bike riding in traffic

What you need to know to ride safely in traffic

Traffic has created opportunities for urban cyclists and when you know how to ride safely in traffic, you’ll experience a faster, more efficient, and self-satisfying mode of mobility.

Little else is more satisfying than setting out by bike and reaching your destination in higher spirits and in less time than going by automobile or public transportation. What you’re doing is beating a system that was never meant for you. Traffic has unwittingly created opportunities for urban cyclists and, when you know how to ride in traffic, you can take alternate or more direct routes; make stops along the way; and accurately calculate your trip time because there’s less to slow you down when you don’t have to search for parking or the nearest metro stop.

Lately more bikes on city streets have legitimized cycling as part of traffic but sharing the road is still a lesson to be learned by cyclists and drivers alike. Here’s what you need to know to ride safely in traffic.

Bike Safety Fundamentals

Wear a helmet. There are literally hundreds of helmet styles to choose from and you can even personalize your helmet with accessories like reflective accents for safety and a little extra style.

safe bike riding

Follow the rules of the road. Cyclists are enjoying more of a presence than ever on the urban landscape, but bad actors can spoil it for everyone. Ride on the right side and:
  • Stop for lights and stop signs
  • Ride with the flow of traffic
  • Yield to pedestrians and other vehicles who have the right-of-way.

Be seen. The more visible you are, the more likely other road users are to notice you and give you the necessary space to ride safely.

Choose high visibility clothing. A jacket, vest, or reflective trouser clip are a first line of defense in low light or nighttime conditions.

Install lights, reflectors, and reflective stickers that allow you to design a custom look to really shine brighter than the rest. 

reflective stickers for visibility

Tune up your bike. Make sure your handlebar isn’t loose and your brakes are working properly. Tighten your quick releases and inflate your tires. These small actions can save you lots of headaches down the road.

What’s the safest riding position?

This question has two answers, the first has to do with your position on the bike, the second with your position on the road.

  1. Adopt an upright position that gives you better peripheral vision and allows you to be seen by traffic. If you are traveling by a bike that’s lower than the eyelevel of most drivers (like a recumbent), you may be virtually invisible and therefore a danger to yourself because drivers will be unaware of your presence.
  2. Claim your space on the road. You have just as much right to be there as every other legal vehicle and riding in a marginal space may put you at risk of getting “doored” or cut off by drivers turning right (or left, depending upon traffic flow where you are). Position yourself in the center of the lane as a declaration of your presence and to prevent drivers from passing you in unsafe zones. When traffic flow is steady and predictable, you may reposition yourself one meter to the right of moving traffic.
bike riding in traffic

Common hazards to riding in traffic

Getting “doored.” Riding too close to parked cars puts you at risk of a door inadvertently opening right in front of you, leaving you no option except to crash into it. Give yourself enough distance from parked cars that if this should happen, you’re out of harm’s way without swerving into traffic.

Drivers turning right without signaling. Unless you’re a mind-reader, you can’t often predict when a driver will turn right, which leaves you vulnerable even if you’re the one following the road rules. This is even more reason to claim your share of the road – to prevent cars from cutting across your path for an abrupt turn.

Blind spots. Both you and drivers each have blind spots, which lie just outside your peripheral vision and behind you. Avoid the driver’s blind spot by positioning yourself in the driver’s line of sight and by allowing enough space to react safely.

Absent-minded drivers. Morning rush hour can also carry with it sleepy or distracted drivers (this could be you on your bike too). Be on the alert for drivers automatically pulling out of blind driveways or garages and take nothing for granted at intersections. Texting while driving, while illegal in most places, unfortunately still happens. To avoid dangers posed by others, ride defensively by obeying traffic laws.

Essential equipment for riding in traffic

Lights aren’t only essential to being seen day and night, both front and back lights are often required by law so get lit to be legal. Lights should be visible on the urban landscape, where multiple light sources compete for attention. Front and rear lights with options for both a steady beam and a flashing one are the absolute minimum for riding in the city. What’s even better are lights that provide 360º visibility, which leaves less chance of you going unnoticed by drivers.

strong bike lights

A bell. The least offensive way to signal your approach and nicely request that your fellow road users share the road or bike path, a bell isn’t just a nice idea, it may be obligatory by law where you ride.

Gloves. Keeping your hands covered is also a safety measure because comfortable hands are better at gripping handlebars and brakes than cold, wet, or sweaty hands. There are cycling gloves for all seasons, and they place textured material at contact points for better grip and to lessen pressure on your hands.

cycling equipment

Eyewear. Threats to your 20/20 can come from any direction. Car exhaust, road debris churned up by other users, sun, fog, and rain can all be an assault on your vision. Cycling-specific glasses that are rimless and fog-proof help drain sweat condensation. Interchangeable lenses for bright or low light conditions make sure you can see no matter the time of day.

Handy tips

  • Keep your bike in tip-top shape. Before you head out into traffic for the first time, make sure your bike is ready to go too. Tighten any loose bolts, clean and grease the chain, and remove any thorns, shards of glass, bits of metal or any other debris stuck in your tires before they cause a flat. Better yet, if it’s been a while, take your bike to a professional mechanic for a check-up to make sure everything is in working order.
  • Exercise your brain cognition by taking different routes to get to your destination. Stay sharp and alert by mixing up your routine and taking a different route once or twice each week.
  • Know the rules of the road. If you want respect as a cyclist, you’ve got to earn it. Learn the hand signals for cyclists to signal turns and stops and ride in accordance with local laws.