In general, I don't drive. I just don't like it. You're sitting there in traffic, wanting to get going just so you can get there already, please and thank you. Someone up ahead is checking their phone, not paying attention to the fact that the light is no longer red, and the traffic they're holding up is singing a chorus of honking.
This is why I typically bike. On a bike, it is truly about the journey — the fresh air, the birds singing, the people-watching and avoiding. It's a game. You see the people around you, and it's like you're psychic; you know that person is going to step off the sidewalk and that car is getting ready to turn.
Being a woman on a bike has less to do with being “green” and more to do with disliking urban car trips and liking public transit even less. It's almost daily that I hear about some woman being harassed on the train, something I almost never encounter on my bike and can zip away from when I do.
To me, biking places gives me a keen sense of freedom. I can get basically anywhere on a bike and always with better parking options. Busy festival downtown? Easy. Concert without parking? Pah-lease, give me a challenge!
Despite the wonderful utility of two wheels, bikes have been completely overlooked in traditional North American urban planning, leaving them to straddle their existence between pedestrian and car, of which they are neither. Needless to say, navigating this gray area is confusing for everyone. It truly is the source of the pervasive friction between motorist and cyclists in urban situations today.
Using anything that's shared infrastructure (ahem, roads) comes with one basic assumption: that you follow the rules, regardless of your mode of transportation. Because bikes fall into this weird in-between, the rules can become murky. On one hand, when you're a bike on the road, you're a vehicle subject to the same rights and rules. Riding a bike also comes with the perk of hopping off the road and walking around traffic jams or to take a detour through the park.
Sometimes there's infrastructure, but bike lanes don't necessarily allow enough room for safe passing and are just as often used as (illegal) parking spots for cars. Dedicated bike paths or protected bike lanes are fantastic, but there's not many of them in good old North America. In general, there's just not a good enough framework to be applied to every situation, creating awful things like sharrows where there isn't enough room for real separated lanes.
Riding a bike in a city can be a wonderful game, and like any good game, there are rules, guidelines and nuances. Biking in a city can be perfectly safe if you play the game right.
Here are five strategies I use on a daily basis to win the urban riding game.
1. Make eye contact.
Cars are people. People are not mind-readers, and people make mistakes. They get distracted and don't notice things — maybe you. If you don't see them looking at you, they might not have noticed you, and that's game over. It's worth the two seconds of looking up to make sure that they see you.
2. Check, then check again.
Any change in traffic pattern from the last stretch of block invites turbulence to the flow, and in this turbulence, everyone is trying to make decisions based on what everyone else is doing. Have a glance over your left shoulder, and glance at oncoming traffic. This gives you a picture of what everyone is doing, and you can plan accordingly. You can see more than you realize.
3. Stand out.
I'll be honest, the safety yellow is obnoxious and embarrassing for the rest of us. It backwardly puts the onus of safety on the cyclist and not the cars. That being said, if you're in a gray city and you're wearing gray, you're basically wearing camouflage when you want to be seen. I usually opt for a nice red or bright green — not something that screams "I biked to work today," but stands out enough to not be camouflage.
4. Announce your intentions.
Riding a bike is not about secrecy. Being assertive and clear about your intentions reduces frustration and makes you predictable. Overtaking cars typically pass on the left. If you're turning left, stick that left arm out and check your shoulder (make that eye contact, too). Nine times out of ten, if there's a car there, they'll at least hesitate when you look at them, allowing you the space to slip in a make a left turn. Turning right is simpler: Point right, turn right. Pointing where you're going isn't open to interpretation and is less likely to be confused.
5. Leave wiggle room.
An ongoing debate revolves around where bikes should go on a shared road. Most places say "as far to the right as practicable," which is painfully vague. The principal I have safely followed is to give the most room to the thing that will accelerate (or decelerate) me the fastest. This means the following:
• Don't ride the solid white line. On busier roads with a shoulder, ride as far to the right of the white line as makes sense. If there are parked cars that you have to go around, shoulder check and signal before you go around them.
• If there's a lot of parked cars, beware of the door zone. Many of the worst crashes I've learned of have been people getting doored. Car doors are substantial and potentially lethal. If cars are parked on the shoulder, ride out far enough so that if someone was to open a door suddenly, you'd be outside the danger zone.
Bikes do more than get you where you need to go; they get you there in an exhilarating way. I've never ridden to work and thought, “Gee, I wish I hadn't ridden in today.”