Bikes must mix with motorized vehicles. And the reality is that traffic of all kinds is increasing. A few years back a Belgian cycling official expressed concern about whether road racing would survive the next 10 years in his country because of the increase in cars on what used to be lightly traveled farm roads. If this is a concern in cycling-mad Belgium, what chance do the rest of us have?
It’s possible to ride safely even in the presence of cars, SUVs and pickups. Check out the cyclists in Manhattan. They ride in perhaps the most traffic-dense environment this side of Bangkok. Yes, NYC has built a fair amount of bike lanes in recent years, but traffic of all kinds is still everywhere, and the cyclists manage to survive. The trick is knowing how to ride in such a way that you co-exist with traffic.
This is a complicated subject and the literature contains a wide range of opinions. Some riders never venture into heavy traffic, choosing either to ride on bike paths, drive to "safe" cycling roads or areas, or hang up their wheels. Others get downright surly about their rights to the road, which can lead to driver confrontations, accidents and injury. No cyclist is a match for a 4,000-pound box of metal. Here, I’ll take a middle course.
Assert your rights. But do it with caution. As a cyclist, you have the same rights as a motorized road user, but you also have the same responsibilities. You must stop for red lights and signal for turns. Motorists are legally required to give you safe space, including up to 3 feet in those states with "safe passing" laws. As the slogan says, “Same roads, same rules, same rights.”
Claim your lawful space. The law requires a cyclist to ride as far to the right on the roadway as practicable. “Practicable” means as far right as is safe, not as far right as is possible. There’s a big difference. You’re allowed to move to the left to avoid road hazards, and the debris that inevitably finds its way toward the shoulder.
On roads with a wide shoulder, ride about 2 feet to the right of the white line. This is assuming the shoulder isn’t strewn with broken glass or other dangerous junk. Look ahead to see if the shoulder narrows unexpectedly for bridge abutments or is blocked by parked cars. If so, ride as far to the left as you need to for safety. Do not dart in and out among intermittently parked cars. Hold a steady line to their left and the empty spaces. This prevents popping out in front of a driver who doesn’t expect it.
If the road doesn’t have a shoulder, ride in the traffic lane about a foot from the right edge. Give yourself some room to maneuver. If you’re fully at the edge, drivers will think they have room to pass without moving into the other lane. But if you take your legal space, they’ll have to slow and move left to pass. In other words, they'll have to share the road with you.
Beware of doors opening. All is good so far. You’re claiming your legal space but not unnecessarily inhibiting traffic. You should, however, ride a bit farther to the left when passing parallel-parked cars. Drivers tend to swing open their doors after checking for traffic, not cyclists. If you hit a door, it might as well be a brick wall. Give yourself an extra 2 feet of maneuver room, and watch through windows for an occupied car. If you see someone in a left-side seat, anticipate the worst and slide farther to your left. A downward-extended left arm with palm facing rearward will alert drivers that something’s up. Similarly, keep your eyes peeled for pedestrians poised between parked cars. They’re looking for traffic, not bikes, and might step into your path.
Beware of right-turning motorists. Perhaps the most important reason to claim your lane space is to diminish the risk that overtaking drivers will make a right turn across your path. If you are hugging the curb or parked cars, you lose presence—the only advantage you have in this situation. If you don’t make drivers deal with you, they are likely to act as if you aren’t there. They’ll pass closely and turn right so abruptly that you have to brake hard. If the car isn’t quite past you when it begins to turn, the best tactic is to turn with it. That’s a dicey maneuver, especially if the driver cuts close to the curb. Riding out in the lane forces overtaking motorists to slow and wait until you are through the intersection before they turn.
To make this situation worse, some states interpret the law in such a way that the cyclist is at fault when hit by a right-turning driver. The cyclist can be charged with “passing on the right.” A famous and contentious case of this nature took place in Colorado some years back after a fatal car/bike accident. It’s unfair—the law requires cyclists to ride as far to the right as practicable but doesn’t protect us when we do. So take your fair share of the lane and make drivers wait until they can turn right without putting you at risk.
Take nothing for granted at intersections. When you approach an intersection with the intention of proceeding straight ahead, and you have the right of way, look carefully to the left and right. There’s no guarantee that drivers will obey a stop sign or traffic signal. Heed the advice of my old linebacker coach and “keep your head on a swivel.” Watch for pedestrians, too.
When you see a driver stopped at a cross street, try to make eye contact. This can be difficult when the car or truck has tinted windows but it’s always worth a try. It’s not foolproof, though—several times a driver has looked right at me and then pulled out seemingly oblivious to my presence. You never know.
Tip! When you’re moving it can be hard to tell if a vehicle is inching forward from a cross street and about to pull out. Your perspective is constantly changing. So look at the vehicle’s front wheel. It’s the surest way to spot motion.
Signal turns and stops. When turning, follow the same laws that govern motor vehicles. Position yourself in the correct lane well in advance of the turn, signal your intention and take a predictable line through the corner. Ride at a reasonable speed. Leave plenty of margin for pedestrians, slippery crosswalks and parked cars that pull away from the curb without warning. Remember, an accident in traffic is usually much worse than a fall on a rural road. You may hit a car or even get run over by one that can’t stop in time.
Signal that you’re slowing or stopping by holding your left hand down with palm facing rearward. This simple gesture often works like magic to hold traffic back—very useful when it feels like a driver is about to squeeze past and force you too close to the curb or parked cars. Signal a left turn with left arm straight out to the side. A right turn can be signaled by holding the left arm out with the elbow bent up at 90 degrees, or with the right arm straight out to the side.
Obey laws to earn respect. You’ll be safer in traffic if you go about your business in a responsible way. Very few riders can be pro racers but we can all look and behave in a professional manner. Motorists are much more likely to treat you with respect if you demand it with a mature demeanor and law-abiding actions. On the other hand, when you ride erratically and roll through stop signs, drivers can’t be blamed for showing disdain. Aid your cause by wearing visible clothing and your helmet, and by utilizing lights on your bike, all of which indicate that you’re a serious cyclist and concerned about safety.
Survival in traffic boils down to riding predictably and in such a way that you confidently and competently assert your legal right to be on the road.
Don’t accept harassment. What if you’re hassled or threatened by a motorist? Unfortunately, this can happen even when you are doing everything right. Every experienced cyclist can tell you about flying beer cans, intentionally close passes and verbal abuse. The best reaction is to bite your tongue, show no reaction and ride on. If the driver sees no reaction, the episode will be over (hopefully). If you react with gestures and shouts, he may slam on the brakes and ruin your whole day. You actually win by ignoring these people.
However, if harassment is serious or repeated, report the vehicle description and license number to police. They may refuse to take action unless they witness the event or there has been physical contact, but who knows? Maybe the driver has threatened other cyclists and your report will be the one that results in arrest. It never hurts to file a report and have it on record. Also consider filing a report with Close Call Database, which tracks such incidents nationally, and even internationally.
Coach Fred Matheny is an RBR co-founder who has four decades of road cycling and coaching experience. He has written 14 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach Fred Matheny, including the classic Complete Book of Road Bike Training, which includes 4 eBooks comprising 250 pages of timeless, detailed advice and training plans. The Complete Book is one of the many perks of an RBR Premium Membership. Click to read Fred's full bio.