This article has been updated from its original text.
You’ve got your helmet on, reflectors in place to add visibility, and your bike is in good mechanical condition. These are, of course, basic bike safety practices that every bike rider is aware of. But seasoned riders in urban environments go beyond the basics, and ride with confidence amidst the sea of cars, buses, pedestrians and other bikers.
We’ve gleaned some tips from ardent urban bike riders, and put together these gems of information to help ensure your safety while you enjoy the benefits of bike riding in the city.
1. Be visible and predictable
Some car drivers are not attuned to, or do not appreciate, bikers on the road. Out of towners and tourists in rental cars are unfamiliar with the roads and often make sudden lane changes. In their confusion it is easy to overlook bikers. Trucks and buses passing by may obscure you from other vehicles ahead of or behind them, and they may not expect a bike rider to be in the lane as they catch up to the larger vehicle.
Always be defensive as you ride. Remain alert and be prepared for unpredictable moves or mistakes by others. Just because you wear visible clothing and do the proper turn signals, don’t assume that you are seen by other drivers. Do a visual glance at a driver who is supposed to yield to you to be sure you are actually seen.
The best advice is to take all measures to be visible while keeping in mind drivers still may not see you. Turn on your lights, wear brightly colored clothing, and put reflective materials on your bicycle. After dark, cyclists should have a front white headlight and a red light or reflector visible from the rear.
Riding in a straight line makes you visible and predictable to other road users, and it is one key to riding safely in traffic. Practice being able to ride in a straight line while signaling, stopping and in varying road conditions. Where cars are parked intermittently, ride in a straight line within motorists’ field of vision instead of swerving in and out between the parked cars.
2. Don't engage rage
City drivers are under stress. They are experiencing competition from other drivers, they may be unfamiliar with the roads, they may be late for work, or frustrated at being unable to find a parking space. And there are drivers who assume the roads were built for cars, period. They may take offence at having to yield to a bike rider. Other drivers have sporty cars which they may be inclined to drive more aggressively.
For all these reasons, it is certain that bike riders will at times be subject to road rage from car drivers, or from pedestrians who think they have right of way, or even from other bike riders who may be aggressive or under stress for the same reasons as car drivers.
In all cases, the best advice is to never engage a “rager” with any form of response. Trying to argue your case is fruitless to someone who is angry, flipping the bird is needlessly provocative, and pressing on with your action, however justified, which may have caused the rage is putting yourself in a potential conflict.
The best strategy is to back off and cede way to the “rager”. It simply doesn’t matter if you miss the light or have to stop to let someone make their turn or get into a parking space. The best way to defuse road rage is to ignore it completely, and defer to the needs of the rager. Let them go by, let them pass if they need to. Don’t add fuel to the fire of another person’s anger.
3. Avoid getting "doored"
One of the most dangerous hazards to urban bikers is also one of the least obvious – getting “doored”. People getting out of parked cars commonly open their driver-side door without looking behind. They may assume that passing cars are not that close so there’s no need to look carefully before opening the door.
Bike riders, however, usually ride more closely to the side of the road, directly in the path of opening car doors. Getting “doored” is an everyday hazard in city bike riding and can result in serious injury to the bike rider as well as the person exiting the car.
The way to avoid getting “doored” is awareness. As you ride along a string of parked cars, your eyes should glance down the line to see if there are any “heads and shoulders” visible in any of the cars. This is usually easy to see if you are simply aware enough to look. If you see anyone in the driver’s seat of a parked car, assume that they are either going to open the door and get out, or are getting ready to pull out of the parking space. Both are hazards that your awareness can easily avoid.
Tip: Ride at least a car-door’s width away from parked vehicles (about 1 meter).
A reminder to motorists – remember to check for cyclists before opening your door into the road.
4. Be a bell ringer
The obvious hazards to urban bike riders are cars, trucks and buses sharing the road, but pedestrians also need to be considered, for their safety as well as your own. Bike riders come up quickly and silently upon pedestrians who aren’t expecting them. Pedestrians assume they have right of way and may step out into crossing lanes without even looking. They are watching out for cars but may not be thinking about bike riders. A startled pedestrian may make a movement or reaction that results in a collision with the biker.
A simple bike bell is an important addition to your biking gear. Just a quick ring alerts pedestrians to your presence. You’ll even notice some people thanking you for the ring as you pass. Slower bike riders will also appreciate the bell ring as you approach to pass them.
Don’t forget to call out “riding through!” as you cross an intersection with pedestrians waiting to cross. Some people may hear the verbal cue while others will hear the bell. Use both.
5. Ear ye, ear ye, disconnect your iPod
Wearing earbuds to listen to your iPod while riding your bike is inviting an accident. While there are many visual cues bikers use as precautions, auditory cues can be just as critical. Do you hear the motorcycle that just pulled up behind you as you prepare to brake at an intersection? Can you hear a biker coming up to pass on your left as he/she calls out “passing on your left”?
Besides masking other sounds, the sound of your favorite music playing in your ears is distracting, since part of your concentration is naturally fixed on the song.
6. Ride with other bikers
There is more security in numbers for urban bike riders. Riding close to other bikers increases visibility, and gives more assurance that car drivers will accede to bike rider rights and privileges.
Try to get together with other friends or neighbors who may be riding bikes to similar destinations. If you commute regularly to work, you may notice other bike riders with similar patterns – same route, same time of day. Get in the habit of riding along with these bikers as an added safety precaution. And, since you have bike riding in common with them, you may even make some new friends as a bonus.
Stick to established bike routes when possible. Contact your local government for a bike map to find established bike routes.
Biking has so many benefits in urban environments that more people should be encouraged to give urban biking a try. Safe riding practices are the first steps to success in getting around town quickly, quietly and with zero environmental impact.
Learn about the laws related to bicycling in your state. The League of American Bicyclists compiles bike laws by state.
Oregon Bicyclist’s Manual from The Oregon Department of Transportation.
Cycling in Cities Research Program at University of British Columbia.