My Tenets of Urban Bike Safety

Background Reading

Summary

© Dan Connor 2014

Source: Dan Connor Site

Don’t Get Boxed In / Keep Your Options Open

I try to ride in the middle of a lane of traffic whenever possible because I want to be able to merge left or right at the drop of a hat to avoid an obstruction, a merging/turning car, or a jaywalking pedestrian. If you’re boxed in against the side of the road the only option you sometimes are given is to hit the obstruction or the curb. And at 20-25 mph that’s unacceptable. The middle of a lane provides the most options.

We used to have the whole road. Then they built bike lanes for our safety. Now we have none of it.

Bike lanes are, by definition, designed to box you in. In New York City you typically have one lane to navigate. Is it obstructed? Well, your only options are a crash, the street, or the curb. And often the bike lanes are only three feet wide. This is not enough space to even pass another cyclist safely. No, bike lanes limit your options and force you to make dangerous decisions.

Be Visible

Most motorists don’t want to hit cyclists (although some do!) The best way to avoid accidents is for them to know you’re there. Sometimes that means frustrating them because they believe you’re in their way. Tough. I’m in your face because you can see me clear as day. If you’re in a bike lane you’re off the radar. Car needs to turn though the bike lane? Boom! Left hooked to the afterlife. Getting honks, angry fists, and tickets from fat NYPD assholes is better than ending up dead.

Signal Turns/Merges

Bikes don’t have turn signals, so we use our hands and arms. I seldom see other cyclists signaling but I almost always do (unless taking my hands off the bike at the moment is too dangerous – which is unfortunately often when you need to signal most.) Here are the hand signals, for reference. I add a secondary “turn” signal that’s wagging a finger left or right instead of a full arm in order to signal I’m just changing lanes. Signaling makes you seem more like a vehicle and helps to communicate your intentions. That’s a good thing! Do it.

Look Behind/Around You

You need to check over your shoulder when moving laterally in the street just like when driving a car. Cyclists have substantially better field of vision than cars. Use your extra peripheral vision as a cyclist to your advantage. Even if you aren’t merging, check left and right compulsively so you know what your options are should you have to take evasive action.

Try to Ride in a Straight Line

It’s hard to deal with a cyclist who is swerving around. Sometimes it’s inevitable, like if cars are blocking the normal flow of traffic in the box or if you need to get to the other side of the lane to turn. But in general if you’re just cruising, pick a point in the distance and go straight to it. Make your turns super decisive, too. Turn, aim, accelerate quickly in your new direction, and go straight. Don’t do arcs. Unfortunately sometimes going straight and even requires a lot of speed and power. You’ll see a lot of newbs wiggling around because they don’t have the strength to stabilize their bike at-speed (or their CitiBike is a heavy bitch).

Even though bike lanes are usually straight, they often are occupied by pedestrians and other cyclists. You can’t go straight in a bike lane; you have to zig zag. Zig zagging makes things worse because the bikers behind you have to zig zag to avoid you. Once people start zig zagging in a bike lane it’s hard to stop.

Be Decisive

If you are faced with a decision to make, make it fast and commit to it. If you have to evade an obstruction, aim your bike and gun it to safety. The faster you’re going the more stable you will be if you have to make adjustments. If you slam on the brakes your wheels will start to fishtail, your frame will vibrate, and you may be hit from behind by a car or other biker tailgating you. No, aim your damned bike and hit the gas hard. If the other vehicles aren’t playing ball that’s their problem. Your job is to stay alive.

Stop at Stop Lights. Slow Down for Stop Signs

Stop lights are scary things to a cyclist. To a cyclist cars mean death. If a cyclist has arrived at a light and there are no cars or pedestrians, the safest thing to do is to go proceed through the light. If you wait you’ll just end up with cars around you. That said – *look both ways and look again*. If you’re breaking the law you have to take responsibility for your actions. Be damned sure you’re doing the right thing. If you aren’t sure just wait. This is about safety, not being fast.

For stop signs it’s a similar situation. Since cyclists have awesome field of vision, we can see around corners much easier than cars. Often stopping at a stop sign doesn’t make sense. Additionally it’s not uncommon for motorists to “be nice” and “let you go” even though they have the right of way at a stop sign. Just because they’re “being nice” and letting you go that doesn’t mean that any other drivers at the stop will do the same. I can’t tell you how many times a car will wave me though only to have the car next to them gun it through the sign at that very moment. If you end up at a stop sign with someone “waving you though”, shake your head until they stop being nice liabilities.

