Bike Commuting Doesn’t Have to be “All or Nothing”

Bike Commuting Doesn't Have to Be All or Nothing - Go Hybrid

Bike commuting doesn’t have to be “all or nothing”; here’s how to do a hybrid commute instead.

By Libby Searles-Bohs

My family lives just beyond the outskirts of suburbia, near a medium-sized southern town. We have worked steadily to build a more sustainable lifestyle. But even with carpooling and careful planning of our trips into town, living “in the country” means my husband and I spend more time than we want in our cars, transporting ourselves and our children and our stuff.

As longtime cyclists, we have often felt frustrated that we couldn’t use our bikes for more of our transportation needs. So, we were overjoyed to discover a creative way to shift some of those car miles to our bikes. I call it the “hybrid commute,” blending driving and bike commuting so we use the car only for those miles that really need a car, and hop on our bikes for the rest.

Typically, people think of bike commuting as biking from home to work or school in the morning, and biking back home at the end of the day – complete substitution of a bicycle for a car. But thinking like a hybrid commuter opens up all kinds of new biking opportunities.

Which Trips Really Require A Car?

Here’s an example. Last summer, our kids went to a camp thirteen miles from home. Over the three weeks, two round trips per day added up to a lot of miles – seven hundred and eighty of them, to be exact! Then it dawned on us that while the trips with our kids needed to be in the car, the trips without them could just as easily be made by bike. So, one of us drove them to camp in the morning, parked the car there, then biked off to wherever we needed to be for the day. At the end of the day, one of us – usually the other one – biked back and picked up the kids and the car, which had been lounging all day CO2-emissions-free. Savings: one round trip or twenty-six miles per day.

Once we got over the slightly odd feeling of leaving the car behind, we loved using it only on the trips where we needed it. And we looked forward to the invigorating bike rides – now built into the schedule rather than squeezed in where they fit, or too often didn’t. Riding took about twice as long as driving – about a half-hour more in each direction – but in the process, we each got an hour’s bike ride while only “spending” a half hour, since we would have spent a half hour driving anyway.

Meanwhile, in fifteen days of travel to camp, we halved the car miles from seven hundred and eighty to three hundred and ninety. At twenty-five miles per gallon and $3.25 per gallon for gas, that’s $51 in our wallets. Calculating based on the federal business mileage rate of fifty cents/mile, which accounts for vehicle wear and tear and replacement, we saved about $195. Plus, we prevented a fifth of a ton of carbon from being released into the atmosphere, which is good for everybody.

Continued Creativity, or The Part Commute

In a refinement of the hybrid commute, we realized we could eliminate unpleasant parts of a ride by being creative about where we parked the car. For instance, while the first twelve and a half miles of the trip to our kids’ camp rolls over pleasant rural roads, the last half-mile presents positively awful biking conditions: narrow lanes, no shoulder and a rough road carrying four lanes of impatient traffic moving at unsafe speeds.

To avoid this misery and danger, we started dropping the kids off and driving, rather than biking, that first half-mile back toward home. By parking the car at a nearby shopping center rather than camp, we eliminated the horrific stretch of road from the bike ride. In the afternoon, we biked to the shopping center, loaded the bike on the car, and drove over to collect the kids. Driving the extra mile per day wasn’t such a big deal, especially since it made this hybrid commute safer, more enjoyable, and therefore more sustainable.

A part-commute can also shorten any trip to a manageable length if I’m low on energy or short on time. For example, one day after dropping the kids at camp, I drove halfway home and parked the car. The bike rides to and from this intermediate parking spot only took an hour total, half as long as usual. All I need is a reasonable place to park the car. Big parking lots like shopping centers or supermarkets are great candidates. Neighborhood streets work, too. If I think my presence may be noticed or cause problems, I just explain what I’m doing and ask permission. Who could refuse the lady in the bike helmet and orange vest?

So, hybrid commuting just means thinking outside the “bike vs. car” box – asking how to creatively combine biking and driving to bike more and drive less.

