Rolling in the Urban Jungle

Recently I wrote a post about "how to blog" and enjoyed pretending people might actually listen to my advice. It was such a power trip, I'm coming right back this week with "How to ride your bike in the city."

I've ridden my bike to work every single day for about 11 months now. I also do a fair number of road rides starting in "the city" and also run other errands on my bike. I ride primarily in Cambridge/Somerville, although I've done some time in most other parts of Boston as well, including downtown. I've noticed how much my riding behavior has changed over time, so I think there's a legitimate learning curve here -- which isn't to say I'm not going to keep learning. I've seen a lot of people out there who could benefit from some advice, so here it is -- and some of the worst offenders are roadies in full kits heading out on training rides, so don't think this doesn't apply to you, average-blog-reader!

Misconceptions about city riding

"I'm a better rider than 99% of the clowns out here so I'll be fine"
This was one of my favorite things to tell myself when I started. I can keep up with traffic, I can bunny hop, I'm pretty darn agile on a bike. If the fat guy with the too-low seat can ride in the city without getting killed, this should be a breeze, right?

Wrong. Fat guy has two things going for him -- he rides slow as death, and he sees commuting on a bike as a purely utilitarian act. Biking is not a sport to him, and he's not doing this for fun. You, on the other hand, probably want to ride 20 miles per hour, and you're going to take a lot more risks than him -- because you're having fun, and because it's a rush. These facts at least cancel out your bike handling advantage.

"Cars and pedestrians have to respect me because there's lots of bikers and we have legal protection"
No, no, no. The sense of entitlement some riders have is appalling. One second they're running a red light, the next second they're giving some driver the finger for blocking half the bike lane. So you're mad at that car for blocking your lane, huh? That guy really is a selfish, law-breaking bastard, isn't he? It's a good thing you didn't just also commit a selfish and illegal act, so you have the moral authority to yell at him.

As a cyclist, you should not waste any brain cells worrying about the legality of anything. First, and most importantly, you should never elevate the importance of being "in the right" above the importance of "not dying." It doesn't matter if you had the right of way when you're in the hospital. Secondly, you probably break all kinds of laws every time you ride. Holding vehicular traffic to a standard you yourself ignore is hypocritical at best, suicidal at worst. Getting mad at cars for illegal/risky behavior is a pointless activity, and the sooner you get over it the better.

"Taking risks riding in the city makes me the envy of other riders/drivers"
I know I have been guilty of this one. The truth is, risky riding in the city is fun. If you want to do that, I don't hold it against you. I've raced my share of cars and shot more than my share of closing gaps. But the vast majority of people don't think you're cool when they see this, they think you're a hyper-aggressive idiot. Car drivers see you as a cocky menace likely to get in an accident that will end up on their insurance. You're no better than the guy in the riced-out Civic cutting them off on 93. Pedestrian see you as a cocky menace likely to create a hit-n-run when you crush someone who stepped off the curb without looking. And other riders? The slow commuters don't care. The serious commuters know you're playing russian routette. The only people you're possibly impressing are the bike messengers, and unless you're really crazy, they've probably done something crazier.

So take all the risks you want, but don't delude yourself into thinking you're doing anything but digging the hole of ill will toward cyclists deeper.

Recognizing Dangerous Situations

As mentioned above, the law will not take care of you. The bike lane, assuming it exists, does not create a magical force field to protect you on your commute. You need to be alert at all times for other cyclists, pedestrians and cars that can (and will) cross your path without checking for you. However, it's impossible to be 100% vigilant all the time -- it's just too mentally tiring. After a while, you get used to the routine, and unless you've crashed recently you just won't be motivated to constantly scan your surroundings like a soldier in enemy territory. This is ok -- but you have to recognize the situations that do offer a severe reduction in risk if you are being as vigilant as possible.

Situation #1: Crossing an intersection with the flow of traffic
You're going through an intersection on the right side of a stream of traffic. Where are your hands?

If the answer is anything other than "somewhere they can grab the brakes without moving" then you're playing with fire. Why? Cars turning right. This is probably the most common bike-car altercation, and it's completely avoidable to you as a rider. Yes, it's a car's responsibility to not do this to you. Yes, most drivers in Cambridge actually check for bikes before turning right. Most drivers even warn you they're turning with a blinker. These things don't matter.

Second question -- Is there a car directly to your left?

If there is, you had better be at even with or ahead of the driver's side mirror, so that the driver sees you. Otherwise, he can turn and even with your hands on the brakes you'll get taken down. If you're entering and intersection even with the back wheel of a car, you absolutely have to speed up or slow down relative to the car.

Third question -- Where are you looking?

