Commuting by Bike Around Cars
For many people, the scariest part of bike commuting is riding with cars. Four thousand pounds of metal and plastic hurtling past you at twenty five miles per hour is enough to make most people a little nervous. However, like hills, weather, and distance there are skills and techniques to make commuting safer and less stressful.
What can you expect from car/drivers?
The way motorists behave around cyclists depends a lot on where you live; drivers in Portland, Oregon will be much more conscientious than those in Los Angeles. This is a measure of how aware people are of bicycles. If you want to confirm this for yourself, go on a drive on a nice day with a friend that who does not ride. At the end ask them how many bicyclists they saw, I suspect your count will differ significantly from theirs. This is because you probably find bikes very salient and they, like most drivers, do not.
Since motorists are not keeping an eye out for bicycles and do not know how to react around them, you can expect a number of behaviors. These include honking, passing very close, cutting off riders while turning, and ignoring your right-of-way. I’m sure you have heard stories of aggressive driving, yelling, and cussing; these happen very rarely and I have never heard of such a situation escalating.
What can you do to stay safe?
The rules of the game are visibility, avoidance, defensive riding, and evasion. Each of these tactics make drivers more aware of you and get you away from those that remain oblivious.
Visibility is key: if drivers see you they are much more likely to give you space. There is a great deal that can be said about light and clothing selection but your best source is probably your local bike shop (LBS). They can set you up with the lights, reflectors, and bright riding gear to get started.
Avoidance involves finding routes with the least amount of traffic or at least good shoulders or bike lanes. The bike route tool in Google Maps is a good way to get started. It will direct you to the easier hills, bike lanes, and side streets so you can gain strength and confidence with a lighter volume of cars. The city, county, or local bike clubs may also have maps that show the low volume streets and bike paths so you can do your own routing if you do not like what Google hands you. If you cannot get around a busy street use the sidewalk and crosswalks if it is legal in your city; your LBS or riding club should know. Other riders in your area are usually a great resource for faster and more challenging routes that will complement your growing skills.
Almost every bike club in America will champion defensive riding. This makes sense, if drivers don’t notice you all the traffic law in the world won’t save you. Remember what you might have learned in a defensive driving class: keep aware of your surroundings and your actions. Make your actions and intentions very clear; pick your line, stick to it, and signal any changes. Here are some concrete examples: I always ride a third of the way into the lane. This clearly signals my intent to be in the lane, puts me into a driver’s visual field, and helps me follow a clear, predicable course. Motorists give me more respect and room when they pass. I also do not ride with headphones since I must be able to hear overtaking cars well before I see them. Knowing that a car is coming keeps me from being surprised and allows me to take appropriate action.
This brings us to evasion. Just like with driving, precautions go a long way but a little skill behind the handlebars never hurts. Keep your options in mind should something go wrong or a car makes an unexpected move. Say a car merges suddenly just in front of you. Can you move left into a turning lane? Can you make a hard right turn onto the street the car pulled out of? Can you dodge around it? The same thinking holds true of debris in the road or mechanical failure. Bike handling skills are key here. Your local riding club may have clinics and the riding skills section at has many relevant articles as well.
The only way to get used to riding with cars is to do it. It is scary at first but very soon you will get more and more comfortable. If you start with the side streets and bike lanes you will gain the confidence to ride in traffic. Keep in mind that if the situation on the road becomes untenable it is fine to pull over and asses your options. After five years of consistent riding, I will still use the sidewalk and crosswalks if traffic makes me really uncomfortable or I can’t get though safely. Remember, make drivers aware of you, ride safe, and wear a helmet. See you on the street.
Lucas Meserve is an undergraduate at the University of Washington in Seattle. He has been commuting by bicycle for the last five wet northwest winters with distances ranging from 2 to 9 miles each way. He does most of his own bike maintenance, including wheel building, and hopes to race cyclocross in the fall.
Photo is from treehugger.com via Bisikletliler Dernegi