Safety First: A Guide to City Cycling

Seattle is a city with a vibrant cycling community. All year round, Seattle cyclists hit the streets to train, commute, and have fun. Seattle is also a city with lots of car traffic, and a cycling infrastructure which forces cyclists to share roads directly with drivers. This creates a dangerous situation where cyclists are put at risk on a daily basis to get out on their bikes and ride. Cyclists must smarten up in a hurry if they wish to enjoy the cycling this city has to offer, and there are steps you can take to greatly improve your safety on the street.
Here are some good pointers to get you started:
Make sure you are comfortable handling on your bike and that your bike is in good working order.

If you are a confident handler of your bike, you will also be a safer cyclist out on the road. Many people still have a childish memory of riding their bikes, where they didn’t necessarily need a high skill-level to careen around the driveway or neighborhood. There weren’t rules, it was all about fun. Cyclists riding in the city need to take responsibility when out on the roads. They must learn not only the cycling-specific rules of the road, but also how to things like shift properly, stop smoothly, corner efficiently and safely, descend, and perform an emergency stop. Practice of these skills ensures your responses will be more predictable in situations that require quick decision-making and evasive maneuvers, making the streets safer for yourself and those around you.
Cycle University is a huge resource for developing cycling skills and knowledge, and offers basic to advanced skills development in group or one-on-one settings. Check out our summer offerings on the class page- Road 101, 201, and 301 will teach you practical skills for safe handling and gaining confidence on your bike.
A well kept bike is a safe bike, for hopefully obvious reasons.  Even if you don’t ride a lot and find it hard to justify handing out extra money on bike maintenance, you at least need to make sure you have the ability to brake safely, that your frame and components are structurally sound, and that your tires are in good condition.
Cycle University has a full bike service department at both the Sand Point and West Seattle location. Your safety is our first concern: If you’re curious what kind of condition your bike is in, we will happily look over your bike and give a free estimate on the services we would recommend for you.

Everything is out to get you.
You cannot rely on the assumption that drivers will drive aware and in a predictable manner. DON’T, DON’T, DON’T. There is no ‘winning’ when going up against vehicles in a collision scenario. Your best defense is to assume that the car directly to your left could – no, WILL, without warning – dive to the right into the next side street.  The driver making a left hand turn, they won’t see you and will go ahead and make that left hand turn even with you having right of way. That car pulling up to the intersection, it’s going to fly out directly in front of you.
Yep, this sounds terrible. You probably don’t feel it’s fair, and you will feel paranoid, but it will also keep you ready to respond when the moment comes. I say, ‘when’, and not, ‘if’, because close calls happen regularly, they are inevitable when you spend any time riding with vehicular traffic, and I cannot stress the importance of remaining aware when you’re on the road. It is YOUR JOB to look out for cars and the moment you get lazy in this regard, and don’t make that extra effort, taking the extra precautions, however unlikely it is that a driver will make a mistake or act unpredictably, it is YOU who will suffer the consequences if they do.

Bike lanes do not spell ‘safety’.

You say now, ‘But wait? What about when I find a bike lane to ride in? Aren’t they there so I can relax and feel more safe?’ My answer is absolutely not!  Bike lanes, in theory, are there to help protect cyclists, as well as improve traffic flow.  In practice, and for the most part in the United States, bike lanes consist of nothing more than a painted strip on the same road shared by car traffic, and actually create dangerous situations in certain cases.
Bike lanes are not your excuse to relax and pay less attention to traffic. This is probably one of the largest problem areas of urban commuting, as cyclists assume that they do not have to worry about cars anymore once they’re in a bike lane, as if within some invisible force field.
The primary things to be especially cautious of in bike lanes include:

  • Car doors opening to the right of the bike lane.  Many urban streets allow cars to park to the far right of the street, creating a bike lane sandwich.   Whenever you see a line of parked cars to your right, it is your cue move to the far left of your lane, giving approximately a car-door distance between you and the row of vehicles. Other things to look out for are drivers pulling out of or diving into potential parking spaces, DO NOT ASSUME THEY SEE YOU.

  • Drivers turning/ Drivers pulling out from side streets.  In order for a car to turn off of their current street onto a side street, yes, they have to intersect your bike path.  In order for a car to merge onto the same street you are on, they must intersect your bike path. They should do this in a safe manner, but do you assume that they will?  -Did you answer, ‘NO!’ ?  – GOOD!  You are learning!
    My rule of thumb with drivers making left hand turns or poised at a side street looking to merge with, or drive across your current street, MAKE EYE CONTACT. I cannot overemphasize the importance in these situations. It seems like a hassle, and it is, as sometimes it requires you to slow down a moment to make sure drivers look your direction and acknowledge your presence, it is all extra effort on your part, but the potential alternative could be devastating.The second type of turn to deal with would be that of vehicles from your flow direction, looking to make a right hand turn.
    Be on the lookout for blinker signals of cars directly in front of you, but also of vehicles you are traveling beside, once you approach side streets. You do not want to stay for more than a moment directly beside a vehicle – instead, space yourself behind, where you can keep a visual on their blinkers, where the driver can see you better in their mirrors, and where you would have appropriate distance to react in case they make an unexpected or unannounced turn, or, in front of the car.

  • Use your judgment with bike lanes.  It may be appropriate, and the best choice for YOUR safety, to merge with traffic in certain areas, even if a bike lane is available. Situations like this would be in places where the bike lane is obstructed by an object or parked vehicle, where the bike lane is in very poor condition, and where the bike lane is on a long descent and the vehicles have a reasonably low speed limit. This last example may seem strange, but there are situations, due to your increased speed and therefore inability to react as quickly and safely to cars turning into side streets or merging out of side streets (intersecting your bike lane), where merging with traffic, as long as you are close to matching their speed, is the safer alternative.

    Riding in the city is serious business, but it can also be really fun and rewarding. Don’t let fear keep you from riding your bike on the city, instead, equip yourself with the tools and knowledge to do it safely.

    Now, let’s all get out and ride!

    Coach Vanessa

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