Bike commuting is quite a different experience in an urban area when compared to journeys on cycleways and more rural rides.
The added traffic obviously requires a little more focus on safety and preparation, so I have prepared a detailed list of gear for all of you urban bike commuters out there, including as many possible items to give you maximum safety and enjoyment. However, before looking at the list in brief, please note the following two points:
- These items will help you to stay safe through all four seasons, but you don’t need all of them right away to get started, just buy some as needed or as you ride more often.
- Detailed points about each item on the list below will follow in the main body of this article, so keep scrolling to get the skinny on the items you most need!
So, here is a recommended list of urban bike commuting gear for the best possible experience:
- Reflective Jacket
- USB front and rear lights
- High-quality U Lock with cable
- Pannier rack
- Pannier Bags
- Waterproof Seat Cover
- Bike with Discreet or Covered Branding
- Folding Bike Helmet
- Tires with Reflective Trims
- Spoke Reflectors
- Spare Lights for Your Helmet
- Waterproof Shoe Covers (Gaiters)
- Waterproof Cycling (Over) Pants
- Waterproof Cycling Gloves
- Rearview Bike Mirrors
- Pollution Mask
- Cycling Glasses
- Loud Electric Bike Bell
- Disc Brakes
- Tire Sealant for Punctures
- Portable Bike Pump with Pressure Gauge
- Waterproof Bike Phone Holder
Now that you have seen the list in brief, let’s look in a little bit more detail at this bike commuting gear to make sure you get it right for you and your journey to and from work by bicycle.
As you will see, some items are super cheap and give a huge boost to your safety, while others might need a little more time to get the right thing for you, but don’t worry – everything is taken care of in the points below, meaning that all the heavy lifting has been done for you.
With that said, let’s roll on through our detailed list of bike commuting gear!
1. Reflective Jacket
This is an essential for urban bike commuting because the reflective element makes you the most visible when riding through traffic.
Although you might think hi-viz is the best option, it does nothing at night, while a reflective jacket is even more visible. This kind of jacket uses the power of the lights shining on it so it actually bounces back the light of cars and other vehicles.
Being extremely visible is key to staying safe in urban areas so a reflective jacket really is obligatory if you plan to ride to work just a few times a week by bicycle.
You can get a fully reflective cycling jacket that is also waterproof from Proviz, or you can go for one of the many jackets that have both reflective and hi-viz elements.
If you’re concerned about style, I’d recommend the fully reflective ProViz jacket as it has both fashion and function covered with its design. That said, I actually use a jacket that has both elements (hi viz and reflective), simply because I like the combination of the hi-viz during the day and the reflectivity at night. I’ve even manged to get over feeling extremely conscious about wearing the jacket when walking around my work site, so you might too if you get one and wear it often!
2. USB front and rear lights
Having front and rear lights should be a given for cyclists and bike commuters everywhere, but having the addition of USB charging is a must for urban riders.
If you haven’t already guessed, the practicality of USB-chargeable bike lights for your commute means that you can charge your bike lights on your work computer or laptop while doing your everyday tasks. This means that you can ride to and from work safe in the knowledge that you have fully charged lights each and every day.
A few additional points here are to think about your route and the power of the lights you will need, as well as checking that the lights can be attached to/detached from your bike easily.
In terms of the power, think about any dark patches on your route. It’s one thing to have bike lights that mean others can see you but it is an altogether different thing to have lights that will light up the road/path ahead of you in areas without street lighting. I found this out the hard way when I actually moved house a few years ago and part of the route (along a cycle-specific path) was in total darkness for several months a year. The $20 simple front lights that I’d bought previuosly just did not have enough power to light up the way ahead, meaning I could only see a few feet in front of me, which simply wasn’t enough. I then purchased a 600-lumen USB front light which provided more than enough visibility and all was solved, although it was 4 x the price of my initial lights at around $80, yet it was money well spent (and I’m still using that same lights 5 years later!).
