For Bicycle Commuters Variety is Not the Spice of Life.

Byron Kidd
While browsing around last week I clicked on a link to an article entitled "10 Rules for Urban Commuting".  I didn't think I'd learn anything new, but its always wise to compare notes with other bicycle commuters so I read on.

I've been growing bored with my commute recently and have been toying with the idea of mixing it up a little by changing routes every now and again.  After all, it couldn't hurt to add some variety could it?  That is when I read this piece of advice:

Variety is not the spice of life. Save the mixing it up for whatever else you like to do for fun.  You’re riding a bike to and from work for chrissakes, isn’t that fun enough.  You don’t need to alter your route just to add variety.  Knowing your route – every pothole, blind right turn and nasty intersection of it – is critical to riding safely.  Be predictable in your riding and your route.  Get a tattoo or something if your route isn’t exciting enough.

Odd, that a blog article should bring up the very issue I was contemplating only moments before reading.  (Changing route, not getting a tattoo.) Initially I brushed this rule off, but eventually it got me thinking. Just how well do I know my current route?  Surely I don't know the location of every pothole, does anyone, do I?

To my surprise it turns out that I actually do.

After reading the article I paid attention to my riding style and realized that for years I've been veering left here to avoid a pothole, right there to avoid another, even lifting the weight off my front wheel to go over one particularly nasty one too wide to safely go around.

Its not just potholes.   I know the traffic light sequences.  I know if one light is red when I arrive then the flowing two will be also.  I know traffic conditions at different times of the day, different days of the week.  I know which intersections cars like to sneak across on the orange light.  I know where it is narrow and cars will give you a fright by overtaking too close for comfort. I know where taxis are likely stop suddenly without warning.  I know the location of a gravel yard around which you find numerous large trucks and concrete mixers.

Without being consciously aware, I have intimate knowledge of the smallest details of my route.  At first I doubted the statement that you know every pothole on your commute, but if you've cycled the same route for any period of time chances are that you do, you're just not aware of it any more.

Have a think what "local knowledge" you have of your commuting route and share it here, you'll be surprised at all the details you recall.

Lovely cycling weather in Tokyo recently.  Enjoy!

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  1. hello, I brought my folding bike recently to Tokyo. While it wasnt too fun lugging the bike to the hotel. But after dropping all my computer and luggage... I was so glad I brought the bike. Do check out some of my entry on riding in Tokyo.

  2. I've thought about how well I've come to know the bike routes to my past few jobs as well, and it is true that you instinctively respond to everything and how fast and smoothly you can ride that particular route. Being a new rider here in Tokyo it can be very time consuming to get from one place to another because everything is so unfamiliar, but even after 2 or 3 goes, your muscles and subconscious recall things very quickly. I do not necessarily agree with the blog that said variation is a bad thing however. Taking several routes allows you to find the safest and fastest route, and also builds a more comprehensive working map of the city. I've had car accidents, construction, etc force me to make last minute route changes, and varying my route on days when I'm not racing to get there on time has really helped!
    thanks for the thoughtful post!

  3. After posting the article I thought about it a little longer and realized I didn't address an important point: regardless of route, the skills and instincts you've developed through years of bicycle commuting are transferable. The only difference is when riding a familiar route the majority of your actions are subconscious as opposed to when you're on new ground actively scanning the area for dangers using your accumulated knowledge of urban cycling hazards.

  4. Interesting point.
    I just started to shake up my route, mostly to look for even less peopled ways to skirt around Shinjuku (I've found a few killer quiet stretches but there are still places I'd like to refine). I think that, and sorry if I sound paranoid, there is a nuance to add to this "spice" conversation.
    I think you are right, those skills are transferable, but we should also think about timing, not just road skills. I usually feel totally happy to be lost on my bike, it's just one more reason to spend a little more time riding.
    But the other night it was probably too late to do that, and the combined effect was that I was down dark streets I didn't know (which were potentially dead ends), couldn't see too well, and didn't feel particularly safe on as I didn't know my way out in a hurry if I stumbled across (even if very unlikely) someone I didn't fancy interacting with.
    Call me stupid, but it hadn't occurred to me I would have to choose between slowing down to feel safe with the road, or speeding up to feel safe when alone down a dark alley.
    Exploring, and varying route, is half the reason for cycling here for me. And my favourite time to cycle is after the trains stop running and the streets empty out. I think I have to accept though that these two tastes don't go so great together....
    But yes, isn't it fabulous riding weather right now? It's supposed to hold out like this all week too.

  5. Dokinchan,

    I love nothing more than getting lost in Tokyo on my bike. Taking a turn because I don't know where the road leads, or letting the roads lead me where they will. I've found some wonderful "off the beaten track" places in this way. Its a great way to get to know the city in a way that those that do not cycle never will. That is how I cycle on weekends and in the evenings.

    But when I'm commuting to and from work I'm focused on getting from A to B as quickly, effortlessly, and safely as possible. That means mixing it up with peak hour traffic on some of the larger roads around town that I wouldn't dream of taking on a weekend ride. Sure I could take some smaller roads, and in the mornings when I have time I sometimes do. But in the evenings there is 10km of road between me and my family and I just want to rip it up and get home in the fastest most direct manner possible, and that is when having deep knowledge of your route comes in handy.

    Like you I spent time exploring my route and tweaking it in the early days, but once I'd settled on the one that worked for me I never really changed.

    I think the author of the quote in the original article is maybe a little paranoid about the dangers of bicycle commuting. But what struck me about his point was that without really being conscious about it I actually do know every pothole and manhole cover on my daily commute.

    I certainly don't want to sound like I'm suggesting we never explore on our leisurely rides, but when it comes to getting down to business on the daily commute, chewing up the distance from work to home, then being totally familiar with your route is quite an asset.

    On a slightly related note .. is there anyway to subscribe to an RSS feed of articles posted to your site? Sadly (shame on me) I don't check often enough and have been missing some interesting articles.

  6. Oh, I didn't think you were suggesting we shouldn't explore, I was just saying I had learned something new about myself recently...

    I don't know if there is a way to subscribe, let me dig around and look. Thanks for the compliment!

  7. It depends on the location of the employer, time of year and city where I've lived, but for some employers I had the choice of 2 different bike routes to get to work. Either cycle by a waterfront route or drop down into a network of ravine parks.

    Other employers were located close enough to home, that I had to concoct 1-2 routes for make the ride long enough for fitness. Again 1 short route if I was in a hurry, 2nd route was quadruple the length and totally different.

    But yes, regardless of which route I chose, I came to know intimate details of pavement quality, specific turns, potholes, all useful stuff especially if cycling in the dark of it the weather is lousy. A pothole is more dangerous in heavy rain or with ice.

    I enjoyed the rides nevertheless even if a commuting ride is highly focused and time-based.

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