Planning the Route for Your Bike Commute

You have your bike, it’s fitted with the essentials, and now it’s time to hit the road. But wait…how exactly are you getting to your destination??

For any bike commuter, planning the route is just as important as getting the bike; you need to get to your destination while minimizing unsafe interactions with a variety of obstacles – cars, buses…people.

But you may be surprised to find that planning your bike route is not as simple as plugging your destination into Google Maps. In fact, that’s probably the worst thing you could do!

Read on for some tried-and-true tips and resources that will help you plan the best route for your bike commute! 


Factors to Consider

How long is the commute?

Knowing if you need to bike 2 miles versus 12 miles is the absolute first step. As expected, the longer the commute the more planning you will need to do. Plan your trip to ensure you’re picking not only the fastest route, but also the safest route. You might find that you are better off choosing an alternative, less familiar route for your bike commute instead.


Are there bike lanes?

Bike lanes definitely make bike commuting easier, but they are by no means a requirement. If you find that you will need to completely share the road with traffic during your commute follow these tips here.

However, planning the route based on bike lane availability can give you the piece of mind necessary to conquer any bike commuting situation. 

Quick note on bike lanes: There are four types and your route may provide different options. Check out the drop down below to learn about the four types of bike lanes (they are in order from least protected to most protected).

The Four Types of Bike Lanes

Sharrows (a combination of the word “share” and “arrow”) are lanes that can be shared by both bikes and cars. They are a visual indicator that the road should be shared between cyclists and drivers, but they do not provide a dedicated space for bikers. 

Striped Bike Lanes provide a clear lane for cyclists that cars are not permitted to park in or drive. However, it is very easy for drivers to encroach upon this space since it is continuous with the road.

Buffered bike lanes are like striped bike lanes but better.  They are dedicated bike lanes that also provide an ample “buffer” zone between cyclists and passing cars that discourage cars from moving into the cycling space.

Protected bike lanes are the crème de la crème, best of the best, in the bike commuting world. These lanes not only provide a dedicated space for cyclists, but they also prevent cars from invading the bike lane space with physical barriers such plastic, vertical posts. They offer the greatest degree of safety for cyclists.


Does the bike lane end at any point in the commute?

In my early days of bike commuting, I got burned by this detail one too many times – burned as in, almost-got-hit-by-a-car, burned.

Having the bike lane end unexpectedly while you’re riding can seriously throw off your game and create a potentially unsafe situation. As mentioned above, bike lanes are not a requirement for bike commuting, but being prepared to share the lane with cars feels much different than suddenly having to do so. Check out How to Bike with No Bike Lane for tips and information.


How many left turns will you have to make?

Left turning on a bike is hard! It either involves having to coordinate merging across traffic to get into the left turning lane or mastering new maneuvers that are not that intuitive. This post from the Pure Cycles blog is excellent for explaining those maneuvers and how to do them.

I would recommend choosing a route that minimizes the amount of left turns necessary, which may mean you plan one route to your destination and plan a different route back. 


Tools to Use

JUST OKAY

Google Maps

Google maps is great for giving you an idea of approximately how long and at what elevation your commute will be, but it is pretty inadequate for researching other details you will need. 

Do not rely on Google Maps (or any map application) as the primary means of planning your commute – trust me, you might just find yourself heading towards a highway ramp, panicking, desperately looking for an escape (aka me one time I tried to bike from my hotel to a conference in 2016).

EVEN BETTER

Google “bike lanes [insert city, state]” 

I discovered this gem of advice way too late into my bike commuting career! This hack will give you state sanctioned maps and resources that provide all the information you need. The sites usually end in .gov and though they vary, most will provide bike maps, route types and information on bicycle racks. 

You can also see when the routes were last updated so you can rest assured that the information you’re using to plan is correct. 

THE BEST

Your Eyes

You can plan out everything with maps or your local city or state resources, but you won’t actually know until you see your route with your own eyes! 

If possible, scout out your future commute in person, noting any potential problem areas that you may have missed in your planning.


Another Great Option

Local bike shop, cycling clubs, a fellow cycling coworker! 

Get the wheel deal (had to do it) from someone who already bike commutes! This is easily the best way to get real-time local information on the best roads for riding. When I bought my bike, I was told to avoid bike lanes on a certain street because of notorious potholes. It was excellent advice I would have never found online that probably saved me from a face-plant or two.


Now that you know how to plan the route for your commute, get out there and do it! Check out the Bike to Work Beginner’s Guide for even more tips!

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