If you’d like to start bike commuting but feel overwhelmed by the thought of it, know you’re not alone (and it’s okay!). Being a confident bike commuter requires preparation and practice, but along with a few pieces of gear, a little knowledge will make all the difference.
To help you hit the streets with confidence, we spoke to Lor Song, community liaison for the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, who teaches classes on urban cycling basics for the organization. He’s also been a bike messenger for 10 years.
Transitioning from casual rides on a calm bike path to commuting in city streets can definitely be a shock to the system. “Things are moving a lot faster. It’s a lot louder,” Song says. He recommends evaluating how much you think you can handle and what your boundaries are beforehand.
Overall, do as much as you’re comfortable with—you don’t have to turn into a diehard bike commuter overnight. And as you do take on this new experience, here are some urban riding rules that you should keep in mind.
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Ride Straight and Be Predictable
One of the easiest but most important things you can do on a commute is to look straight ahead to prevent swerving and ride predictably. Known as ”holding your line,” this tip isn’t just for group rides and racing; it’ll help keep you safe out on the road, too.
Looking where you want to go (straight ahead instead of down at your front wheel) will help you safely navigate potential obstacles in front of you. And riding safely without making unexpected swerves, stops, or illegal movements keeps you (and those around you like other cyclists) safer.
If you’re riding with or near other cyclists, don’t “half-wheel” them and overlap your front wheel with their rear wheel. If the other person suddenly moves over while you’re half-wheeling them, you could both go down.
Along with riding as predictably as possible, communicate to those around you by using hand signals, especially when you need to turn, stop, or slow suddenly.
Use Turning Lanes or Make a Box Turn
It might seem odd at first—and you may feel more vulnerable doing it—but if you need to turn at an intersection and there is no bike infrastructure for doing so (such as making a left turn), use the turning lane with the rest of the car traffic. Make your intention to turn known to the drivers around you by using a hand signal.
If you’re unable to do so (if there’s too many lanes to cross or too much traffic) or you aren’t comfortable with it, proceed through the intersection with the flow of traffic and stop at the far corner on your side of the street you intend to turn on. Wait for the traffic signal to change, then ride with the flow of traffic. Song calls this a box turn and lately it’s been his preferred method of turning left, especially when roads are busy: “Those are the safest, and it just lowers my stress so much.” Overall, don’t feel rushed to make a turn and potentially risk your safety. And when in doubt, you can always get off your bike and walk.
Act Like You’re In a Car
Much like the previous tip, sometimes it’s safer to act as though you’re a vehicle moving with traffic (because you basically are!). For example, on one-way streets without a bike lane, take up as much space in the lane as a car. This will help deter drivers from trying to pass you at an unsafe distance, especially on narrow roads. Plus, if you’re on a road with street parking, this will also help prevent you from getting “doored”—which is when a driver in a parked car opens their door into the path of an oncoming cyclist.
If an impatient driver beeps, don’t feel pressured or bullied into not having a right to the road. “You are allowed to take up the whole lane. In the state of Pennsylvania, you’re technically a vehicle,” Song says. “If you want to, you can pull over. You don’t want to risk [a car] squeezing by, or getting doored.”
When it comes to navigating intersections, abide by driving laws or any bicycling laws specific to your state—like the “Idaho stop,” which allows cyclists in some states to yield at stop signs instead of coming to a complete stop. “Just don’t blow through them.” Song advises. “Always proceed with caution. Having lights, especially at night, tremendously helps your visibility.”
In any case, do not block intersections or crosswalks for both cars and pedestrians. Honoring the rules of the road for cyclists keeps you and others safe as well as making you a good advocate for bike commuting overall.
Look Out for Road Obstacles
As you’re riding, keep an eye out for any obstacles in the road. Even bike lanes can be treacherous at times—watch out for stray branches, gravel, and debris.
Metal objects like manhole covers, trolley tracks, and roadwork plates should be avoided if possible, especially in wet conditions, Song warns. Metal surfaces like these have no traction, so turning and even just riding on them can be very dangerous.
Trolley tracks are especially dangerous to cyclists on a bike with narrow tires, like road bikes. “Your wheel will get stuck,” he says. “Those tracks are built perfectly for your wheel to fit in.” Don’t try to hop over them either. If you do need to ride over trolley tracks, cross them at as perpendicular of an angle as safely possible. (You wan’t your wheel and the track to form a “T” when crossing.)
Take corners carefully as well. “When you’re turning, don’t turn too sharp because certain corners have gravel built up in the city,” Song says. “If you’re turning too hard, you will slip out.”
Potholes should be avoided when safely possible since they can lead to flat tires or crashes. “The worst ones are the ones you don’t see,” Song says. “Especially in the rain, if there’s a puddle, don’t go through the puddle” because you don’t know what’s underneath.
And of course, he says, watch out for people–especially in dense urban areas. Pedestrians distracted by cell phones often step into bike lanes or crosswalks. And depending on what time of day you’re riding, bike lanes along bars at night are often tricky to pass as patrons with lower inhibitions may stumble into your path.
Don’t Ride on the Sidewalk
When things get too crazy out on the road, you might be tempted to ride the sidewalk instead, but Song strongly discourages this. “The sidewalk is not built for riding,” he says. The law allows children ages 12 and under to ride on the sidewalk, but otherwise, it is built for pedestrians.
Song says riding on the sidewalk in a city can actually increase your chances of getting injured due to a myriad of obstacles including curbs and trash cans. If you do need to get onto the sidewalk for a bit, get off your bike and walk it.
You’ve likely heard of defensive driving, and the same holds true for when you’re riding a bike. Be aware of your surroundings and others around you, and don’t assume that drivers see you.
Be cautious when switching lanes. If a truck, bus, or other vehicle is pulled over and in your way, make sure you have the right of way to move over, ensure you have enough clearance, signal to any cars behind you, and take up the entire lane.
Also, be on the lookout for drivers who may turn in front of you without warning and without using their signal. “Pay attention to the front tires,” Song says. That’ll let you know if they are starting to turn.
Lastly, the best way of riding defensively is to stand out. Bright colors and lights help, but Song says this is also another reason why it’s ok to take up a full lane. “Make yourself noticed,” he says. It’s better to be honked at by an impatient driver because at least that means they see you.
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