10 Ways to Read the Road Like a Book & Feel Safer Biking in Your City

Abby Brockman
4 min readNov 1, 2019
The author in her bike commuting outfit and an unexplainable pose.

I don’t think people are scared of biking in the city because it feels dangerous.

After eight years of commuting year-round in Boston and Seattle, and just as many years of people expressing surprise that I bike in even blizzardy and rainy conditions, I’ve come to believe something deeper is doing on. Because people do dangerous things all the time — including driving in a car.

Instead, I think what holds people back from biking isn’t just that they perceive it to be dangerous. Rather, beneath the sentiment that it’s dangerous is the assumption that you don’t have control when you’re biking.

Think about it: in a car, people feel like they are in control. Surrounded by steel cage, people feel like they are physically and metaphorically “in the driver’s seat.” But on a bike, people feel like they are at the mercy of the forces around them. Biking feels like an act of faith: you put on your helmet, get in the bike lane, and just hope no one hits you.

If this rings true for you, I’d like to invite you to think of the road like a book written in a foreign language. You know there is information in the book, but until you learn the language and can read it, you cannot access and use the information.

So, too with a road.

There is a lot of information you can pick up and use to make active, wise decisions on your bike but first you have to learn to “read the road.”

Here is a list of 10 specific tips that aim to show you how to read the road and bike safer in your city. Because while it is true that there is a lot you cannot control, you do not have to ride blindly and faithfully — 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 break if the car makes an abrupt turn without slowing down or using a turn signal.

4. Never swerve without checking for upcoming traffic behind you. Always check behind you for oncoming traffic before changing course. Drivers will assume that you will continue biking straight because they do not see and try to avoid potholes and small debris like bikers do.

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.

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. Signal 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.

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 biggest bang-for-buck gear: a mirror and lights. Wearing a mirror is the most important safety device for biking. 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. For $15 you can get a mirror that attaches to your helmet and in just the fraction of a second it takes to look in your mirror, you can see what’s going on behind you. When it comes to lights, there are two kinds: lights to see with, and lights to be seen with. Have both.

Extra credit:

11. Build a relationship with your local bike store. If you receive great service, bring in beer. It’s the universal currency of the biking community and a great way to show your appreciation!

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Abby Brockman

Hospital chaplain, community organizer, writer. Shamelessly laughs at the same jokes over and over and believes there are gateways to holiness everywhere.