Chicago Sun-Times

Worst Things about Bike Commuting

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The weather's getting cold and soon all but the most die-hard bike commuters will put the 10-speed into storage and get back on the L. I'm one of the wimps -- I'll bike when it's cold, but not when there's snow on the ground, so I'm relishing my last weeks of bike commuting. Sometimes it's the best part of the day. It provides free exercise (I'm too cheap and busy for the gym) and saves money on transit.

That doesn't mean it's all good. Here are a dozen things I hate about bike commuting. Tomorrow I'll get cheerful and write about the best things.

12. Grit in my eyes. I wear contacts, and need to wear sunglasses or goggles to keep flying dirt from getting into my eyes and making me miserable for the trip. Sometimes, grit gets in despite all precautions. I keep eye drops handy, just in case. I've tried wearing glasses, but they fog up or get rained on.

11. Left turns. I know bikes are supposed to be "part of traffic," but I hate boldly crossing lanes of car traffic to get into the left turn lane. Usually, I just act like a pedestrian and cross first one street at the crosswalk, then the other, to turn left. It's slow, but safe.

10. Early darkness. It's getting dark fast, which means the ride home gets scarier. I have a good light, front and back, and wear a white jacket so I'm visible, but I see a lot of goofy bikers out there without lights, dressed in black. Maybe they're immortal. Or they think they are. When I'm driving, barely visible bikers really make me nervous.

9. Wind gusts. If you're on the thin side, you start feeling like Dorothy Gale about to take off for Oz, especially at six-corner intersections.

8. Heavy rain. Light rain's OK, but heavy rain makes visibility difficult and the roads slick. I also look like a flying grape in my big plastic rain cape.

7. Wandering pedestrians. We're not supposed to ride on the sidewalk, so why are you wandering between parked cars into the bike lane without looking where you're going? This happens a lot on Friday nights around the chic areas -- like at Halsted and Armitage, or Milwaukee and Damen. A pack of Brads and Trixies will walk between parked cars into traffic so they can jaywalk to the next club, bikes and cars will swerve to avoid hitting them, and the Trixies will swear at them. "Those bikers are CRAZY -- they never look where they're going," I've heard them say. If we didn't look where we were going, you'd have a tire track over your mini-dress, honey.

6. Getting yelled at by people in cars when I'm following the rules. I've been yelled by a driver for going the wrong way, when I was going the right way, i.e., with traffic.

5. Daredevil bicyclists who don't know the rules of the road. This morning, on Milwaukee, I was the only bicyclist out of eight who stopped at the light at Division.

4. Bus bunching. Getting stuck behind a CTA bus is annoying, but usually temporary. Since a bike will almost always go faster than a bus, you need to get around the front of a bus at a light and ride like fury when the light turns green, hoping that the bus will get stuck picking up passengers and you can leave it a few blocks behind.

It's necessary to do this, because it's tough to ride a bike BEHIND a bus -- you keep getting stuck as the bike makes stops. I also like to get way ahead of a bus because it helps the bus driver -- he or she has enough going on without having to pay attention to bikes. But the bus problem is made much worse when there are two or three buses in a pack -- and you never know which one is going to the one picking up passengers.

3. Not being able to read. One of the best parts about riding public transit is being able to read -- newspapers in the morning and books at night. I usually have a hard-cover book to read in bed, and a paperback to read on the train. When I ride my bike, I often can't find any other time during the day to read books.

2. Cars and trucks parked in the bike lane. This is a big hazard in the morning, when beer trucks are being unloaded into bars and restaurants. Open car doors are also a problem, so you have to pay attention to whether a car is occupied, to avoid getting "doored."

1. In general, trying not to die. Riding a bike is a pleasant activity. If you follow the rules and pay attention, you should be OK. But there's always the element of randomness -- what if somebody in a car isn't paying attention? Or is drunk? You're pretty vulnerable out there. I think on balance, considering the history of heart disease in my family, I'm better off cautiously riding a bike then getting no exercise. But there are risks, and some days I'm gloomier about them than others. My mom will never get used to this.

