How To Be a Bike-Commuting Lawyer

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Do you want to reduce stress, lose weight, and save money? I can tell you how to do so with one simple change of habit.

Ready?

Ride your bike to work!

I know, I know — I can hear the excuses already. But bear with me, six years ago, I was a forty year old lawyer with a bike gathering dust in my garage. Now, I am a year-round bike commuter riding 180-200 days per year. Here are a few things I learned along the way.

The Benefits of Biking

There are tremendous benefits to regularly commuting by bike. Here are just a few that I have discovered.

  • Regular exercise: A brief flat ride is a great way to ensure that exercise is always part of your day.
  • Cost savings: Driving a car is expensive, and parking in many urban downtown areas is over $300 a month. You can buy a lot of bike gear with that money!
  • Time savings: If your commute is less than five miles, it may actually be faster to bike than drive. My three-and-a-half mile commute through Seattle’s often-traffic-clogged downtown is definitely faster than driving. If you have a longer commute, you should still consider biking instead of slogging away on some soulless machine at the gym.
  • Predictability: Absent massive mechanical failure, riding to and from the office is more predictable than driving or taking the bus. Unexplained gridlock is completely avoided, and you can route around just about anything that comes up.
  • Stress reduction: There is nothing like an end-of-day bike ride to get the endorphins flowing. Depending on how your day went, you can opt for a blissed-out spin or a pedal-hammering rage sprint.

Getting Started

Circumstances matter: Life gets in the way, and a door-to-door bike commute is not going to work for everyone.  But do not let that stop you from riding as much as you can. For longer commutes, going multi-modal may be an option. When I lived in Berkeley, I rode my bike to the Rockridge BART station almost every morning. BART rented bike lockers for about $40 a year. Although it was a short ride, it made getting to the station predictable, and the ride home was one of my favorite parts of the day.

Start with commitment: When I first started commuting by bike in Seattle, I committed myself to two weeks of daily riding. I was really nervous, and not in top cycling shape. My commute featured over 300 feet of elevation gain on the ride home, with urban traffic to contend with.

That first day hurt. I can still remember how unprepared I felt for it. But I completed my ride without having to push my bike up the hill. The second day was hard, but more manageable. I knew what to expect and I picked out less-steep blocks to ride up. And after only a week, the ride was — if not a piece of cake — a more-than-acceptable way to get in twenty-two minutes of exercise right after work.

Committing myself to two weeks of continuous riding at the outset turned out to be a great decision. In that time, I had gone from churning breathlessly up the hill to looking forward to my heart-pumping evening ride. That made it easy to keep going beyond the two-week period and keep the habit.

What to wear: Depending on your bike, commute, and comfort level, you can wear anything from street clothes to full lycra. I am in favor of keeping it as simple and comfortable as possible. If you like wearing a lycra racing kit, go for it. Personally, I would rather wear urban cycling knickers (lots of pockets for cell phone, wallet, keys, etc.) and a t-shirt. Assuming your commute is short and easy enough, street clothes are an even better choice.

For many attorney bike commuters, an issue to contend with is dressing formally at the office. Those with long and sweaty commutes will need to include a gym stop or be lucky enough to work somewhere with office showers. It takes a few trial runs to figure out how best to work this part of your cycling routine, but many find balance by keeping part of their wardrobe at work. San Francisco attorney Jay Parkhill, who commuted for over 10 years in the city, told me he always kept a couple of suits and pairs of shoes at the office.

Add gear as you ride more: It is easiest to start your commute in the summer. You do not need much more than a bike and a bag. If you want to mitigate risk, a multi-tool and small crescent wrench can handle any minor mechanical issues on the ride. You can also bring a spare tube, small pump, tire levers, and water.  If the bike commuting habit sticks, adding bad-weather gear is an option.

Rain gear and shoes: Once you are hooked on bike commuting, you will not want to miss a day of riding just because it is raining. With the appropriate gear a ride in the rain can be great fun. If your ride is short, you can get by with cheap non-breathable clothing. Longer rides call for gore-tex or other breathable fabric. Do not be afraid of neon yellow, or other colors that enhance your visibility in dark and rainy conditions.

As for shoes, go with what you are comfortable with. If you already use clip-in bike shoes, fine. But if you are new to commuting, any old shoes will work. In fact, it is better to go with street shoes so you can seamlessly go from pedaling to walking.

Bag: When it comes to packing clothes into the office, nothing beats a good pannier or two. The Ortlieb backroller — a dead-simple, completely waterproof bag — seems to be the standard here in the Northwest. A backpack can work as well, and is a good way to get started. However, backpacks can make you suffer on hot days. Leave messenger bags with the messengers, as they are kludgy and awkward to ride with.

