If you are making the transition from car driver to bike commuter, you may need to adjust and reacquaint yourself with your route to work through the lens of cycling. Often the best path for a car is not an ideal path for a bike. Factors you might not notice in your car will become really important when cycling: hills, streets without bike lanes, traffic lights, streets that prohibit cycling, and traffic patterns may all have an effect on your desired route when bike commuting.
Familiarize Yourself with Shared Use Paths and Bike Paths in Your City
Sometimes the best route for a bicyclist includes paths that aren’t available to a car. Many cities have dedicated shared use paths or bike paths that can act as useful shortcuts, or help you reduce the stress and danger that riding on a busy street sometimes poses.
Google Maps is usually very good at mapping bike paths and suggesting cycling routes in navigation directions, but you should also search out any bike path information or maps that your town has published. Look for maps of paths that Google may not have documented, and any other information you can find. Each city will have different rules for riding on dedicated paths that you’ll want to know, and you may find useful information about path closures, future construction plans, and other insights.
For example, my city has recently re-structured a particular North-South street so that it is a bike friendly “bikeway” – optimizing the riding conditions for cyclists traveling along the route. They’ve improved signage, built “buffered” bike lanes, and removed some stop signs.
Visualize and Map a Route
Sketching out a route plan optimized for biking usually takes additional research and consideration. I’ve found that Google Maps once again proves quite useful when sketching out potential routes. Using their navigation feature, you can find out what path Google recommends for your commute, and compare it to alternate routes. I’ve also found that their travel time estimates are fairly accurate, giving you an idea of about how long it may take to ride various routes.
Using the “street view” feature on Google maps can help you determine if the roads you’ll be riding have decent bike lanes, and the general topography of your ride. You can also take a look at each of the intersections you’ll be passing through, and get a great 360 degree visualization on how best to navigate potential routes by bike. Will it be difficult to turn left on a busy road with lots of traffic? Should you cut over into a neighborhood or side street before a big hill? When possible, explore all of your options digitally first.
Give it a Test Ride or Drive
Once you’ve narrowed your route down to 1 or 2 possibilities, it is a great idea to get familiar and comfortable with your route in person. If you’re trying to decide between a few options, it is best to get out and experience each one to help you decide. You can drive the paths, while paying specific attention to how a bike might experience the route, or you can do a trial ride. A trial ride gives you the full experience, and lets you pick up on more cycling specific issues that a particular route might face. You can also make sure that there aren’t any differences between the Google “street view” and the real world – you may find that things have changed since the street view footage was taken.
A Note About Riding on Sidewalks
Many beginner cyclists are a little intimidated by riding alongside cars in the bike lane, and opt to ride on the sidewalk instead. I want to caution you to avoid sidewalks in your route planning; not only is it usually illegal for a bike to ride on the sidewalk, it is actually more dangerous than riding in the bike lane. The danger increases when riding on the sidewalk because drivers aren’t expecting quick-moving bikes in crosswalks or on sidewalks that cross over driveways or other entryways to the street, and therefore may not see you as you cross in front of them.
After you’ve studied the possibilities and gotten more familiar with your chosen route in person, you’re one step closer to launching your bike commuting journey!