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Traffic Skills for NYC Bike Riders

If the last bit of bicycling education you received was when your Mom told you to “Be Careful!”, and “Watch out for cars”, then this traffic skills page is for you. Here is a primer, a starting place, some street savvy basics that every cyclist needs before heading out.

SELF ASSESSMENT
YOU are your most important piece of safety gear.
Your first layer of safety is derived from your ability to control your bicycle. “Keep the Rubber Side Down” we like to say. Be sure you’re able to perform these basic bike handling skills:

STARTING – without swerving
RIDING an EVEN TRACK – neither rigid nor erratic
SCANNING – Looking back over your shoulder to assess your environment without losing control or swerving
SIGNALING – removing one hand from the handlebar to communicate with others, without losing control or swerving
STOPPING – Reliable stopping in a variety of situations.
Take a VIRTUOUS BICYCLE Skill Building Lesson

BICYCLES ARE VEHICLES
Drive your bike as you would your car.
City and State traffic laws define bicycles as vehicles. Bike riders have the same rights as, and must follow the same traffic laws, as motorists. What does this mean in practice? Here are some basics:

RIDE IN THE SAME DIRECTION as traffic. It’s the law, it’s safer, it’s respectful of others.
Read more: GO WITH THE FLOW

Traffic Skills

“Officer, he came outta nowhere!”

RIDE ON THE ROAD, not on the sidewalk. Not even for a half block. It’s illegal, it’s annoying to pedestrians, it’s hazardous to them and to you, and you’re an easy mark during police crackdowns. Sidewalk riding (for reasons that are technical) is a leading cause of cyclist-motorist collisions.

OBEY TRAFFIC LIGHTS Yes, really! Running a Red in NYC lands you in TRAFFIC COURT, with POINTS on your driver’s license, and a whopping $270 fine. Running Reds is a common complaint from members of the public who demand that “something be done about those bikers!” (In my experience, I usually catch up to the light-runners anyhow; I think the time savings is overstated.)

USE HAND SIGNALS for turning, changing lanes and stopping. Look BACK before sticking your arm out! Let’s use the RIGHT arm for Right Turns, ok?

Maintain a STEADY TRACK; straight, even, and predictable.
See Whack-a-Mole

KEEP TO THE RIGHT to avoid impeding the flow of traffic, unless it’s unsafe to do so. You are permitted to move to the CENTER OF THE TRAVEL LANE, returning to the Right when it’s safe to do so.
Learn More: Lane Positioning (Part I)

Traffic Skills for NYC Bike riders

Properly positioned to go straight

USE THE APPROPRIATE LANE for your direction of travel, just as you would when driving. So, for just one example, if you approach an intersection that has a Right-Turn-Only lane, but you’re planning to go straight, move LEFT, to the lane with the Straight-Thru arrow.

YIELD to PEDESTRIANS, even the clueless ones. Even the texters. Use a BELL or your voice to get their attention, but don’t yell at them (a cyclist’s version of HONKING), and don’t hit them when they don’t look up. When you stop for red lights, stop at the STOP LINE so you don’t block the crosswalk. Read Q&A: PEDESTRIANS in the BIKE LANE

CONCRETE SAFETY TIPS
Beyond “Be Careful”, here are some actionable concepts that move the risk/reward needle in your favor

NEVER RIDE IN THE DOOR ZONE
You want to cooperate with passing motorists, but riding closely along a row of parked cars exposes you to the door-zone hazard. You are permitted to leave the right edge when hazards there make it unsafe. Current recommendations are to allow a 4 ft buffer between you and parked cars. Virtuous Bicycle recommends more.
Learn More: EXCELLENT VIDEO DEMONSTRATION

Traffic Skills

Stay Clear of the Door-Zone

RIDE ALERT – SCAN the ENVIRONMENT as you ride. Take note of the road surface, of traffic around you, of pedestrians along the edge. Ask yourself if approaching cars can see you. Work with motorists who may be turning to establish who will go first. Look Up, Look Back, Plan Ahead.
See Avoiding the Right Hook

GIVE IT 110% of your ATTENTION Distractions of any kind are incompatible with the task at hand. Pull over for phone calls or texts. Ride ear-bud free to enhance your roadway awareness.

