In Search of the Most Peaceful Commute

While I wait for Chicago to be covered in gloriously safe bike infrastructure, I have to work with what I’ve got. As some mentioned in the comments to yesterday’s post, small side streets can provide a calm and safe way to travel through the city – no special bike infrastructure needed. Using such routes to get from one place to another may require practice, familiarity and extra time, but it can be well worth the trouble for those who value peacefulness above efficiency.

Over the past two years, when it no longer made sense to take the car-free Lakefront Trail on a regular basis due to the location of my new office, I have been adjusting my 5-mile commute route from the efficiency side of the scale to the peacefulness side of the scale.

Happy to be cycling on Chicago's peaceful side streets this week

I started with the most obvious and direct bikeable route: a left and a right and I was there (Lincoln to Wells). Most of the ride consisted of a diagonal street with either sharrows or bike lanes the whole way, popular with both bikes and cars. Unfortunately, vehicle traffic moved quickly and there were lots of trucks, buses and giant six-way intersections.  After a while I grew tired of the traffic and aggression, such as drivers shouting at me to get out of the way or just generically being awful. The stress was really getting to me.

Looking for an alternative, it occurred to me last summer to sacrifice some efficiency and try taking slightly calmer streets. The new route amounted to a right, left, right, left and right, instead of a straight diagonal (basically, Southport to Armitage to Wells). I still had to deal with congestion, often riding down the bike lane past grid-locked vehicle traffic, but the cars moved considerably slower, the intersections were smaller, and the bike lanes more consistent.

This route served me well for a year, but lately I have been craving a more peaceful commute. Participating in the super calm Critical Lass rides helped me realize that Chicago has lots of small, tree-lined, neighborhood streets to ride, as long as one is willing to meander: these magically quiet streets have a tendency to end or become one-way suddenly. For the past few weeks, I’ve been experimenting with different side streets, backtracking and exploring a lot.

As of today, I’ve finally discovered The Calmest Route from My Neighborhood to My Office (patent pending). My route is now: right, left, right, left, right, left, right, left, right, left, right, left. That is no exaggeration: I typed while visualizing my ride with my eyes closed.

The difference in my stress level from my first commute route to my current commute route is night and day, with my current route being virtually stress-free. Of course, this comes at a cost. First, it takes about 10 minutes longer than more obvious route. Second, the potholes are especially bad on side streets. Third, this route probably won’t be an option during the winter, when side streets are neglected by snow plows. Finally, I have to be extra cautious at each block’s four-way stop sign because drivers in neighborhoods love to roll through stops, unless there’s another ton vehicle staring them down. Despite these costs, the calmness of the route is worth it to me.

I wish I’d thought of adjusting my route like this a long time ago, but I guess such a paradigm shift is obvious only in hindsight.

I know this kind of meandering commuting is not for everyone, but I’m curious: does anyone else seek out the most peaceful routes possible?

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22 thoughts on “In Search of the Most Peaceful Commute

  1. chelsea says:

    such a darling photo!

  2. anni says:

    so, dottie, big news here: i finally started riding my bike to work. in the mornings (i leave really early, before rush hour’s even really started), i ride the most direct route – montrose to clark. but by the time i leave in the afternoons, those roads are much more crowded and i’m a much bigger scaredy cat. i’ve been meandering all over lakeview and north center looking for the best, most direct, but least scary route and i think i’ve found it on ravenswood + a one-way few side streets. i’ve always been impressed by your bravery in taking high-traffic, high-stress routes with ease, but i think i’m going to remain a medium sized streets with bike lanes and tiny streets with little traffic kinda girl for now.

  3. Louise says:

    Routes can be difficult things to organise, espcially trying to find a peaceful one. Luckily for me every road (apart from the highway) is pretty safe and peaceful here so riding somewhere nice and safe is easy.

  4. Enzo says:

    I think that is part of the biking commuter experience and “growth”; at least it has been for me as well. I originally started going form point A to point B in the most efficient (and more stressful) way. Now, like you, I take the longer more peaceful route to fully enjoy my bike ride even if it takes me a mile longer to get to the train or home again. I realized I wasn’t fully enjoying the ride because I was so worried about the traffic. As you mentioned the more peaceful route does have its own obstacles of non attentive drivers, but overall it is worth it.

