How to plan a bike route for your commute to work: Seven tips and tools you need to know about

The route you’d take if you were driving is probably not the best route for a cycle commute

Image shows a man cycle commuting by bike to work.
(Image credit: Getty Images / GibsonPictures)

You probably know the route of your commute by heart. If you usually take public transport, you probably know all the roads around your workplace, while if you drive you’ll know the fastest roads. You’ll probably know the bottlenecks too and you may hope to steal a jump on car drivers by sneaking around them while they’re held up at these. 

But you can almost certainly make your commute easier and less stressful by finding some alternative routes that bypass them altogether. You’ll probably find they're faster, that you can keep riding steadily rather than stopping and starting for lights and junctions and that you’ll not be riding through traffic fumes either.

Here are seven suggestions to plan a commute to work that’s easier, nicer, more comfortable and more enjoyable so that you continue to reap the many benefits of commuting by bike to work. Trying a few different route options will help keep your commute more interesting too.

Our top tips on how to plan a bike route for your commute to work

1. Use route planning tools for cyclists

The best route for a driver is probably not the best for a cyclist. Google Maps (opens in new tab) has the option to plan a route specific for cycling, so it’s worth seeing the options that it suggests and whether any are faster or quieter than riding the route it suggests for a car.

More and more towns and cities have segregated cycle lanes alongside roads. These often let you get along faster than mixing it with traffic, so it may be worth a slight detour to ride one of these.

cycling coach

There are loads of planning tools that help you find a route to your workplace

(Image credit: Future)

You might find a B or C road parallel to an A that is shorter and has less traffic or fewer stops for traffic lights. Once you get into urban areas, there may be a network of quiet residential streets that you can take to bypass busy main roads into town. Since they often have traffic calming measures, you may be able to travel faster than a car can be driven.

Beyond Google Maps, there are other resources for cycling commuters, like Sustrans’s maps of the National Cycle Network (opens in new tab). There may be traffic-free bike paths that go where you need to get to. CycleStreets (opens in new tab) is another option to map out a commuting route. It gives you three options: quietest, fastest and balanced, so you can pick and choose between routes or mix them up on different days.

2. Avoid hills

Sam Gupta riding in Santic apparel

Climbs: great for leisure rides, not so good for commutes

(Image credit: Helium Media)

Cyclists love climbs, but they might not be the best option if you’re commuting wearing a cycling backpack with a load of kit you need for workor if there’s lots of traffic trying to pass you. You may find that a slightly longer route that bypasses a climb is faster and nicer than a more direct route that has you grinding up a steep incline only to have to take it cautiously on the other side to keep with the flow of traffic. 

That said, one of reasons an electric bike makes a perfect bike for commuting is that you don't have worry about your route being packed with hills as the motor assistance will make things a little easier.

3. Check cycling heatmaps

Cyclists are adept at finding cunning routes that are quieter and faster than main roads. You can track these down via heatmaps of where cyclists ride most frequently. 

Heatmap

A heatmap will help you to spot alternative, cycle-friendly routes

(Image credit: Strava)

Millions of kilometres of riding are logged on Garmin devices, so Garmin Connect has some of the most complete heatmaps available. It’s free to set up an account and you don’t need to own a Garmin device to use its route planner.

Strava has just as much heatmap data. You’ll need to pay for its route planning functionality, although you can get a free trial period. Other cycling computer brands like Hammerhead also have heatmaps available to help you plot a route.

4. Look for cut-throughs

If you study heatmaps you’ll probably see some routes taken by riders that look impossible on a standard map. There are often alleys, paths or just bollarded roads that a car can’t get through but that it’s perfectly possible to ride or walk your bike over and that get you quickly from one area to another, maybe between backroads or across an open area or park.

You may be able to spot options yourself by using Google Street View, checking either end of a potential shortcut. Google’s satellite imagery can help too. Even if you can’t ride a cut-through, it might still save you some time.

5. Go off-road

Taking it further, you may find that a stretch of off-road riding can get you to work faster than a road. You may find that it’s tarmacked or paved with hard, compressed rock and so relatively dry and fast to ride. Even if it isn’t, it may stay relatively dry all winter.

Canal towpath

Canal towpaths can provide speedy, quiet routes into town

(Image credit: Future)

Canal towpaths are another great option to get you where you want to go. They often lead right into the centre of a town and may be metalled and easy to ride. You can pop back onto a street at a bridge that’s nearer to your destination.

A gravel bike with chunky tyres is ideal for this sort of riding, but many hybrid bikes have clearance for chunky tyres with plenty of grip and you may even be okay to ride a bridleway on a road bike as more and more of them can fit tyres of 28mm plus width.

6. Switch trains strategically

Thanks to the vagaries of nineteenth century railway construction, you’ll often find train stations on different lines that are only a few minutes' bicycle ride apart. You may find that by getting off at one station and riding to a different line you can get on a train that goes nearer to your destination than by taking one train and having to ride from a stop that’s further from your destination. 

Cycling Weekly best folding bikes

Switch trains strategically and you may make your commute quicker, easier and quieter

(Image credit: Future)

You might also find that a cycle ride from home will take in quieter roads and get you to a line that takes you closer to your workplace, rather than going to the nearest station and having a busier ride in town.

7. Keep it fresh

Cycling offers you lots of options to add variety to your riding. Alongside varying your route, there’s nothing like keeping a record of how far and how fast you’ve ridden to keep you motivated. So a cycling computer or just a cycling app on your smartphone is a great tool and will usually automatically feed your data into an app like Strava so you’ve got a running total of your rides.

Strava also lets you set up segments on your ride, so you can see how fast you’ve ridden parts of your commute and challenge yourself. Ride some segments as fast and slow intervals and you can add some training to your ride. 

If you're looking for some easily completable efforts to mix up your commute, try this 'big gear minutes' cycling workout which improves your fitness by specifically working to increase your pedalling force.

Komoot and Strava let you embed photos and other media, to keep a record of your rides. Take a photo every week and you can see how things change through the year.

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