This isn't a complete list, of course. If you have something to add, please share.

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Hi, I'm a year-round commuter who saw this in today's sun times (2009-011-02). Here IMHO are a few other baddies:

* The Chicago River bridge over Wells. Survival not guaranteed

* All "Cheese-Grater" steel bridges when it rains (e.g. Halsted and the River near Chicago ave). These are bad on any tire, but murder on road tires. I saw someone fall when trying to switch lanes and accelerate. Now I always coast on these.

* Freezing rain on the face

* Car Doors. Maybe I just have a healthy fear...

* Seeing accidents. I've seen 3 too many.

I have to take issue with CLM's statement that the worst part of bike commuting in the city is "the drivers". City drivers view bicyclists as an accepted and expected (if unwelcome) part of the urban ground transport scene. They’re not surprised to see me. On suburban roads, bicycles are unwelcome intruders. Suburban drivers don’t expect to see me, and they don’t know what to do with me. We bike commuters are safer in the city.

I agree with you about "in general, trying not to die." Indeed. As you observe, dark and rain make riding more dangerous, no matter how adequate my raingear and lights. Car drivers don't expect to see cyclists, and so they don't. That's all the more true in inclement weather.
Besides rain and early dark, I'm not fond of slushy streets either. But I ride year round anyway because I have the option of CTA bike racks when conditions become too discouraging. (Heads up to the CTA: keep those plastick-y yellow bike racks thawed in sub freezing weather this year--on several occasions last year, they were frozen in the the "up" position, and thus deprived me of my bus ride option.) I ride because it's almost always more pleasant than driving.

The worst thing about bike commuting in the city? The drivers. Everything else is gravy! Wind, rain, sleet nor snow can stop this girl (though spring thaw potholes have tripped me up... and sent me down to kiss the pavement a few times... but not stopped me!). A kind request to the car kind- PLEASE respect the laws designed to protect pedestrians, cyclists, and other motorists- hang up your phone (or at least get a silly bluetooth or equivalent)... texting or checking your email can wait until you're pulled over or stopped at a light (really, they can)... and give cyclists a minimum of three feet of clearance when passing- we have the right to the full use of the lane when required for our safety (that includes when passing parked cars that may be occupied). Don't park or stand in bike lanes, and check your mirrors for bikes before opening your door or changing lanes. All of these behaviors are illegal, but I see them every single day. Pretend like any biker you see (or don't see... LOOK!) is your mother, daughter, sister, partner, spouse or brother, and be careful... because each of us is probably someone's mother, daughter, sister, partner, spouse, or brother... and we'd like to get home safely to our families as much as you do! Yes, some cyclists are jerks who break the rules. Some motorists are jerks who break the rules. We all own the road, and have to share, just like we learned in kindergarten. Be nice!

Cyclists, assume that any driver you encounter will not do the above, and you're more likely to see another day in the saddle- ride defensively, and most importantly, smile, have fun, and show the drivers what they're missing! For all its potential downfalls, I wouldn't trade my bike commute for ANYTHING (ok, except maybe a pony, but that's not terribly practical these days, and difficult to park. :-). And don't forget, with those extra calories you burn, you can eat as much ice cream as you want and stay svelte for free!




try to be Assertive on the Bike

I threw your list on my Bicycle Blog from Washington DC
then created a quick list off the top of my head

be safe
and keep riding


I especially like your point about pedestrians crossing when and where they choose without looking as they cross

it seems that everyone is so quick to point the finger at the cyclist as being the skoff law
when really... the cyclist is just making the minor modifications to the law that everyone else does
but unlike the car the cyclist tends to bend the law without putting anyone at any serious risk
while the car drivers tend to break the law with potentially fatal consequences

a bicycle commuter\mountain biker with a blog from Washington DC

Santa and Santa's helpers will be passing out balaclavas and gaiters to cyclists at Bike Winter events for the 10th year in a row. Hope to see you there:


