Bike commuting is honestly what inspired me to start NYMB.co. Traveling around Europe & Asia, I had noticed so many amazing cities, small and large, where citizens got up each day and biked.
Biked from their home to work, or out to the supermarket, couples biking to dinner, and friends to the park for picnics. It really was inspiring to see what I felt like was the most idyllic lifestyle--getting around your city by bike seemed like the only way to commute.
When I got back home, I started noticing how many cyclists and bike commuters there were right here in the US. From my backyard of New York City, to San Francisco, Portland, the suburbs (where I resided for probably too long ;) and even rural areas, people were getting around by bike. I picked up my bike, and began to ride every day.
A part of this pursuit, was also learning the basics of bike commuting:
- Staying safe on the road (learning the rules of the road, how to be visible, etc.)
- How to keep my bike safe (locked up when I'm not with it)
- How to do basic maintenance on my bike and take care of it (changing a flat, keeping it lubed up and clean, etc.)
- And even just what is the right bike for me? (road bike, mountain bike, etc.)
In this blog post, I'm going to focus on the first piece, which is just how to stay safe on a standard bike commute. Honestly, this can vary a lot depending on where you live (rural vs urban), weather conditions, and more, but I'm going to be as comprehensive as possible. There are a lot of variables out there though, so always
Rule #1: Have fun.
Although, like many great things, there are risks involved (but not really much more than other types of transportation), there are also great rewards: bike commuting & cycling are good for your health, fun, awesome exercise, a stress reliever, and good for the environment, among others. So don't get hung up on the risks, just learn how best to mitigate them. Here goes:
Tips for staying safe on a bike commute:
1. Hand Signals
Before you hit the streets, it's a good idea to learn your hand signals. These will be important when you're trying to communicate to drivers, other cyclists and pedestrians what you're planning on doing on the road.
For example, if you're trying to turn left, just like for a car, it's a good idea to let others know what you're thinking so they can prepare and be more careful around you. You can also use your hands to let drivers or cyclists know you need to merge into a lane, slow down or stop. All of these signals can be integral to keeping you safe on the road.
You'll quickly notice as you ride how important it is to not only know what the signals are so that you can use them, but also to understand what other cyclists are telling you they're about to do.
2. Be Visible: Using Lights
Using lights is important to any vehicle on the road at night. Now-a-days even runners are using lights for late night runs as well as reflective gear (which we'll get into later).
In many states, using lights when you ride at night is the law, and the laws vary from state to state so it's good to know the bike laws in your own state. Generally, whether or not it's the law, using bike lights is very good practice for staying safe. I ride with one red rear bike light, and one bright front white head light. The headlight allows you not only to better see the road a head of you, but let drivers and cyclists know that you're coming.
As you ride, especially past parked cars and the like, you'll see how much safer a bike light makes you feel, as it does keep you more visible on the road.
The law usually dictates that you use both a front and a rear light when you ride between sunset and sunrise. You can easily find packages of lights at your local bike shop or on Amazon.com. Invest in a good set of bright, rechargeable bike lights. These will keep you safe, and save you from replacing batteries constantly (although they do require frequent recharging).
I'd even recommend getting more than one set, and have a back up that you can keep with you at work or in your backpack or pannier. The more lights you have the better!
3. Be Visible: Reflective Gear + Reflective Clothing
Being visible is so important to riding, not only at night, but during the day also. Too often you'll catch me in all black on the road (not recommended), which I know is not the best practice, but if I'm riding at night or in the rain, you're sure to catch me with both my bike lights on and a fully reflective coat.
You can get a ton of great reflective gear to keep you and your bike super visible in all conditions. Here are some of my favorites:
- Use reflective tape on your spokes to keep you visible from the side
- Use reflective tape or stickers on your bike rack and helmet
- Get reflectors for both your wheels and the front and rear of your bike -- if you ever forget your bike lights this will be clutch!
- Get a reflective vest for nice weather
- Get a reflective, waterproof coat for rainy and cold weather
- Get shoes or bike shoes with reflective pieces
- Use booties to cover your feet in the rain, and make sure they have a reflective strip on them
- Find a backpack, pannier, or messenger bag with reflective components
- As a cyclist you can really find anything that is reflective--pants, shoes, shirts, vests, helmets, gloves, and more. Look around for them.
Anything else you've used in the past to stay visible and be seen?