Quick and Easy to Attach/Detach
You should also make sure that you have lights that detach easily from your bike. If your lights are fiddly and hard to put on/take off, chances are you will be more likely to leave them on when you should be charging them.
The point above leads me to one other tip – don’t be tempted to leave your lights on your bike! It seems silly but people do steal bike lights, especially if left on a commuter bike all day outside an office building. To be good enough to use for riding safely, your lights will need to cost a certain amount, and thieves will also know this – so think carefully before leaving them. Leaving them outside also means you won’t have the chance to charge them during your workday, so it kind of defeats of the object of having them, too!
My current lights have attachments that involve a simple click mechanism and also strap akin to a wristwatch – I like the wristwatch-type strap the best since it means no fuss and the rubber is durable to last a long time.
I’ve focused on front lights above but that’s because they are the main light to get right. In terms of rear lights, you really want something that has all of the qualities mentioned above but you don’t need to spend as much since the rear light is simply about being seen, rather than providing visibility.
As such, you can get away with a light that costs about a quarter of the front light, saving you a bit of money without compromising on safety. A rear light in the 20-80 lumen range should be fine here, provided that it has multiple modes, usually including various timed flashes.
3. High-quality U Lock with cable
The fact that you will need a lock for urban bike commuting will come as no surprisebut the type of lock you get is crucial to being able to bike commute regularly for many years. Let me explain why.
When people get started on their bike commuting journey, most will max out on getting a bike that is near the top end of what they can afford, and then buy a few other accessories to go with it, often leaving the bike lock as a last thought with minimal funds. And such is the start of the end for their regular bike commuting aspirations!
By using an inferior (i.e. cheaper) bike lock and cable, your pristine bike left outside the office all day will likely not last more than a few days or weeks. This is because the cheaper locks are the weak link in the chain (pardon the pun!). Thieves can recognise these immediately and will hone in on them as an easy target. I should add that no bike lock is absolutely guaranteed, but a high-quality lock plus cable should provide the maximum deterrent for thieves to even considering stealing your bike.
By getting a cable with your lock, you can then also prevent the theft of your wheels as well since people will actually steal these, too. Putting a cable through your wheel can also make up for bike stands that don’t allow you to secure your bike properly, securing your bike in multiple ways that might not be possible without it.
If you’re concerned about the weight of these high quality locks and cables, since they do weigh more than cheaper alternatives, you could consider buying one to leave attached to the bike stand at your work so that you don’t have to carry the weight every day. Depending on your accommodation circumstances, you might need to buy another for home, or not as the case may be.
Just remember that it is false economics to have a nice bike and a cheap lock as your bike won’t last very long! A recommended rule is to get a lock that is worth about 10-20% of what you paid for your bike. In practical terms, if you follow my advice on how much to spend for bike commuting, you will likely have a bike worth $500, with a lock and cable in the $50-100 range, which should be plenty for you. I have spent these exact amounts without any thefts over the last 6 years of regular bike commuting. I can’t guarantee your bike won’t get stolen, but it’s certainly the best deterrent for bike theft that there is!
4. Pannier Rack
The pannier rack, or rear rack as you might know it as, is a versatile addition to all bike commuting setups and is certainly needed for urban riding, too.
If you plan to use a backpack, you might get away with this for a while, but the constant sweaty back and strain on your spine mean that it is not something that will be good for your body in the long term. This is where the pannier rack comes into its own.
A pannier rack takes the weight off your back and places it onto your bike frame, which adds weight to your ride but means carrying the same weight in a more manageable way.
Again, this involves a spend for both the rack and pannier bags to clip on, but pannier racks and bags don’t need to be much more than $80 for a rack and two bags to get you started. The rack also allows for doing things like grocery shopping on your way home from work, which means a great practical addition to your day.
If you use a road bike that does not have the ‘eyelets’ for attaching a rear rack, fear not – you can buy a seat post rack that is easily attachable and means not changing your bike (phew!). You can see how this looks in the photo below (something I snapped while working around my work site a few weeks back – I’ve not used one but have friends who do and reckon that they are equally great as standard racks!)