RIDE PREDICTABLY Don’t make sudden turns, swerves, or lane changes. Wait for a gap in traffic before entering the roadway. Make turns from the appropriate side of the road. SIGNAL and make eye contact with motorists to clarify who’s going to do what.
LISTEN – Communicate with Traffic

RIDE TO MAXIMIZE your VISIBILITY It’s not just blinking lights. RIDE YOUR BIKE WHERE MOTORISTS are LOOKING for traffic.

Traffic Skills for NYC Bike Riders

Assert your presence on the road – Ride where motorist are LOOKING for vehicles

UNDERSTAND HOW TRUCKS MAKE TURNS – When a truck makes a turn, the trailer corners more tightly than the cab. Think twice (make it three times) before passing a truck that could begin to turn. IF YOU CAN’T SEE THE DRIVER, SHE CAN’T SEE YOU! I make friends with truckers in my vicinity at every opportunity.

Taffic Skills Bicycle Safety around Trucks

Wait BEHIND, rather than alongside large trucks. Do not pass a truck who could be turning.

EQUIPMENT
Things you can buy

WEAR SOME HIGH VIS APPAREL or ACCESSORIES A sash, a vest, a jacket, a safety flag. There are very stylish options out there – you’ll be surprised! Cut through the visual clutter of the city, and give motorists maximum time to respond.
(Cycling Apparel Review)
(Google Search: High Vis Cycling Apparel)
(Google Search: Hi Vis Cycling Accessories)

"Yes! I'm aware of where I'm riding my bike!"

“Yes! I’m aware of where I’m riding my bike!”

USE A MIRROR to monitor approaching traffic. A bike mirror reduces that tense feeling you get from not knowing what’s coming up behind you. Increased awareness leads to a more fluid style of riding.
READ: Thoughts on Bike Mirrors.

LIGHTS Required actually, RED in the Rear, WHITE up front. (Not expensive; check Amazon)

A BELL Also required! Brrrrinngg Brrrinnngggg!

WEAR a HELMET Don’t be confused by pubic policy debates which argue against mandatory helmet laws. Wearing a properly adjusted helmet reduces YOUR chances of head injury.
GET A FREE HELMET FROM NYC DOT, call 311.

BIKE LANES
Bike Lanes communicate the legitimacy of your presence on the road. But they don’t relieve you of the need to ride with skill, awareness, and courtesy

USE the BIKE LANE where one is provided. If there is no bike lane, you are still permitted to ride on virtually all NYC streets.

RIDE IN THE DIRECTION INDICATED by the bike symbols. Most bike lanes are ONE-WAY. Even other bike riders hate wrong-way cyclists in the bike lane.

LEAVE THE BIKE LANE to avoid hazards or obstructions (like constantly). Be sure to look back and signal before changing lanes. Return to the lane when it’s safe to do so.

Bike Lane

Bike Lanes may be obstructed. Plan ahead, signal, and navigate around

OBSERVE the DETAILS of the lane markings. For instance; broken lines mean cars may travel through, the double arrowhead know as the Shared Lane marking, or “Sharrows” indicate the lane may be used by either bikes or cars.

NEGOTIATE with CARS who need to share the space. Negotiate means to indicate your intention to an approaching motorists, observe the motorist for a response, then based on their response, one or the other of you will proceed first.

REMAIN AWARE OF THE DOORZONE – No matter where the bike lane markings have been painted.

The NYC Bike Lane system is a work in progress. Ride Alert. Communicate with others. Be Polite.

CONCLUSION
Take responsibility for your own success as a city cyclist. Safe cycling does not arise out of fear of traffic, but from understanding where the risks lie and taking active steps to avoid them. Approach urban riding not with timidity, but with a heads-up attitude and the knowledge you need to reduce risk.

Lance Jacobs
LCI #3507
Virtuous Bicycle
Updated April 2015

About the author

Lance Jacobs

A native New Yorker, biking has been part of my life from my paper route in 5th grade, through my international tours on 4 continents. Now, as a League Certified Instructor (LCI #3507), my focus is on studying and teaching the best way to ride in NYC's unique street environment. I love cycling and I love my city. I believe riding our streets can be stress free when approached with some solid skills, some basic knowledge, and the right frame of mind.

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