The best cars will put their blinker on to let you know they're turning. But this doesn't mean to watch their blinkers. The vast majority of right-turning cars will start to drift right well before the turn, so watch their tires. If a car is moving across the lane to the right at all, expect a turn. Even if they aren't turning, they may be drifting right to go around a left-turner, which for you is just about as bad as them actually turning. Even so, some people out there will just turn right with no warning. You have to watch the car right in front of you any time a right turn is possible.

Situation #2: Passing stopped traffic on the right
This actually more dangerous than the first one, because there's a large difference in speed involved. Let's say you have a long line of cars stopped for a light, and you're cruising past on the shoulder/bike lane at 20 mph -- that's awesome, right? You're totally smoking all those idiots in their rolling coffins!

Well, yes, but a lone biker passing stopped cars is really hard to see. If there are tall vehicles involved (vans, SUVs, trucks) you may be completely blocked AND have large areas of your vision obscured as well. I used to tell myself it was ok that I was flying up the side of the road partially blind because I was in the sacred bike lane -- but that's ridiculous. You can get totally rocked in two ways in this situation...
1) An oncoming car turns left through a small gap in the stopped traffic and never sees the biker. This is even worse if the traffic is rolling slowly, because the turning car will often floor it to shoot the narrow gap, giving it even less chance of noticing a cyclist.
2) A pedestrian walks between stopped cars and steps into the bike lane without looking. To a person, if traffic is stopped, it's safe to cross. People are just as unaware as drivers, walking around, talking to their friends, making phone calls. They've been conditioned over the years to assume that stationary traffic is safe to cross.

In this situation, you have to slow down based on how much you can see. A bunch of low sedans on the left plus a clear view of the sidewalk mean you can speed on through. Anything else and you need to slow down and ride with your hands on the brakes. I know it sucks to not be able to let it rip when it's clear in front of you, but you have to recognize that in this situation people are not going to expect your presence.

Stupid Riding Tricks

Running red lights at full speed
Yeah, I'm talking to you, Mr. Full-Quad-Cycles-Kit-Commuter-Whom-I-See-Regularly. First of all, this is obviously risky, although at some intersections you might be able to see well enough that it's somewhat safe. But most of the time you can't really see well enough to know it's clear in time to stop in anything less than a panic stop if it isn't. If your braking distance is 25 feet and you can't confirm the intersection is clear until you're 30 feet away from it... just slow the hell down. Don't make a fool of yourself by locking them up at the last second when you see a car.
Secondly, this infuriates motorists to no end. It's one thing if you slow down and make sure it's clear, then roll across. People in their cars can respect that you're breaking the letter of the law, but taking care to be safe and considerate about it. It goes along way toward them not hating you, which is actually worth quite a lot in the long run.

Edging out into intersections because you're impatient or can't trackstand
This is just terrible, and I see it far too often. Some guy really, really wants to run a light, so he tries to stay on his pedals and roll at 1 mph while he waits for traffic to clear. But of course, traffic doesn't clear, so he ends up further and further out until people driving through the intersection have to start actively avoiding him.

This is pretty much the least considerate thing you can do on a bike. You look like a fool and you're pissing off motorists. Just learn to trackstand, or chill out. Once again, this type of action is terrible from the bike advocacy point of view.

Half-crossing larger roads
Some four-lane roads have a pretty large "dead area" in between the lanes at an intersection. Often times there is a traffic island in the middle, and it's tempting to dart across to the safety of this island if only the near lane is clear (assuming you're looking at a red light and cross traffic has a green). DON'T DO THIS! First of all, it's just one of those conspicuous law-breaking activities that hurts bike advocacy, and unlike most red-light running it doesn't actually get you anywhere . You still need to far lane to clear, and at least half the time it probably won't before the light changes. Secondly, you present traffic crossing the far lane with a predicament they should not have to worry about -- "is that biker going to stop?" They're already drinking a coffee while talking on their cell phone while driving in Boston's 6-foot-wide lanes -- seeing a bike coming into their lane out of the corner of their eye is going to startle them, which means they're at best pissed off and at worst causing an accident.

Just chill out and wait for the green. I promise it's not that long.

Riding at night without a rear light
If you do this, the police report is going to say "he was asking for it," and I'm going to agree with them.

Dude, you're invisible in the dark. 80% of car/bike accidents happen at night and involve unlit riders. There's no excuse to not have a $5 blinker on your seatpost, helmet, or jersey.

Riding without a front light is kind of in the gray area. Front lights are bulkier and handlebar mounted, so I can see the aversion to that stuff on your bike. Additionally, anyone who could see a front light is in your field of view, so you have a chance to take evasive action. Still though, if you're a night rider you really should get a front light, for one reason -- oncoming cars turning left.

