Posted by: wesleyjohnston | August 31, 2012

Confessions of a cycling motorist

Having experimented last week with car sharing, today I decided to experiment with commuting to work by bicycle. This is partly because, as someone who believes the motor car to be a generally good thing, that gets far too much of a bad press in Northern Ireland, I think it’s important to explore the alternatives at first hand. And it is partly because I was dared to do this by a one-man-cycling-crusade-machine on Twitter (you know who you are @stripymoggie). So I hope everyone appreciates the sacrifice I have made in the name of transport research!

Anyway, my daily commute is from east Belfast to Newtownards. At the outset, we need to establish that this is a journey OUT of the city, where cars can get up a decent speed, so it’s not really an ideal way to test a cycling commute. A commute into the city centre would provide a better test, and with Belfast’s traffic would be more likely to give my car a run for its money. Nevertheless, my commute is my commute and Newtownards is the run I have to make.

I have to admit to being somewhat daunted by the prospect of cycling all the way to Newtownards. I am used to going out the front door, walking three metres, and getting into the car. Then driving for 30 minutes and stepping out at the door of my work.

For me, the things that put me off cycling to work are:

  1. Terrain. It’s 10 miles to Newtownards by car (not 7 as I had previously estimated), but this involves going right over the hill between Newtownards and Dundonald. Now, I quite often see cyclists going across here, but I am not quite at that level of physical fitness, and this would be more likely to leave my gasping for breath at the side of the road. So I opted for the longer 13 mile run down the Greenway, via Comber and then north to Newtownards. Okay, it’s 3 miles longer but it’s relatively flat, would take the same time anyway and is hence more realistic.
  2. Distance. The 13 mile distance might seem insignificant to a lycra-clad fitness guru, but it is quite far for a “normal” commuter like me who generally only cycles within east Belfast. Would I have the endurance to pedal all this way… and back again?
  3. Time. Cycling 13 miles will almost certainly take longer than the 30 minutes it takes in the car. This means getting up earlier, and spending longer on the road.
  4. Weather. I don’t know if I’m alone in this, but I really dislike being cold and wet. I find nothing appealing or meritorious about arriving at work soaked to the skin. The weather forecast for today was for a dry morning and a dry evening, but a wet afternoon. I therefore gambled on getting a dry run each way.
  5. The Roads. I don’t like cycling on busy roads with cars and lorries whizzing past a few inches from my ear. Others may feel differently, but I find this scary. I do not feel safe. So I carefully planned a route that was 75% off the main roads, but some bits are inevitably going to be on main roads.
  6. Work Bag. I need to bring my laptop to and from work each day, as I use it both at home and at work. It’s big, it’s heavy, it’s fragile and it’s intolerant of rain. Since I’m cycling, I also need to bring my work clothes with me so that I can change when I arrive. In the end I went out yesterday and invested in a pair of padded pannier bags which set me back £90. This was a lot of money, but as a one-off investment it’s no different than investing in your car to commute.

Work begins at 9.00 so this morning, based on an educated guess, I set out from home at 7.50. The roads were initially quiet, and within 15 minutes I had crossed the Outer Ring at Knock. When driving my car I sometimes feel irritated at having to stop at the Toucan crossings here and at King’s Road, but on my bike I can clearly see how vital they are for cyclists.

The plan was to cycle along the Comber Greenway all the way to Comber, which I did. The only significant obstacle was crossing the East Link Road in Dundonald which has no Toucan crossing. With a constant stream of vehicles in both directions (of which I am usually one), I had to wait for a minute or more to get across. This would seem to be a prime candidate for a Toucan crossing.

By 8.20 I had crossed the Comber Road at the far side of Dundonald, and decided to stop for a couple of minutes to catch my breath and have a drink. This part of the route appears to be an arsonists’ mecca. An attempt had clearly been made to burn down the wooden bridge carrying the Greenway over the river, as well as a large tree nearby. With those attempts apparently failing, the Greenway itself was strewn with various half-burned objects. Not the most pleasant part of the run.

Shortly afterwards, I was intrigued by Mr Van Man who had parked his van here in Millars Drive with a ladder strapped to the roof in such a way that it stuck out over the cycle path at decapitation height (for someone tall like me, anyway). I would have taken a picture, had a man not actually been standing beside it at the time.