5. Pannier Bags
Continuing on from the points about the pannier rack, you can get bags that attach to this for a good price online.
These often come in pairs and buying them this way can save a lot. You could also then have one as a spare for gym days or other days when you need to carry an extra load.
I find that 2 x 20-liter pannier bags work for me, but you could add a very light backpack on top if still needed on exceptional days.
Before buying a pannier bag, check your current work bag capacity either by googling it or by looking at the bag or any cards or details you received with the bag. Look for the liters (sometimes just the letter ‘L’ after a number, e.g. ‘35L’) and estimate how much you will need from there.
Remember that a backpack might be a cheaper and more appealing option, but as mentioned in the section previous, a pannier bag on a rear rack will pay for itself over time in your enjoyment of your ride and comfort.
6. Waterproof Seat Cover
This is one of the most subtle additions to the list but I have included it here because it is something I had to learn the hard way!
After a couple of years of bike commuting and leaving my bike locked up outside the office (i.e. often in the rain), I started to notice an issue with my bike seat. It first became extremely waterlogged (understandably) but this would then squirt water out when I was riding, even after the rain had stopped on a dry ride home, for example. Added to this was the swelling of the foam/padding that the excess water caused, which eventually caused the seams on my saddle to burst because the foam had expanded so much and been squashed (from me sitting on it). This meant that I had to spend another $20 on a bike seat when I could have just bought a waterproof seat cover for $2-4 and kept my seat for many more years!
When buying one of these waterproof bike seat covers, you could also opt for one with reflective detail so that you can ride with it on and add to your visibility.
7. Bike with Discreet or Covered Branding
We’ve already talked about deterring thieves but equally, you don’t want to attract thieves unnecessarily when bike commuting.
This is pretty straightforward and simply comes down to your choice of bike, its colors and branding marks on the frame. I would recommend going for a bike that is darker in color (blacks, grays, navies, etc.) and that has discreet logos/branding. I actually have this on my current bike, as displayed in the image used for the section on pannier racks above. Althought it is Specialized (a well-known bike brand), the branding on the frame is discreet and makes it far less eye-catching than those bike frames with hi-viz yellow frames and black lettering, for example. Choosing a more discreet bike can therefore be a good option if you need a commuter bike.
But what if you already have a bright, expensive bike with extremely visible branding? Don’t worry, there’s something you can easily do without buying a new bike. This involves just getting yourself some humble duct tape in a similar color to your bike frame (e.g. yellow) and cover the branding with it. Just cover all standout parts of the branding with tape of a matching color, meaning you still have a good bike but it’s instantly less noticeable – win-win!
However, if you are looking to ride a bike as a status symbol, then bike commuting probably isn’t for you unless you have somewhere secure and indoors to lock up your bike. On the flip side, if like most of us you just want to ride to work for fun, fitness or any other practical reason, then you’ll see the benefit in preventing your treasured commuter bike from drawing the eyes of thieves unnecessarily.
8. Folding Bike Helmet
This option means you can carry your helmet with you in any bag without feeling burdened by it and also be discreet about using a helmet as you might not want to draw attention to your bike commuting from others at work.
These collapsible of foldable helmets offer commuters the same safety protection as normal ones but the added portability makes them appealing for urban riders looking for a more minimalist approach.
The main collapsible helmet on the market today is the Morpher, which offers a functional yet reliable design. This helmet is in the middle to top-end of the usual helmet price range but it makes a great addition for those with minimalism at the forefront of their everyday riding thoughts.
Another helmet you can expect to hear quite a lot about in coming years is from Park and Diamond. Their folding baseball-cap-style helmet packs away quickly and easily yet it looks like just like a cap, a great value add if you are a style-conscious urban bike commuter. The designers come from an engineering background and their website states that their helmet is “significantly more efficient at absorbing and dissipating energy than traditional bike helmets”.