If you are approaching a stop sign and you see that a car is wavering in its conviction, just go through rather than create an ambiguous situation. If they get upset just remember that you’re both still alive. Yay!

Don’t Trust Motorists

If there’s a car in the extreme right or left lane and it looks like you’re going to have to pass it, assume it’s going to turn even if it isn’t signaling. Go around it towards the *interior* of the street. If you try to pass a car at the exterior you run the risk of being in their blind spot and becoming brake lube. Similarly, if a car is signaling, don’t assume it’s going to turn. People change their minds at the last minute to grab parking spots, avoid turning onto one ways, etc. If the car is signaling, give it space but be prepared to have to pass it by outrunning it.

Don’t be a Salmon

Biking the wrong way isn’t a good idea and if you know your city well it shouldn’t really be necessary. Any obstructions moving towards you reduce your reaction time exponentially.

Wear a Helmet Cam

You’ll have evidence. You’ll have fun. You’ll be more aware of your actions. You’ll be able to learn from your mistakes.


So while many people feel terrified when they watch my videos and hear me describe my biking, these strategies actually keep you safe when you are riding intensely. The proof is in the pudding. I’ve been riding in major cities for ten years and while I’ve had many close calls, I’ve learned that these rules keep them from being serious incidents.

Quod est Necessarium est Licitum

While I would prefer to obey the law (and it is my *opinion* that most jurisdictions’ laws are compatible with my tenets), my top priority is safety, not legality. These tenets are coping mechanisms for the chaos of urban riding caused by negligent enforcement practices and terrible infrastructure choices.

Remember, traffic law exists to keep us safe. If you’re making safe decisions you’re doing the right thing. I’m not telling you to break the law, I’m telling you to be smart.


TakeAways

Randy Cohen the former NYTimes ethicist may be gone, but his legions of ‘dumb-ass’ followers are ‘the gift that keeps on giving‘. It is safe to say that every single Urban Cyclist in the City of Chicago adheres to the motto:

Stop at Stop Lights. Slow Down for Stop Signs

Well that may be too harsh. Let’s just say that 50% follow the first dictum and of course the second. But another 50% could give a good goddam about stop lights. In fact one wag on the ChainLink wrote that in the matter of his personal views, encountering a red light at any time, he simply assumed it was ‘not in working order‘ and therefore applied his version of the Idaho Stop Law to this situation.

But frankly I am again worried that I am still too harsh. On the most recent Four Star Bike Tour nobody bothered to actually ‘slow down at stop signs‘. It was more like they starting swiveling their heads to look left and right and never broke stride.

A few did managed to stop pedaling while performing the head swiveling maneuver but for the most part, it was as if the stop sign really did not exist.

And if you really want my honest opinion the stop lights are a joke to Urban Cyclists. This is especially true when they are riding in a group. The Four Star Bike Tour is really not a group ride. But when folks get going in a pack they seem to think that they are some sort of de facto funeral procession. So when the front end reaches an intersection on a green and turns left the trailers who are too far back to make the light simply ride through the intersection anyway!

I watched in horror as riders did this on several occasions and never stop pedaling or even slowed down! I kept expecting to see a collision between one of these stragglers and a Sunday Morning Driver who was recovering from a late Saturday Night Binge but mercifully it never happened.

What’s The Etiquette On Coming To The Aid Of Scofflaw Cyclists?

When and if a collision of this sort does take place do you:

  • reach into your bag for a cell phone to call 911 and report the accident?
  • do you offer to be a witness for the driver or the cyclist?
  • or do you just shake your head and after the light has turned green proceed on your way?

I am guessing that there is some ordinance that requires you to at least report the incident. But frankly I would have to become a witness for the driver. And once again Randy Cohen is wrong! When anyone acts stupidly on a bicycle and gets involved in a ‘Door Zone Collision‘ or struck by a car while running a red light it generally means that other people have to get involved. You are never the only one with ‘skin in the game‘.

Of course if you take his assessment seriously, I guess you are free to ‘shake your head and proceed on your way‘ since by definition he has the responsibility to do all that Good Samaritan stuff, right?