Unless you have a legit reason to bring a car with you to school, chances are good the only vehicle you need at college this year is a bicycle. Many campuses are all-inclusive or close to downtown, meaning everything you need access to is within walking—and riding—distance. After all, having a car means finding parking, paying for gas, and maybe even using it late night when it might not be the best idea. Plus, many colleges don’t allow first-year students to keep a car on campus, anyway. So there’s that. We rounded up 10 affordable and reliable bikes to help you cut travel time between classes, run errands faster, and maybe even meet new friends—all while keeping the dreaded freshman 15 at bay.
Check out quick info below of five of the top performers, then scroll deeper for more in-depth reviews of these and other options, plus buying advice.
Table of Contents
What Kind of Gearing Do You Need?
The range of gears you need will depend on where your campus is located. If it’s nestled in a mountainous area where you’re liable to be pedaling uphill (in both directions), look for something with multiple gears—our list includes triple- and single-chainring options paired with 7-, 8-, and 9-speed cassettes. If you’re furthering your education in a mostly flat town, consider a simple singlespeed or a bike with a 3-speed internal hub, both of which cut down on maintenance. If your campus is sprawling, hilly, somewhere hot, or all three, an e-bike can be your ideal companion for zipping along with little effort (just remember, this means you’ll have a battery to keep charged).
Fenders and Racks Make Everything Better
For rainy-day commutes or winter storms that leave slush on the road, fenders are essential if you don’t want to stroll into the lecture hall with a wet stripe up your rear. When shopping for fenders, be sure to get a set that fits your wheel size and tire width. Check out the SKS B42 Commuter II Fender Set ($32.99) for 700c wheels with 25 to 35mm tires. As well, racks are a godsend when you have a stack of books a mile high. Better to strap them to a front or rear carrier than to weigh down your backpack. Consider the Topeak Explorer Rack (from $42.13).
Protect Yourself and Your Bike
Make sure to leave room in your budget for essentials, like a helmet, lights, and a lock. A bell is a bonus for warning others that you’re approaching, especially on days when you’re late to class and passing people on the path. And do yourself a favor by registering your bike’s serial number with your school and/or municipality, which might help you get it back should it ever grow legs.
Stay safe on your commute. Here’s how to make a left turn in traffic:
How We Tested
To select the best bikes for this list, we researched the market, surveyed user reviews, interviewed product managers and engineers, and relied on our own experience riding these and similar bikes. Our team of experienced testers rode the crop of contenders for weeks on our local bike paths, both hilly and flat. We attached racks and loaded them up with groceries to see how much they could handle. To understand the differences between them, we rode them back to back on similar routes.
Most of our picks for the best bikes for college students are under $700 (because, we get it—you’re broke), but still provide the durability, reliability, and features necessary to accommodate life as a student. And they’re really good looking, too.
Public Bikes R18 Drop Bar
Inspired by vintage road bikes, the Public R18 Drop Bar does double duty as a commuter and an exercise bike. The geometry of this road-style bike puts the rider in a much more forward position that makes it easier to pedal harder, but can strain your shoulders and back if you’re not used to it. The included aluminum fenders keep puddles from splashing your pants on the way to class, and mounting bosses allow you to add racks if you want. Or keep it stripped down and basic for a lighter, faster ride down the bike lane. The 18-speed bike offers a range of gears for climbing comfortably or working on your fitness. The steel frame soaks up bumps and cracks in the road for a smoother ride, but is a bit heavy for carrying if you live in a walk up. Quick release wheels make it easy to carry on a roof rack or in your car. Best way to buy it: Available for pre-order on publicbikes.com, and ships between 9/3-9/7.
Liv Alight 3
Pedal comfortably and confidently on this upright, efficient hybrid bike. The Shimano Tourney drivetrain has a triple chainring, offering you a super wide range of gears for spinning up hills or pushing the pace on the bike path. Wide, smooth, 38mm tires offer traction on dirt and gravel, but still roll quickly on pavement. The Alight is equipped to mount racks that hold baskets or panniers to expand your carrying capacity. A steel fork damps vibration for a less-bumpy ride. Best way to buy it: Sign up on liv-cycling.com to be notified when it’s available, or check with your local dealer.
Specialized Roll – Low Entry
If you struggle with numb fingers or a stiff neck or back after a few minutes in the saddle, this lightweight, aluminum bike aims to alleviate those issues and allow you to enjoy the ride. From the ergonomic grips to the upright position, the Roll Low-Entry offers incredible comfort. The leaned-back seat tube facilitates putting a foot on the ground so riders can balance at a stop, and the low step-over frame makes it accessible for a wide range of ability and mobility levels. The saddle is very comfortable, with a wide back to support your sit bones and a cutout in the middle to redistribute that pressure. Rim brakes help keep weight (and cost) down while delivering satisfactory braking power, and the wide tires provide a smooth, stable ride on paved roads and gravel. Rack and fender mounts make it easy to set up the Roll Low-Entry as a daily commuter, and the BMX-style handlebar offers plenty of room for mounting a light, bell, or phone holder. Best way to buy it: Select your size on specialized.com and input your zip code to check inventory at shops near you.