    Great shot by the way! It has a nice retro feel to it.
    What is that on your arm – a headband?

  5. Lindsay says:

    Mine goes something like this:
    Left right left right left right left right left right left right left right left right right left left right left get off and walk over a pedestrian crossing, left right, get off and walk up a one-way street, right left left right left right right right right (I have to go around 3 sides of a square) left into the park, right, left out of the park, right, left, right.

    It’s taken me a long time to perfect it. It adds nearly ten minutes to my journey (making it 45 minutes in total), but reduces my stress levels by about 500% and takes me through some lovely bits of London that make me happy. Worth every extra minute!

  6. Deb says:

    My commute is in the ‘burbs, and the ‘burbs here (as in many if not most places) were designed specifically so that neighborhoods do not connect! So, while I have little pockets of peacefulness on my commute, for the most part I’m quite limited in my choices, and limited to major roads.

    For example, to get outside the beltway, I have exactly two choices without going 5 miles out of my way (and if I went 5 miles out of my way, that choice would be no better than my first two). One of those choices is a really peaceful ped walk-through and some quiet neighborhoods, but it adds a mile to my current commute (which is already 13.5 miles) and the portion of the commute on either side of that are not peaceful on any level. So now I go up a pretty car-centric street to get outside the beltway, but overall it’s a better option for me. Seems that drivers have gotten used to seeing me anyway, and I rarely have issues.

    The one good thing about the ‘burb riding is that most of the roads don’t have parked cars. I have bike lanes for about 1/3 of my commute, and that’s pretty peaceful because I only have to keep an eye out for intersection behavior, no dealing with parked car madness.

  7. Simply Bike says:

    I’ve been seeking out the calmest and safest routes possible since cycling while pregnant. At first I found it a bit frustrating because I was still concerned with time and distance. Once I relaxed into it though, I came to see that it was really nice to mix it up, see new routes, enjoy the calmer rides, and just accept that it may take me an extra 5-10 minutes to get to my destination. (I know that doesn’t sound like much, but I live in a small college town when it only takes me about 20 minutes max to get to most places).

    I’m sure that I’ll change things up again once I’m cycling on my own again and making faster time on my mixte, but it’s been a good reminder to not get stuck in a routine since being forced to approach my cycling route differently.

    It’s probably a good thing that you’ll have to mix it up again in the winter if those side streets aren’t plowed, that way, you’ll not get bored with this route and it will seem fun and exciting again come next Spring.

    Also, on a sidenote, you look smashing! I love everything about that outfit, and the purse is pretty awesome too. S.

  8. LC says:

    I definitely do too! It adds a good 5min extra to my commute but it’s delightful. I will blog about it soon :D xxx

  9. Jesse says:

    I definitely go out of my way to find a route on quieter streets, wherever it is that I’m going.

    My main commute leaves my city neighborhood and goes to my job in the suburbs. Luckily, it is a suburb whose streets were laid out in the 1920s even though it wasn’t really developed until the 1950s. That means that while it has absolutely atrocious arterial roads full of strip malls, it also has a traditional grid of side streets. So for the most part I get to work on those side streets, with just a little riding on major streets where I have no option because of a large mall breaking up the grid.

    Sometimes I miss seeing other bicyclists, though, and in the city I sometimes prefer to ride on main streets for that reason, and to add to the public visibility of bicycle riders. But in the suburbs I avoid the big 45 mph streets as much as humanly possible.

  10. Stephen says:

    When our office changed location (and when the only shower stall in a gender-shared bathroom in the new building was in an inconvenient location), I started exploring back streets in an effort to get off the main streets. What I also found was that minimizing stress goes a long way towards making my bicycle commute more attractive (and more likely to be done). My route isn’t really that Byzantine, but it is a bit slower–and like Slow Food, that’s not a bad thing.

    What I discovered is that there are many side (local) streets that are just fine for cycling. That led me to propose a bicycle route system for our urban area, and lo and behold, the brass bit the hook. Now, we’re moving forward on a bicycle route system, working with a local bicycling activist committee, and we hope to make these routes accessible to the public via online and paper maps. A bike route system is not a substitute for proper facilities, but it is part of the solution, and an affordable one at that.

    Good catch, Dottie!

  11. BikeBike says:

    My route from home to work is basically a stright shot downhill (downhill to work, uphill home) about 5kms on a fairly busy road – which I never take.

