for you to ride with confidence throughout the city streets. Then, consider the alternative of investing in your own commuter bicycle by testing out promising models at your local bicycle store. Be sure to assess what feels best for you body, consider your riding needs, and test models that are less likely to attract unwanted attention. This latter piece of advice is especially important if you know that you’re likely to lock your bike up for longer periods of time outside.

Be sure to take in the advice of fellow riders you respect, staff at your trusted LBS, or folks like me who enjoy downloading our knowledge to help you gain the most pleasure and benefits from bicycle commuting. There are so many factors to consider, and at the same time, it’s quite simple as it will be one unique relationship between you and the bicycle frame that suits your individual needs. Once you find that frame, the possibilities of where you ride are endless.

Remember to have fun, and remind yourself why you have committing to commuting by bicycle. On behalf of advocates encouraging others to break our addiction to fossil fuels, and instead, directing more investment into environmentally friendly and sustainable options, thank you! What may feel like a small action will absolutely lead to positive results as more people park their personal cars at home, and jump on their bicycles to move around and live their lives with relative ease and more freedom.

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