Outdoor Etiquette: How To Be An Urban Cycling Pro

Here are 5 best practices that everyone should know about urban cycling.

The expansion of bike share programs across the major cities in the world and a steady up-tick in bicycle purchases in the States has rapidly increased over the past few years—and more and more cities are tweaking their streets to promote cycling, from bike-only lanes to proposals for a bike- and pedestrian-only elevated pathway. All this means more and more people are using bikes than ever before. This is a good thing. But if you’re new to the city-centic cycling scene, you should know that pedaling in an urban environment isn’t just as easy as riding a bike.

Here are a few best practices to follow to keep you safe—and avoid the scorn of other, more experienced cyclists.

Safety First

This should go without saying, but wear a helmet. Yes, there have been some studies that indicate that bikers without helmets are more cautious, or that drivers treat those wearing helmets with less regard because they’re “safe.”

But if you ride long enough in the city, you will eventually fall. And what would you prefer? Your head hitting the asphalt, or letting a helmet that’s been certified take the brunt of the impact. Please, no texting while cycling. Taking a call? Only hand’s free, and try to come to a stop unless you’re hyper confident—or just reckless.

As for listening to music via headphones, take a pass—in this modern world of always being plugged in, cycling without music or some podcast plugged into your ears offers a few minutes of reduced stimulation. Plus, you should be able to hear the cars, busses, trucks, pedestrians, and other cyclists. City cycling is a kinetic environment. Don’t drown it out.

Biker in bike land downtown

Stay on the Streets

Sidewalks may feel safer than the roads, but they are the domain of pedestrians, dog-walkers, strollers, and shopping carts. Stick to the streets. Most major city streets have dedicated bike lanes or markings to indicate that particular lanes are only for bikes and busses, and Google even has bike-specific route finding options as part of their map system. Yes, you’ll still have to deal with double-parked cars and delivery trucks. But it’s a far cry better than it was ten years ago.

If you feel nervous about passing traffic, run parallel to the desired route on a less-populated street, or take the whole traffic lane. You might get a few blaring horns at your back, but it’s entirely within your right to cycle in the center of a lane if that’s the safest way. And if you do go on sidewalks for a short distance, go slowly, and yield to everyone.

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Pay Attention to the Markings

Bike-specific lanes have gotten pretty complicated these days, with everything from dedicated lanes that run down the center of fast-moving roads to bike stoplights. Most are very well marked, and you’re best off following the instructions, especially if you’re new to the route.

It’ll save you from unexpected traffic flow. If you’re pedaling in a city with one-way streets, only go against traffic when the arrows in the bike line indicate that you’re intended to travel that way. Do not swim upstream on a one-way street.

Know the Pecking Order

If you’re riding in a dedicated lane, follow the same logic as you would when driving. Stay to the right, and pass other cyclists on the left, and with as much speed. Bells or a simple “On your left.” is also good protocol, especially if the bike lanes are tight or you’re approaching an intersection.

At lights, stop at the end of the line of the other cyclists—don’t be the one cruising past a half-dozen cyclists politely waiting for the light to change. And in that vein, if you’re a slower cyclist, don’t try to beat others off the line when the light changes. More specifically, if you’re on a heavier share bike, expect to be slow. Take your time, and please don’t try to balance by dancing on the pedals at intersections like some fixie-ridin’ bike messenger. You’ll just fall.

Follow the Rules

This one comes with a small caveat, as different cities treat “the rules” differently. Some places like Portland, OR, let cyclists treat stop signs as yields, while others insist that bikers follow the same rules as drivers, momentum on a stop sign-dotted street be damned. Best advice is to use common sense.

Communicate with drivers by making eye contact, or use simple hand gestures. Look at pedestrian cross-walk signs to help understand light shifts. And never put anyone else’s traffic path—a pedestrian, driver, or fellow cyclist—in jeopardy. Cycling between vehicles and dodging cars like Han Solo navigating an asteroid field can be fun—until it’s suddenly NOT FUN AT ALL.

Urban Cycling