10 Tips for Motorcycle Commuting Like a Pro

Motorcycle Commuting Tips
To commute by motorcycle like a pro, follow these 10 tips. (Photos by Mark Tuttle and the author)

The 26th annual Ride to Work Day has come and gone (it was on Monday, June 19). While we applaud and support the efforts of the nonprofit, all-volunteer effort to promote the virtues of using “motorcycles and scooters for transportation,” what we really need is for more motorcyclists to commute to work on a daily basis, not just once a year.

The great thing about motorcycle commuting is that you get to add at least two motorcycle rides to every work day, plus the bonus of occasional head-clearing rides during your lunch hour. But riding to and from work on two wheels is demanding. Rider staffers commute every day and we deal with rush-hour traffic, gridlocked freeways, frenetic city streets and crowded parking lots, as well as occasional close calls, bouts of bad weather, flat tires, unexpectedly empty gas tanks and—mercifully rare—accidents.

As with motorcycling in general, being prepared, thinking ahead and keeping your ego in check go a long way toward making commuting safer and more enjoyable. So, without further ado, here are our top tips for motorcycle commuting like a pro.

1) Stick Out Like a Sore Thumb

Motorcycle Commuting Tips
The gear is so bright, I had to wear shades.

Commuting is not the time to try and look cool in your black leather jacket and matte-black helmet, which makes you all but invisible to today’s distracted, smartphone-addicted drivers. The smart move is to make yourself as conspicuous as possible, and one of the best ways to do that is to wear hi-viz apparel. Fluorescent colors do not occur naturally in nature, so they’re more likely to catch someone’s eye. A few years ago, Olympia Moto Sports made a “toxic” version of its Airglide jacket that combined hi-viz yellow and orange in the same jacket. It was hideous, but it got your attention. If you don’t want to commit to the expense of a hi-viz jacket, buy one of the many brightly colored safety vests made for motorcyclists, which can be worn over your regular riding jacket or suit. I wear Fly’s hi-viz orange Fast Pass Vest every day, which is made of mesh, has reflective stripes and has pockets where I can keep my garage door remote, earplugs, tire gauge and other essentials.

2) Dress Like a Spaceman

Motorcycle Commuting Tips
The moto onesie!

Road warriors should never go into battle without their armor. Adhere to ATGATT (All The Gear, All The Time) and wear a full-face helmet, armored jacket and pants, gloves and boots. Or, instead of a jacket and pants, go with Aerostich’s Roadcrafter, which has been around for more than 30 years and is the go-to one-piece riding suit for many motorcycle commuters. You can zip in and out of a Roadcrafter in seconds, and it’s designed to be worn over regular clothes. Put on your work attire, zip into the (mostly) waterproof Roadcrafter and ride to work without worrying about getting bugs, dirt or road grime on your cotton Dockers. It has flexible, CE-approved armor covering the knees, elbows and shoulders, and optional armor can be added to protect your back, hips and chest. There are several huge pockets, under-arm and back vents, as well as convenient zippers at the hips that make it easy to access your pant pockets to dig out your wallet, phone or keys. Several versions of the Roadcrafter are available—all of which are available in hi-viz yellow—and there’s a less-expensive version called the Useful Suit.

3) Flip Your Lid

Motorcycle Commuting Tips
Take me to your leader.

Every motorcycle commuter should wear a full-coverage helmet that protects his or her entire head. For added convenience, consider a flip-up or modular helmet, such as the Shoei Neotec. A quick-release button allows you to raise the chinbar so you can talk to a gas station attendant, toll taker or friendly bystander without having to remove your helmet. But keep in mind that modular helmets are not designed for riding with the chinbar flipped up, which leaves your face exposed. The Neotec is comfortable, has decent ventilation and a convenient drop-down sunshield. Mine is Brilliant Yellow, which adds to my hi-viz look.