This will be my second winter commuting by bike as a real estate agent and I am surprised at how easy it is. Just getting the right gear and having the resources makes all the difference. Just check out these two sites to read about all the bike rides that happen year-round, and

I ride year round and enjoy it. There are a few days every winter when cycling is a challenge but the majority of winter days, even in Chicago, aren't terribly cold or snowy or windy. I fell several times on icy streets December 26th, but everything melted by the afternoon and I had a great ride around town. Adequate gear (clothes and fenders) makes a big difference, and layering for the coldest winter days is easier than sweating through the hottest days of summer. I've also biked past cars and buses stuck in giant traffic jams, and then stopped for a hot toddy at the end as a reward. Invest in some winter clothes, ride on a winter day, and you'll see why there are so many winter cycling enthusiasts.

we don't leave in the dark ages to be afraid of winter. biking is one of those activities that does not cease because of the chill wind. Biking during the winter can be a thrilling experience. it just a matter of fulfilling these three conditions right apparel,well maintained, and the energy to depends on one's own heart( not the gas pedal). The first two condition are not complicated to follow because it is easy for a "newbie" to learn this from places like The last condition is one that we all struggle not leave but with this modern monotony, we loose all sense of depending on our own power. Winter is not an obstacle, take it from me that I come from a warm South American country.


I've felt them all, but hope you'll reconsider winter biking. I've been doing it for 3 years, now, and there's nothing hard core about it. Some added clothes, maintenance, and prep. Some added attention to street conditions and lighting. A bit tougher, but worth it -- especially in springtime, when "getting back into it" just means shedding some layers, and putting the skinny tires back on.

Just because there's snow on the ground doesn't mean there's snow on the *street*. Even when the city is facing bankruptcy, the roads are cleared (for better or worse).

I can appreciate your complaints, but could come up with longer lists about the CTA, let alone driving. All in all the bike comes out ahead in the cost vs. convenience, social responsibility, health and even *pleasure* categories.

So why not spend the $ on some nice cold weather gear and keep on bikin'?

I bike year-round. Buck up and tough it. People in the middle ages had it even tougher. Keep doing it.

Mary - when I saw your blog entry, I could comiserate -- in fact, as traffic anchor for afternoon drive on Cable's CLTV -- I actually started a blog about my adventures as a rookie bike commuter -- and a couple of weeks ago, when it was also really really cold and nasty -- I too posted about the best and WORST reasons to bike commute! We have a lot of similar things on the list... but some differences as well ; ) Below is a link to my blog, The Spoke'n Word.. love reading your column.

Stay Safe ; )
Kye Martin

Oh, and I love this list! A very honest and realistic assessment of cycling in Chicago. I would add "A driver speeding past me just to race to the next stop sign."

Winter cycling is not bad at all (especially with studded tires) and can be a beautiful experience if you're open to it.

For proof, here is a collection of photos from my commutes last winter.

More people should give it a try :)

Winter cycling isn't that difficult-- with the proper clothing and equipment (most of which cyclists probably already have or can get cheaply) anyone can cycle in Chicago year round.

I've been doing it for more than 10 years and even bike my 3-year-old son to daycare avery morning on the way to work.

Check out for the skinny on how to keeping rolling year round.

Ditto all of your comments - but to elaborate upon the dangerous pedestrians who do whatever they want from a cyclist who observes all the rules - yesterday, as I tried to cross the intersection when it was finally my green and all of the pedestrians went against the light, I tried to get through stating - "hey, my light" to which the response was a defiant "So what?" - ah mankind....where are those raw eggs when you need them:) I still would like to know when I am supposed to go if I can't go on the green because of all of the pedestrians and cars running reds/flying around right on red (all of the phone, mind you!)
I want to live! And ride:)

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This page contains a single entry by Mary Wisniewski published on October 21, 2009 2:03 PM.

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