Bike trips in the United States have soared since 2019—and fatalities have increased along with them. In New York City, where I live, 2023 is shaping up to be the deadliest year ever for cyclists. Yet when it comes to messages about bike safety, most of what you’ll hear tends to fall under one of the following two categories:
1) We Need To Fight For Better Bike Infrastructure (or some variation thereof);
2) Wear A Helmet (or some variation thereof);
None of this is necessarily bad advice; however, it is woefully inadequate. The problem with the first item is that bike infrastructure projects take years if not generations, and if your town doesn’t have any then it does nothing for you right now. The problem with the second thing is that wearing a helmet doesn’t do anything for you if you get run over by a truck. So here’s some advice to fill the wide gulf between changing the world and strapping some foam to your head and hoping for the best:
You’re Going Too Fast
The word velocitation refers to when you become accustomed to speed when you’re driving on the highway, so you keep speeding up until you get pulled over or you drive off a cliff. Similarly, because we’re so car-centric, our entire country has essentially become velocitized—we think car speed is normal speed, whether we’re driving or not. Since bicycles go nowhere near as fast as cars, we just take it for granted that it’s impossible to speed on our bikes.
But it’s easy to go too fast on your bike, and just like driving, “too fast” is a matter of context. When you’re driving, 50 miles per hour is too slow for the Interstate yet way too fast for neighborhood streets. (Not like it’s stopping anybody…) Similarly, 20 mph isn’t exactly warp speed when you’re out on your road bike, but it’s quite fast on a city street. The faster you go, the less time you have to react to drivers pulling out of driveways, their passengers flinging their doors open in your path, pedestrians stepping into the street right in front of you, and all the other stuff that happens on your commute. This is especially true in bike lanes, where you might feel a false sense of security—after all, bike lanes belong to us (at least theoretically), and some of them are even “protected,” but protected lanes are keep you in a more confined space with less room to maneuver and react.
Also, You’re Going Too Fast
There’s going too fast just because you can, or because you think you should, and then there’s also going too fast because you’re running late, or you just don’t feel like waiting. But whether it’s preparing a lavish meal or riding your bike, rushing is how you make a complete mess of it. Yes, there are some valid reasons to run a red light on your bike, but being in a hurry is never one of them, and the moment you find yourself taking risks just to save a handful of seconds is when you put yourself on a potential collision course with all the other risk-takers out there with whom you supposedly “share” the road.
Above all, safe cycling is a matter of reducing risk whenever possible, and the only place it’s (relatively) safe to be in a rush is in an actual bike race where everyone’s got the same agenda; otherwise if you’re in a rush to get to work on your bike you’re that much more likely to get hit by someone else who’s in rush to get to work in their car. Would you rather be a little late, or a little dead?
Don’t Worry About What People Should Be Doing; Worry About What They Actually Do
Yes, drivers really should signal before they turn. They shouldn’t turn in front of you in intersections. They shouldn’t open their doors without looking. But they do all of these things, and more, all the time.
Given the fact that you can pretty much count on drivers to do the wrong thing, as a cyclist you have two choices: anticipate it, thereby reducing your own risk of injury or death, or just charge directly at it in a suicidal fit of righteousness like Jeremy Vine. Granted, in the age of social media there is no greater currency than capturing injustice on video, so the latter may be tempting. However, being right is only worth so much when your bicycle is destroyed and you’re splayed across the hood of a Hyundai Elantra.
Don’t worry, anticipating bad driver behavior and acting accordingly isn’t a form of surrender; it’s self-preservation. Your number one goal as a cyclist should be to get to where you’re going and live to ride another day. You will never change anyone’s mind out there on the road. Once you’ve arrived safely you can go ahead and fight the evils of motordom all day long.
Oh, and pedestrians don’t always do what they’re supposed to do, either. So expect it and cut them some slack. Yelling at pedestrians is the cycling equivalent of rolling coal.
- Use lights—a red one on the rear, a white one in the front.
- Wider tires offer better traction, and are less susceptible to road imperfections.
- An upright position not only gives you better visibility but makes it less likely you’ll go over the bars in a crash.
- Is it wet where you live? Fenders help keep you dry; being dry keeps you comfortable; being comfortable means you can focus more on the ride and less on how miserable you feel.
- Is it hot where you live? Get your bag off your body and put it on your bike instead. This will help keep you cool; being cool keeps you comfortable, and so forth. (See above.)
- You don’t need foot retention to be a “real cyclist.” For certain types of cycling clipless pedals might enhance your experience, but most of the time flat pedals arguably superior. Also, plenty of novice cyclists still think you should use toe clips. Toe clips are pointless. All they do is create yet another opportunity to fall down. Just ask Joe Biden.
Remember Who’s In Control (Hint: It’s You)
Riders on social media will often complain that the assholes parked in the bike lanes are forcing cyclists into traffic. Remember: you’re a cyclist. Nobody can force you to do anything. Yes, you are more vulnerable in the sense that you’re not in a steel box full of air bags, but thanks to the fact that you’re riding a light, nimble, and efficient machine you also have more freedom than pretty much anyone else out there on the road. Freedom is power. Is the asshole in the bike lane creating a potentially dangerous situation? Is the traffic outside of the bike lane too dangerous? Just hop off the bike, get on the sidewalk, and walk around it. No, the driver hasn’t won in this case. Would you rather be right or… well, you get it.
This holds true beyond the bike lane as well. Exercise your control when planning your route, and apply all of the above when you do so. Don’t pick the shortest route because you’re in a rush; choose the safest route because you want to enjoy the ride in comfort. And remember you’ve got nothing to prove to anybody: if riding in the rain or the dark or the cold makes you uncomfortable then make alternate arrangements and save the ride for another day.
Ultimately, you can’t control the behaviors of others, but you have complete control over your own behavior. You’ve also got the power to avoid conflicts instead of engaging in them, and to avoid potentially dangerous situations, and to choose being a happy cyclist instead over being an angry one. The key to enjoying the ride is enjoying the ride. Figure out how to do that and the rest has a way of taking care of itself.