4) Be a Middleweight Champ

Motorcycle Commuting Tips
The Versys sure is versatile. (Photo by Kevin Wing)

The best motorcycle to commute on is one you already own. But if you can choose among several motorcycles in your garage, or if you’re considering buying a bike to commute on, we recommend a contemporary machine with modern suspension, tires and ABS-equipped brakes. Today’s motorcycles are so much more competent, capable and responsive than bikes of just a few years ago. And within the wide range of motorcycles built within the last 5-10 years, one of the best bikes for commuting is the Kawasaki Versys 650 LT (above). It has a stone-reliable 649cc parallel twin that makes good midrange power and sips regular unleaded gas from a 5.5-gallon tank, a comfortable upright seating position, decent wind protection (including an adjustable windscreen and handguards), ABS and quick-release hard saddlebags. And it retails for just $8,999.

5) Be a Hard Ass

Motorcycle Commuting Tips
Saddlebags, if they’re large enough, are great places to stash your helmet, gloves and essentials like Rok Straps and a tire-repair kit.

As a motorcycle commuter, you’ll want to be able to easily transport stuff to and from work, such as your lunch, a laptop, a pair of work shoes (since you’ll be wearing motorcycle boots on the bike) or groceries you picked up on the way home. Hard-sided, lockable luggage is the way to go. Bikes like the Kawasaki Versys 650 LT come with easy-to-use hard saddlebags, and many other bikes can be fitted with OEM or aftermarket accessory hard luggage from companies like Givi. Hard luggage will keep your stuff dry in a rainstorm and keep it safe from thieves should you need to run into a store for an errand. Top-loading saddlebags/panniers or a top trunk with a clamshell lid are the easiest to open/close and load/unload, but any lockable hard luggage is better than none. And while you’re at it, keep a set of Rok Straps handy in case you need to secure bulky cargo such a cardboard box to the passenger seat.

6) Stay in Shape

Motorcycle Commuting Tips
Check tire pressure before your ride, when the tires are cold.

Being physically in shape is never a bad thing, and it will make the challenges of motorcycle commuting easier to handle, but we’re actually referring to your bike. Keep up with regular maintenance so your motorcycle will provide safe, reliable transportation. Check your tire pressure at least once a week (also inspect the tires for excessive wear, damage or embedded objects like nails), and check your oil level every time you fill up for gas. Regularly check that your horn, headlight, taillight/brake light and turn signals are working properly. Change the oil and filter according to the recommended schedule listed in your owner’s manual. Be diligent about all normal, applicable maintenance items—chain lubrication and tension, brake pad thickness, cables and hoses, and so on. And if you have to put your motorcycle away for winter, fill the tank with gas and a fuel treatment such as Star Tron and put the battery on a maintenance charger.

7) Fer Chrissakes, Will You Cover Yourself?

Motorcycle Commuting Tips
Use your first two fingers to cover the brake lever so your thumb and two outside fingers maintain grip on the throttle.

No, we’re not talking about Chet chastising Wyatt for wearing women’s underwear (who are we to judge?). We’re talking about covering your brakes while riding in traffic. By keeping two fingers on top of the front brake lever, when you roll off the throttle your fingers automatically move into position to squeeze the brake lever. If you overreact and stab the brake lever too fast, you can apply more brake pressure than the front tire can handle and—if you don’t have ABS—cause the front wheel to lock up. As Nick Ienatsch teaches in his Yamaha Champions Riding School, you must load the tire before you can work the tire. By covering the front brake, you can react less aggressively and progressively apply stronger pressure, which compresses the front fork smoothly, weights the front tire and helps it grip. You should also cover the rear brake pedal and practice using both brakes in unison for full stopping power. Hard, controlled braking is an invaluable skill for motorcycle commuting, so if you’re not comfortable doing it, practice in an empty parking lot.

8) Play Offense

Motorcycle Commuting Tips
No, you shouldn’t ride like this during your commute. But looking where you want to go, like Officer Quinn Redeker demonstrates above, is an important part of riding offensively.

Riding offensively doesn’t mean being aggressive. When you’re surrounded by cars and trucks that weigh thousands of pounds, letting impatience, anger, cockiness or other hot-headed emotions or behavior get the better of you is a losing proposition. (Read Editor-in-Chief Mark Tuttle’s column about road rage, “Keep Calm and Ride On.”) When you ride defensively, you’re just cruising along waiting for things to happen. When you ride offensively, you’re on high alert, constantly scanning, looking ahead, anticipating and putting yourself in position to avoid bad situations before they occur. Change your lane position to put space between you and cars, to stay out of blind spots and to give you the best view ahead. Ride slightly faster than the traffic around you to avoid getting trapped with no escape path. It can be tough to stay focused on the road when you’re thinking about a big meeting at the office or the stressful day you just had, but it’s mission-critical to keep your head in the game and ride with purpose.