—GREAT STABILITY AND TRACTION—
Scott Contessa Active 50
This affordable mountain bike from Scott is just as at home on bumpy bike paths as it is on the trail. The fork with 100mm of travel smooths out rough terrain, while the upright positioning is comfortable for your back, neck, and wrists. Wide Kenda Booster tires keep you planted and stable through corners and on wet trails. The Shimano Tourney drivetrain offered enough gears for finding a comfortable pace to ride uphill, and the Tektro hydraulic disc brakes brought us smoothly to a stop without any jerking. Whether you want an affordable option that you can also take trail riding on the weekends or you’re just looking for a super stable, comfortable ride for the bike path, the Contessa Active 50 offers a high-quality option for cruising around campus. Best way to buy it: Select your size on scott-sports.com and click Find a Dealer to locate one near you.
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A retro-inspired ride that’s as functional as it is cute: The Schwinn Wayfarer’s steel frame offers a smooth, comfortable ride. A 7-speed twist shift drivetrain has some gear variation for rolling campuses, but we wouldn’t suggest it for super hilly areas. Fenders protect you from splashes, and a rear rack lets your strap books, bags, or takeout to it. It comes in one size, which Schwinn recommends for riders 5’4” to 6’2”. Your purchase includes a limited lifetime warranty for as long as you own the bike, so this little guy will last you long past graduation. Best way to buy: Available on Amazon now! Get them before they sell out.
—CLASSIC FIXIE VIBES—
State Bicycle Co. Core-Line
At $300, the State Core-Line is cheap, yet it comes from a real bike company, not a retail behemoth, and you can easily order one online if you’re 100 miles from a bike shop. It’s bright and stylish, and you can enhance its practicality with fenders and racks (it’s got the clearance and the mounting points), or you can simply ride it as is without changing a thing. Singlespeed bikes still make fantastic entry points into cycling, whether you run them fixed (if the wheels are turning the pedals have to turn too, i.e. no coasting) or freewheel (you can stop pedaling and coast along at any point). And the State is ready for either right out of the box, some minor assembly required. Best way to buy it: Preorder on statebicycle.com for September shipping.
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Raleigh Cadent 1
Raleigh’s Cadent 1 is an excellent choice for the commuter who wants the option to use the bike for fitness rides as well. You don’t have to worry about switching the saddle out—the one that comes with the Cadent is comfy enough for your daily back-and-forth as well as longer, off-road jaunts. This bike offers an incredibly smooth ride, partially thanks to the vibration-damping steel fork. The Tektro rim brake system responds quickly but isn’t jerky, while the flat handlebar makes it easy to maintain a comfortable posture and provides stability for easy maneuvering. Raleigh touts the Cadent 1 as a bike that’ll go fast, help you get fit, and let you have fun. It’s right about all three. Best way to buy it: Available now on ebikesandcycles.com. Get them while they’re in stock.
—SWEET AND SIMPLE—
Civia Lowry Step-Thru 7-Speed
The Lowry Step-Thru is a simple, solid, and relatively light campus commuter. Its step-through design means the bike works with almost any outfit (there’s a step-over model, too), and the aluminum frame contributes to an easy-to-carry 25-pound total weight for the medium size. Opt for the 7-speed cassette if your campus is hilly. Semi-slick Kenda Kwest tires roll fast, and rear rack mounts make it a viable grocery-getter, too. Reliable Tektro rim brakes and a kickstand round out a bike that’s ready to breeze between classes. Best way to buy it: Check availability at local retailers at civiacycles.com.
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—AFFORDABLE PEDAL ASSISTANCE—
Aventon Pace 350 E-Bike
If your campus is somewhere hot or hilly (or both), an e-bike will help you get to class fast without breaking a sweat. The Aventon Pace 350 is one of the most affordable options we’ve tested that’s still of decent quality. The Tektro mechanical disc brakes have a motor shut-off function, so when you start to pull the brakes you aren’t working against the motor. The easy-to-read LCD screen displays the remaining battery life, current speed, assist mode, and trip distance. A 350-watt rear-drive brushless motor tops out at 20mph, and the semi-integrated battery gets an estimated 30 miles per charge, so if you live off-campus and ride back and forth multiple times a day, you might need to charge the battery a couple times a week. Best way to buy it: Preorder today on aventon.com for a November 1 delivery to your home.
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