What you need to know about safe urban biking — and general effective bike use

Guest post by Libsta

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I am a city girl and have learned to navigate two different cities by bike over the past six years. Many people (including me) are initially intimidated by biking through city traffic. Urban biking can be safe when done right. Cities are cultural and historical centers. From the seat of a bike you can pedal by or visit more landmarks and cover more ground. You see the sites better than you could from inside a car, bus, or subway. There is no better way to learn the neighborhoods of your city than from the seat of a bike.

Before I go any further, I must point out that bike traffic laws vary by state or province. These tips are intended to be general and not to supercede your area’s traffic laws.

Learn your city’s bike laws

These are probably available on your city’s municipal web page. Many places also have non-profit organizations devoted to managing bike safety in your city.

Bike safety — Don’t be an idiot

As a biker, you are considered a moving vehicle and are subject to all traffic signals and laws. You must also generally yield to pedestrians. A person on a bike, however, is not the same as a person in a car because if you get T-Boned, rather than ending up with a dented vehicle, you may end with a dented rib cage (or far, far worse).

  • Wear a helmet. They don’t look cool, but neither does a cracked skull. Get over your fear of helmet hair and wear a freaking lid. If you take nothing else away from this post, learn this.
  • Travel on the right or outside of traffic. It is tempting, but avoid the inclination to weave between cars because they may not see you.
  • Signal when you are turning. Consult your city’s laws for hand signals, but in general pointing the way you are going gets your point across. If traffic is heavy and moving fast, act like a pedestrian and cross at the cross walks instead.
  • Make sure drivers have seen you. Before you pass a parked car, ride through an intersection, or switch lanes to make a left turn, visually confirm that the driver sees you. Make eye contact with them if you can. You should not assume a driver has seen you just because you are following the laws.
  • Watch for car doors. The most frequent way bikers get injured in the city is by getting “doored” — hit with the door of a parked or idling car/taxi. A new biker’s inclination is to stay as close to parked cars as possible to stay out of the travel lane. Try to stay at least two feet away from parked cars. If there is a person sitting in a car at the curb, make eye contact with them in their rear view mirror before you ride around them to make sure they are not going to pull out into you.
  • Be prepared. Either bring supplies to repair minor damage, like a popped inner tube, or know the locations and store hours of local bike shops. Another advantage to biking in the city is that there are bike shops around if you need a small repair. Also bring a bus pass just in case.
  • Use lights. These are available at any bike shop. In some places it is actually a law that you use lights after dusk. Keep them with you any time you bike in case you stay out later than planned.

Travel the smart way

Due to car congestion, biking is sometimes actually a faster way to get around the city than driving. In a car or bus I get stuck in a line of traffic. On a bike I can ride continuously by the cars (on the outside of traffic, not between cars, of course) and get to work 20 minutes faster. Here’s how:

  • Power Stance: It takes a lot more energy to start a bike moving than to keep it moving. Your goal is to get started as fast as possible after a red light. Enter the “Power Stance.” Rotate your pedals so that one is at the top. That is the foot you will be leading off with when the light turns green, so keep the foot on the pedal. The other foot can be your stabilizing foot on the ground. As soon as the light turns green pedal your hardest to get going again. This also prevents you from slowing down traffic.
  • Cruise: Another tip is to slow pedaling, or “cruise,” when you see a red light up ahead with the hope that it will turn green by the time you get to it. (Stop if it doesn’t!) The fastest and most enjoyable trip is the one with the fewest stops.
  • Be Assertive: Once you have followed all of your area’s bike laws and the safety tips above, you need to be assertive. You have as much right to be on the road as any other vehicle. Always make sure the driver sees you and is slowing down. After that, travel in your intended direction and do not let drivers intimidate you into retreating to the sidewalk or giving up your right of way at an intersection. Even a new biker can travel close to 15 mph, which is not that much slower than cars in city traffic.

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Armed with these tips, get on your bike and ride it!

Comments on What you need to know about safe urban biking — and general effective bike use

  1. Hello! I am a quiet offbeathome reader and this is my first comment…I was disappointed to see that none of the models in this post are wearing helmets even though wearing a helmet was number one on the bike safety list. Let’s make wearing a helmet safe AND cute/stylish!

