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More and more people are making the big move to bicycle commuting and finding out it isn't that difficult or dangerous to make it to work or school or coffee shop or grocery store, but even more haven't make the move. Having talked about this issue with many who haven't, I made a list of practical tips and advice that address many of the common concerns I've heard. I've been commuting around town on my bicycle for thirty years without a single accident involving a motor vehcile, and for a long time, I couldn't understand why people didn't do it, but now, I get it.

Practical Tips for Making Bicycle Commuting Safer and Easier

More and more people are making the big move to bicycle commuting and finding out it isn’t that difficult or dangerous to make it to work or school or coffee shop or grocery store, but even more haven’t make the move. Having talked about this issue with many who haven’t, I made a list of practical tips and advice that address many of the common concerns I’ve heard.

I’ve been commuting around town on my bicycle for thirty years without a single accident involving a motor vehicle, and for a long time, I couldn’t understand why people didn’t do it, but now, I get it. There are actually a lot of physical and psychological barriers to getting started–or more likely, I should say, continuing to do it after the first few times. So many people buy a bike with good intentions but stop using it after a few commutes.

Some cities are easier and safer than others, of course, but it’s a rare situation where bicycle commuting can’t be safe and enjoyable. Modern, lightweight, expertly geared bicycles can make hills seem flat.

And it’s much more time-efficient than most people think–if you count the actual time you really spend caught in traffic, idling at stop lights, fueling and maintaining your vehicle, and finding a parking spot and walking from it to your office. In my case, I live two miles from downtown where I used to work and now go to visit the ORG Table (Old Retired Guys) at the coffee shop almost every morning. If I drive my pickup truck, it requires 8-9 minutes instead of 13-14 minutes when I ride my bike. So, yes, it takes a tad longer.

If your schedule is so tight that you can’t afford another 15-30 minutes per day to bicycle commute, there’s no use reading the rest of this column, but hopefully, the obvious benefits–conserving energy, healthful exercise, cost savings, and no parking hassle or tickets–make those few extra minutes look like a deal.

Getting to like it. It seems to me that one of the–if not the–biggest barriers is learning to enjoy bicycle commuting instead of having to do it to save money, lose weight or fight terrorism by reducing dependence on imported oil. All I can say is that it takes time to achieve a basic fitness level, adjust your routine and learn to feel comfortable with you and your bicycle becoming part of the normal traffic flow. So, don’t hang it up after a few days. Give it enough time, and you’ll start liking it. On those rare mornings when I have to drive my truck instead of ride my trusty bicycle, I actually feel deprived of my early morning commute.

Where to ride. Assuming you aren’t fortunate enough to have a nice bikeway or a wide shoulder not used for parking leading to your destination, you’ll have to use city streets. Where and how to ride those streets is often the biggest mistake beginning commuters make.

First and most important, always ride with the flow of traffic, never against it.

If your city has properly prioritized putting bike lanes on thru streets instead of putting designated routes on back streets, use them. They’re usually the best place to ride. Without bike lanes, which is commonly the case, ride one or two feet into the traffic lane–and always ride a straight line. If you’re on a residential street with a lane for on-street parking, hold your line in the traffic lane; don’t weave in and out of the open spaces between parked cars.

When riding along parked cars, ride far enough away from the car to keep from being “doored”–i.e. a motorist opening the door without looking to see a cyclist approaching from behind, which, sadly, happens frequently.

When approaching an intersection with a right-hand turn lane and planning to go straight, hold your line in the traffic lane instead of turning in and out of the right-hand lane, which makes the motorist behind think you’re turning right.

When turning left on a multiple-lane road, carefully move into the left-turn lane just as you would do with your motor vehicle, and do this a block or two in advance, so you aren’t making a sudden move across traffic.

Even though it’s legal to ride on sidewalks in most cities, this is usually quite dangerous, so avoid it if possible.

What route to ride. Regrettably, people who make rules and designate routes for cyclists often don’t ride bicycles. City traffic planners, for example, often focus on separating cyclists and motorists instead of educating both to safely and courteously share the streets. They try to concentrate bicycle commuters on streets they think cyclists should ride instead of recognizing that commuters will take the easiest, shortest and safest route, which is almost always a thru street also preferred by motorists.

I live near a “designated bicycle route,” but I only use the part that goes on a thru street. The rest of it requires a lot more time and effort because I have to stop almost every block or risk a ticket for slowly rolling through a stop sign. This doubles the time it takes to get across town. Traffic planners rarely understand that it takes more energy and time for a cyclist to unclip and stop at a stop sign than it does for a motorist. In fact, I usually, take the same route I do when driving and for the same reasons–it’s faster and safer.