Simplify:  You could carry lots of gear against the possibility of a breakdown, but I have simplified over the years to the point where I only carry a multi-tool and small wrench. If I get a flat I can grab a bus, cab, or Uber (something I have had to do exactly once in 2000+ commute rides). But an even bigger simplification you can make is to your bike’s gearing.

After my first winter of riding, I found that the road grit being thrown up into my chain was causing havoc with my derailleur. I was constantly having to tweak, clean and adjust it. Although the daunting hill I ride up each day put me off it initially, I finally broke down and bought a single-speed bike. It took a week or so of pain, but after that transition period was over, I never looked back. It turns out that going single speed doesn’t just offer much lower maintenance — it is also a lot more fun to ride (not to mention being a better workout). Going single speed is a no-brainer if you pick the right gear ratio and live anywhere that is reasonably flat.

Do not ride tentatively: I hate seeing tentative riders out on the streets. Riders that are on the shoulder are in far more danger of getting “doored” — squashed by a car turning right or veering into traffic to avoid an animal or pedestrian. It is much safer to ride assertively, visibly, and predictably. This means staying a safe distance from the shoulder and not letting cars push you out of the way when it is unsafe to pass. And above all else, be willing to take over the lane whenever your safety requires it. It takes time to get used to riding your bike as a car, but as long as you do not get into “asshole cyclist” territory, it is the safest way to ride in the city.

Do not always follow the traffic laws: This is a tough one for lawyers, but remember that your personal safety comes before compliance with traffic laws. Those laws are designed for motor vehicles. Think critically about traffic laws rather than slavishly complying with them. An example of breaking the law in favor of your safety is using the Idaho stop.

Get out there on whatever bike you have got hanging around and start riding to work. And if you do not have a bike, I have plenty of suggestions — as long as you are willing to ride a single-speed.

Featured image: businessman cycling with a small bike

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  • I telecommute, so biking is mostly for fun. I did ride to the MSBA’s conference this year. It was great, I saved on parking and the seven mile commute took the same as it would to drive. I took it slow to avoid getting gross. People dress so casually these days, I wore a sports shirt, khakis and dock siders and no one even remarked on it.

  • Why limit yourself to brief and flat rides? E-bikes are comparable in price to high quality road bikes. They allow riders to go farther and climb hills, and open up this world of biking to people in all professions who live more than a few miles from work. They don’t eliminate the exercise component. They might seem like motorcycles or mopeds but they are not. Rider participation is required. Anyway, it’s just something to consider. I think our nation would benefit tremendously if we were more of a bike culture than a car culture. But with the exception of a few evangelists like you, in most cities that seems like a very far-fetched idea.

    • In fairness, Josh is definitely not limiting himself to flat rides. He’s in downtown Seattle.

  • Kate Graham

    This is a great post! I live in Minneapolis and bike about 6.5 miles to work each day. We’re lucky in Minneapolis because we have such great bike trails–most of my commute is on a dedicated bike trail, and the rest is on bike lanes. I don’t have paniers, but use a messenger bag–it’s what I had and I haven’t gotten to the point that I want to invest in paniers, but I might get there. I have not biked in the rain yet though–I’m a little worried about the roads, and my brakes, becoming slippery and dangerous on hills. And our winters are rough, so I suspect I won’t continue to bike all winter–I’ll have to work up to that later! But I just started out trying to bike one day a week, and loved it so much I started biking every day.

    • Yeah, I’m partial to my messenger bag, too. I ride my bike a lot, but it’s mostly within about a five-mile radius, so I don’t get sweaty enough to make me feel like I need panniers.

  • So happy to see this post. The less barriers there are to biking, the more it will happen. I am lucky that I now have only a short bike ride (15 minutes) and ride my one-speed cruiser bike – so I am able towear my work clothes on the commute which makes it one step easier. I bike commute in fair weather, but am working up to the all-weather bike commute.

    That said, my old 45-minute bike commute required a change of clothes, but was
    great when I rode past all the Friday afternoon traffic! Once you get in the
    habit, it becomes easy and you look forward to hopping on the bike in the
    morning – so much so you can’t imagine getting to work any other way.

  • Guest

    I love bike commuting and have done it for four years. I put a shower and lockers at my office and that makes it a lot easier.

  • Bike Commuter

    Anyone looking for the worlds best bike commuter bag, check this out.
    http://henty.cc/ca/shop/wingman/

  • Patrick Smyth

    In Toronto biking is becoming almost essential if you commute to the downtown area which has been allowed to grow without a plan for getting around. The subway is clogged/unreliable and the roads are jammed with all sorts of vehicles. However, it is also a dangerous place for cyclists – death and ‘dooring’ are regular occurrences.

  • I got to ride around on a Surly Ice Cream Truck this weekend. It was so much fun I am trying to figure out how to justify the price tag for the bike (surely close to the $2,550 cost of the Moonlander) and some winter biking gear.

  • Tim Lennon

    Great post, Josh!