  2. In Seattle, many roads are marked 30mph or 35mph, so 15mph IS a huge difference in speed. Please be aware of this, and be careful to stay towards the right. It is good to be an assertive bike rider, but be aware that there are many aggressive vehicle drivers out there. Being clipped by a car who does not have the space to move around you, nor the grace to slow down behind you, is not a pleasant experience even if you are not the party at fault legally. Generally being thoughtful of the routes you take to avoid dangerous situations can be key.

    Biking in Seattle is awesome – the city is beautiful, and many streets are wide enough to allow all kinds of traffic, but it can also be dangerous. If you are a beginner bike traveler/commuter, try out your intended route on a weekend during a low-traffic time. Whenever possible, avoid roads that are marked 35mph or higher until you are more experienced & confident with navigating around faster moving vehicles. (I, myself, do not think I will ever be confident enough to ride my bike alongside 35mph+ traffic, but some of my friends do and have done so without any incident.)

  3. Biking is one of the very best things a person can do for themselves, their environment, and for their bank account! Can we see more urban-biking articles in the future?? Pleeeeeease?!

  4. I’d add: know that you are a vehicle, and in most places it’s illegal for you to ride on the sidewalk.

    There are two ways to ride a bike, and you should pick one and keep it ever-present in your mind:
    1. Pretend you are a car and act like one.
    2. Pretend you are invisible and that NOBODY CAN SEE YOU.

    After a nasty accident, I can’t really handle riding on streets, so I do ride on the sidewalks. But I ride “against” traffic so cars are more likely to see me — and I always pretend/assume I’m invisible. Same on my skateboard.

    • One thing I’d like to mention is courtesy to pedestrians. People on bikes (or skateboards) are not pedestrians. For the safety of those on bikes and the pedestrians around them, that needs to be kept clear. I’ve heard enough stories from friends who’ve nearly been mowed over by cyclists who choose to use the sidewalk but treat it like the street or a bike path. If, like Cat, you absolutely have to use the sidewalk then yield to pedestrians and try not to run them over, assume they’ll move, etc.

      One of my pet peeves is actually cyclists who want to be pedestrians and have pedestrian crosswalks apply to them without getting off their bikes. I took bike safety in school and where I live, this is not cool. There are bicycle crosswalks in my city on bike paths. But as a driver, if a cyclist is crossing at a pedestrian crosswalk, the chances are far higher I won’t see them because they didn’t stop to hit the light or they decided to zip across traffic at a non-lighted crosswalk and thus I don’t have time to react. Yes, it slows you down, but there are alternate paths to take and being hit would slow you down much more.

    • Thank you so much for another bicycling related post!

      As a League of American Bicyclists certified League Cycling Instructor (read: nerd) and someone employed to expressly promote bicycling and walking as modes of transportation, please, I beg all of you to never, ever, under any circumstances ride against traffic on the road. Other drivers (motorized or not) are not going to anticipate bicyclers to be riding against traffic, it is not predictable.

      If you are uncomfortable riding on the street, and you wish to ride on the sidewalk (depending on the legality of this in your local community i.e. Minneapolis allows sidewalk riding in non-business districts, but it’s illegal in business districts) please by all means do so, and respect the pedestrians on the sidewalk while doing so.

      That means, travel at pedestrian speeds, yield to them, be courteous, and if you end up in a congested area, hop off and walk your bicycle.

      Two important aspects of riding in your community are BE PREDICTABLE and BE COURTEOUS (not the same as passive). Also, follow the rules of the road, it’s good for everyone involved.

      I know many of us were taught to ride against traffic as youngsters, and because of that it may feel safer, but really, truly, this kind of riding is more likely, statistically, to result in a crash.

      • Great tips! It’s the unpredictability that more often lead to injury and death. I cringe every time I see bicyclists in my city riding like idiots and hope they don’t get hit.

        And employed to promote biking and walking? Sounds like a very interesting job! Are you working in public health or urban planning or…?

    • Exciting to see my first guest post! I am also glad to see so much enthusiasm for more bike posts! Cat, in response to your sidewalk comment, I always assumed bikes were not allowed on the sidewalk. When I looked up my city’s bike laws I discovered that it is actually ok in most places in my city(I still don’t think its very safe for pedestrians) but that showed me how important it is to know your local rules.