Those were the words of an experienced bicycle commuter who is used to sharing streets with motorists, but I realize it takes a while for a new commuter to get comfortable with riding with motorists. So, if you’re nervous about riding in traffic, take the designated route. It’s almost never the fastest or easiest route, and sometimes not the safest, but in most cases, it is a safe route–unless it has a lot of unmarked intersections, which can be quite dangerous for cyclists and motorists.

Bulb-outs and grates. Many cities install “traffic calming devices” in the form of bulb-outs, often at pedestrian crosswalks, where the curb is extended out into the street into the space cyclists commonly ride. These are very dangerous for cyclists, especially when approached on a downhill grade at higher speeds. If you’re approaching such a bulb-out, move out into the lane of traffic a block or two in advance to avoid swerving at the last second.

Also, regardless of many accidents and lawsuits, some cities still have not changed storm sewer grates to run perpendicular instead of parallel with traffic. If your city still has parallel grates, you should ride further out into the traffic lane to make sure you don’t get your wheel caught in the grate and possibly fall into traffic or suddenly swerve into traffic to miss it.

Signaling. The rules you’ve seen for signaling date back to the days when bicycles had coaster brakes. Always signal if you can do it safely, of course, but both cyclists and motorists need to understand that in some cases, cyclists must keep both hands on the handlebars and brakes and can’t safely signal.

Equipment and clothing. Always wear your helmet, of course, and prioritize high-visibility clothing over fashion. Also, wear bicycle gloves and when riding a night or low light conditions, always use a flashing backlight and handlebar or headband LED front light.

If you’re one of the many on the edge of taking up bicycle commuting, I hope these tips help. If you have questions or concerns I didn’t cover, put them into the comment section, and I’ll try to answer them. Ride on.

For more on bicycle safety and sharing the roads, check out The Share the Road Chronology

About Bill Schneider

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  1. As I know you know, and perhaps Idaho cyclists have been amply reminded lately, in Idaho, at least, one does not “risk a ticket for slowly rolling through a stop sign.” Our state code (49-720) is enlightened in requiring “slowing to a reasonable speed” but stopping only “if required for safety.”

    For many trips, I find what you do, that the same route as driving is more expedient. However, when I commuted regularly, I started by finding an effective route that was almost wholly through subdivisions, and found it more pleasant, and safe.

  2. Great piece. My “do’s” include making sure I see the drivers seeing me–I feel good about that eye to eye contact. I also try to bike in a way that is mindful of what is pissing off the motorists and avoid that behavior. Even if I am safe and legal, an exasperated motorist is a dangerous thing. And if they are unable to be mad at me for something I do that angers them, it may fall on the next cyclist they encounter. So, all you self-important people who think it’s OK to ride against traffic or ride in traffic according to your own free-spirit rules–all cyclists are getting tainted by your idiocy. Finally, think about ways to combine long or challenging trips with Mountain Line or other bus service–the racks on buses are useful!

    I have been cycling around Missoula year round for over 20 years. I always say if “they” knew how much fun I had on my bike, “they” would make me quit!

  3. Nice job, Bill. And I totally echo Geoff’s comments about trying to peacefully coexist with the “cagers.” (A little “biker lingo” there.) I do NOT want to share the road with hostile folks in 3500-pound speeding missiles! It seems like many cyclists who-should-know-better have no such qualms.

    I posted a link to your article on my BikeNazi blog.

  4. I’m not so sure about that moving out into the left lane a full block ahead unless you are NOT tying up the auto traffic. Safer and more courteous in heavy traffic to unload and walk the crosswalk.
    Yes, I understand the “vehicle” in front has the right of way and all that, but if someone stuffs me or cuts me off, I’m annoyed regardless of whether it’s a Diamondback or a Diamond Reo.
    I completely agree on the no-sudden-moves-or-swerves concept.
    And I’ll also second Tom’s stealth routing strategy. After a couple commutes and maybe some slack-time exploring, one can almost always find a much better, more bucolic, efficient line.
    Of course, the smartest thing to do is buy a screaming rice rocket with a redline of at least 12 grand and ride THAT instead. Much safer in terms of having all hazards approach from the front.

  5. Use eye contact.

    Four-way-stop standoffs are good examples. Bikers who appear interested in waiting their turn by swiveling their head attentively display good will to be returned in kind. I often find drivers waving me through before I have to put a foot down.

    Acknowledging one another’s existence tightens small communities, promotes world peace, etc.

  6. I’ve been cycling for many years, including some wonderful hours in the Adirondack State Park of New York and in Vermont, both of which are cycling-friendly locales. Unfortunately, I was clipped by a car just a quarter-mile from home here in Pa. a little more than two years ago and am now limited to cycling around the neighborhood. The challenge facing cyclists is to work with planning and zoning boards to put cycling-friendly infrastructure on the landscape. Share the road is more than just a T-shirt slogan. In Pa., the friendliest places to cycle are often also the largest city-scapes like Philadelphia nd Pittsburgh.

