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!