Tips for replacing a car trip with a bike

Congratulations! I’m thrilled that you’ve decided to try riding a bicycle once a week. It might be because it’s a new year and you’ve resolved to get a little fitter. Or you’re in a new stage in your life and you want to try something different. Whatever your motivation, choosing a bike rather than a car for that commute to work, the shops, child care or whatever you need to do, it will make a difference. It will make a difference to your mood and wellbeing, and it will make a difference to how your see your neighbourhood. Because you will be moving outside at around 20 km/h, you’re going to hear, see, smell, and feel more things than when you’re moving at 60, or 80, or whatever speed you normally drive. 

If you make it a habit, it will also make a difference to your purse/wallet. You will be saving money by paying less for dinosaur juice that your car will burn, and by paying less for a spot to store said car while it recovers from burning that dinosaur juice. Ssssh, sleepy car.

Bicycle route signage in Canberra, Jan 2022

Preparation matters

This section is for anyone who has not already ridden to their workplace/shops/child care centre etc. I recommend you scope the route via online maps – but expect Google Maps will suggest you ride in traffic. Please don’t. Can you ride the route on a weekend? That way, you’ll be less stressed on the day you ride because you’ll be slightly more familiar with the route. Understand there will be more traffic on a weekday.
If your city/town has bike paths, use those as much as possible, or footpaths, rather than the laughable sparkly painted lines on roads. Yes, drivers may still hit you on a footpath as they’re leaving/entering a property, but they will be moving slower than when they’re beside you on a road. Your chances of survival are far higher if that driver’s doing 30km/h than if they’re doing 60 km/h.

The C1 bicycle route through Lyneham, ACT.

Where will you secure your bike once you reach the destination? If you don’t have a cage or store room, try to lock it as close to the entrance of your destination as possible. Take two locks. Lock both to your frame and wheels, and something fixed, like this

Bike repair station at Kambri, Australian National University, Canberra.

If you’re riding to work, can you shower there, or nearby? How will you get your clothes to work? If you drive on a Monday, for example, take Tuesday’s clothes along so they aren’t creased in your bag. Take a towel, toiletries, and a pair of old rubber thongs if you have them – some showers may not have been used or cleaned in a while. You may need to clean it yourself. It will be worth it, because you’ll feel refreshed before you start work.

Carrying stuff

If your bicycle has a rear rack for panniers, or a basket, use it. It’s far more pleasant to have wind circulating freely around your back than if you’re wearing a backpack. Of course, if you’re shopping and have neither panniers nor basket, you’ll need your backpack. (Maybe you’ll like riding so much that you’ll get a cargo bike if you can afford it).

My Christiania Model 2 cargo bike, a long john type, after shopping at the Belconnen Fresh Markets.

My Rover cape by Cleverhood, and unisex over pants from Decathlon. The overpants also cover my shoes.

Wear comfortable clothes and shoes. Wear gloves in the colder months.

But what if rain is forecast? Prepare for it, and embrace it. I ride in the rain with this Cleverhood rover cape, introduced to it thanks to the excellent War on Cars podcast, and these unisex overpants from Decathlon. In warmer months, I’ll use the Cleverhood and wear polyester boardshorts and sandals.
If you don’t want a cape, try a rain jacket that has plenty of side openings or vents under the arms. Like this

I’ve also learned the hard way that you should take a spare change of underwear and socks, and leave them at work.

Take a drink bottle, sunglasses, and sunscreen. If it’s the northern hemisphere as you read this in January, you’ll need lights, too. A small pump and patch repair kit is a bonus, especially if your route lacks a bicycle repair station or bike shop.

Bicycle repair sign in Lyneham, ACT, Jan 2022.

To recap: Take small steps. This is not a race. This is a chance to better understand your neighbourhood, to use all your senses during a trip, and to get exercise without noticing you’re getting exercise.

I am keen to know how you feel at the end of a trip. Let me know in the comments, or tweet me @parislord

Canberra By Bike

I’ve started Canberra By Bike on MeetUp, but the pandemic has delayed our first event.

The purpose of this group is to try recreating in Canberra some of the bicycle culture I see that people in parts of the European Union get to enjoy each day.

Here’s what Canberra By Bike is about: We’re a group for people who use bikes to get from A to B. People of all ages, abilities, & identities who use all types of cycles. We are not lycra-clad cyclists who want to ride beside traffic doing 80km/h. Think of us as trying to recreate the experiences of riding in Copenhagen or Amsterdam (as on YouTube channels Bicycle Dutch and Not Just Bikes), but with cockatoos and kangaroos. Leisurely weekend rides on quiet streets or bike paths, at a pace you can talk normally. Wear whatever is comfortable.

Our first ride should be on Saturday 18 September, 16 October, if the lockdown ends by then. I’ll lead a tour of the embassies and high commissions in Yarralumla, a suburb in southern Canberra that is home to the oldest diplomatic missions in Australia’s national capital, and share some stories about their architecture and histories.

The images below show, from left, the High Commission of Samoa, the High Commission of Papua New Guinea, and the High Commission of India, all in Canberra, Australia. What are High Commissions? They are the name for diplomatic missions of countries that are part of the British Commonwealth/formerly invaded by the British. They have the same rank as embassies.

The second ride, on Saturday 30 October, will circumnavigate all 42km of Lake Burley Griffin.

I want to organise future rides that show filming locations around Canberra, and also an architectural tour, but these are still in the planning stages.

