Urban Riding: A Guide

November 01, 2019 • Transportation

Urban Riding: A Guide

Most of us know how to ride a bike — it was a skill we learned so we could pal around with neighborhood kids or to school and back. As kids, we were fearless. As adults however, we probably have some concerns about safety or apprehension about logistics, especially when it comes to biking in urban areas.

This guide is intended as a companion to Bike Commuting Basics and will cover tips for city riding; how to coexist with cars; and etiquette for riding in a group. With the Bay Area’s “second summer” upon us, now is a great time to feel like a kid again!

Be predictable

We covered basic rules of the road already, and the League of American Bicyclists has an excellent tip sheet, but there is one really important principle to remember when riding in urban areas: Be predictable. This means communicate your intentions to other road users via hand signals; riding in a straight path; and obeying all traffic signs and signals. In the case of merging or making left turns, cars will often slow down to let riders over after they signal.

If you retain only one thing from this post, this is it. One more time, with feeling: Be. Predictable.

You can and should act like a car

Most drivers (and even some bicyclists) don’t know that bikers are allowed to take the full lane, meaning you are allowed to ride in the center of the traffic lane just like a car would do. Most state traffic laws say that bicyclists should ride "as far to the right as practicable," although “practicable” has yet to be clearly defined anywhere. So for now, here’s a cheat sheet to lane positioning:

  • If the lane is wide enough to share, stay to the right if cars can safely pass (with a three-foot gap between you and moving vehicles).
  • If the lane is not wide enough to share, stay in the center to discourage passing in your lane.
  • If you’re traveling the same speed as other traffic, take the lane.
  • If you’re coming up on an intersection or about to make a turn, take the lane to assert your position on the roadway.
  • If you need to avoid surface hazards — potholes, puddles, debris, and broken glass, or any other condition that makes it unsafe to ride along the right-hand curb or edge, take the lane.

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These signs are reminders to drivers; bicyclists are always allowed use of the full lane.

Along with lane positioning is lane choice. Remember to choose the rightmost lane that serves your destination. So it’s ok to be in the left lane as long as gets you where you need to go (example: a left turn on multi-lane road). Being in the right turn lane if you’re going straight would be incorrect.

Left turn options

When using a dedicated left turn lane, follow the rules for a car. If it’s a turn arrow, go when green. If it’s a yield turn, creep into the intersection on green and turn when oncoming traffic is clear.

If you’re using a lane that serves multiple directions, you have a few options, depending on the situation. Remember, if the lane is too narrow for a car to pass you safely, take the center of the lane to establish your position. Make sure to use hand signals to signal your merge and turn, and then do so when safe.

If you’re not comfortable merging into traffic to cross a busy intersection, try the Copenhagen Left by continuing straight through the intersection, stopping and then repositioning to cross the intersection going straight. It’s similar to a two point turn.

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Diagram showing a “Copenhagen Left.”

Not-so-secret option number three is to dismount once you reach the crosswalk and walk your bike across two intersections to make that left. Remember to walk your bike while in the crosswalk. As a general rule, you must act like a pedestrian when using pedestrian infrastructure, like sidewalks and crossings.

Avoid the door zone

Most drivers (and passengers) aren’t looking for bikes when they swing their car doors wide. This means that bicyclists must be hyper aware of that three foot area abutting a line of parallel parked cars, aka “the door zone.” Getting “doored” is high on the list of cyclist fears, and for good reason. Even at low speeds, a car door flung open suddenly in a cyclist’s path can result in flight over the handlebars.

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Avoid the “door zone” by positioning yourself in the center of the traffic lane.

Avoid being doored by taking precautions. When cars are parked parallel to the curb, and you’re riding in the rightmost lane, stay to the left of parked cars at a distance that is wide enough that a door won’t hit you if it suddenly opens. If this distance does not leave enough room for a car going your direction to pass from behind you in your lane, take the center of the lane to establish your position.

Here are some things to look for to predict a car door opening:

  • Passengers viewed through car windows or car side mirrors
  • Areas where cars regularly come and go, like shopping districts and school zones
  • Car interior and exterior lights
  • Cars idling

Drivers and passengers, please get into the habit of doing the Dutch Reach, every time you open a car door.

How to ride over train tracks

You may have seen those t-shirts — the ones that say: “I [CRASH] SF” depicting a cyclist’s front wheel getting stuck in a train track groove with the cyclist flying through the air. We don’t want to have to get you a t-shirt, so when crossing train or street car tracks, make sure you slow down and position your bike at a perpendicular angle to the rails. This will prevent your front wheel from getting stuck and you from going over the bars.

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Bicycling has a great video guide on how to navigate tracks when biking.

Riding with others

Sometimes, you’ll encounter other riders or pedestrians in the bike lane or on a multi use path. Or perhaps you like to ride with friends or would like to join your local cycling club. In these situations, it’s good practice to:

  • Announce yourself when passing from behind; bike bells are best for this.
  • Alert others in your group to hazards ahead, like potholes or broken glass.
  • Ask someone if it’s ok to draft behind them before cosying up to their rear wheel.

Check out more on group ride etiquette here.

With time and practice, riding in cities and on busy streets, will feel easy — maybe even fun. Just like riding a bike when you were a kid!

Want more?

Commute.org put out comprehensive guide to safe bicycling that covers everything from bike fit to rules of the road.

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