Around this time it occurred to me that I would have just arrived at work had I been in my car. But ever onward!

The next stretch was along the Greenway parallel to the A22 Comber Road. I was extremely grateful for this wonderful segregated cycleway, as I don’t know if I would be brave enough to cycle on the main A22 with its many blind corners. I met some fellow cyclists heading citybound, and some dog walkers. Most people nod and smile – there seems to be a real fraternity amongst users, especially cyclists. People were very obliging in moving over to let cyclists pass.

At 8.35 I reached Comber. Leaving the Greenway was not helped by Mr Digger Man who had considerately parked a JCB right across the end of the Greenway, requiring me to do a rather awkward balancing act alongside it and then drop off the kerb to continue. I wasn’t looking forward to the next bit, as I had to cycle along the main roads through the middle of Comber and out the Newtownards Road. My fears were unfounded, however, as the car drivers were very considerate and did not attempt any mad overtaking manoeuvres or cut me up. As I’m usually a car driver, this secretly pleased me.

By 8.45 I was at the far side of Comber and setting off along the dual-carriageway. The hard shoulders were much appreciated, although the road surface was truly awful. I felt like I was going to be rattled to bits. It was also rather forlorn, windswept and boring. But there is a slight downhill into Newtownards which makes it physically fairly easy.

The last bit of the run was along the single-carriageway stretch of the Comber Road into Newtownards. This is very, very busy in the morning rush hour in both directions, with the result that if you cycle on the road there is an endless roar of car engines just behind you and cars constantly overtaking. So I did something that is against the Highway Code – I cycled on the pavement. I rationalised this decision by observing that it was probably significantly safer not only for me, but for the cars as well, as it entirely removed a conflict. I knew that on such a narrow footpath I would have to dismount if I met a pedestrian, and I was ready for that. In the end, however, I didn’t meet anyone. With this experience, I would suggest that if you are a pedestrian and you meet a cyclist on the footpath…. go easy on them!

I finally arrived at work at 9.00am! So my physical fitness was apparently sufficient to get me there on time, although I did then have to go to the bathroom and have a good wash before changing into my work clothes (we don’t have a shower). This added another ten minutes, so I was not at my desk until 9.10, which is a fact well worth noting.

Having achieved my goal of cycling to work, how does it compare to commuting by car?

  1. Time. Door-to-door it took 1 hour and 10 minutes by bicycle, at an average of 10mph. Add on the wash/dress time after arrival, the total time I devoted to the journey was 1 hour and 20 minutes. The same journey by car takes anywhere from 25 minutes in the quietest part of summer, to 40 minutes on a drizzly January morning. I have no doubt that if I got a bit fitter I could get the journey down below the hour, but I doubt if I could get it down to 40 minutes.
  2. Cost. Not counting the cost of owning my car, the cost of the petrol is about 12p per mile. So for a run to Newtownards and back I am paying about £2.40. I saved this money by cycling, although I immediately blew 65p of that on a Toffee Crisp as I was famished when I arrived at work, presumably because my commute was powered by food rather than petrol. Note: bicycles do not provide free energy!
  3. Health. There is no doubt the cycle did me the world of good. Combining the run to work and the run home, I got almost two and a half hours of good cardio exercise that I do not get driving a car. Then again, most people know that that is the case and still choose the “unhealthy” option. It’s a free country, and people should be free to make personal health choices without interference from the government.
  4. Pleasantness. Feeling my heart pumping, wind on my cheeks, views of the countryside, birds singing = pleasant. Getting soaked/frozen in bad weather, being all sweaty = not pleasant. Cycling is definitely more pleasant in good weather. But I really could not see myself doing this run in the dark on a January morning in driving rain.
  5. Brain Activity. In all seriousness. A journey in a car is a constant stream of stimulation. What are other drivers doing? What colour are the lights? Should I change lane? What is that eejit doing? But on the bike it’s more a matter of pointing the bike, zoning out and just pedalling. You can spend a lot more time just thinking. I arrived having sorted out a lot of thoughts.