Two weeks with an electric cargo bike

A Babboe cargo bike  parked in front of a Belconnen sign.
A Babboe box bike in Belconnen

Oh, what fun it is to ride on a big wooden electric boat!

Sitting in the wooden box as we did laps of our block’s car park, my neighbour’s eldest daughter remarked that it was like a big boat. Six weeks after I returned the Babboe City cargo bike to the Canberra Electric Bike Library, her younger sister was still asking when she could go for another ride.

I loaned the Babboe for two weeks in December 2020. The Library is a pilot project of the ACT Government, and is managed by SEE-Change and Switched on Cycles. (Disclaimer, I am the convenor of SEE-Change’s Belconnen group.) It’s free, aside from the $30 insurance fee for individuals ($45 for households), which is waived if you’re a member of Pedal Power ACT (I am).

The point of the library is that because electric bikes are more expensive than non-powered ones, most people can’t afford the initial outlay. But they want to know if an e-bike suits their needs, and that’s not always possible if they borrow a bike from a store for a few hours or a day. The library solves that problem by letting individuals or households use the bike for two weeks.

The library was launched in July 2020 and comprises seven bikes, ranging from commuter bikes to cargo bikes and tricycles. I waited six months before it was my turn. I think a waiting list is a good problem to have, as it demonstrates there’s strong demand.

I borrowed the bike firstly to see if our greyhound would fit in it, as I wanted Dot to experience the fun of riding around Lake Burley Griffin. She’d jumped out of a Christiania cargo bike a few months earlier at the start of a test ride. (Didn’t get the bike; too wide for my laundry door). She didn’t jump out of the Babboe, but didn’t settle down either. Maybe if we’d used the Babboe Dog cargo bike, with its larger box?

Secondly, I wanted to see if I could replace short car trips – 30 minutes or less from my house – with the bike, for example, to the supermarket or hardware store. Turns out, it was easy.

Collecting the bike.
Borrowing the bike was a bit like using a rental car. I got a lift to the SEE-Change office at Downer, where Zuleka Chan, library project officer, marked off a checklist while we inspected the bike. Zuleka gave me the keys, and cautioned: Don’t look at the front wheel.

Because a cargo bike is longer than an ordinary bike, your eye is drawn to the front wheel, waaaay in the distance, and it fools you into forgetting your balance. “Just ignore the front wheel and ride,” Zuleka counselled. It worked.

I rode a few laps of the Downer community centre carpark, then headed back home via O’Connor ridge. This gave me time to get a feel for the bike, and how it performed uphill. Lower motor speeds weren’t noticeably responsive, so I increased them and found it made the climbs easier.

You can park your cargo bike at the front door of Bunnings. A staff member saw the bike and said “that’s a good idea.”

Carrying loads
At Bunnings Belconnen, I parked literally at the front door, locked the bike to a wobbly railing, and shopped. Bought a small work platform for my parents’ adjustable ladder. Outside, while munching on a democracy sausage, a Bunnings staff member saw my bike and exclaimed it was a good idea. I wished I’d bought heavier things, like paint or pot plants, so I could show others what it could carry. Or something magical at Christmas, like a #TreeByBike.

Riding the Babboe City electric cargo bike home from the Jamison Centre shops, with five bags of groceries, and a small ladder from a hardware giant.

Danger: Heavier load
After Bunnings, I rode to the supermarkets at the Jamison Centre in Macquarie, and pushed a trolley out with five bags of groceries – roughly a week’s worth for our two-person household. Moved the bags around the box to distribute the weight, and added the ladder on top. Pushed the bike off its stand, tried to pedal quickly, and starting toppling over. I caught the bike just in time, but it was close. Remember to slow down next take off.

Five bags of groceries and a work platform

Headed home, up long, gradual hills, on unsafe painted bicycle lanes, then separate bike paths, and narrow, broken footpaths on Belconnen Way. Rang the bike’s bell proudly when I reached our block of flats, to show anyone who cared that it was possible to buy a household’s supplies for a week and deliver it without needing to start a car’s engine.

As you can see from the pictures, over two weeks I rode the Babboe cargo bike everywhere. Several times to Downer and Dickson, to Lake Burley Griffin, and past several schools in Belconnen to get photos for Twitter. If I had kids, I’d definitely ferry them around in the Babboe, which was enough room for two small kids – say both under 10 – and heaps of their stuff.

Returning the bike
I rode the bike back to Downer on a Friday morning, handed the keys and lock to Zuleka, who gave it an inspection and asked me to complete a survey on my experiences. A quick and easy process.

There were a few downsides to the bike, but these were minor and didn’t spoil my enjoyment. The kickstand was noisy and bounced constantly. It needs tightening. The lower power settings weren’t effective on hills, so higher speeds are better. I needn’t have worried about chewing up the battery, as it was a workhorse and higher speeds uphill didn’t trim battery life. I charged the bike every second or third day, and never once ran out of battery life, or worried about range.

I can’t stress enough how much fun it was. Numerous kids of our neighbours in our block loved being passengers. I’m sure they’d love the experience of being taken to school on it. If you want to experience it for yourself, you’re invited to the ‘come and try’ session at the Downer shops on Friday 12 February from 10am-11:30am, or join the wait list on the Canberra Electric Bike Library.

Here’s another article I wrote for SEE-Change about replacing my daily car commute with an e-bike. I didn’t like being traffic. Who does?