11/3/10

Tips for Urban Cyclists

I've read a lot of articles that give advice about urban bike commuting. Things like stop and stop signs, wear reflective gear, etc. I think these tips, however, are some of the best I've read, including:  
Obeying traffic rules is not your first priority. There are traffic rules aplenty to deal with in urban riding – street lights, stop signs, one way streets, construction zones, bus lanes, etc.  Obeying these rules is all well and good, but priority number one is staying safe.  I will unapologetically admit to breaking at least a half-dozen traffic rules each way, every day.  Roll through stop signs? You bet.  Run red lights?  Check.  Disobey the “Construction – street closed” signs that have been blocking my route home for the last month?  Absolutely.  You see, while traffic rules have a certain logic, they are built around cars, not bikes.  A moving bike is a safer bike, as momentum allows you to skirt obstacles and avoid danger from any direction.  Sitting motionless in the road at a stop sign or light, a cyclist is at his or her most vulnerable.  Better, then, to slow down, look carefully and keep moving if the way is clear.  The idea is to be critical, to not slavishly accept and obey the traffic rules just because they are there.  Recognize that your safety comes first.
Don’t pay attention to bike lanes. Hell, nobody else in the city does.  I routinely encounter buses, double-parked cars, delivery vans, wrong-way skateboarders and inebriated pedestrians blocking bike lanes.  Always be prepared to take the lane.  Plus, many bike lanes put you solidly in the “door zone” when you’re anywhere on the inner two-thirds of the lane.  That’s not much of a problem when traveling uphill, but a major issue on downhill bike lanes.  Always take the lane – not the bike lane, the whole damn thing – when traveling downhill.
Don’t stand on your rights. Yeah, you’ve got a bike lane, or the right-of-way, or whatever.  It doesn’t matter.  The laws of physics trump all traffic rules.  A bus is entering the bike lane to meet a stop right ahead of you?  Don’t try to pass in the bike lane.  Ditto for drivers making right turns, clueless pedestrians and lost dogs.  Ride like your life is on the line.  Do what’s safest and most predictable to others in the road, even if that means giving up “your” lane or, God forbid, stopping.
Wear a helmet, stupid. I seem to see more helmets in Seattle than in Manhattan, where wearing one must be against the law.  But still – too many fixie hipsters and other too-cool types are cruising around with helmets.  I like that as much as the next guy when cruising on the beach or a resort bike trail somewhere, but the city is HARD.  There’s lots of stuff that will jump up and bite you, and a crack in the pavement or an errant car door can smack your head before you know it.  It’s too high a price to pay for fashion, and besides – there are lots of cool bike helmets starting to hit the market.
I like these rules because they are realistic and actually reflect the kind of posture you need to have to ride with traffic. Drivers don't think twice about rolling through stop signs and they don't get overly concerned about whether or not they're over lane markings. They just drive and do so in a way that makes sense for them in their situation. I advocate that cyclists do the same, keeping in mind that your margin of error is less since you don't have thousands of pounds of metal surrounding you.

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