  7. Psychological barriers that segment cities are a big problem. In Bozeman, those would be primarily 19th Avenue and Main, with Oak Street (even with it’s bike lines) destined to be a rival. Accomodations to cross these streets are very poor.

    I can’t think of any bulb-outs presenting a problem. Normally, one rides in the street. Traffic calming is very effective at taming drivers, to the benefit of bikes and pedestrians. Multi-lane streets do the opposite of traffic calming — they manufacture idiotic driving and road rage.

  8. I almost got hit yesterday, when passing the Albertsons on E. Broadway. I was riding west (from a few buildings down) on the sidewalk closest to the shopping center, at rush hour. I needed to get to the river trail, and didn’t want to cross Broadway to be on the correct side of the road , just to cross again a few blocks later. Crossing in that area is really hairy. So I chose the sidewalk and rode cautiously. However, my caution was worthless when met by the blinding panic embodying the long line of cars waiting to escape (all making left turns) in that weird uphill exit driveway onto insane Broadway. As I was crossing, a car lurched forward, because the driver was only paying attention to left-turn possibilities, not to pedestrain/bikes on the sidewalk. I braced myself for impact, but luckily the car’s brakes engaged quickly enough to miss me by about an inch.

    My point? I think the perception that the roads are all safe once you get used to it simply depends on where you have to go. I have lovely routes to some locations, but there are certain places in town where riding my bike is truly dangerous. And usually the danger has to do with poor design that leads to road rage. I love riding my bike, but sharing the road with cars is nervewracking to me, and especially when I have my child in a trailer or tag-along, i just dont feel comfortable trusting our fate to drivers who may or may not notice us. I commend everyone who has worked so hard to create the many safe bike lanes we do have in Missoula. I just want to encourage people to ask for more.

  9. I don’t know E. Broadway (since Boise’s is N/S), I guess you’re talking about Missoula?

    But the general principle applies anywhere: if you’re coming against traffic on the wrong side of the road, whether in the road or on the sidewalk, you must assume that you are invisible.

    I try to keep that in mind when driving, and do “one last check” the other way from the traffic I’m waiting for a break in, but a cyclist at speed can sneak in under the radar, as it were.

    The ultimate in defensive cycling: be visible, predictable, and assume you’re invisible.

  10. Just to clarify, the following is Bozeman City Ordinance:

    10.48.180 Riding on Sidewalks – Restrictions
    A. No person shall ride a bicycle upon any sidewalk within the main business district.
    B. No person over the age of fifteen years shall ride any bicycle upon any sidewalk
    within the city.
    C. Whenever any person is riding a bicycle upon a sidewalk, such person shall yield
    the right~of-way to any pedestrian, and shall give audible signal before overtaking and passing such pedestrian. (Prior code S 11.04,555)X-50 10/2005-

    I think most cities have similar rules. So, grown-ups, don’t ride on the sidewalk!

  11. Just feel the need to clarify: Yes, I am in missoula.. I only rode on the sidewalk because there wasn’t a clearly safe alternative. I think that cyclists should be allowed to ride on empty sidewalks when no safe street place is available. With utter caution and priority to pedestrians.

    The area of sidewalk I rode on was about a block long. I would have had to cross a really busy 4 lane street where there is no corner or light, travel one block, and cross the street again. If I had been on foot I would have gotten nearly hit by the same driver. I went slowly ( maybe at fast walking pace?). I also use the sidewalk when towing my son through tricky parts of town, because I do indeed assume I am invisible to cars. When going through downtown Missoula, there is no room for us, and I dont feel safe being passed by trucks with my child behind me. It’s just too nervewracking. So I ride very slowly on some sidewalks where I see fit.

    Where I was riding is on a thoroughfare that goes out of town, and it is at the edge of town. It’s not very pedestrian friendly.

    I was being really cautious. I promise. I am a really paranoid cyclist on a really clunky old cruiser. I was just trying to say that there are really some places that are not safe. Maybe to an avid cyclist on a great bike that has no children to worry about, those more dangerous places to bike are exhilarating? But to me I don’t feel very comfortable, and I do love riding my bike, and far prefer it to driving. Was merely trying to address that one point.

    I didnt expect people to respond by telling not to ride on the sidewalk, because I figured that my best judgment about why I was on the sidewalk would be understood.

  12. oldschwinn, I wasn’t really getting after you personally, just expanding on “that situation,” which I’ve experienced from both points of view.

    At worst, one could stop at the road entrance and wait until the person at the front of the line sees you (make eye contact, as suggested earlier), then proceed with some confidence.

    Like you, I agree that sidewalks are often appropriate places for cyclists, regardless of their age. Some cities have simple-minded ordinances such as described for Bozeman. Some, including Boise, don’t. I prefer the latter.