Seeing the Future

Riding in the city requires foresight. There are a number of forces at work against you. Cars. Pedestrians. Potholes. Buses. Aggressive pigeons. Flying plastic shopping bags. Gravity. Etc.

Being safe means being able to anticipate what is going to happen next. People who have been riding cities for long periods of time develop a sixth sense, an awareness they’re mostly not even aware of. It leads them to tell non-riders that it’s really not that dangerous riding in thick urban traffic. But of course, it is. It’s very dangerous. But there are some things you can do to develop this sense, to make yourself a little safer. Here are some tips (and I’d love to hear more if anyone has them):

1) Know your lights. I’m talking here about both the traffic lights AND the walk signs. I find it really, really valuable to know when walk signs signal an upcoming red traffic light or when a red light gives way to a walk sign moving the same direction, a situation that makes the intersection relatively safe, rather than crowded with cars moving perpendicular to your path. The truth is, I cheat on lights all the time. I run them. But I don’t do it in the kamikaze rush I did ten years ago, plowing into the intersection and hoping to figure my way across once I got there. No. Now I know the lights that have long yellows. I know the timing of the turn signals and the walks. I can look at the walk sign and know what the traffic light will do. I use all that information to make decisions about when to plow forward and when to pull up.

[An aside on light-running: I don't advocate flouting traffic laws. You and I both ought to do what the law prescribes in all situations. That's what I'm going to tell the judge when he asks me about it. In my own personal, ethical universe, I run lights with some regularity, because I am most in danger when I have cars on both sides of me. I often run lights to get out into clear bits of road, where I'm less likely to get hit by accident or vendetta. I do NOT run lights as a matter of course. I don't dart into intersections. I only run a light if doing so is the safer thing to do, and it often is. This is all I will say on the subject of light-running and the law.]

2) Read the pedestrians. Pedestrians are slower than you are. By and large they look before they cross in front of cars (if not when they step in front of bikes), so coming to an intersection, you can usually tell whether you need to stop by seeing what the pedestrians are doing. Here on the East Coast, no one waits for the walk sign. Folks cross against the light all the time. You can use them to know what’s going on down roads you can’t see down yet. You can also use them as shields, since cars very, very seldom plow through a gaggle of foot-bound humanity. I use them to protect me from turning cars and as canaries in the mine of wide intersections.

Of course, pedestrians are also an obstacle unto themselves. You can see over the roofs of cars to see people cutting across the lane, but I also use the little, bubble side view mirrors of trucks to look forward across the lane to be sure there aren’t any errant walkers poised to step out into my path. There is a point some meters behind when the side mirror provides a good angle for this. If you wait too long to look, you just get a view of the ugly who’s driving the truck. Be warned.

3) Profile drivers. If you see a motorist on the phone while smoking a cigarette, it’s a good idea to assume they’re going to drive like an asshat. If you see a driver ahead of you squeezing into the bike lane (where there are bike lanes) or switching lanes without signaling, you really have to be extra careful passing them. Also, you should ALWAYS beware of women driving Volvos, men driving pick up trucks, cabs, buses, cops and box trucks. I won’t get into the reasoning behind singling these people out. Just take it on faith that they are dangerous and keep a safe distance.

4) Talk to yourself. The biggest danger in urban riding is ADD. There is so much input coming at you at high speed from every corner of your vision that maintaining concentration is a real challenge. I talk to myself, articulating what’s going on in front of me. If I see a cab driver getting ready to pull out of a cab stand, I say, “Douchebag in the cab. Douchebag in the cab,” over and over until I’ve passed the danger. It makes you look and sound crazy, but it reduces the risk of getting creamed by a douchebag.

When I approach other cyclists, I continue talking, and you’d be surprised how many times fellow riders have thanked me for unintended warnings.

5) Use your lizard vision. Coming into a crowded intersection, it’s very difficult to see all the things you need to see. At times like that I try to let my sight blur a bit, using my peripheral vision to see left AND right at the same time. This is especially useful when watching for cars on one side and pedestrians on the other.

6) Sometimes brake lights are turn signals. In Boston, only about 40% of the population uses their turn signals. Every time I’ve been hit or nearly hit, it’s been because a driver has suddenly cut across my lane with no signal. I’ve come to see that when a car brakes coming into an intersection, it’s often because they’re going to turn. I try not to get myself between them and their turn. I try to slow and insert myself in the space behind them, so that, as they turn, I can slip ahead of them on the left, without blocking traffic or getting crushed.

Please bear in mind, I am in no way qualified to tell you how to ride. These are things I do to try to minimize my risks, but we all know, intellectually if not viscerally, that the smartest rider in the world will one day fall off. We can’t control all the variables. We can’t control MOST of the variables. I am very curious what tricks other people use when riding the city (or the country, or the dark side of the moon) to stay safe. If any of this keeps one of us from getting hit on even one occasion, it will have been worth the pixel-cost.

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30 comments

  1. matty

    there are almost too many tips and rules to follow to write and categorize…

    *look for the light from headlights you can’t see
    *understand and use pedestrian blockers
    *stay out of the door zone
    *avoid left or right hooks by taking the lane or going to the noncurbside of a vehicle in the curbside lane (getting ‘hooked’ by turning cars is one of the most common urban riding collisions)
    *take the lane
    *have lights on your bike
    *ride confidently and predictably

  2. Rod Diaz

    Great tips!

    I ride in a highly urban area. I’ve learned that my voice is an important tool. A lot of pedestrians do like lemmings, and follow blindly those in front of them. I yell “hold” and normally that’s enough (sounds close enough to “halt” for French speakers in my bilingual corner of Canada).

    So, use your voice! Unfortunately, some of the lemmings decide that they don’t need their hearing either and not only walk blindly but also use headphones. Try to land somewhere soft :)

    I am absolutely terrified of the crazy right-turn cases where you’ve nowhere to go and the driver is not looking since he/she is more concerned about the car coming from the left. To avoid that, I always take the lane now

    Oh yea, in stop signs, if there’s anyone, I’ll actually stop and do a track stand and wave a car through. Normally they really appreciate it. Call it cycling goodwill.

    Thanks again, great post.

    Rod

  3. polkadot

    * say THANKS out loud every time a driver acts safely or courteously, even if you think they won’t hear you. Surprisingly, this has made me a safer rider

    * leave your lights on blink during the day

    * if you are unsure of a vehicle’s intent do not cross their path until you can make eye contact

    * watch front tires, if a vehicle is going to turn it all starts there

    * if you are going to slow or stop for an intersection, brake early and be obvious about your intent. A big frustration I hear from drivers is “I never know what a cyclist is going to do”

    * Use all your senses, keep your ears open

    * if possible, glance over your left shoulder before going around obstacles. Doesn’t matter if you see much, just the act of looking humanizes you and a quite a few drivers will give you more space

    * leave clearance to parked cars of around two-thirds of an open door. Not so much that drivers think you are hogging the lane, but not so little that you have to swerve excessively if the door opens unexpectedly

    * don’t forget vehicles go backwards, the last thing you want is to creep up behind a van and then see the reverse lights go on as he backs into a spot

  4. Anthony

    Great collection of tips here.

    My #1 rule is ride like you are invisible. Even if that driver pulling out of a driveway looks straight at you, waves and calls you by your first name do not believe that they see you. Keep your hands on the brakes, look for exits and prepare to avoid them.

    Knowing when to take the lane, as mentioned by others, is another good one. For example, at intersections where cars are turning right, a narrow bridge or when riding at the speed of traffic.

  5. Carl Johnson

    One rule that has kept me safe when coming up on a line of cars stopped at an intersection is not to ride past the last car that passed me — in other words, if there are cars lined up for the light that didn’t see me on the road, I don’t need to slide up alongside them and find out if they are making a sudden right or veering into the shoulder. As a driver, I’ve sometimes been surprised by bikes suddenly appearing on my right as I’m making a turn because I just never saw them coming up on me.

    The comment about signaling early is good, too, though that really can be a balance between signaling and safety. You have to judge when it’s safe to take a hand off the bars.

  6. souleur

    Thanks for that Robot, these are good tips for all riders, not just city only. Living here in the midwest, small rural towns, the driving habits sound very similar, less than attentive, a bit mad at times, and a mentality that the bigger vehicles wins, which it does.

    I find being seen in the same place at the same time day after day tends to help people become more cognizant that we exist.

    Simply put, many of your tips work in the smaller towns too and I appreciate that.

  7. dw

    sopme of these a re repeats of the above

    - maintain peripheral vision
    - watch and anticipate traffic light signal changes including pedestrian light changes
    - profile drivers as suggested. look at their car make, model and categorise dangerous drivers
    - listen to the traffic. if you must listen to an ipod, turn it down
    - slow down or pedal hard to reduce the amount of time in a driversblind spot
    - when approaching cars stuck in traffic from behind
    - at night, also scan the road for carlights when approaching an intersection
    - at night, always assume a car ahead of you about to pull out in front of you can’t see you
    - gaze ahead at parked cars and look to see if anyone is sitting in the drivers seat
    - make eye contact with drivers where possible to confirm they see you

  8. Trev

    I consider myself luckier than most of you guys……I don’t ride in the city too much at all. I never commute as I work for myself and don’t have a ‘work ‘ to get to. I live a 2 minute ride from the main crits here in Toronto. I usually ride slightly out of town so as to avoid the traffic as well as hit the hills. ANd when I do the big group rides there are at least 40 of us, so we have a pretty unmistakable presence. Having been hit twice and had numerous very close calls I just figure that I can decrease my chances 99% being hit just by limiting mt time spent in the city.

    And if I have to ride later into the evening I at least wear a bright jersey like the one on my picture.

  9. Guy

    I have found it a good idea to stop for lights about two-three car lengths from the intersection. This allows the first couple of cars waiting to turn to make their moves while I look over my shoulder to see whether there are any other cars going to turn (motion them through) or if not then gives me a chance to be clipped into my pedals before I’m into the intersection. There’s nothing worse than seeing a cyclist inching along because they’ve only got one foot connected and struggling to maintain an upright condition while traffic swerves around them etc…

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  11. rich_mutt

    i love riding in the city. it’s really the best (and quickest) way around town, albeit, a sweaty one in the summer. i’ve been riding in nyc for 20 years as my main method of transport, and the one piece of advice i give everyone, is to ride like everybody’s out to kill you- which they are. assume that no one sees you, and ride aggressively. riding in traffic isn’t for everyone, and if someone harbors a bit of reluctance, i would recommend that they don’t ride!

    the one thing i miss about walking about, is seeing the city change. nyc is a changing, morphing city, and you miss all the little changes on every street when riding, because, let’s face it, riding requires 100% attention just trying to survive.

    as a former motorcycle rider, i also recommend covering the brake. that extra 1.5 seconds it takes to find the brake makes all the difference.

  12. mrg

    yeah, what rich_mutt sez. It’s a war zone out there and in SF.
    my .00002 cents: expect the unexpected. Really fucking insane nonsense. It goes down all day long… even on the well-worn route.

  13. Lachlan

    great summary of urban skills.

    I’d emphasise:

    1) be confident and assertive, in a way that signals clear predictable movement by YOU for the traffic to hopefully notice somewhat, before you get to the line you’re taking.

    +

    2) plan for the worst or unseen.. ie looking ahead (and get in position early) and always look at multiple route options so when you have to make a quick escape from danger, you know your options and which ones are safer!

  14. Lachlan

    …expanding on point 2) I mean by that you have to plan by looking around / behind you and infront at different lanes / where the potholes/ cobble changes / lane dividers are etc ALL the time. A bit like the ‘talk to yourself’ tip. You need to be looking around all the time, not just at the moment when you need it.

  15. fxdwhl

    Lots of good points. For dusk and night riding, I’ll never leave home without a headlamp on my helmet. Let’s you put the light where you want it; like right in the eyes of cross traffic waintng to pull out in front of you. It’s saved my ass many a time from cars rolling thru stops while I have the right of way. The Princeton Tec Eos is a fine light for this application.

  16. Big Mikey

    Great topic here. Some great points above:

    1. Saying thanks to drivers who drive courteously, that’s a good one to remind us that there are attentive drivers out there.
    2. Profile drivers – absolutely, there are several groups which consistently endanger others. Also add male retirees driving minivans; these guys are hostile, and have time to burn making your life more dangerous.
    3. Lack of turn signal use is rampant, especially in the US. Recently moved to Toronto from the US, and it’s absolutely refreshing to see the vast majority of people using turn signals. Much safer to ride here, even in the city.

  17. Ishi

    Da Robot is dead-on about the Volvos. My wife, who rides to work as well, calls female Volvo drivers ‘Vulva’s.’ It makes sense that the people who buy the ‘safe’ cars are the most inept. Sadly, this trend is extending to Subaru. I say ‘sadly’ because I happen to own a Subaru.

  18. christian

    I ride in LA on fixed, geared, coaster, tallbike, mtb, and many combinations of what is listed. Yes, I have a fixed gear, no brake, 700c, off-road, Marin Drakes beach crusier with clipless. No matter what bike you are on you must be in full control at all times. You must always remember the #1 rule.

    YOU ARE INVISIBLE AT ALL TIMES!!!!

    If you ride with this in mind at all times, you will reduce your accidents. Even with this in mind I have managed to be struck 8 motorists in my 15+ years of riding here and in other cities.

  19. Alex

    Very good, Da Robot. Spot on ;-)

    Though here in Brazil we don´t have road rage (or intended harming actions taken against cyclists) as found in other places, we do have a very stressful, dangerous and chaotic traffic in big cities like Sao Paulo and Rio. Prety much like NY I´d say, sometimes worse. Not to mention pollution, but that´s another matter…

    To make matters worse, bike lanes and bike-traffic integration is non-existant around here, cyclists are left to their own devices sharing the asphalt with cars, buses and everything else. Odd enough, we usually do well and close encounters are rare. Serious accidents are even rarer, but they do occur and we have a couple of “ghost bikes” to remind us of that possibility and keep us on our toes. I for myself had one or two problems in virtualy 20 yrs of cycling here, both with minor consequences.

    What I find very useful when riding the streets is FITNESS and BIKE HANDLING. Having a powefull jump and sprint, fast and repetitive accelerations, good balance and control and ability to move FAST and SMOOTH helps me feeling (and keeping) safe, and alive in the jungle. I feel that whenever I can flow with the traffic or faster (quite easy since it´s jammed most of the time) I´m OK. That´s why I´m twice as careful on the weekends, when traffic speed increases and streets are free.

    I also never take anything for granted and call every responsability on to myself: I never rely on drivers acting carefuly, consciously or decently, aware or not of my presence or good driving manners; I don´t expect anyone to signal intentions, respect laws or anything. But I also don´t stress, curse or scream at anyone, I just go my way.

    It´s perhaps too zen for some, but it has kept me out of trouble for the past 20 yrs – and I ride 6 or 7 times a week, for training and comuting and fun.

  20. Jan

    You leave out one of the greatest dangers of all: inexperienced cyclists. To me they are by far the category I have the greatest difficulty predicting, there is no telling what they are about to do next.

  21. Marco Placero

    Although I live in mountains above a city, pastoral scenery instead of automotive insanity, all these tips sound deeply to me, grazie to you all. As stated, even in small towns.

    Guided through ultimately roaring Lucca by helmet-free semipro Alfonzo last season, no choice but to internally applaud his well paced ballet, hug his wheel, and squirt out the western end toward Viareggio smiling.

    The best way to learn this skill set: authentic frenetic traffic in the motherland of wild driving matched by wild cycling. Masterful Alfonzo, not just our guide, our god, for a day– how else did we stay safe?

  22. Da Robot

    Thanks everyone for your feedback and insights. I’ve learned a few things here. First and foremost I’m not nearly as careful as some of you are, and that’s a good check on my riding habits, because, in my mind, I’m MUCH more careful than I used to be.

    I confess I’m somewhat jealous of my friends who live in better cycling environs, NorCal, Colorado, Torino, but the city is what it is, and I am who I am, so we’ve got to do this dance together and try not to step on each other’s toes. Or faces.

  23. Marianna

    What I came up with is “Ride on the assumption that everyone’s trying to kill you, and that nobody will succeed” – that is, caution and confidence. Other tips: Don’t trust turn signals or lack thereof, It’s better to be predictable than “right”, make left turns alongside cars as a “shield” if you can, and if you stop at or before a light, make sure you’re far enough AHEAD of the car behind you that they can see you, and far enough BEHIND the car in front of you, so that a sudden movement on their part won’t kill you (a variation on this is to “filter” up to the head of the line and then position yourself in front of the lead car for max visibility.)

    I see a lot of my friends doing things that are 50% safe to save time over doing it the 99% safe way. I guess it’s a personal choice, but I’ll arrive later if it means that I’m making eye contact with all the cars in a position to left cross me.

  24. Craig

    Statistically and in my experience, the most dangerous sub-set of drivers are drivers in cars with a new price of between $50-120,000. Basically, if you see someone in an Audi, BMW, Merc or similar, steer clear if you like life.

    Profiling drivers is THE key IMO.

  25. Derek

    Great bit,
    I have noticed different cities have different paces and different light timings. Just to be aware. While living in NJ I was hit several times at night while obeying all the rules. Same type of thing happened if I went north of boulder when I lived there (bad Sheriff). In Jersey I ditched the lights and learned to be invisible. I didn’t get hit again, in NJ. The ride like you are invisible is the best idea that has worked for me. I try and be polite and not scare people I zoom by too much. I would hate to cause an accident that occurs behind me.
    d

  26. Brad Hawkins

    I’m a big fan of taking the entire lane at all times on any multi lane road in a city unless there is a ton of room. Also, don’t forget to ride the strip of the bike lane so you don’t flat out. Bike lanes are glass receptacles.

  27. Bart

    One thing I haven’t seen mentioned yet is to consider where the sun is and which cars won’t be able to see you due to sun glare. Part of the talking I do to myself is something like “any car approaching from my left can’t see me due to the sun”. Sun can blind any driver no mater how careful they’re trying to be. And I figure it’s my responsibility to be aware of that.

    Also, I assume all cars are going to hit me until proven otherwise.

  28. LesB

    Forsaking city streets for an urban bike path can be a bad idea, if “bikes only” is not enforced. The LA beach bike path has signage stating ” bikes only”, however the path is filled with joggers, walkers, dogs on leashes, young children weaving their bikes across lanes, skaters. All these have movement patterns that are different from bicycles and many are clueless to safety.

  29. George

    Never go in the right turn only lane unless you intend to turn right. Instead signal with left arm, that you are staying left of it and allow yourself to be passed on the right. Also, don’t camp out in the right turn only lane at a stop light if you’re going straight. Assume all drivers are idiots until proven otherwise. Even if they won’t signal their intentions, you will.

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