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New to the Bike Commute? Smart Tips for a Smooth Ride

In order to save money (and the environment), many people have started riding their bikes to work, which is great. But for experienced cyclists like me—I’ve commuted by bike for many years in treacherous San Francisco and have been a bike messenger—it can sometimes be scary to have so many people on the road who have no idea what they’re doing. Learning (and following) some basic safety rules will help ensure a safe commute to work for everyone.

Ride on the Right
It’s just like driving. You don’t hang out in the passing lane on the highway (unless you’re a jerk), so don’t do it while biking. Stay to the right, but give yourself enough room so you can still maneuver or swerve without getting hit. Don’t ride right next to parked cars, as a door can suddenly open and send you through the air like a javelin. (This is called a “door prize” or being “doored,” and man oh man, it’s painful.)

Pass on the Left
Always, always pass people on the left. There’s nothing more annoying (or dangerous) than someone who passes on the right. If you come barreling down the road and try to pass someone on the right who’s about to turn right, there’s going to be a nasty collision. If someone is going too slow in the left “lane,” then slow down until you can pass that person on the left.

This includes cars. If there’s a line of cars waiting to turn right, keep to the left of them as you pass. Trust me on this one; once I was stupid enough to try to pass a car on the right when he was turning right—guess who won that battle? The blood, bruises, and costly damage to my bike weren’t worth it.

Stop at Red Lights and Stop Signs
Cyclists are subject to the laws that vehicles are subject to, which includes stopping at red lights and stop signs. Where I live, cyclists run red lights all the time. Every time I’m waiting at a light, at least five cyclists fly by me. But this is not only illegal—it’s dangerous. Ignoring the laws only contributes to the tension between motorists and cyclists. Plus, lights are there for a reason—a heavy intersection for instance. You can be ticketed for breaking this law, and even worse, many cyclists have been killed by running lights.

When stopped at a light, always stop as far forward as possible without actually being in the intersection, so that the first car knows you’re there. If he wants to turn right, he knows that you have to go first, and it’s just safer for you to be as visible as possible.

Wear a Helmet
Here in San Francisco, helmets are not cool and over half the riders I see don’t wear them. This is very troublesome to me, even though I hate helmets too. I hate having to mess up my hair by putting on a helmet, but despite the agony I go through messing it up every day, I still wear one. It will never hurt you and it will definitely help you. Most cyclists who are killed are not wearing helmets—it may be a coincidence, but I doubt it. You have nothing to protect you from the asphalt—don’t risk your life just to look cool.

When Appropriate, Take the Whole Lane
The most important factor in your safety is being visible. If you’re riding down a narrow street with tons of cars and your speed is near that of traffic, take the whole lane. It will prevent you from being doored and it will prevent cars from passing you too closely. Go ahead and take up some space. I failed to do this once when I was a bike messenger in Atlanta, and I literally got run off the road and slammed full-on into a streetlight. (Yeah, it hurt.) If you don’t feel confident about taking up some space or are being harassed by a motorist, take a different route.

Watch the Road
I doubt San Francisco is the only city with potholes that have their own zip codes, so watch the road. A pothole can cause a wreck. Oblivious pedestrians also have a tendency to step off the curb and into traffic without even realizing it. Cyclists are the middle children of the road—we’re smaller than cars, but more dangerous than pedestrians. Don’t take your eyes off the road—you may have to swerve or brake at any moment.

Just (Don’t) Do It

  • Don’t ride the opposite way in a bike lane. It’s dangerous, stupid, and lazy. Take the extra three seconds to cross the street and ride the right way.
  • Don’t ride on sidewalks.
  • Don’t race other cyclists. If someone passes you, it’s just because she happens to be going faster than you. Avoid the urge to get competitive.
  • Don’t talk on your cell phone while riding—we hate it when drivers do it and almost kill us; don’t add to the madness.
  • Don’t ride in crosswalks. You aren’t a pedestrian if you’re on a bike and crosswalks are for pedestrians. Motorists are only looking for people on foot in crosswalks and may not see you. This is as bad as riding on sidewalks—just don’t do it.
  • Don’t hit Main Street on your first day. Yes, riding a bike after a long time is, well, just like riding a bike, but get yourself acclimated to city riding slowly. Stick to wide streets or streets with bike lanes until your reflexes and skills are better. Riding on busy city streets requires dexterity and confidence, skills that practice can help refine.
  • Don’t ride in terrible weather; this includes rain. I love riding my mountain bike in the mud, but on a slick city road, a street bike with skinny tires will simply not stop.

Always ride with the assumption that people can’t see you—because most of the time, they don’t. At the same time, be as visible as you can—use front and back lights at night and signal when turning. Be smart, be safe, and be respectful, and you will have a much smoother ride.