Travelling with your bike by train or car is a great way to get your cycling fix when your workplace is a long way away or when you want to shorten your commute because of bad weather. It should save you money too: you’ll avoid costly city centre car parking charges and will spend a little less on fuel or rail fares. And it should save you time: bikes are quicker in urban areas, whereas trains or cars are usually quicker in between them.
A mile by bike takes five minutes at a modest 12mph. On foot at 3mph, it takes 20, wasting half an hour every day compared to cycling. Bus, taxi and tube passengers, meanwhile, will still be waiting for their transport while you’re already halfway there – and they’ll probably pay more over the year than you would for a brand new Cyclescheme bike.
The key to making such short cycling journeys efficient is not to ride faster but to cut down on pre- and post-ride faff. You want to be a cyclist as soon as possible after you’ve shut the car/train/office door. This requires a seamless transition: no changing into special clothing, no hunting for lights or other paraphernalia - just get on the bike and go.
It needs mudguards, perhaps a chainguard, a saddle that doesn’t demand padded shorts, easy on/off luggage, and integral lights – either dynamo ones or bolt-on battery units. You could leave a roadster or fully-equipped hybrid locked up at the station. Better yet, take a compact folding bike with you. There’s no time lost locking or unlocking it, walking to or from its parking place, or hunting for the special bike carriage. Where you go, it goes.
As well as being practical, your last-mile bike needs to be reliable. If you have to stop to fix a puncture or fiddle with your gears, you might as well have walked. Fit puncture resistant tyres and/or tyre sealant that will instantly seal holes. Use simple, dependable gearing; a singlespeed or hub-gear is ideal.
In stop-start urban conditions your top speed is irrelevant, as you’ll see by the number of cars you pass. What’s important is a decent, predictable average speed, which you’ll achieve with a route that enables you to keep moving. Avoid busy roads with traffic lights; pick quiet backstreets or cycle paths. When you know your cycling journey time to the minute, you can catch an earlier or later train or maybe miss the rush hour by car. You’ll waste less of your life waiting. Train leaves in seven minutes? No sweat: you’ll be there in five.
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Splitting your commute by train
Most trains in the UK will carry bikes for free at most times of day. They're banned on some peak-time commuter trains, principally those going into or out of London. Those trains that do carry bikes will take only a small number, often two, sometimes a handful, and occasionally as many as 12. On some services you have to book your bike, on others you just turn up.
The wide-ranging regulations of the different train operating companies are summarised in National Rail's Cycling by Train leaflet. Get it here.
In practice, it can be quite stressful taking a full-size bike by train. The bike space may be rammed with other people’s luggage. If you need a reservation, it’s only valid for that train, which is no use if you get stuck at work. If you don’t need a reservation, it’s first come, first served for bike spaces.
The Cycling by Train leaflet notes: ‘On such trains a common-sense approach may apply where passengers with full-size bikes may be asked by station staff not to board busy trains and wait for a later service.’ And if the train is replaced by a bus service due to engineering works, your bike won’t be carried on this.
When boarding a train with a full-size bike, look for the bicycle symbol on the side of the train or ask station staff where you should stand. If you regularly take your full-size bike on the same train, you’ll soon learn where to wait on the platform, and will get a sense of how much demand there is for spaces.
If you’re a regular bike-and-train commuter then you should seriously consider investing in a folding bike. Folding bikes with wheels 20 inches or smaller are carried without restriction on all trains. No need for a reservation, and no need to cross your fingers for a bike space (although you might be required to put the folder in one of the train’s luggage spaces, and a few services require you to bag the bike).
Splitting your commute by car
You can take any bike if you’re driving your own car part way to work. It’s easiest if you don't have to remove one or both of the wheels to fit it in the car or on the car rack. That saves time and means you shouldn’t get dirty or oily hands. If the bike’s going inside the car – the best option for security and fuel economy – a roomy estate or MPV is handy for a full-size bike. But you can fit a folding bike like a Brompton in any car, even something as small as a Smart fourtwo.
If you plan to use a car rack, it’s worth investing in a roof rack or tow bar rack that locks to the car. These are more secure than strap-on boot racks in any case, and you won’t have to take either type off when you park to prevent theft.
Park somewhere safe and well lit on the outskirts of town. Park-and-rides are ideal. The parking is deliberately inexpensive to encourage drivers to stay out of the centre, and the remaining distance will be well suited to cycling. Some can be a bit iffy about you parking and not taking the bus (ie, not paying for the parking) but that’ll depend on the particular park-and-ride. Suburbs are an option, but park sensitively.
Splitting your commute on the underground
You can take a full-size bike on the London Underground, but before hopping onto an escalator with a bike on your shoulder, be aware that this applies only to certain times of day and certain lines. Click on the tube map below to enlarge.
Folding bikes are carried ‘anywhere and anytime’ on the London Underground. Folders are carried with some restrictions on the Tyne and Wear Metro, but not on the Glasgow Underground.
Splitting your commute by bus or taxi
Very few buses will take a full-size bike, but buses and coaches are partial to it if the bike is partially disassembled. Folding bikes are generally accepted on buses at the driver's discretion. A compact folder in a bag shouldn’t cause a stir; a bigger-wheeled folder taking up pushchair space probably will.
If a folding bike will fit comfortably in a taxi's boot, most drivers are happy to carry them. You might even get a full-size bike into a taxi if it’s in a bike bag, but it’s very much up to the driver.
The most travel-proof type of bike are of course, folding bikes. If you cycle across multiple disciplines of public transport, then a folding bike in a bag will more or less guarantee ease of travel.
A lightweight folding bike is your best bet, as you can put these folding bikes in luggage bays across trains, buses, taxis, and so on.
Ready to improve your commute?
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