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.