Welcome to Bike Commuting, Try Not To Hurt Yourselves

We’re in the midst of Bike to Work Month. Here in Seattle, it is a big deal. The Cascade Bicycle Club, backed by a small army of corporate sponsors, goes above and beyond to promote bike commuting with the Commute Challenge and a slew of bikey events and parties. Cheesy as some of the promotions can be, they seem to really work.

In May at least, Seattle sees a huge spike in bike commuting. During rush hour, it’s not uncommon to see lines of bikes 20 or 30 deep at red lights along major bike routes. Last year, on bike to work day Cascade estimated there were over 20,000 bike commuters on the road. It’s always a pretty amazing sight to see.

Of course, with the influx of riders comes a significant increase in the number of brand-new bicyclists out on the road. Many of them are nervous about riding with cars, are unaware of how traffic laws apply to bikes, and don’t know the tricks and techniques of safe on-road riding. As safe as bicycling is, there are definitely ways to make it a whole lot safer and reduce some of the inherent risks of sharing the road with two-ton metal boxes.

I’ve seen my fair share of this sketchy riding the past few weeks with bikes weaving in and out of parked cars trying to stay as far right as possible, riding against traffic, riding on crowded sidewalks, riding without lights, and more.

During a morning commute last week, I watched a women pull up to a stop light with two straight lanes and one right-turn only lane. Rather than taking her rightful spot in the straight lane, she stopped as close as she could to the curb on the right side of the turn-only lane. When the light turned green she cut across the turn lane and continued straight down the road. Fortunately, there were no cars turning at the time, but I’m not sure she was aware that she was setting herself up for a terrible right-hook from a turning car.

Last year, around this same time, I wrote a piece for my old PubliCola column offering advice to newbie bike commuters. It seems worth reposting that advice now in preparation for Bike to Work day this coming Friday. If you’re a newbie yourself, hopefully you can commit a few of these tips to memory to make your next commute that much safer. If you’re an experienced cyclist already (as I suspect many of The Bicycle Story’s readers may be), consider sharing some of these tips with that man or woman in your office that’s thinking about giving bike commuting a go this month. After all, today’s wobbly bike newb is tomorrow’s die-hard, year-round commuter.

Last year I wrote:

Be Predictable: Predictability is the most important thing for staying safe. If you’re riding along in a straight line, drivers can usually guess your next move and act accordingly. If you’re weaving all over the road—like the woman in front of me on Stone Way this morning who kept switching from bike lane to parking lane and back again as we coasted down the hill—you’re putting yourself at risk.

Signal: This goes hand and hand with predictability. It seems obvious, but a lot of cyclists (and drivers) have a bizarre aversion to signaling. Throw your hand up (as shown in the handy diagram below) and let cars (and other bicycles) know what you’re about to do. Even the half-assed, point-from-the-hip-with-one-finger signal is better than nothing.

Take the Lane: If riding down the center of the travel lane makes things feel safer for you, do it. Taking the lane is particularly good when the only other option is to ride in the door zone. Sure, you might inconvenience some drivers for a few seconds, but getting honked at is definitely preferable to getting hit with a car door.

Stay off the Sidewalk: It might seem safer to ride on the sidewalk than a busy road, but this is rarely, if ever, the case. You’re far more likely to get hit by cars entering or leaving driveways and parking lots on the sidewalk than on the street. Drivers don’t expect a fast-moving bike on the sidewalk and likely won’t look for one as they pull in or out.

Obviously this is just the tip of the smart-riding iceberg. But, the only thing I’d add to my list from last year (which I can’t believe I omitted, honestly) is …

Get Some Damn Lights, Back and Front: It’s amazing how invisible bikes are without lights. Rear blinky lights are good for the back, but you’re equally at risk of being hit by an oncoming car making a left turn (not to mention your fellow bicyclists sharing the bike path with you). Without a front blinky, the driver is not going to see until it’s too late, if at all. Even a $15 set of little front and back blinkers will make a world of difference. One final note, red is for the back, white is for the front. No exceptions.

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