The Practical Guide to Biking in the City

June 5, 2019

Biking through a city scares a lot of people. Perhaps it’s the lack of safe cul de sacs, or maybe just the idea of cars whizzing by and crushing you into pulp. Urban cycling sounds terrifying, but it’s not as complicated or dangerous as it seems.

I’ve been a cyclist for the majority of my life, and have lived in cities ranging from bike-friendly to I’m-going-to-run-you-off-the-road for the past 15 years. Being in a city means a higher congestion of both people and cars, and it feels like things could go horribly wrong at any moment.

My first few rides in the notoriously car-centric Los Angeles were a little frightening, but once I learned the basics of how drivers in the city tend to behave, I’ve found it more pleasant and predictable than it is scary.

The same goes for any city. Once you’re comfortable, you’ll forget about the dangers and just enjoy yourself.

Know Your State’s Laws

Do you need to wear a helmet in your state? Are you allowed to ride on sidewalks? Is it legally safe to pass a car on the left side when you’re on a bike? Like driving, every state has a different set of laws for cyclists, so it’s worth brushing up on the basics.

To do so, The League of American Bicyclists has a handy guide that breaks down the laws in each state. This hasn’t been updated since 2012, but it’s a good place to get started before you hit the streets.

There’s one basic tenet though: follow the rules of the road just as you would in a car. Don’t run lights, don’t cut people off, and make sure you’re in the correct lane when you’re turning.

Many states also prohibit biking on the sidewalk, so don’t pop onto a sidewalk unless you have to (it’s also just bad form, since that’s where people walk and a bike has no place there).

Ride on the right side of the lane (in a bike lane if there is one), with the flow of traffic. If you ever feel unsafe, most states allow you to take up a whole lane of traffic when needed.

Assume Every Driver Doesn’t See You (and Other Tips for Not Dying)

Like anything, cycling safety is all about being aware of the world around you. Case in point, my general assumption when riding a bike is that cars do not see me, nor will they alter their path for me.

Since most bike lanes are on the right side of the road, I assume every single car next to me or in front of me is potentially turning right, and never ride anywhere near their blind spot or so fast that I can’t stop immediately.

The same goes for parked cars opening their doors into a bike lane. If you see the silhouette of a head in a parked car, assume that door could open at any moment.

Basically, just never assume anything of drivers when you’re on a bike. Don’t assume they’ll stop for you, that they see you, or that they expect you to do anything but follow the rules of the road.

While assuming you’re invisible is a good place to start, let’s run through a bunch of basic tips for keeping yourself safe:

  • Don’t wear headphones: Just don’t. I keep headphones accessible for when I’m on bike paths or car-free roads, but if you’re in traffic, do not wear headphones.
  • Put lights on your bike: If you’re riding at night, you need lights for both the front and back of your bike. This is especially useful in the winter months when the sunset tends to creep up on you. I like Knog lights because they’re easy to clip on and rechargeable over USB. Make sure you remove those lights before you lock your bike up outside. They’re an easy target for thieves.
  • Ride a city-appropriate bike: Beach cruisers and mountain bikes might make you feel safer because they tend to be giant tanks that can crush through anything (which is fun in its own right), but they’re not actually great for navigating the city. Road bikes or commuter bikes are usually a better choice. I prefer road bikes myself, but cheap, commuter bikes like these ones spotlighted by Bicycling Magazine are great alternatives for people who don’t want to drop a lot of cash. These bikes tend to be single speed, which cuts down on maintenance and eases you into riding a bike again because you don’t have to worry about shifting. That said, the lack of gears makes them a bit troublesome for anywhere with a lot of hills.
  • Ride a bike that fits: Ever trip over yourself because you decided to get a pair of shoes a half-size bigger? That’s what happens when you’re on a bike that doesn’t fit, except you’re going 30 miles per hour. When a bike doesn’t fit you, it’s not only uncomfortable, it’s also unwieldy and hard to ride, which leads to accidents. This guide can help you figure out your measurements, but if you’re new to cycling, it’s worth going into a bike shop for a professional fitting so you know both your frame size and how high your saddle should be.
  • Treat the bike lane like a lane, not a safe zone: People tend to think bike lanes are some type of magical barrier that you can safely ride in. They’re not. They’re just another lane on the road, and cars will merge into it sometimes, cut you off, and people will open doors from parked cars into the lane. Just because you’re in a bike lane doesn’t mean you’re behind some protective barrier. It’s a lane, and drivers will teach it as such.
  • Practice on side streets: “It’s just like riding a bike” is a bogus claim. If you haven’t ridden in a long time, getting on for the first time will feel weird. Stick to side streets without a lot of cars to practice until you get comfortable. If you’re commuting, there’s no shame in avoiding the big roads until you’re ready.
  • Use Google Maps: Google Maps has cycling directions, and they’re fantastic. If you don’t know how to get around, plot out your route in Google Maps first. This will guide you along bike-friendly streets and paths so you can avoid accidentally getting on some four-lane road with no room on the side. Heck, you can even break the no headphone rule and get turn-by-turn directions if you need to (but seriously don’t also listen to music or podcasts or whatever).
  • Don’t be a dick: Drivers hate cyclists. This is just how it is. So don’t go out of your way to upset them. Follow the rules, remember that they’re in giant hunks of metal that can crush you in an instant, and always assume they’re out to get you. It’s a hard thing to accept, but it’ll keep you safer. Otherwise, just be chill, shrug off the honking horns and middle fingers, and enjoy yourself.

This might sound like common sense if you bike a lot, but I still see people act like idiots every day. Stay aware, and you’ll be safe.