  5. Thanks for posting this! As both a biker and driver in the best bike city in the US (Minneapolis), I’m used to sharing the road and I love seeing bikes everywhere. But bikers, respect on the road is earned. Just as you want cars to be safe and mindful, you need to do the same. Wear a helmet, ride safely, and OBEY TRAFFIC LAWS. If you’re on the road, you need to obey the same rules drivers do. If you’re on the sidewalk, behave as pedestrians do. Either way, STOPLIGHTS APPLY TO YOU, TOO! I can’t tell you how many bikers I see blow dangerously through lights. It’s not cool, it’s just arrogant and dangerous to yourself and everyone else on the road. Drivers don’t want to hit you, cause a rear-ending by stopping suddenly to avoid you, or swerve into oncoming traffic because you darted into an unsafe situation. Please make it possible for all of us to share the road safely.

    • I just wanted to make sure you (and the rest of the readers!) know about http://www.cyclopath.org – it’s an awesome interactive bike map that will give you routes based on your personal preferences, like speed vs. scenery, avoiding hills, using only bike paths….

    • I could not agree more. I live car-lite but I do own a car and drive. Bikers who obstruct traffic create animosity between the car and bike communities and make all bikers look bad by endangering everyone involved. Granted, some drivers will view bikes as an annoying obstruction no matter what, but most drivers are comfortable coexisting with respectful, responsible bikers. It is important for the whole community that we all respect other travelers around us and show drivers that we can share the road.

    • Those are pretty effing cool.

      So, even after said nasty accident, wherein I got a gnarly concussion even with a helmet, when I got my board I thought, “Do I really need a helmet?” I know. I KNOW. So I was Googling how to skateboard — because I learn everything from Google — and the first thing I found was a photo of this man missing a quarter of his head. He’d been longboarding, got hung up on a rock, and had a massive head injury. I vowed I’d had enough of close calls: I will never ride my board even 10 feet without a helmet. (Or a bike!)

  6. My kid and I bike commute (and bike for fun) in the East Bay, and the white bicycles that memorialize killed bikers are a pretty common site around here. And this past weekend, while biking we nearly got doored by a driver that wasn’t paying attention at all to what she was doing . . . luckily we were watching and avoided this awful situation!

    My advice for biking safely in urban areas (especially with a kid on your bike) is to pretend that all of the drivers are blind and dumb (and sometimes they are). At intersections I WAVE THEATRICALLY to let them know when I am crossing, and I do the same with my signalling. I always wave, ring my loud bell, signal like crazy, and in general make sure that people see me and my kiddo. I love bike commuting and it’s a great way to get around and really see your city. Just make sure that other drivers see you!

    • The “Ghost Bikes” are all over where we live too. Sad reminders that helmets and bike safety laws are oh so important.
      We have a chain of bells on my son’s bike, we bought him an uber cool helmet (ultra padded so he can wear it snow boarding too), and we are apart of a non-profit biking community that teaches all ages bike safety.
      If you haven’t done a Kidical Mass they are so much fun!

  7. Oh how exciting to see a post like this! I think Libsta hit many points on the head, but I have to throw in a few more.

    1: Ride predictably. If you don’t know what you’re doing, the drivers around you don’t. If you’re riding in a place unfamiliar, then yes, take it slow, but don’t be glancing around while peddling trying to find the place you’re looking for. If you’re not sure where your destination is, pull over at a stoplight and check your map/directions/etc. Don’t stop in the middle of traffic and don’t pull over into an empty parking spot, driver’s won’t be expecting you when you start going again.

    2: Regarding city riding laws and riding to the right. In most cases, contrary to popular belief, you are not required to ride as close to the right as possible; you are required to ride as close to the right as is SAFE. That’s an important distinction. Many newer and uniformed cyclists try to hug to the right as much as possible. Doorings aside, riders who ride all the way to the right end up appearing unsure of where they are going. Never cut over to the curb where cars normally park to be “close to the right”. Always keep your line on the road straight as possible, just like cars do. If you weave in and out of empty parking spots you drop out of drivers’ sight and they don’t expect to see you appear again when you have to get back into traffic.