4. Taking the lane
Taking the lane is a good skill to learn early on, but for unexperienced cyclists this can feel scary, or even as if it's not the right thing to do. It's good to know though, that if there is no bike lane, or insufficient space in a lane that you're sharing with cars, that it is well within your rights to ride in the middle of the lane.
Riding in the middle of the lane, for cyclists, is called "taking the lane," or "claiming the lane."
This is an important concept, because there are many situations that you may put yourself in danger by trying to stay out of the way of cars, riding very closely to parked cars on a narrow rode, or in pot holes, when you should be riding down the center of the lane where vehicles will have better visibility of you, and also will not be able to make an unsafe pass around you.
Read this great in depth article on taking the lane, and the top 5 reasons to take the lane on Commute by Bike.
5. Follow the standard rules of the road
Although, some rules for cyclists are not exactly the same as they are for drivers, many of them are, and it's good to understand the rules of the road so that you can follow them as best as possible. Riding your bike in a way that respects the rules of the road can help keep you safe, and also respected by other vehicles.
For example, you should be stopping at stop signs, yielding to yields, waiting for red lights to change, and signaling when appropriate. It can be tempting--and I think we're all at fault for this--to ride through a stop sign, or go through a red when you see no drivers are coming, but this behavior does put you at greater risk. Try to follow the rules as best you can, riding predictably and safely will help you in the long run.
Along with this means also fully understanding your rights as a cyclist, and that you can do things like take the lane when you need to.
6. Getting Dressed
Setting the stage for your bike commute, before you leave the house, will really help bike commuting become not only a very manageable practice, but also a really fun and enjoyable one.
Getting dressed is a big part of this. Be sure your dressing right for the weather, and also preparing for the weather you may encounter later in the day on your ride home.
I like to step outside before I leave the house to check the temperature. A smart rider once told me that if you're a little bit chilly before you leave, your dressed perfect for your ride. That way when you get some heat built up on your ride, you'll feel more comfortable and not too hot.
Cycling in hot weather:
If you're taking long rides to work, and you may sweat, consider riding with moisture wicking clothing, in a cycling bib and shorts. Or at the least, be prepared with a change of clothes that you can change into when you arrive at your destination. When I ride in hot weather, I do both.
Pro-tip! If riding in hot weather, it's especially important to bring a water bottle with you as well and stay hydrated. Of course, remember your sunscreen.
Cycling in cold weather:
Cold weather is a whole nother beast. You want to keep yourself protected from the elements. It's important to layer up appropriately for the type of cold that you're riding in. There's everything from +40 to -40 and everything in between, and the riding is very different.
If you're riding in below freezing temperatures, you'll probably want to wear long-sleeve moisture wicking clothing as a base layer, and then you may need a sweater as well as a winter coat. Layer above that as much as necessary.
Ride with a hat, or baclava, a good pair of gloves, that is good at keeping the wind out, good socks and shoes or even boots if it is snowy out. A scarf may be needed as well if you're not covering the bottom of your face and neck appropriately. As temperatures dip lower, this becomes increasingly important.
Bring a change of clothes with you as well in these conditions. This is important because with so many layers on, a lot of heat builds as you ride, and you may sweat just as much as when it's hot out.
Cycling in rainy weather:
In rainy weather, I suggest doing the following:
- Get a fully waterproof reflective rain coat
- Rain booties to cover over any pair of shoes
- A fully waterproof backpack, messenger bag, or pannier to carry your things safely in the rain
- Gloves to keep your hands warm
- Pro tip! Fenders are extremely important to keep your feet and legs as dry as possible. Get full cover fenders for both your back and front wheels.
- Pants are the hardest thing, you can get a poncho to cover your legs, or waterproof pants to help protect your legs as well
- Bring a change of clothes with you in this case as well, no matter what, in a downpour, you'll be wet
7. Take a class
If you want, it can even be great to take a bike commuting class to really learn the rules of the road. You can find classes like this through the League of American Bicyclists, your local bike shop, or the local bike coalition. Here are a few from some major cities:
- San Francisco Bicycle Coalition
- New York City - Bike NYC
- New York City - Where The Bike Lane Ends
- Austin - Bike Austin
- Portland - Portland by Cycle
- Seattle - Cascade Bicycle Club
- Boston - MassBike
- LA - List of resources for cycling in LA
Thanks so much for reading this in depth article on staying safe as a beginning bike commuter. It's awesome if you're just trying to get into cycling, ride around your city, or have been a long time rider looking for new tips!
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