9) Change It Up

Motorcycle Commuting Tips
If only there were more roads like this between home and work.

My round-trip commute is 50 miles, nearly all of which takes place on U.S. Route 101, the main artery through Ventura County that’s usually clogged with traffic during rush hour. Taking the same route day after day can be boring, making it all too easy to tune out and get caught off-guard. (Read Managing Editor Jenny Smith’s take on this in “The Dangerous Mundane.”) From time to time, I take alternate routes to change things up. Instead of hopping on the freeway, I cruise along the coast and then take city streets and farm roads through Oxnard. Or I ride up through the Ojai Valley and take a twisty route up and over the mountains on Balcom Canyon Road. Alternate routes may take you longer, but they change your perspective and stimulate your brain with different views and challenges. And if you have an alternate route that’s scenic, it just makes riding to work that much more fun!

10) Don’t Tailgate and Watch Your Six

Motorcycle Commuting Tips
It’s legal to lane-split in California, which can be safer in bumper-to-bumper traffic because it reduces the risk of being hit from behind.

Because motorcycles are smaller, quicker, more nimble and capable of shorter stopping distances than cars, it’s easy to find yourself tucked in closely behind a car’s bumper. And due to the accordion effect of stop-and-go traffic, you can end up trapped with nowhere to go when cars behind you must stop suddenly. To the degree possible, maintain a safety cushion between you and the car you’re following, and position yourself in the left or right portion of the lane so you have an escape route. Here in California, lane-splitting is legal, so we can ride between cars in traffic, which, if done at a prudent speed, is actually safer than riding in the lane because it can reduce the risk of a rear-end collision. Wherever you ride, stay alert, watch your mirrors and always give yourself a way out. Don’t sit there at a stop light or an exit ramp with your bike in neutral and your head in the clouds.

Got other tips for motorcycle commuting? Share them in the comments below.

23 COMMENTS

  1. Before I retired I rode my Triumph to work every day except for ice snow, and rain. I even got a mild frost bite once.But now being retired,heck I still ride every day…until June 19.That is when I had knee surgery.Bummer.

  2. Hello Greg,

    You had me until you went all ‘Stich:

    ““We talked with a lot of riders and they wanted a feature-rich suit that’s big on features and small on price.”
    Slatin made his own wish list and the result is the Powersuit. The 600 denier Cordura, CE-approved armor and SuperFabric form our three-part ‘Safety Triangle.’ The price point is $750, right in the mid-range of the marketplace.”

    Cheaper, better, and TWO HiViz-Colored Suits. Reviewed in Rider Magazine: http://ridermagazine.com/2016/10/27/gear-review-slatin-ez-1-powersuit/

  3. Anticipate. Look at the driver in front. What’s he doing ? Is he alert, looking around ? Is his head lowered, a sure sign he is texting on a phone. Look at the car in front of him, what’s he doing ? If you’re stuck behind a vehicle that has no windows at the back like a van or a truck remember you’re riding blind. You can’t see the road ahead and you’re totally dependent on the driver of the van not to screw up. Bad situation. Get in front of it as soon as possible. You need to see the road ahead.
    Keep you lights on.
    If it’s a hot day and a long trip bring a camelbak and stay hydrated. If you’re starting to feel thirsty you’ve left it to late.

  4. Great article and I second Conor’s comment. Some additional observations I have made commuting over 10,000mi by bike each year are: (1) drivers of company cars/commercial vehicles tend not to be as careful as folks driving their own cars. (2) Watch out for cars with plenty of dents, typically doesn’t speak highly of the drivers driving skills. And (3), be mindful of rental cars and cars with out of state license plates; best to keep your distance.

  5. >”If you’re stuck behind a vehicle that has no windows at the back like a van or a truck remember you’re riding blind. You can’t see the road ahead and you’re totally dependent on the driver of the van not to screw up.”