I should add that I have not tried either of the helmets mentioned above but reading up on them they certainly look well-designed and have all the key safety credentials that you would expect, so I can recommend them on those grounds.
9. Tires with Reflective Trims
As you already know that I’m a big fan of reflective elements on commuter bike setups, adding tires that have reflective trims to your ride should need little explanation (see the section on reflective jackets above if you skipped this!)
As you can see from the photo of my previous commuter bike, the reflective trims on the tires, combined with spoke reflectors (see next section for detail), gives a huge amount of added glow/light to you when riding.
This adds a lot more from the side, making you less vulnerable when making turns on the road in high traffic areas.
You might actually find that your bike comes with these kinds of trims (a huge bonus), but if not they are once again inexpensive and can be easily fitted at home with a few tire levers or just pay for fitting in a bike store where they should be able to do it all within an hour (at the most).
Just make sure to keep your tire walls clean and free of dust, dirt and grime to give them the best visibility possible – a quick wipe every couple of weeks should do just fine here.
10. Spoke Reflectors
To complement reflective trims on your tires, spoke reflectors add a massive amount of visibility for a tiny cost. They fit on all bicycle spokes and come in large amounts, so there’s no need to skimp on them.
You can fit these by simply clicking them on, but be careful not to pinch your skin while doing so!
I’d recommend putting on every other spoke. Once you start riding, they will then give off a constant circle of reflective light, making for an impressive and eye-catching signal to other road users that you are in front of them.
11. Spare Lights for Your Helmet
Helmets with lights are increasingly common but not standard, as I hope they will be in future. The reason for this recommendation is because your standard bike lights might somehow fail in the middle of rush hour, perhaps because you weren’t able to charge your lights for some reason. When this happens, having a spare front and rear light that can be easily attached to your helmet means that you can clip them on and ride away, without fretting over riding through the busy traffic practically invisible.
Attaching these to your helmet then also gives you the added flexibility of having lights that change direction in line with your every move.
Keeping in mind that these will be spare lights, you can easily go with the lower end of the range, with $15-20 for each being enough for most back-up lights.
12. Waterproof Shoe Covers (Gaiters)
Waterproof shoe covers mean that you will never need to change your shoes or socks after riding to work through heavy rain.
They are easy to put on and are essential in wet weather, especially if you are already wearing waterproof pants since the rain drops will run down your waterproof pants straight onto the tops of your shoes/feet – making for even more water than if you were just walking in the rain.
Make sure you don’t get shoe covers for cycling shoes as these will be designed for the skinny shoes that riders clip on with (unless of course you already have these for commuting!). I used to use the cycling over shoes like this but they would get shredded pretty quickly as I wore them with normal work shoes which meant that a) they got stretched by my far wider and bigger work shoes and b) they are harder to get on/off, meaning that I would walk to/from my office in them, with a lot of the fabric rubbing and wearing underfoot as I did so.
However, since I moved over to a pair of Vaude waterproof bike gaiter shoe covers, these not only fit much better, they don’t drag and wear on the floor when walking in them and they also go on and off much faster, making them better all-round.
Covering your shoes and socks fully also means saving time at the end of your journey, as well as making your ride a lot more pleasant without having soggy socks and shoes to contend with!
13. Waterproof Cycling (Over) Pants
No doubt you can see the trend here from the point above, but one key word in the heading here is ‘cycling’. Why do I say this? Because many people actually try to save a few bucks here and opt for standard waterproof pants but these are just not cut in the right way to make them comfortable for riding your bike. The other reason is because waterproof bike pants that go over your work pants or skirts can be a lot more expensive, adding to the appeal of saving a few more dollars, but this would again make for a less pleasant ride, with the pants riding up your legs and/or feeling tight when you put yourself in a riding position.
These hi-viz waterproof cycling pants are a good option given that they are bright and have reflective detail, as well as offering all the other key features discussed above.
