Thursday, June 18, 2009

Practical Tips for Making Bicycle Commuting Safer and Easier

** The following article is reposted from the blog **

More and more people are dusting off bicycles and riding to work or school, but many others haven't been able to overcome physical and psychological barriers. Here are some suggestions from an experienced street warrior that might make the difference for you.

By Bill Schneider, 6-18-09
Taking a few extra minutes to get to work. Photo by courtesy of Bikes Belong.

Taking a few extra minutes to get to work.
Photo by courtesy of Bikes Belong.
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.

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