5 Ways to Cycle Safely in the City

By: Chris Opfer
Person cycling outdoors for leisure on bicycle.
Tourists on bikes amid the traffic in Berlin. How do you stay safe when cycling in the city? See more sports pictures.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

When it comes to life in a big city, change is the only constant. Buildings rise and fall, people come and go, and the pant sizes of the tragically hip become tighter and tighter. For current American city dwellers, however, it's not just the landscape of their urban oases that's transforming, but also the way they travel across it.

From New York to L.A., bicycle fever is taking hold as city folk turn to two wheels for exercise, adventure, and a cheap, fast and clean way to get from Point A to Point B.


In the Big Apple alone, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg has literally paved the streets in bike lanes, commuter bicycling increased by 262 percent from 2000 to 2010. Even in Portland (Oregon, not Maine), where the number of bike shops is rivaled only by the plethora of microbreweries, ridership continues to tick up [sources: NYC Dept. of Transportation, Rose].

With the increase of spokes on the streets, however, has come a rise in bike-related accidents, including those resulting in fatalities. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 500,000 people are treated for bicycling injuries in emergency rooms across the U.S. each year.

Navigating chaotic city streets on a bicycle requires not only good balance and properly inflated tires, but also sharp attention, an understanding of basic traffic laws and respect for one's fellow travelers. Read on for pointers on how to safely cruise amid the bright lights of the big city.

5: Act Like a Car

Most cities require bikers to ride on the streets along with cars, motorcycles, Vespas, horse- drawn carriages and the like, rather than on sidewalks, which -- as the name suggests -- are made for walkers. When a bike joins traffic, the bike is traffic. A smart, safe biker knows this and acts like it [source: NYC Dept of Transportation].

That means claiming a space on the street where drivers and other bikers can see you. Fortunately, many well-traveled streets are equipped with bike lanes or at least offer a shoulder wide enough to accommodate cyclists. Just make sure to stay far enough away from parked cars; an unexpectedly opened door is for bikers the equivalent of a deer that jaunts out onto a dimly lit country road. If there is no shoulder or bicycle lane and the traffic lane is narrow, ride closer to the center of the lane to make your presence known and prevent motorists from attempting to pass [sources: California Department of Motor Vehicles, Transportation Alternatives].


Just as cars are expected to stay in lanes and avoid weaving in and out of traffic, so should cyclists maintain their lanes and act predictably. Make like a car, and ride in the direction of traffic. As tempting as it is to pedal on through red lights and stop signs, shimmy between stopped vehicles and pull a "u-ey" at the first sign of congestion, the rules of the road are intended for all who travel it, whether behind the wheel of pick-up truck, straddling a Harley, or at the helm of a Schwinn with the wind at your back [source: Transportation Alternatives].

4: Turn with Caution

It's one thing to navigate city traffic moving straight forward, but sooner or later most bikers will want to change directions. Right turns are easy enough, assuming that you 're moving with traffic and traveling on a bike lane, shoulder or the far right lane (unless you're Lance Armstrong, you're likely the "slow" traffic and should stay to the right). Left turns, on the other hand, are a whole 'nother ball of chain fluid.

There are two ways to approach a left turn: like a pedestrian; and like a car. The first method is simple. Stop at the intersection at which you want to turn (make sure you're out of the way of traffic), wait for the light to change and use the crosswalk. Then merge back onto the street [source: NYC DOT].


The car method requires a little more skill and maneuvering. The steely resolve of a high stakes poker player also won't hurt wither. From the right lane, decrease your speed and look over your shoulder for a clearing in traffic. Double-check, and move to the far left lane once the coast is clear [source: NYC DOT].

Most bikes don't come with automatic turn signals, so you will have to let others know that you intend to hang a left the old fashioned way. To signal a left turn, simply extend your left arm at shoulder level [source: NYC DOT].

While the good folks at National Committee on Uniform Traffic Laws and Ordinances advise that bikers can signal a right turn by making an "L" with your left arm, it's likely that some motorists may not be familiar with the hand signals section of the Uniform Vehicle Code. Instead, try simply extending your right arm to advise others when you are about to make a right [source: NYC DOT].

3: Understand the Art of the Merge

Even if you find yourself on a nice, wide bike lane separated from cars on the street, there will come a time when you have to mix with the rest of the traffic. Intersections, for example, can present the novice city cyclist with a bit of a quandary: What to do when you want to keep traveling forward through an intersection, but the car beside you is fixin' to turn?

A biker riding through an intersection can avoid ending up on a turning vehicle's hood by understanding the art of the merge. When entering the intersection, merge in front of or behind turning traffic [source: NYC DOT].


A proper merge is a tango that requires not only smart, alert biking, but also awareness on the part of the turning driver. A cyclist does his part, and makes it easier on his partners in traffic, by making his presence known. In other words, a driver is less likely to hit you if he can see you. That means pedaling out toward the side of the bike lane closest to traffic before merging. This is no time for hugging the curb [source: NYC DOT].

2: Be Visible

bike reflector
Many states require you to have a red light or reflector with at least 600 feet of visibility for the rear of your bike.
Jupiterimages/Polka Dot/Thinkstock

By now it should be clear that the most important thing a biker can do to ensure safe passage along busy city streets is to be seen. Bright day-glo colors aren't just for burned out Haight Street hippies and Alice in Wonderland remakes, they're also the uniform of smart cyclists. Especially at night. High visibility shirts and reflective vests draw attention. So too do bike-mounted reflectors and flashing lights [source: Transportation Alternatives].