14. Waterproof Cycling Gloves
The trend for waterproof items continues, this time with gloves. Again, some of you will be inclined to skip this one for wanting to save a few bucks but the problem there is that wet gloves on a bike can make your hands freeze up, lose dexterity and even become painful. Clearly, not an ideal situation for handling a bike on busy streets!
Having waterproof cycling gloves in your kit collection will mean that you will be able to power on through the heaviest of downpours without any fear of your hands turning to ice blocks.
Getting gloves that are designed for cycling, just as with the pants above, means that they will allow for movements that you will need to make when riding and will be designed for this, unlike generic gloves which might feel restricted when changing gear and pressing the brakes.
15. Rearview Bike Mirrors
Just as cars and automobiles have rear-view mirrors by law, you can also add these to your bike for added visibility and safety.
They are again cheap and easy to install with the two main placement options being either on your handlebars or on your helmet.
This is something that I still have added to my bike (mainly because I ride along cycleways to work) but I see several people with them and keep thinking that they are a great addition. These mirrors for your bike come into their own when you are making regular lane changes on busy urban roads, giving you the 180-degree view of the road behind you as well as in front. You can also get the handlebar bike mirrors that fit onto the bar ends of road bike handlebars if you have this kind of bike.
Personally, I’d go for the handlebar option in the first instance as I think this would be less distracting, but you may find that the mirrors that glue onto your helmet are better. Either way, having these makes your visibility much great and therefore a safer ride.
16. Pollution Mask
Given the alarming levels of air pollution in many major cities around the world, combined with the exposure you’ll face when riding through traffic, taking precautions to protect yourself from these environmental issues is a wise move.
Although most anti-pollution masks are not labeled as being for cycling, I’ve been using one recently and found it works fine. One thing I would add is that they do get hot and might be a problem on a hilly route, for which you could look to an alternative mask with a slightly more subtle design.
It’s also worth paying for a higher quality mask as they then come with either N95 or N99 filters. These numbers mean that they filter out 95% and 99% of particulate matter and pollutants in the air, respectively. If they do not have this kind of filter in their description, they might not do anything else other than physically cover your mouth!
I’ve chosen the Airinum 2.0 mask, but you could equally go for a mask that is slightly more affordable, like the Cambridge masks or perhaps those listed as Amazon’s choice (although this will vary day-to-day depending on reviews).
17. Cycling Glasses
These glasses will protect your eyes from small things flying up from cars in front of you and wind. Think gravel, stones, dust and even rain drops on particularly wet days.
I’ve ridden with both cheap hardware glasses (for home maintenance) and also some specifically for cycling. I’d have to say that the glasses meant for cycling were better as they were more of a snug fit and handled bumps and other parts of the ride best. The home maintenance glasses were cheaper but not as well suited.
For gravel/stones/dust in the wind, these glasses are a must-have and therefore come under the ‘essential’ aspects of this list. An eye injury is always serious, and even more so when riding a bike – remember that prevention is better than cure and keep your eyes protected.
18. Loud Electric Bike Bell
The reason why I have specified getting a bell that is both loud and electric for urban bike commuters is simply because this is the only kind of bell that will stand out above the background noise of rush streets.
This electric bike bell/horn promises 110-120 decibels of output, which is similar to that of a car horn – not bad for a cyclist fighting their way through the rush hour traffic! This is also a waterproof device so no need to worry about taking it out in the rain, although have a standard back-up bell might be a good idea just in case.
Spending a little more here will once again make you much safer and add to your feeling of confidence while out on the roads.
19. Disc Brakes
Commuters with disc brakes have the added advantage of stopping that bit quicker than most other riders in all weathers.
Stopping distance again adds to you feeling safer and more prepared while riding on roads, so this kind of addition to your riding set up is a big positive both for its actual help and for peace of mind.
This type of braking system have components that usually last several thousands miles, with brake pads for disc brakes being a cheap replacement option at your local bike store, but they are also something that you can do yourself if you have a bit of bike knowhow.
