The weather is beautiful again after a stretch of late April awfulness and the streets will be swarming with bicyclists for the next six months. More bikes mean less congestion, fewer pollutants, less wear and tear on the streets, and fewer opportunities to be bisected by a ton of screeching metal.
According to the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, we have more bike commuters per capita than any other major city in the nation. That's great news for bike safety. Studies show that having more cyclists makes cycling safer, allowing drivers to get used to sharing the road and heightening the visibility of cycling as a commuting option.
But nascent cyclists and uninformed drivers often see bikes as toys or lump cyclists in with pedestrians, assuming they should both be relegated to the sidewalk. People who haven't ridden a bike since they were children are pedaling off, blissfully unaware of the laws and norms, or commonsense urban bicycling safety.
In a previous article, I covered three basics: don't ride on the sidewalk; take the lane and do not hug the curb on narrow and car-lined streets; and never, ever, ride against traffic. Here are a few more safety tips:
If you ride at night, use lights. Bicycles are the only vehicles I'm aware of that do not come outfitted with lights. Most urban cyclists are trying to get to work or a social gathering, so skin-tight specialized neon clothing (which might increase our visibility) is out. Instead, we wear normal street clothes, which render us practically invisible at night.
Increasing your visibility to drivers is essential for safe biking. If you don't want to wear a style-impaired reflector vest, light up your bike like a Christmas tree. Install at least two very bright lights for your bike, a white one at the front and red for the back. Buying more never hurts. My bike has five. Set them to blink rapidly, thus increasing their visibility. Turn on your lights just before dusk, or if it's raining, and stay alert. Many drivers, particularly those not used to city driving, are not looking for cyclists at the best of times. That goes double for nighttime.
Be extra careful around trucks and buses. When riding in the city, you will inevitably have to bike around buses and large trucks. These vehicles have huge blind spots and, due to their extreme length, often appear to be going straight through an intersection only to swing wide before making their turn.
If you are approaching an intersection where a truck or bus is first in the queue, do not bike next to it through the intersection. If you are able, take the lane in front of it to ensure its driver sees you, and then switch back to the bike lane once you are through the intersection. If a truck or bike passes you while heading toward an intersection, take the lane behind it until you can be sure if it is turning or not. (This goes for cars, too. One of the most common bicycling accidents is getting clipped by a right-turning car while riding through an intersection in a bike lane.)
Use your arms to indicate when you are about to turn. Bikes don't have turn signals, but drivers and other cyclists still need to be alerted to when you turn or change lanes. Don't just abruptly switch lanes in front of oncoming traffic. You would never do that in a car, so why do it on a bike?
Make big, noticeable signals with your arms before you turn. I usually point dramatically in the direction of my forthcoming turn with my appropriate arm. Don't hold your arm at a 90-degree angle to indicate a right turn. Just point with your right arm: No one can mistake what that means.
If you are passing another bicyclist, especially while speeding down a hill, alert him or her by saying (well, yelling), "On your left." This is especially advisable if you are trying to squeeze by while hemmed in by trolley tracks on one side and a line of parked cars to the other. In this case, it probably makes more sense to just wait to pass until you get to an intersection.
Riding your bike in the city is a fun, easy, cheap, and healthful way to get around. Too often we obsess about the supposed danger of biking. But remember that it pays to be predictable. Do what a car or any other vehicle would do: signal your turns, use lights, don't bike on the sidewalk, ride with traffic. Honestly, it's no more dangerous than riding in a car. And the parking tickets are significantly less onerous.