How To

Commuting On Two Wheels

June 20 is the 25th annual Ride To Work Day, intended to increase the visibility of motorcycles and those who ride them. But for me, any day that I don’t need the space of a car, the weather is halfway decent, and I’m sufficiently awake in the morning is a day to ride to work.

I’ll say up front that MANY are more serious about motorcycle commuting than I am. In the morning I’ll check the hourly weather forecast, and if it looks like a rainy commute, or it’s below 45-50°F, I’ll take the car. I know many, including some of our other writers, who will gladly commute when it’s colder, in the rain, or even in the snow, riding year round regardless of conditions. I’m just not that hardcore.

But I do still enjoy it. Every time I ride to work I arrive there more alert and relaxed all at the same time, and then again when I get back home. Every day I ride to work I get two hours of riding I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. True, it’s not on the types of roads I prefer to ride, and there’s more traffic than I like, but it’s still riding, and riding is good. And though there are some disadvantages to commuting by motorcycle, there are many advantages as well.

The Advantages

Photo credit: Goliath

It’s a bike. ‘Nuff said. OK, not really – some of the advantages aren’t quite as obvious as “Uh, bikes are cool, uh-huh-huh-huh.”

While I live in some great riding territory in north central MA, I go through some rather congested small towns in the suburbs of Boston to get to work. I stick to back roads, bike or car, because thanks to traffic I often can go faster than on the main roads without even breaking the speed limit. But I still have to duke it out with plenty of traffic along the way. My bike’s small size allows it to squeeze into gaps where a car won’t fit. I can sneak around a stopped car waiting to make a turn in a space too small for a car, for example.

My acceleration helps as well. My Honda PC800 is far from the fastest bike out there, but it remains true that most bikes can accelerate more quickly than most cars. I need a much smaller gap in traffic to squeeze through and quickly accelerate up to the speed of traffic than my car can. It’s also fun to let ‘er rip through first and second gear, even if you have to back off at the legal limit or the speed of surrounding traffic. Acceleration and maneuverability go hand in hand, as both help me whip around that idiot hogging the left lane at 5mph under the limit in no time at all. It only saves a few seconds each time I do it, but the number of times I’m able to use my size and power to my advantage during a commute adds up to a fair bit of time I save overall.

Photo credit: The National

There are many, many roads between home and work. This is good, because sometimes my preferred route comes to a screeching halt for absolutely no reason whatsoever (or a legitimate reason, but that’s rare). When I find myself with nowhere to go and a solid line of stopped cars ahead of me, it’s super easy to make a U-turn and go find a route that’s actually moving. I can do this in my car as well, but then it’s an awkward three (or more) point turn, and I block traffic in both directions while I’m doing it. No such issues on the bike.

A bike’s small size makes it easier to avoid crashes as well. Just the other day, the car in front of me slammed on their brakes because there was a remote chance that a nearby pedestrian might possibly think about using the crosswalk. I’m all for stopping for pedestrians in crosswalks – it’s polite, and it’s the law. but this guy stopped so short that I had to swerve and stop next to him in the oncoming lane because I didn’t have enough braking distance. Go ahead and criticize me for following too closely, but there was more than one set of screeching tires behind us that agree with me.

I haven’t even mentioned lane splitting. It’s legal and even encouraged in most of the world, but not in the US (except California) or Canada. If you live somewhere it’s legal, you have a huge advantage over cars when traffic gets bogged down. You also don’t have to worry about getting rear ended by the inattentive driver who doesn’t notice traffic stopping, because you can keep going rather than sit behind stopped cars.

And, of course, there’s parking. Some offices have dedicated motorcycle parking spaces. At others, you can often leave your bike in technically a non-space close to the door, as long as you’re not a jerk about it. Don’t create an obstruction and you’re generally OK.

The Disadvantages

Lots of cargo
Photo credit: Slate

All is not rainbows and unicorn farts, however. While there are some great things about biking to work, there are some issues as well.

The small size of a bike means you can’t take much with you. There are ways around that, but if you need to stop for groceries, pick up the kids, or bring home a ham radio antenna tower, a bike may not work so well.

Bike in rain
Photo credit:

They say that if you don’t like the weather in New England, wait a minute. Even if the hourly forecast says it’ll be sunny and warm all day and I have an enjoyable ride to work, it may still be cold and rainy by the time I leave. I have a fairing and windshield, and I carry light rain gear with me at all times in case this happens. I’m not as worried about the ride home, because if I get soaked there’s a hot shower and a dry change of clothes waiting for me at the end of the ride. And if you’re already equipped for touring, you may already have accessories like heated gear to keep you more comfortable.

Speaking of clothes, I’m fortunate enough to work for a company with a casual dress code. I can ride to the office in my work clothes, take off my gear, and get to work. If you’re expected to wear a suit or uniform that would get wrinkled up under your riding gear, this may not work for you. Maybe you can bring a change of clothes with you in your bike luggage. Or, with some planning ahead, you can bring some extra work clothes with you one day in the car and leave them there for the days you bike. The building I work in has a locker room and showers, so even if I had to change to a zoot suit I could still make bike commuting work.

Traffic jam
Photo credit: Auto Evolution

And then there’s the elephant in the room – vulnerability. Two years ago my car got rear ended when I was almost at work. It got messed up pretty bad, but I was completely unhurt, not even whiplash, and insurance got the car fixed. If that had happened to me on my bike, I would’ve at least taken a ride in an ambulance to get checked out, possibly been badly hurt, or worse. I quit biking to work for a while after this because I was scared of the far more severe consequences of getting hit on the bike. After a while, I realized that I missed the ride, and figured that the bike’s size and maneuverability advantage would help reduce the risk of getting hit. But it’s still a risk, and bike commuting to a 9-5 job puts you in the middle of the worst traffic of the day.

The Bottom Line

Motorcycle in city
Photo credit: Gizmag

As with all riding, you have to make decisions you’re comfortable with. That can mean physical comfort, such as not taking the bike to work when it’s below freezing, or mental comfort, like avoiding riding in Boston like the plague. Some bikes are certainly better than others for commuting, but chances are whatever you have, you can commute on it if you want. Give it a shot on Monday the 20th. If you like it, don’t let the other 364 days of the year not being Ride To Work Day stop you.

Follow @justinhughes54 on Twitter

Leave a Reply