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Shifting Gears: 12 Tips for Safe Bike Commuting

It's National Bike Month! To honor the occasion, we're bringing back this popular guide to better bike commuting from OnEarth blog editor Ben Jervey (originally written for our partners at NRDC's Smarter Living guide).

Now that the winter snow and April showers have finally subsided, it's the perfect time to tune up the old two-wheeler and pedal your way to work. It just so happens that May is National Bike Month, and May 16-20 is Bike to Work Week, and there's no better way to burn calories while cutting pounds of carbon emissions. How many? Cycling at the mellow rate of 5 mph, you'll burn about 175 calories in an hour. Compare that to your car, which releases more than 25 pounds of carbon dioxide for every gallon of gas burned.

Yet there are even more reasons to drop the keys and hop on the saddle. "On a personal level, you'll save money, get good exercise, and experience your city in ways that are impossible at 30 mph," says Dani Simons, a former spokeswoman for Transportation Alternatives, a New York City bike, pedestrian, and mass transit advocacy group. (Simons is now with the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.) "On a broader, societal level, it'll cut local air pollution, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and help unclog the streets of congestion and traffic."

So to get you safely to the office (and back home again), here are twelve tips everyone should consider before pushing the pedals.

Before You Mount Up

1. Check your local air quality
. Before heading out, visit the EPA's AIRNow air quality index at If your city's air quality index exceeds 151, consider taking public transportation or driving instead, because air pollution at that level can affect everyone. To reduce harm to developing lungs, children should avoid riding bikes to school when the AQI is above 100. Regardless of air quality, avoid routes heavily trafficked by big, diesel-powered trucks and busses, which spew particulate matter that triggers respiratory problems like asthma and lung disease and has also been found to increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes. And while you're at it, check the weather to see if rain is in the forecast for your ride home.

2. Pump it up. To avoid untimely flats, make sure your tires are properly inflated to the recommended air pressure, which is typically located on the side of the tire and listed in pounds per inch, or ppi. All floor pumps have an air pressure gauge built in, but if you've only got a hand pump, use a separate handheld gauge.

3. Check the brakes. Always, always check your bike's brakes before every ride. Lift the front wheel off the ground, give it a spin, and squeeze the brake lever; the wheel should halt instantly. Repeat for rear wheel.  (Hint from a vet: Spin the top of the tire backwards, so as not to engage the cranks and pedals and ding your shin).

4. Don a decent helmet every time you ride, no matter how short the trip! Choose one made for cycling that fits snugly on your head without wiggling around. Adjust the straps to wrap securely under your chin, without choking youself, of course. Replace any helmet that has taken a good pounding, as it may have been weakened in the crash. Thank it for doing its job.

5. Find the right fit. Adjust your bike's saddle, or seat, so that your knee is just slightly flexed when the pedal reaches the lowest point of its orbit. This saves your knees and maximizes efficiency.

6. Dress smart. Wear brightly colored, reflective clothing, especially if you'll be riding at dusk or after dark. During cooler weather, cover up with light, breathable layers.

On the Road

7. Your bike is a vehicle
. As such, you must obey all local traffic laws and rules of the road. Ride with traffic, never against it -- even on one-way roads. Heed stop signs, red lights and all other traffic signals.

8. Stick to bike lanes and bike paths whenever possible; there's no safer place to ride. If there aren't any designated lanes or paths in your city, contact the local Department of Transportation or Department of City Planning and find out if there's a bike master plan, which basically outlines a city's plans for future bike infrastructure. Simons recommends an even more hands-on approach: "Invite your local elected officials out for a bike ride and show them what the local conditions are." You might inspire improvements.

9. Show some respect. Out-of-control cyclists give us all a bad name, so be sure to yield to pedestrians and stay off the sidewalk. Nearly everywhere in the country, pedestrians always have the right of way, regardless of street signs and signals, so stay alert.

10. Illuminate. Mount lights on the front and rear of your bike. Use them even at the first hint of dusk, as low light makes you and your bike much less visible through a windshield.

After the Ride

11. Secure a spot
. If at all possible, bring your bike indoors to a safe spot. Ask around if there's any place convenient to store it at work. If your boss or building manager won't allow bikes indoors, try to figure out why and work with that, says Simons. She also suggests that you ask to use the freight elevator, if one exists, and to store your bike by your desk if you have room (and if your employer or building manager hasn't provided storage space). Otherwise, she says, "Write to your employer or building manager to convince them to allow bikes inside. A lot of companies are trying to promote their environmental image and their commitment to these values. This is an easy way for companies to show they're really walking the walk." For more tips, check out Transportation Alternative's "Gaining Indoor Bicycle Access" blueprint.

At home, keep bikes inside your garage, house, or apartment. (Wall-mounted bike racks can help save space.) If you must keep it outside, be absolutely sure to lock your bike securely to a rack or other strong, sturdy object using a high-quality lock. Avoid locking to posts or parking meters -- thieves may be able to lift your bike off them. Chaining both tires and removing the seat is another good way to deter bike robbers.

12. Keep it clean. Enormously helpful but often neglected, wiping your bike down after a ride will keep it running smoothly. Dirty gears, chains, and brake pads will make you work harder to go just as fast and far. Also, lube the chain after every few trips for the easiest ride. Although most bike cleansers, degreasers, and lubricants are petroleum-based, there are some great plant- and vegetable oil-based alternatives.

image of bjervey
Ben writes about climate, energy, and sustainability for numerous publications and is the former environment editor at GOOD. He's the author of "The Big Green Apple: Your Guide to Eco-Friendly Living in New York City" and currently lives in Vermont. ... READ MORE >