    This is great advice – unfortunately, it can be hard to follow these days. When I first started riding in the early 90s, most of the vehicles on the local roads were sedans and coupes; it was easy to over or through the cars to see what was going on up ahead.
    Now I find that the vast majority of vehicles in my area are SUVs or hybrids, often with tinted windows. They sit much taller than a car, so you can’t see over them, and forget about seeing through them with those tinted windows.

  6. I rode to work, about 25 miles per day, for the last dozen years before retiring. Here in coastal WA state that is a lot of wet, rainy mornings with the temp right about the freezing level. In the dark months, use the reflection off the road of the headlights of the oncoming traffic and traffic in your lane to watch for road obstructions you can’t see in the dark. Also, stay in the tire tracks of the traffic in your lane as that will be the clearest chance of avoiding that trash that fell off some other commuter’s vehicle.
    On surface roads be wary of the driver in front of you moving into the left turn lane, he just might change his mind without signaling or looking – best move to the far right of your lane and pass cautiously.

  7. Many years ago I was taught the Smith System of Defensive Driving. I drove commercial vehicles for decades and motorcycles for even longer. Funny how it is just as relevant today as it was way back then.
    Aim High In Steering. Look at least 15 seconds into your future, not just at the vehicle in front of you.
    Get the Big Picture. Look for hazards. …
    Keep Your Eyes Moving. Don’t stare. …
    Leave Yourself an Out. Monitor the space cushion around you.
    Make Sure They See You. Use your signals.
    Excellent advice for all traffic but too sadly widely ignored by many.

  8. If you don’t have saddlebags a seat pack works well. Avoid using a backpack especially if you have a long commute.

    On the freeway after a stretch of open road if you see vehicles begin to bunch up be on the lookout for people trying to make quick lane changes.

  9. Only being a new rider (2nd year with my 1980 Honda CM400T) in Pittsburgh, PA, I’ve definitely been keeping an eye on how stopped cars at intersections have their tires positioned. If the driver has already turned their wheels while waiting to make their turn at the intersection, I always make sure I have enough room in case someone were to hit that car from behind and then, in turn, hit me. It might be too much to pay attention to, but a buddy’s friend was fatally injured from a very similar scenario.

    • Looking at the direction and rotation of the front wheels of a car is basically the single best thing to focus on when trying to determine where a car might be heading. Not to much at all!

  10. Thanks. Greg. That was such a great article. .I look like the neon geek but it sure makes a difference in cagers actually seeing me. I do feel for you and your fellow riders dealing with California’s overpopulation of traffic. Makes me even more grateful I’m in Maine or Santa Fe

  11. I work nights so half my commute is in the dark. My bikes all have auxiliary lighting front and rear (creating ‘light triangles’) as well as extra reflective materials in strategic places. I also wear a Hi-Viz jacket and helmet (with extra reflective stickers). A single low beam headlight does not add much to being seen during the day so if one does not have LED DRL’s, using the high beam helps a lot.

  12. Riding in the city is putting yourself in the most danger, as this is where you’re most likely to be blundered in by your friendly motorist who doesn’t see you because that’s not what’s expected (it’s a kind of cognitive blindness). I’d ride a 50 cc scooter where it’s possible, as these can change direction as if on a swivel (and they’re super fun in high density traffic, and so cheap to run you’re actually saving a bundle by freeing your usual ride from a ton of brutal wear and tear). Otherwise I’d also consider something like a Piaggio MP3 or a Can-Am spyder, which suffer less from cognitive blindness (that wide front), and that third wheel keeps risks lower. All that being said, commuting on a motorcycle is so much fun that I might still do it, as the thought of being back on my bike after a day’s work is just so tantalizing and keeps my morale on such a better plane.

  13. Things I’ve learned riding for 40 years:
    Don’t be the first one through the intersection when the light turns green( cross traffic red light runners trying to beat the clock)
    Watch the guy waiting to turn left in opposing traffic, he probably doesn’t see you approaching. If you can, travel through the intersection along side a vehicle moving in your same direction.
    When traveling on a road or highway with possible cross traffic, parking lots, get up a little closer to the vehicle in front of you to avoid being in the “pick off zone” which is the gap between you and the vehicle your following that allows someone to think they can cut in front of you. This helps reduce “Motorcycle Hits Car” articles in the press.
    Never drink and ride! You need every bit of possible reaction time!

