Safety is a major concern for bicycle commuters. Cyclists often find themselves sharing the road with cars, sometimes on narrow streets without marked bike lanes. This dangerous arrangement has scared away many potential converts from switching over to bicycle commuting full-time. It’s a real tragedy, since cycling offers a cheap and effective solution for reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. But a lack of safe, dedicated bike paths is only half of the problem; the other half is ignorance.
By law, bicycles are vehicles: they are entitled to use the road, just as cars are (1). In fact, bicycles are forbidden to ride on the sidewalk. While they must usually ride on the right edge of the road, cyclists are allowed to occupy an entire lane when necessary for safety. They can even switch to the left lane to turn or to pass slower vehicles. Most motorists, however, are misinformed about the law. They think that bicycles are toys that belong on the sidewalk, so most cyclists are regarded as pests and troublemakers. When this ignorance is combined with two tons of high speed metal, cyclists need to watch out!
As a bicycle commuter, you need to bicycle defensively. Do whatever it takes to avoid getting hit. Don’t insist on your legal rights when you bicycle; it’s better to be wronged than to get hit by a car. Don’t expect motorists to follow the rules, or even the police to help you out. I discovered this first-hand when my high school friend got hit by a car. I witnessed a reckless driver smash into my friend’s bicycle, knocking him off and fracturing his arm and wrist. The law was on my friend’s side, but the police did nothing to help him. If you want to avoid a similar fate, you need to avoid getting hit in the first place (2).
Bicycle as if no cars can see you, because some of them won’t. Helmets are nice, but don’t let them give you an illusion of safety. You don’t want to get hit in the first place, so stay away from cars whenever possible.
The best tactic is to choose the safest route possible. Google Maps also provides bike paths, which is extremely helpful. Under the “More” tab, you can overlay a map with bike routes. A thin, sold green line indicates a bike lane shared with cars, while a thick, solid green line represents paths exclusive to bicycles.
When deciding on a bicycle route, choose safety over distance. Safer routes may take longer, but they’re worth the peace of mind. It’s safer to ride in bicycle lanes, and even safer to route through exclusive paths. When neither option is available, I choose residential roads. Although major streets tend to be more direct, cars drive faster and may be less attentive. Finally, choose paths you’re already familiar with, so that if you get a flat tire, you’ll know how to navigate around.
Even though you’ll bicycle as if no cars can see you, you’ll still want to be highly visible–just in case. Make sure every car can see you clearly from afar. This means you should generally avoid bicycling at night, and if you must, bring strong headlights and taillights. They are required by law, anyway. Make sure they are highly visible and strong enough to avoid being obscured by car headlights. Reflective clothing and rear reflectors can also help. Finally, to help your own visibility, purchase a rear view mirror so you can better see cars coming from behind.
As a bicycle commuter, you’ll want to learn how to fix a flat tire by yourself. You will certainly get a flat eventually, and you’ll want to be able to fix it on the spot, especially if you ride at night. Always carry the necessary equipment to fix the bike yourself; bike stores often sell a small repair kit.
For some of you, bicycle commuting can be dangerous because of a lack of bike paths and reckless cars. It’s a real shame, but hopefully these tactics can help you overcome the many obstacles thrown against you.
For those who live in eco-conscious cities (3), bicycle commuting is actually an extremely safe way of transportation. In Irvine, biking is far safer than driving. Cities like Davis or Portland often have scenic bike paths where you can enjoy clean air, good exercise, and a relaxing ride while saving thousands of dollars each year. Not bad for conserving a little energy.
Can you bicycle commute instead of drive?
1 California Law dictates bicycles are allowed, and in fact must, ride on the road. Try telling that to the cars!
2 Bicyclesafe provides excellent tips to avoid getting hit by cars. It inspired much of this post.
3 Minneapolis, Portland, Boulder, Seattle, and Eugene are the top five bike-friendly cities in the US, according to Bicycling.com