At night, any car will go left on you, because they can't see you, at all. Since you can see them, you have a reasonable chance to not get killed, so from a safety point it's not that bad. What is bad is when they SUDDENLY see you when they're about to turn left. All of the sudden, a bike pops into a streetlight and the driver is startled. Holy crap, I didn't even see that guy! I didn't even see that... selfish idiot biker who expects me to protect him from his own stupidity.

Just like a lot of other things here -- if you're pissing drivers off, you're doing it wrong

In summary, don't annoy drivers with your antics, don't take stupid risks, and recognize when you're most likely to get hit. Simple as a 2200 word blog post!


James said…
Nice post. I'm definitely guilty of some of those, but still get pissed off if it's the other way around and I'm in the car. I'll have to be more patient.
josh said…
did this stem out of your ride w. alex and christian per chance? were you really suffering (no shame, up until i started getting somewhat less slow late this spring i suffered every time i rode with him....then it become only 75% of the time)

anyways, back in march/april i rode my bike from watertown to wherever the tufts crit is held. then i raced. then i rode back to watertown. with a teammate (not christian) and my coach, whose house we were staying at. i coulda used this guide back then, as I had never ridden in "real" traffic. i came closer to dying riding to/from the race than i did in the race (saying alot considering that course).
Colin R said…
interestingly, after writing this i rode home without a front a light and really pissed someone off who didn't see me when they were turning left. i'm a freakin prophet.

josh, it was definitely influenced by riding with christian -- I noticed how christian rides like I used to, when I started riding in the city, which got me thinking about why I don't ride like that any more.

and yeah, of course I was suffering, I'm a mountain biker with around 1000 road miles in my legs this year.

Suffering but holding a wheel, of course.
Alex said…
Unlike me. I suffer and make whimpering noises.
gewilli said…
11 months?

and ya feel qualified to write all that stuff?


1/2 way through reading it - gotta comment cause i gotta do something else...

all damn good stuff...

being alive is much better than worrying about right of way...
Colin R said…
Hey now G, I didn't say I was done learning -- just that these were things I've picked up in 11 months. I'm sure there are more accomplished urban riders out there, although you probably don't shoot that many gaps with a trailer full of offspring attached to your bike.
gewilli said…
my sarcasm and humor behind the 11 months comment might not be as visible in print as it was when i was typing it...

once you stop learning and think you know it all you'll get a rude awakening...

every day is a learning day...

every interaction with a car is a new file to access in the algorithm.

IIRC gwadzilla had a nice write up about the algorithm in his head. It isn't really much different than mine.

And yes, my algorithm includes the loaded trailer in the equation of driver actions.

ya got a good bit of great information written here Colin, nice job! *pat on the back*
Anonymous said…
Great post! I commute Arlington to East Cambridge most days and I'm familiar with the parade of doofuses you describe.I'm the cursing, light-jumping, hypocritical one... Liked the blog advice too.
What I Think said…
Hey - this is a great post! I think about all these things when I commute, and then on the rare occasions when I drive, I see even more ways that I could have die if I had been on my bike. But man, there's nothing like riding down Mass Ave (I live in Arlington) all the way across the bridge into the city, passing numerous buses, and undeniably arriving at your destination faster than the alterative modes of transportation.
Kerry Bolger said…
Great post. I will definitely share this one... Only two things I would add as long-time Chicago commuter who rides BECAUSE I CAN, not because I need to:

1. Opening car doors hurt like fucking hell. It sucks when you've got a line of parked cars to the right and a packed lane of moving cars to the left. I'm more likely to move further out into moving traffic than to hug the parked cars, because I can generally keep up with traffic and--thanks to my nifty flashing rear light--I am very visible to cars behind me. People opening doors are generally not checking their mirrors first. You should be looking through the rear windows of parked cars to see if a person is inside the car, but it's not always easy to catch. Slow down if you need to ride tight to the parked cars.

2. Car doors don't hurt quite as much as being hit head-on by someone beginning to turn left in front of you. And no, this doesn't only happen at night. For me, a crystal clear summer Sunday morning changed my whole life. (Yes, I'm glad to be alive to tell about it. But it messed me up.) Yes, I had the right of way, and no, that didn't mean jack. I was going 18-20 mph through the intersection on a road with a clearly marked bike lane. Traffic was light as it was early on a Sunday. The guy at the wheel saw no oncoming car traffic and thought it was safe to make his left turn. He NEVER saw me. Even when my face broke the windshield on the driver's side, he didn't know what hit him. My hands were on the brakes, but given my speed and the fact that he was accelerating toward me, there was no way I could avoid being hit. So...there's something to be said for the flashing light on the handlebars. I will also never charge through another intersection again, whether or not I have the right of way. Just. Not. Worth it.

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