  14. Great article and great comments. One tip I’d pass on is when I’m on the highway in traffic and I don’t like how close someone is to my back. I’ll slow down gradually till there is some distance between me and the vehicle in front of me. then I’ll accelerate up giving me a gap on my tail. Usually it only takes once, twice at the most and the person behind stops tail gating. If that doesn’t work, I’ll pull over and let him by.

  15. “Use your first two fingers to cover the brake lever so your thumb and two outside fingers maintain grip on the throttle”.
    When I got my first bike (in 1971) the dealership had a class. They suggested keeping the thumb and index finger around the throttle and using the other three fingers on the front brake lever. In 2010 I took the PAMSP Basic Rider Class, figuring since I had been paying for it all these years with the increased PennDOT fee for my Class M license, why not take advantage of it (great class, by the way, and have since taken BRCII ). There I was “corrected” for using only three fingers on the brake, and told to use all four fingers. So I had to unlearn a decades old habit and re-learn a new one. Here you suggest two fingers on the brake lever and two and a thumb on the throttle grip. (sigh) I guess that we will never all agree.

    • As in most skills, there may not be ONE best way to do some things. Those with experience have worked out methods that have served them well but that doesn’t mean it is the only safe or efficient way. For covering the front brake, we all have different dexterity in different fingers and may find a different combination works best for us. I think the important takeaway here is that we recognize that we need to be covering the front brake in many situations, and with enough strength and dexterity to effectively use the brake.

    • Same here. I took a MSF Advanced Rider Course and they called me out for using the two finger technique as it’s presented here. They rather suggested to only use index finger and thumb around the throttle and leave the remaining fingers on the brake lever. The reason was that you would have more leverage to pull the lever if you pull on the outer side than at the inside of the lever. In addition they said depending on your adjustment, you could potentially squeeze your finger which equates in losing seconds of braking when you want to avoid the pain…..

  16. There is also option of making life easier during a busy stop and go commute……Get a Honda with DCT. Then you can forget having to shift in frustrating stop and go traffic. This takes away a tedious task and allows you to focus more on what is going on around you…and you will never stall the bike. I gave up my BMW F650GS (an excellent bike) for a Honda NC 700 XD with DCT and have never looked back….
    I should note that I’m 78 and have an artificial knee on the left side….so not having to shift is great on that account also.
    The advantage is you can paddle shift manually if you want….and I sometimes find downshifting a nice option. Having 4 drive modes including Drive and 3 Sport modes is great…..
    Oh…did I mention I get an average of 66 miles per gallon..
    No…I don’t work for Honda.

    • Very interesting, you basically just did the opposite change that I did. I had a 2012 NC700X (standard manual transmission though) and just traded it in last Fall for a 2016 F800GS. I really love this machine, as I did the Honda. The extra power and offroad worthiness is wonderful, as is the design. I will miss my frunk (front trunk) dearly though. I actually used to even go through drive thrus with it!

      I’m only 36 but I can really see the advantage of going the route that you did!

  17. Nice article, Greg! The portion referring to riding offensively caught my eye, specifically. Being a native of Ventura County (hometown Oxnard), this is the area I first learned to commute in. As you know, commuting through Ventura area sometimes requires nerves of steel. I’ve always tried to put my finger on what riding “proactively” means and I think you hit the nail on the head. I commute daily on a built 2015 FZ09 through Santa Barbara/Goleta area, bouncing off redline between stop lights and lane splitting in 1st/2nd gear, borderline obnoxious, I know.. The difference in asserting your presence among the pack, riding in a proactive manner vs reactive, has saved my butt numerous times and next to buying the smaller bike, it’s often the first bit of advice I offer novice rider.

    -Shiny Side Up, Rubber Side Down. Ride Safe Gents!

  18. It is really interesting to me how you need to be in shape in order to ride a motorcycle. I guess that in my head, a car and a motorcycle really are not too different; however, just like you said here, it will definitely make handling the bike much easier if you are in shape. My wife does not want me to get a bike because they are potentially dangerous, but maybe I will look into getting a four-wheeler or something of that kind. Thanks again!

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