    3: Never sit between vehicles (split the lane) at a stoplight – for instance between a car going straight and a car turning right. A cyclist’s stability is directly related to their speed. At a stop we are our most unstable, especially inexperienced cyclists, and we tend to wobble a lot when trying to start up. Look at the stoplights and walk signs at the upcoming intersection to see when the light is going to change. If you’re approaching and it’s going to change any second, hold back and keep your straight line or wait for the car turning right to go. If you can’t tell when the light will change, hold back. If it’s just turned red for your direction, you can split the lane if there’s room but get in front of all vehicles. Make sure they see you and be ready to go when it turns green. We had someone die recently here because she was riding with a friend the friend got ahead of the vehicles but she split the lane during the light. When the light turned green she lost her balance, fell over and was run over and killed. I promise that 5 seconds is worth your life.

    4: Practice positive reinforcement! Can I say this times 10? I was an angry cyclist for a long time. Hitting cars that cut me off, yelling and often always had a “story” about a driving jerk who tried to kill me. Then I had my baby and I needed to change my outlook. Now, I try to praise the drivers who do look out for me. If I need to cut into the car lane to get around a vehicle parked in the bike lane, instead of hitting the offender and yelling, I signal to the cars behind me I’m getting over. They usually give me room and once I’m around and out of their way I give them a thumbs up. This let’s them know they’re good to go around me now and says thanks. If a car lets me go ahead of him when turning I tip my head thanks. Sometimes if we come up to a red and a driver’s been nice to me, when I pass to get ahead of him for the light change I pause and speak to them saying thanks and have a great day. Yes, I admit, there are occasions when drivers don’t look, when I have to yell to make sure they know I exist and I often still sarcastically thank people who open a door without looking, but the positive reinforcement has proven to help both me and my experience and I hope to show drivers that cyclists aren’t all jerks. And frankly, since working on my positive reinforcement strategy, most of the stories I relay when I got home are “Oh wow, today’s ride was so Awesome!”

  8. Yes, learn your city’s bike laws!! I once saw a young man here in Philly make an illegal left turn on red the wrong way down a busy one way street into oncoming traffic during rush hour (no lie)… it was heart stopping. Oh, and he wasn’t wearing a helmet. I’m glad I didn’t have to see him die that day. He came pretty close, but then wove between two box trucks and up onto the safety of the sidewalk, where several pedestrians lept out of his way. Which brings me to my second plea for urban bikers: stay off the sidewalk unless you’re walking your bike! In most cities, sidewalks are for pedestrians only, and it’s dangerous for everyone for you to be riding up there. In Philadelphia many pedestrians have been injured and in one still-unsolved hit and run, killed, by bikers on the sidewalk. It gives the whole biking community a bad name.

    There’s no reason why bikers, pedestrians and drivers can’t share the urban space amicably as long as everyone knows the rules and follows them!

  9. I don’t cycle at the moment, but I do live in a city which must have one of the highest bike-per-capita ratio in the UK (Cambridge). So a few tips from what I’ve heard from friends and colleagues…

    1 – Buy a D-lock, and lock your bike to something (not to itself). I don’t know how much this happens elsewhere, but bikes not locked to anything will get stolen in Cambridge, and D-locks are normally the only locks accepted as valid by insurance companies.

    2 – Don’t feel that you have to hug the side of the road (the left in our case). I suspect from the above comments that this may differ elsewhere, but in Britain (if there’s no dedicated cycle lane) the official advice is actually to position yourself where you would if you were a car, i.e. right behind the vehicle in front.

    This is because a large number of cycling accidents are caused by lorries turning left, with the cyclist in their blind spot. Cars crowding you to the left, giving you no room to stay on the road, is also a problem.

    Very few people act this way, most stay to the left, but it’s something to think about. Cars don’t actually have a right to go 30 mph – and you have a right to be there too.

  10. I’m so happy to see a bike post! Since you mentioned Critical Mass, here’s a shameless plug for another Chicago biking event that I participate in every year (money goes towards cleaning up/improving the city’s parks): http://www.lateride.org

    I love hearing about bike events such as this one, in any city!

  11. I’ve seen too many street bicyclists stupidly blowing through red lights, cutting off cars, and/or trying to bike right in the middle of the road in what could have been fast moving traffic to support equal road rights for bicyclists. : / That doesn’t mean, though, that I don’t appreciate all the reasoning behind it as well as the people who do it right, though! Thanks for this article, I wish every bicyclist were required to read it!

