Is Bicycle Commuting A Bad Goal?

BusyIntersection.623In the bicycle as transportation world a major goal, and for many the primary goal, is people commuting to work by bicycle. A lot of focus is put on routes from outlying suburbs to the major employment centers of cities and getting employers to install showers and lockers so that bike commuters can shower when they get to work.

I am very much a proponent of bicycle commuting. Most of us waste around an hour each day sitting in our car getting fat, frustrated, and poor. That’s not good for us. Not to mention the pollution and other problems from cars.

Even so, I’m not sure that bicycle commuting is a very good goal, at least in the next decade or so.

Most people in the U.S. today live a considerable distance from where they work, about 16 miles on average. Much to Katherine Kersten’s chagrin, we likely need to change that, but it won’t happen very fast. And, given a choice between a 25-minute commute in a climate controlled car or an hour commute on a bicycle dodging cars, few will choose a bicycle, myself included on many days.

There’s also a perception problem. Have you noticed what the average long-distance bicycle commuter looks like? Good luck convincing your neighbors that what they want to do is invest thousands of dollars in special clothing, spend time every morning putting those things on, and then, GO OUT IN PUBLIC.

Leggings look quite fashionable on some women, not so fashionable on the rest of us. And clickety-clacking through the office (or local cafe) with a bit of commute odor for accompaniment doesn’t work for most of us[1].


A key to success in any endeavor is to focus on goals that are realistically attainable, in a reasonable time-frame, and that will provide a worthwhile return on investment, ROI.

Today, about 2% of folks in the Twin Cities commute to work by bicycle[2]. We’ll see more do so, but I think we’re approaching a hard upper limit due to the length of most people’s commutes. A three to five mile commute is quite doable for almost everyone, but beyond that the number of people willing to ride a bicycle drops off sharply.

With commuting we’re trying to get a lot of people to do something that they really don’t want to do instead of getting people to do something that they will want to do.

What then are some realistic, attainable, and worthwhile goals? How about 70% of students walking or bicycling to school? Or 20% of grocery shopping and other local errands being done by bicycle? Almost all of us should be able to ride to a local cafe or ice cream place at least one out of ten times.

These shorter trips don’t require significant physical effort or that people ‘be in shape’. The time difference between riding and driving is minimal and will often favor riding. They’re not so long that they require a fast bike or any special clothing and on all but the most frightful days (bad year to be writing this?) they’re short enough to not be uncomfortable from a weather standpoint.

Better, these are proven winnable goals. These are the kind of trips that people in The Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and elsewhere do. Countries with very high modal shares of bicycling don’t have lots of people riding 10 miles each way to work. Someone in Amsterdam with a 16 mile commute ahead of them will likely not ride their bike[3]. They’ll take a train or tram, take their bike on the train[4], or drive their car—just like sensible Minnesotans.

What these countries do have is nearly everyone walking or riding bicycles for 1 or 2 or 3 mile journeys; to school, the grocery or hardware, train or bus station, and yes, even to work if it’s close enough.

Best of all, a lot of people in the Twin Cities, maybe 10%, can begin doing this today. Shoreview, for example, has a great network of quite pleasant segregated paths throughout most of the community. Probably half of Shoreview residents have at least one, if not two or three, grocery stores within easy and safe bicycling distance. Same for schools, restaurants, and other routine destinations.

There is considerable room for improvement, but it’s not at all unworkable today. The biggest issue in Shoreview seems to be mindshare—people don’t think of their bicycle as a mode of transportation. They’ve been getting in their cars for the half mile trip to Paninos for too long. Fortunately this is changing.

Most people though, will need some better infrastructure. They don’t have the option of a route to school, a grocery, local train or bus station, or a local cafe that feels and is safe. Just because you build it doesn’t mean they’ll come, but if you don’t build it they certainly won’t.

We should be looking at our schools, and building out from each. Every school should have a spiderweb of safe pedestrian and bicycle paths reaching out in to every neighborhood that they serve. Maybe just a mile in every direction by 2015 (very sad that this is even a need), but stretching 1.5 miles by 2017 and 2 miles by 2019.

We should do the same for local retail centers. Every one should itself be an inviting and safe place for people and people on bikes and each should have a spiderweb of safe paths reaching out towards their customers.

All of these little webs of paths will be immediately useful to a lot of people. Because they go somewhere that people want to go and a reasonable distance that they can go.

What’s more, as we begin doing this and getting this local infrastructure in place, we can link them together. If Shoreview and Roseville both build good local infrastructure throughout their communities then we’ll be able to ride safely from Shoreview to Roseville for dinner or shopping.

We should continue to promote longer distance commuting by bicycle for those interested, but we should, in my opinion, focus most of our efforts and resources on our local communities. On getting safe routes to every school. On safe routes to local shopping and other amenities. These are where I think we’ll see the biggest payoffs because these are where everyone can ride, instead of just a very few, and where it will be appealing for them to do so[5].

[1] I’m not at all opposed to full-kit lycra and cleated shoes. I don them myself a few times a year for fitness  rides. But many people, likely the vast majority, don’t want to buy this stuff or wear it. And there’s no need for them to do so.

[2] Interestingly, these 2% likely ride their bicycles for transportation each day farther than the average person in The Netherlands—the bicycle capital of the world and a population much healthier than ours.

[3] However, on a nice day and if they have the time, many will ride their bicycle for longer distance errands and they have the safe infrastructure to do it.

[4] Many also have two bikes, one at home and one that they keep at the train station near where they work for getting from the train to their work and for getting around during the work day.

[5] In most cases, safe, segregated paths are built as part of larger road reconstruction projects or as part of new roads. We need to push for EVERY one of these to be done appropriately. However, there are opportunities to add paths to existing roads outside of major reconstruction projects and opportunities to push reconstruction projects up in order to get safe pedestrian and bicycle facilities.

Walker Angell

About Walker Angell

Walker Angell is a writer who focuses mostly on social and cultural comparisons of the U.S. and Europe. He occasionally blogs at, a blog focused on everyday bicycling and local infrastructure for people who don’t have a chamois in their shorts. And on twitter @LocalMileMN