The Conservative Guide to Riding in Traffic (NYC Edition)
So you read our post on bike commuting and have decided that you’re digging it–but your route takes you down busy streets or downright clogged inner-city arteries. Here are a few tips on how to survive.
1. Wear a helmet and gloves
It would seem like this goes without saying, but in biking around town apparently it does not. WEAR A HELMET AND GLOVES!. There was a bike shop I used to frequent in Minneapolis that kept a collection of broken helmets from customers. While it may have had the affect of scaring some away from the sport, it was very effective in selling safety. Every one of the helmets on the wall represented a crash that the cyclist was able to walk away from.
The gloves note is just a gift from me to you. You don’t have to wear them but you’ll thank me when you save yourself the weeks of annoyance when you scrape up your palms on a pavement landing and have to deal with the itching at work.
2. It’s ok to stop for traffic signals
Did we forget where we’re going? We’re going to work. What’s the big rush??? Stopping for red lights (and even staying put for a few minutes) will allow you to keep your stress level down (calculating how to dart out in front of cars and busses takes a lot of mental energy) and allow to arrive relaxed and invigorated. You might even show up for work at the same time due to the timing of lights further down the street.
3. It’s ok to go a little out of your way for safety
When winter hits and the sun starts to go down early I find myself riding home in the dark. My particular route would take me straight through the heart of midtown which is a snarled tangle of cars, busses, pedicabs, pedestrians, vending carts, horses, and more. The speed is stop-and-go at best, and in the darkness it is sometimes tough to judge movement and distances, even if you are an xmas tree of lights. After putting by brake lever through a guy’s taillight I decided to find an alternative route for the dark months.
I decided to head 6 long crosstown blocks out of my way to the west side highway which is a bike trail that goes up the side of Manhattan. Though it added two miles to my route home, there were no stoplights and no traffic. It was well worth the detour.
Elsewhere in the city, where the bike lanes were apparently not as well planned, there is a stretch in Brooklyn where a west facing bike path stops a block shy of a connection to an northbound path. You have two choices: bolt straight ahead the wrong way down a one-way street to make the connection or go a block to the left, then down the correctly-facing one way street, then back up the connecting road.
I tried both on different days. Guess what the time differential was. 15 seconds. You read that right: 15 seconds. That is the power of “going with the flow” (of traffic).
4. Both bikes AND traffic in general don’t like right angles
If you find yourself coming up on a double-parked car the wrong thing to do is to is stop and try to make a 90 degree turn into traffic.
Even though it is scary at first you’ll want to merge out at least onto the painted lane marker or, if traffic allows, into the next lane of traffic to pass the parked car. This will vary depending on the drivers of your city. Make sure to maintain your speed and merge gradually so drivers can slow down or change lanes themselves.
As you become more comfortable moving away from the curb of safety you will also become better at predicting what cars will do. You don’t have to wait for a car to stop to prepare to go around it in a graceful lane-changing arc. If you see a cab pulling over and slowing down begin your merge! The smoother you can move in and out of traffic while maintaining your speed the better everyone moves.
5. Use Hand Signals
Even though most drivers are not cyclists, many hand signals are universal. The two you’ll use most while commuting are:
- pointing at the lane you are about to merge into (especially if it’s occupied with cars)
- the bird
Now that you’ve tweaked your route and have gotten yourself into the mix, be careful not to let that power go to your head! Stay heads-up and alert and enjoy being “plugged in” to your city. I will leave you with a video example of how NOT to ride with these newfound skills: