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Riding Safe in the City

By Tej Mehta


On last week’s biking trip we had to take a detour through DC city streets due to construction closures on the Rock Creek Trail. This experience of navigating through crowded urban roads was eye-opening, to say the least.

We found ourselves with a major dilemma while heading down the District’s avenues. We could ride on the road with fast-moving cars that were constantly switching lanes, braking, and turning. Or we could ride on the sidewalk which was full of pedestrians and people entering and exiting businesses and restaurants. In addition to these two options, we sometimes had the opportunity to ride in a bike lane that was situated precariously between street parking and the road.

We ultimately ended up riding on the sidewalk for the most part of the ride but jumped around between the road and bike lane at many points during the trip. Being naive to the whole idea of urban cycling, we were quite indecisive about where we were riding and often found ourselves stuck behind slow-moving pedestrians, holding up a line of cars on the street, or fearing for our lives riding in the bike lane. The craziness of the city-street portion of the ride prompted one of our members to suggest that we publish a trail mix article about urban biking etiquette.

So, I sat down to do some research on what conventions for biking in the city. I quickly realized that riding on sidewalks is generally frowned upon. In hindsight, this makes sense given that a bike poses a large threat to the walkers that fill the city sidewalks. Instead, cyclists should ride on the road, or bike lane if there is one. In addition to riding in the right place, you should also prioritize:

  • Wearing visible clothing, so motorists have an easier time picking you out

  • Remaining predictable while on the road - this can include using signals to indicate planned movement, following the laws of the road, and not riding all over the place.

  • Staying present while riding - your behavior and position in traffic is more important than your music or conversation.

  • Riding with safety gear, at least a helmet to protect your head in the event of an incident. I see a lot of people in the city riding without a helmet and they are at a much higher risk of getting severely injured from even minor accidents just by not making the small effort to put on a helmet.

  • Avoiding to ride at dangerous times if you can - this means not riding at your own discretion during rush hours or at night. If you absolutely must ride at these times, make sure that you take all necessary precautions.

In summary, city biking etiquette and safety stems from staying off the sidewalk and riding in the road or bike lane, acting as a predictable user, and wearing necessary safety gear. (There is far more to consider than can be covered here, check out this resource from the Harvard School of Public Health for more information:

Unfortunately, however, this situation is still extremely unsafe for cyclists. The streets are full of motorists that are always in a rush to get somewhere, many of whom don’t have much regard for other road users. The bike lanes are often blocked, and while riding in bike lanes there is a constant risk of having someone from street parking pulling out in front of you after not checking their mirrors/blind spot, or opening their door on you and sending you over the handlebars. In my opinion, the root of the urban biking dilemma lies in a lack of usable biking infrastructure in cities. While cities such as DC have made tremendous progress in being bike-friendly, in many cases it still remains stressful to be a cyclist in a car-centric society.

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