I don’t think people are scared of biking in the city just because it feels dangerous.
After six years of commuting by bicycle in Boston, and six years of surprised reactions that I do it year-round, I’ve come to believe that something deeper is going on. Namely, that beneath the feeling of danger is an assumption that we do not have control.
Think about it. Driving a car is statistically dangerous but people feel like they are in control because they are surrounded by a steel cage. On a bike, you don’t have this protection so it’s easy to presume that you are at the mercy of the forces around you. It can make biking feel like a scary and vulnerable act of faith: you put on your helmet, get in the bike lane, and can only hope no one hits you.
The distinction between the perception of danger and its underlying assumption of no control is subtle yet important because calling it ‘dangerous’ focuses on things we can’t change, cars and other drivers. But if we focus on the feeling of powerlessness that resides within ourselves, we can explore whether there are ways to feel empowered.
If this resonates with you, I invite you to consider a metaphor. Think of a book written in a foreign language. You know there is information in the book but you cannot access and use the information until you learn the language in which it is written.
So too, with a road.
The road is like a book written in a foreign language. There is a lot of information available but first you need to learn the language. This means learning how to “read the road.” Of course, just like driving a car isn’t completely risk-free, biking will never be fool-proof. But learning to read the road can help you make active, wise decisions on your bike.
Here is a list of 10 specific tips that aim to show you how to read the road and bike safer in your city. Many of them I learned while riding with my dad when he would talk out loud about what he was looking out for, and point out things for me to pay attention to along our routes. He is the one who ultimately taught me that while there is a lot you cannot control, riding does not have to be a leap of faith — you can empower yourself to be a smart rider.
1. Scan parked cars for turned wheels, exhaust, and heads. Don’t just hope no one opens their door or pulls out of their parking space. Be active. Look for turned wheels, exhaust fumes, and heads visible behind the seat rest as signs that a car might pull out or adjust its position.
2. Bike slowly when cars are stopped, especially at crosswalks. When there is a line of cars waiting at a red light, don’t speed thinking you are safe because the cars aren’t moving. Pedestrians will often cross between the cars without checking for oncoming bikers.
3. Don’t ride directly by the side of a car — always be a bit ahead or a bit behind. If you are in front of a car, the driver will see you and if you are a bit behind the car you will have enough time to brake if the car makes an abrupt turn without slowing down or signaling.
4. Recognize the danger of both bikes and cars swerving. For bikers, this means you should never swerve or change course — even for something as trivial as avoiding a pothole or or small debris — without first checking for upcoming traffic behind you. Drivers will assume that you will continue biking straight because they do not see the small changes in road condition, litter, etc. This also means looking ahead to see if there is anything that might cause a car to swerve into the bike lane, like a delivery truck parked on the left side of the road or a car slowing down to make a left turn with just enough room for an impatient car to pass on the right. Because while some drivers have learned to check for bikers before they make a hard turn, very few think about checking for bikers when making the split-second decision to go around an object in their path.
5. At a red light, watch for cars turning right if you are going straight. Motorists and cyclists will often react immediately when a light turns green but if the car is turning right and you are going straight, this could lead to a collision. Either position yourself in front of the car or let the car move first.
6. Don’t turn left at an intersection. This may seem overly cautious but so many accidents occur when bikers turn left on green lights. Instead, go straight through the intersection and then rotate to your left and go straight through the intersection again. This will put you in the same direction as if you had just made a left turn but is much safer.
7. Communicate with drivers. This means not wearing earphones to ensure you remain aware and focused, making eye contact with drivers whenever possible, and signaling like a referee. You’ve seen how referees use their entire arm to signal dramatically when a foul has been committed in football and basketball games. Do the same when you are on your bike. Don’t be timid — signal from the shoulder!
8. Bike like you’re invisible. This is my bike mantra and it means the opposite of what most people first assume: not that you can do whatever you want because you’re invisible but rather that you should be extra careful because you should assume that drivers can’t see you (but still signal like a referee!).
9. Think like a bicyclist, not a motorist, when plotting your route. Don’t assume your bike route will be the same as your driving route because if the roads don’t have bike lanes or have a lot of traffic, this may dissuade you from biking. Instead, use a map to see if you can find parallel streets with less traffic or ask a friend who bikes for route suggestions.
10. Get the two most important pieces of gear: a mirror and lights. Wearing a mirror is the most important safety device for biking because it lets you see what is coming up behind you. Your hands have a tendency to follow your head so if you turn your head to check for traffic, you may also turn your hands and thus your bike into traffic. Turning your head also takes long enough that you can get doored or hit an upcoming pothole while you are looking behind you. When it comes to lights, there are two kinds: lights to see with, and lights to be seen with. Have both.
11. Build a relationship with your local bike shop. The best way to do this is to bring in cookies or beer (or both!) — they’re the universal currency of the biking community. If you receive exceptional service or guidance, this is a great way to show your appreciation.