Getting the Kids Involved

As we added more biking to our transportation lives, we looked for ways to include our children. When they were younger, distances, dangerous roads, and daunting hills made this particularly challenging. Searching out part-commutes where they could join in helped build their stamina, taught them safe biking skills, and gave the whole family enjoyable, purposeful, shared exercise while leaving the car behind.

As an example, when they were about nine and twelve, the kids and I were getting ready for an eight-mile drive to a park. Instead, we decided to drive the first part, park the car, and ride the last couple of miles – the flatter and prettier part of the route – together, reversing the routine on the way home. Twenty-five percent of the trip shifted from car to bike! We happily compensate our kids for their biking efforts, paying them for each mile biked for transportation. We’re saving money by leaving the car behind; why shouldn’t they share in the rewards?

Soon after her twelfth birthday, my daughter really caught the biking bug and started riding the five miles home from dance class. She was a bit young to ride both ways or go alone, so I drove her over to class and left her with her bike. My husband slightly altered his bike route home from work and met her at the end of class to accompany her on the ride home.

Then daylight savings time kicked in. Suddenly, it was dark by the time class was over. We almost gave up on this as a hybrid commute. But, no! Instead, I began driving her to class, leaving the car and riding my bike home while it was still light. My husband still arrived on his bike, just before dusk, waited a few minutes reading a book (he had planned ahead and put one in the car in the morning), and then they drove home together in the car. Now that she’s fifteen, she rides her bike the mile or so to school each day. We still accompany her on the ten-mile ride into town, but she’s almost ready to go solo.

Where Do I Need My Car? The Split-Day Commute

We developed a different version of the hybrid commute back before we had kids and had more traditional work schedules. We noticed that we more often needed our cars in town, during the day, near our workplaces, than we needed them at home. We realized we could drive to work in the morning, leave the car there and bike home in the evening. The next morning, we biked back in. On both days, we had the car available in town for running errands. On the second evening, we drove home, bringing anything that needed to be transported by car – a load of heavy groceries, a bag of chicken feed, or a pile of library books. Ideally, we aimed for this return trip to fall on a day when we were scheduled to come home after dark, or when rain was predicted, so biking was already a less appealing option. Sometimes the car even stayed in town for two or three nights before we needed to bring it home.

By splitting a bike commute over two days, each day involves only a single bike trip, which may be all that time or energy allow. A busy day that doesn’t have room in it for two bike rides may be able to handle half of a round trip.

To search out hybrid commute opportunities, we simply looked at longer sequences of driving trips and thought creatively about which segments could be replaced with a bike ride. Once we were watching for them, hybrid commutes started popping up everywhere.

Can I Get There Another Way? Crafting Alternate Routes

In yet another twist, exploring alternate routes has sometimes revealed hybrid commutes we hadn’t previously considered possible. Last summer, my husband had a dentist appointment immediately after dropping off the kids at camp. Turning this into a hybrid commute would have meant riding five miles on that disastrous biking road described earlier. But that was only true if we assumed he would bike the same route that he would drive.

Equipped with a quick sketch copied from the town map in our phone book, he devised a more appealing route, avoiding almost all of the unpleasant riding by weaving through connected residential neighborhoods.

Incorporating greenways and bike trails can make the trip even more enjoyable and safe. And occasionally, alternate routes shorten the trip, or are faster since they may avoid traffic or stop lights.

Taking it Further: Planning Ahead

Sometimes a little planning can pave the way to a more efficient hybrid commute. Do I need to put something in the car in the morning because it will be too heavy or cumbersome to bring on the bike later? Clothes to change into? Bulky stuff to drop off at the thrift store? Heavy books headed back to the library? If I think through the day or several days and consider what errands I can bundle into my drives, I stretch the efficiency of the car miles even further.

As much as we would like to, my family can’t always rely on bikes for our transportation. But for some of the significant obstacles that seem to create road blocks to using our bikes – transporting our children, carrying heavy loads, available time and energy, and darkness – hybrid commuting frequently offers paths around the road blocks, putting us on our bikes more, and leaving our cars where we most like them to be: sitting in the driveway or in a parking lot somewhere.

Hybrid commuting is in reach for anyone who can ride a bike and wants to ride more and drive less. Make a list of your car trips for the next week. Think creatively about how even a small portion of them can be transformed into bike trips – every mile matters. Then throw your bike on the car and you’re off!