On purely practical grounds, for this journey, cycling is not a realistic alternative to the car. My travel time both ways by car is between 50 and 80 minutes, but by bike it is 150 minutes. In other words, it would require me to spend at least an hour more travelling, which means less time at home/in bed/in work/with my family. The cost saving per day is £2.50, which would be £15 for a week. That is not a significant amount of money as far as a week’s travel goes, and so the cost saving is essentially irrelevant to me in making this journey choice. If the money saving was £100 or more, then I think I would give more weight to the economics.

For these reasons, I could not see myself doing this every day. Perhaps if the journey was shorter, cycling would become more viable.

On health grounds, cycling is a good way to build physical fitness, endurance and get good cardio exercise. Commuting to work by bike has significant health benefits. I could see myself doing the run by bike, say, once a week purely for this reason. But I also think that cold weather / rain / darkness would probably put me off. So it could end up being a summer thing.

Interestingly, my (car commuting) work colleagues all asked my about what it was like, and all of them had just one question – “How long did it take?”. None asked about the weather, the terrain or the cost. Based on this unscientific poll, journey time seems to be the most important factor.

So I will most likely continue to use my car to commute, car sharing with my wife where possible, but perhaps cycling once a week in the warmer parts of the year.


  1. Reblogged this on Cargobike Dad and commented:
    As a rule of thumb: if your journey is less than 5 miles then cycle; if it is 5 to 10 miles you’ll need change facilities at work; more than 10 miles, then, as Wesley found, it is only feasible for the fit or as an occasional treat.

  2. Well done that man! I’m now car free for the first time in God knows how many years, SWMBO has a car so I sold mine, it was bought and paid for so I’m not saving anything on finance, but I’m saving £500 a year in insurance and tax, that’s before fuel. My daily commute is from Sydenham to the City Centre, on the bike, it takes me 10-15 minutes depending on how I get the lights, in the car, it could take me anything up to 40 minutes in traffic.

    I rode the Greenway today out to Comber and back, before work, just for the fun of it, you could see where the wee spides had set a wheelie bin on fire in the middle of the path, and yes, the blue van man had the ladder at head height. The fitness will come, I can do 20 miles a day no bother now, I couldn’t have done it this time last year. But the main thing I found was making the change from cycling motorist to motoring cyclist, I find the wee burst of exercise of a morning is great for getting your head sorted for the day ahead, and I’ve found myself heading out early in good weather, just to enjoy the early morning bustle in the city centre. Obviusly it’s not for everybody, but it’s hard to make a case for driving a couple of miles to work in the morning.

  3. Did you feel you learnt anything new about how to treat cyclists on the road from this?

    • I noticed how difficult it is to look
      behind you while on a bike. Like when checking before moving to the right. I think that’s something drivers don’t appreciate.

      • That’s a good tip!

      • A bike with a more upright riding position allows the rider to look around.

  4. Congratulations are in order for even considering cycling to work, never mind giving it a go.

    I’ve tried a 13 mile commute in the past, most of which was in deep countryside between Alton and Basingstoke in Hampshire. It was rarely a pleasant experience, but with no public transport available to suit my work schedule and no car or driving licence, I had little alternative. Travelling in the morning wasn’t too bad, but returning home in the dark after 6pm was an ordeal – my bike lights weren’t strong enough to make pot holes visible (fixing a puncture is almost impossible in pitch dark), and with the headlamps of oncoming cars on full beam, I couldn’t see anything. I was usually so chilled and tired on arriving home the first thing I did was to take a hot bath.

    Later, commuting in central London, my 5-mile bike journey to work was much easier. Compared to other forms of transport it was by far the best and quickest way to travel in terms of cost, time and efficiency. I didn’t need shower facilities at the office as a quick wipe with a towel and 10 minutes to cool down sufficed, and I brought a fresh shirt and socks in my pannier. I even bought a Brompton bike when my employer moved to an office without space to park bikes securely.

    I owned and drove a car in London for about 10 years, and it had its uses – mostly at weekends for out of town trips, but after it got stolen I found I could function just as well (and much more economically) without it. I used to drive to the local supermarket, but I found I could manage just as well with the bike. Apart from commuting, the bike was also useful for other errands, going to the pool or the library, visiting friends, and exploring the city.

    Cycling also meant I could save on gym membership, though I did keep my membership for the swimming pool.

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