  12. I’ve just recently started commuting to work and so far it’s been good. My only advice for newbies is just to grit your teeth and get into it, it’s not as bad as you think it will be. Most drivers give you plenty room 🙂

  13. I really wish that I could bike to school/work, but too many people have been killed here whilst biking, and I’ve been hit by a car once already, so I’m going to wait. Supposedly, we’re a bike friendly city, but I see cars cutting into the bike lanes all the time and no one pays attention to bikers. It’s terrifying.

    Maybe when I move.

  14. Man, I don’t know what it is but so many cyclists in my neighbourhood just do not obey stop signs or stop lights. Some at least slow down at the lights, but not even that much at the stop signs. And it’s dangerous, because there’s an intersection near my house where, in the right situation, motorists can’t see the oncoming cyclist at all, until they’re right in front of the car. I’m sure the cyclists don’t realize it, either, but you gotta obey signs and lights. Lots of drivers do try to be considerate to cyclists, but when you’re riding unpredictably, it’s tough.

  15. Love this article! I’ve shied away from cycling all summer (this is going to sound silly considering gas costs, but it’s totally the start-up cost of getting a bike + child hauling supplies), but we do get a lot of bikers here. Which leads me to a question for cyclists, if that’s okay.

    What’s the etiquette for cars on the road (sans bike lane) when the speeds are totally mismatched? I tend to pass with absolutely as much berth as I can manage — because I’m terrified of hitting someone — but I find myself wondering if that’s a dick move. I occasionally get looks that imply this is a dick move.

  16. This post made me smile.
    I’m absolutely a kamikaze-cyclist… I usually go fast and expect cars to stop for me and even ignore red (cyclists’) traffic lights. BUT I live in the Netherlands, where cyclists are VERY common and in my city, they rule the streets, not cars! I have just started driving lessons (I’m 25, and I know lots of people my age who haven’t got their drivers licence, there’s no big need for it here, cars are so expensive + you can’t park them anywhere anyway), which made me more careful on a bike, learning the perspective from a car.
    So, absolutely a good post and I’ll keep it in mind, especially when cycling abroad.

  17. There is another thing I want to add to this post. Cycling tends to be a male-dominated activity. There are some great blogs out there about trying to increase the amount of female bikers on the road and equalize it. Since the Offbeat Empire is primarily for women, I think this is a good forum to have this conversation and figure out why the ladies are staying off the road.

  18. As an anesthesiologist who has seen plenty of smashed up people let me just say, take the damn ear buds out too! What’s more important, your music or an intact femur?

  19. Thank you for this. My city is unfriendly to bicyclists both in terms of laws, bike-lanes and general city layout.

    But I also think the bicyclists in my city are ill-informed. I can’t tell you how many times as a driver, I’ve carefully and cautiously passed a bike, only to get to a stop sign and watch that rider blow through it without stopping, forcing me to pass them again. It makes me SO angry.

    I know this is just ignorance of bike safety though so I hope that as gas prices rise and more people turn to the bike, that we keep pushing this incredibly useful information!

  20. Hooray, bike safety! I would like to add this, however: some cities are much less bike-friendly than others. I just moved to Lafayette, Indiana, and while there’s a few bike lanes here and there, by and large it sucks for cycling. I’m not used to the (steep) hills, for one, which is my own problem. I guess the maze of one-way streets will just require some practice. But the wheel-swallowing potholes and patches of gravel (on the steep hills, no less) are not cool. Nor are the drivers who pass very, very close at high speeds.
    So even if you’re doing everything right, you could still end up with a less-than-pleasant riding experience. Be careful!

  21. I don’t know if someone has said this yet, but my major pet peeve is related to this: Decide whether you are a pedestrian biker or a automobile biker but you can’t be both. In my city people are constantly changing between the two as it suits them… aka red light? I will just go on the sidewalk then!
    It confuses pedestrians and drivers as we never know what these people are thinking of doing next. Ticks me right off!

    P.S. In our city you are supposed to have a bell to warn pedestrians you are coming, but it isn’t widely enforced. However, I just want to give a shout-out to all of those bikers who use their bell instead of running me over when I am not paying attention lol…. I Heart You!

  22. I am super keen to start riding to work everyday and I think I just need to do it. I have 2 fears, the first is cars (I was taken out on my motorbike last year from a car failing to give way) and the second is fitness – Sydney is REALLY hilly and you cant take your bikes on busses here. 🙁

    Great post though, thanks !

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