In many states, cyclists are required to have a headlight in order to ride at night. For the same reasons that you want others on the road to see you, it's also a good idea to be able to see what's on the road once the sun goes down, whether it's pot holes, speed bumps or small animals. "Front and rear lights are our eyes to the world at night and make us bigger and brighter on the street," say the New York City-based cycling safety enthusiasts at Transportation Alternatives. A white light with at least 500 feet (152 meters) of visibility for the front and a red back light with at least 600 feet (182 meters) of visibility is a good start [sources: Transportation Alternatives, Portland Bureau of Transportation].


Headlamps, like the ones donned by coal miners and cave divers, can also help light up the night. If you're in the market for one of these wearable beams, be sure to consider the lamp's power (measured in lumens), distance (the light's useable range) and battery life [source: REI].

1: Ride a Bike Built for the City

fixed gear bike, hipster
While a fixed gear bike may look cool, it's way more practical to have one with a variety of gears.
Blake Sinclair/Workbook Stock/Getty Images

All the safety tips in the world aren't worth much without a solid set of wheels. There are plenty of street-ready bikes to choose from; here are a few things to keep in mind when narrowing down the options.

Fixed gear bikes are for bike messengers and posers. There are no exceptions to this rule. Few if any cities in this country are completely flat, so you're going to want those gears when you're staring down a San Francisco-style hill. Most riders find brakes helpful as well [source: Sorrel].


Beginners should look for something that's low maintenance, weatherproof and offers an upright riding position that sits riders high and tall to see and be seen in traffic. Be aware that traveling a city by bike means taking on a diverse terrain: Changes in grade, surface and weather elements require versatile wheels. Tires should be skinny enough for speed, but wide enough to handle life on the street [source: Bicycling.com].

Bikes with internal gear hubs are popular among city cyclists, many of whom like the reliability that comes with having all bike gears contained inside the hub, where they are protected from weather and other damage. These bikes are also easier to maintain in that the gears don't require regular cleaning [source: Montague Bikes].

Once you selected a chariot, the only thing left to do is accessorize. If you've read this far, you already know that you'll need some lights, reflectors and maybe a bell. A cup holder and a rack are also popular additions to city cycles. If you're planning on biking to work, don't forget a chain guard. It will keep those pleated khakis grease-free.

Not yet ready to hit the street? Check out the links on the next page for more bicycling information.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 5 Ways to Cycle Safely in the City

If there is any truth to the rumor that Paul Reubens is working on a new Pee-wee Herman film with Judd Apatow, well...then...it appears there's nothing that the man in red bow tie can do wrong. A couple of embarrassing arrests on the 'ol criminal record? Chalk it up to artistic eccentricity; go underground for awhile and it will all blow over. That's Pee-wee: eccentric. So it should come as no surprise that in the seminal American bicycling film, Pee-wee's Big Adventure, Reubens hops aboard his shiny red bike without a helmet. Me, I prefer to protect my noggin when I'm cruising the street. Then again, I think Reubens has a different idea of cruising.

Related Articles

  • Bicycling.com. "6 Great Bikes for the City." (Aug. 26, 2012) http://fitbie.msn.com/get-fitter/tips/6-great-bikes-city/tip/2
  • California Department of Motor Vehicles. "Sharing the Road." (Aug. 26, 2012). http://www.dmv.ca.gov/pubs/brochures/fast_facts/ffdl37.htm
  • Centers for Disease Control. "Bicycle Related Injuries." (Aug. 26, 2012) http://www.cdc.gov/homeandrecreationalsafety/bikeinjuries.html
  • Crain's New York. "Stats & The City." (Aug. 26, 2012) http://www.crainsnewyork.com/gallery/20120610/ECONOMY/610009999/4
  • Montague Bikes. "Why Use an Internal Gear Hub?" May 26, 2011. (Aug. 26, 2012). http://www.montaguebikes.com/folding-bikes-blog/2011/05/why-use-an-internal-gear-hub
  • New York City Department of Transportation. "Bicyclists: Don't Be A Jerk." (Aug. 26, 2012) http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/html/bicyclists/dontbeajerk.shtml
  • New York City Department of Transportation. "Bike Smart: The Official Guide to Cycling in New York City." Spring 2011 (Aug. 26, 2012) http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/dot_bikesmart_brochure.pdf
  • Portland Bureau of Transportation. "Riding in the Rain and Night Riding Tips." (Aug. 26, 2012)http://www.portlandoregon.gov/transportation/article/58172
  • REI. "How to Choose a Headlamp." (Aug. 26, 2012) http://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/headlamp.html
  • REI. "How to Choose a Headlamp." (Aug. 26, 2012) http://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/headlamp.html
  • Sapp, Dona. "Bicycle Collisions in Indiana." May 2012. (Aug. 26, 2012) http://bicycleindiana.org/educate/crashreport.php
  • Sorrel, Charlie. "5 Inexplicable Fixie Fashions." Wired. April 15, 2009 (Aug. 26, 2012). http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2009/04/five-inexplicab
  • Transportation Alternatives. "Biking Rules Street Code." (Aug. 26, 2012). http://www.dmv.ca.gov/pubs/brochures/fast_facts/ffdl37.htm