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Getting Started: Gearing Up for the Hybrid Commute

  • With a little creative thinking, you can start adding hybrid commutes to your transportation right away. A bike and a car are the only essentials, but a few pieces of extra equipment smooth the road.
  • A bike rack for your car is helpful if you can’t easily put your bike in your car. Our basic three-bike rack, picked up at a thrift shop, isn’t fancy, but has served admirably for fifteen years. It lives on the back of our car, always ready to accept a bike. Perhaps we’ll see a day when bike racks on cars are a standard option, as bike racks on buses are becoming. (And by the way, throwing your bike on a bus creates a whole new layer of hybrid commuting possibilities!)
  • A bike lock increases the options for leaving your bike – we always have one in the car. In addition to locking the bike to stationary objects, we lock the bike to the car’s bike rack. We’re still using the one my husband bought as a kid thirty-five years ago – you’ll have to adjust yours to the value you place on your bike. In situations where theft is a higher concern, we stash the bike inside the car as a further precaution.
  • We keep hide-a-key boxes on both cars. A key under the driver’s mat along with the hidden key mean two drivers can access the same vehicle if a hand-off is part of your day.
  • While you can carry some gear in a backpack, a rack for your bike and panniers increase your capacity and are far more comfortable, especially if it’s hot. And a loaded backpack puts more weight up high, reducing your ability to maneuver the bike. We have two sets of panniers: large touring bags with multiple pockets for bigger loads, and smaller ones that are light and useful for most errands.
  • We love using our bikes to replace fossil fuel energy with human energy, but we also want to make it home safe and sound. We wouldn’t ride without helmets. For further safety, we always use reflective vests and tall bike flags. The reflective vest, noticeable and helpful in daylight conditions, becomes critical when we’re riding in low light or after dark. (At these times, we also turn on a front light and a rear flasher.) The flag creates slight wind resistance, but pays off in the attention it attracts. And in traffic, when we may be hidden behind a car, the flag rises above vehicle height and gives advance notice of our presence. All these devices send a message to drivers that we value our safety and we hope they will, too.

Drivers Can Help, Too

Before I had my driver’s license, my mother let me steer from the passenger seat. Surely illegal, but it did give me some valuable driving experience with her still in control of the car. My most distinct memory from this early driving is the utter panic I felt when approaching a bicycle. Without fail, I blurted out, “You steer!” and released the wheel. Even as an experienced cyclist, I confess to an occasional hesitation in deciding how to safely and courteously pass a bicycle in tricky situations.

As a cyclist, I offer the following tips to drivers:

  • When you see a bicycle, the best first response is to ease off the accelerator. Those early moments give you time to assess the cyclist’s speed and path, the presence of other cars, and your ability to see on-coming vehicles. Decide you aren’t in a hurry.
  • The most frequent mistake drivers make is passing a bike when a curve or rise in the road prevents them from seeing on-coming traffic. If for nothing but your own safety, always wait until your line of sight is long enough to insure that no on-coming cars will appear as you pass. If the road has solid and dotted lines, wait for the dotted lines of a safe passing zone, just as you would when passing a car.
  • Allow plenty of time to pass; overtaking a fast-moving bike often takes longer than expected. Move well to the left to create space between car and bicycle.
  • At intersections, always yield to bikes as you would to motorized vehicles. Turning across a bike’s travel way is the most common error. If you see a bike when approaching an intersection, slow down and wait for bikes to navigate through the intersection without passing them.

Every mile we collectively shift from a car to a bike reduces our fossil fuel dependence, lowers greenhouse gas emissions, and keeps our air cleaner and our population healthier. As drivers, we can all help increase the miles traveled by bike simply by making it safer and more pleasant for cyclists to share the road with us.

Libby Searles-Bohs lives in a solar house she and her husband designed and built on their farm near Durham, NC. Blueberries and blackberries fill her summers. A homeschooling mother of two for many years, she loves pedaling down country roads with her husband, laughing with her friends, and watching her children grow up. This article was published in Natural Life Magazine.