    Instead, I take a parallel route on much quieter roads that probably adds about 25% more time/distance and I don’t care! :) I enjoy my slower way due to less traffic.

    I also choose quieter/slower/longer ways when cycling most places in the city because it’s simply more enjoyable. I even try to explain this concept to my customers to help them get away from busy arterial roads.

  12. Lauren says:

    i love taking scenic/quiet side streets! the extra time added is absolutely worth the reduction in stress – not to mention i get to slow down & actually enjoy my ride (which, personally, i feel is the whole point of my biking anywhere!).

    i haven’t ridden in a couple weeks because of the heat wave (i felt like it was bordering on “dangerous” and i haven’t wanted to risk it) and ughhh i miss it! but my typical work route actually doesn’t have a whole bunch of turns. i’m lucky that one main road downtown is practically empty during rush hour (and on the way home – downhill! the whole day! yay!) and once i cross the river out of downtown, it is pretty much a straight shot down 2 different side streets.

    also, love the picture! so cute :)

  13. Eli says:

    I take the peaceful route on my way to work in the morning. It’s a quiet, tree-lined residential street with little traffic on or crossing it. It runs parallel to one of St. Paul’s busiest streets, two blocks away, but in demeanor it’s a *world* away–and it adds no time to my travels!

    On the return route, though, I just want to *get home* as quickly and efficiently as possible. I experiment a lot with different routes. Currently my favorite is, strangely enough, almost a mile longer than my darling, tree-lined morning route. However, because it, unlike the morning route, has traffic lights at major intersections, it shaves a good 5-10 minutes off the travel time, which may not seem like a big savings but matters immensely to me in the evenings.

  14. cycler says:

    Ahh, to live in a gridded city……

    Unfortunately the Boston part of my commute is impossible to shift to a slower street. The slower streets are all either one way the wrong way, or go over Beacon Hill, which I tried a couple of times before I decided that’s not an option I can do.

    I have shifted my homebound route significantly after one too many aggressive passes along a small arterial to a combo of a slower road with a bike lane and a small residential street. Unfortunately the lights at the transitions are really poorly timed, so I spend a lot of time waiting at lights, but I’m OK with that. The residential portion has a long run where there’s parking both sides and a narrow lane, so I have to commit to taking the lane for 4 or 5 long blocks, but I’m OK with that, and usually the cars are too.

  15. Jenn. says:

    Being pregnant when we moved to Chicago kept me off the big streets and I never really got onto them after our oldest guy arrived. I’m so glad that you wrote about enjoying quieter routes. It can be so hectic to get every where even on a bike. They can bring back the fun of riding again.

  16. Julie says:

    I seek peace and good scenery. I was using an ugly street that took me near a subway entrance which was a pedestrian war-zone. I followed a fellow (literally, a gentleman) cyclist to a street a few blocks down and it’s not only lined with fancy brownstones, but it’s very calm.

    I still don’t know if I am ready to change my route and lose time to get around Times Square.
    She’s an efficient beast.

  17. Danielle says:

    I’m so with you! Especially now that I ride mostly with kiddo(s), I am always game for taking the slow and lazy route. It is actually pretty funny when I cycle with my husband who is accustomed to cycling solo (and direct), he’ll suggest a route and I always scoff. I suggest my route and he scoffs. I guess we’re just in two different places…

  18. hello rabbit says:

    I can’t contribute much to the commute discussion because I live a very direct mile away from my job with a nice wide, safe pathway the whole way there (& I’m very grateful for it!), I just wanted to say that I love your blog, and I love those shoes! You & Trisha have the cutest clothes and bikes!

  19. Danwinnemucca says:

    I like to mix it up. Any route done every day gets boring. While the beginning of my commute is now very scenic, it’s the only route out so it’s starting to get boring. Also depends on my work, if I’m late it’s the bomber way. Variety is the spice of life :)

  20. [...] I recently read on Let’s Go Ride A Bike that Dottie was “In Search of the Most Peaceful Commute.” [...]

  21. [...] When riding your bike to work, the best route may not be the one you are used to driving or taking by transit. Look over local bike maps or ask a cycling friend for suggestions, and even then, don’t be afraid to check out other side streets. Dottie at Let’s Go Ride a Bike details the evolution of her daily ride In Search of the Most Peaceful Commute. [...]

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