If you don’t have disc brakes on your current bike then you can look into getting your exising bike brakes converted if you don’t currently have disc brakes, but it is not all possible for all bikes so best to ask at your local bike store if this is an option that you are considering.
20. Tire Sealant for Punctures
This should be on your ‘carry-at-all-times list’ because of the hassle and time it can save. A thing of scientific beauty, this sealant means that you can salvage just about any tire puncture from ruining your ride by attaching this to your bike tire valve and letting the product do its magic.
It creates a a barrier to prevent further air escaping due to a chemical reaction with oxygen in the tire tube, meaning a sealed tire for you to continue on your ride.
To take this one step further, you can add it in even when you do not have a flat tire as it can also prevent flat tires.
You can see more on how to use this in eBikeaholic’s video on using the Slime Sealant below:
21. Portable Bike Pump with Pressure Gauge
Keeping the thread going for punctures and wheel care, a portable bike pump with a pressure gauge is a huge help for commuting.
Having tires at the correct pressure means that you are less likely to get a flat in the first place as under-inflated tires are more susceptible to getting pierced by objects on the road surface. You also have the added bonus of going noticeably faster (seriously) if you pump your tires to the correct PSI as listed on the tire walls/sides (as a tip, I like to go to the top end of the max PSI range for minimal hassle).
You can get a pump like this Vibrelli one which handles both Schrader and Presta tire valves without the need for changing anything.
The portable size means that you can take it with you on all your commutes, or just keep it at home or the office as needed without it taking too much space.
22. Waterproof Bike Phone Holder
To be clear, I don’t recommend or advocate the use phones while riding, especially while cycling through traffic on a commute.
However, if you need to have your phone visible for using it as a map or GPS tool, then a waterproof bike phone holder will help you to stay safe without causing you to reach for your phone in a pocket or elsewhere when it rings.
The downside to one of these holders is that you cannot really use the phone with your cycling gloves on, so think about this when you set off on your journeys. You could set up a connection with Bluetooth hands-free kit, but make sure that you use this safely and wisely while riding, and that any kind of earpiece does not interfere with your road awareness. As such, I would only recommend the Bluetooth earpiece addition for those who absolutely need it, with all other riders being advised to simply set up the phone before starting out on a commuter journey.
*BONUS TIP*: Bike Lock-up Space in a Busy Area
OK, so this technically doesn’t come under the ‘items’ that you can buy, but you should be able to find a space to lock up your bike with a good amount of foot traffic, or at least visibility.
Although the foot traffic might sound like more people will see it, this is a good thing since it will also deter thieves from trying their luck in trying to steal your bike.
If you can’t lock your bike up somewhere that has this kind of foot traffic, then at least try to place your bike in an area which is overlooked by offices or windows, with the closer you lock your bike to the window the better. This means that any suspicious behaviour will attract the attention of workers or residents in those buildings, making for another thief deterrent.
If this is simply not possible for you, then look into getting a high quality folding bike like a Brompton as these can simply fit under your desk at work, although they don’t come cheap.
What type of bike is best for commuting? Above all, I recommend you focus on price and comfort. Meaning a bike that around $500 so that you will be happy to use it regularly and that is a comfy and pleasant ride for your regular commute.
In terms of types of bikes, a hybrid bike with 7+ gears is the best for urban commutes of anywhere from 2-8 miles each way, while a touring bike is best for commuters covering long distances of 8 miles or more per journey.
However, if you have a super hilly, longer route, consider getting yourself an electric bike as this will mean that you have the energy and added power to not feel intimidate by the journey, while also getting out and riding on your commute.
How do you bike commute in the rain? Get yourself lots of reflective gear (see earlier points in this post) so that you are visible to other road users, leave plenty of distance between yourself and anyone else on the road, use bright lights (600 lumen plus for front) and take it easy!
Doing all of the above points should mean that you are more visible and safer while cycle commuting on rainy days.