Owning the Road Rules

Sane biking in a car-crazy world

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There are so many reasons to ride a bike, the roads should be swarming with cyclists enjoying cheap, sustainable, healthy transportation. There's just that one hitch: Riding in traffic is intimidating. 'In [the United States] it seems cycling anywhere except in parks is dangerous,' observes the Vancouver-based Momentum magazine (Feb./March 2007), which also notes that compared to Canada, England, and a slew of European countries, the United States spends the least per capita on cycling infrastructure. And has the highest rate of injuries to riders.

There's been some stateside progress: Over the next three years, New York City is set to add 200 miles of cycling routes for urban riders, including designated lanes and vehicle-free paths. Chicago unveiled an ambitious Bike 2015 Plan, which outlines 150 strategies to make cycling 'an integral part of daily life' and reduce injuries by 50 percent. These initiatives should serve as models for other cities and towns interested in intelligent road design. Meanwhile, there are a few simple ways for cyclists in all riding environments to remain safe and undaunted.

Know the law. In the United States, cyclists have the same rights and responsibilities as motorized vehicles, but the particulars are designated at the state level. Knowing the law helps you ride predictably (using standardized hand signals, for example) and can boost confidence. The Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition website (www.massbike.org/bikelaw) provides state-by-state legal resources.

You are likely to encounter a mandate to ride as far to the right 'as possible' or 'as practical.' Some cyclists think this means hugging the shoulder, but Bicycling Street Smarts (www.bikexprt.com/streetsmarts) describes many situations -- including parked cars, debris on the shoulder, and narrow streets -- in which 'taking the lane' is the practical, safer choice for everyone who is using the road.

Choose the right bike. 'Your bike helps you dream and escape,' Selene Yeager writes in Bicycling (Oct. 2006), 'but if you ignore the reality of how you ride, you'll never quite be comfortable, happy, or safe.' The build of a bike frame determines how it handles, and a mismatched rider will feel 'eternally unstable.'

Consider trading that wobbly 10-speed for a commuter-equipped mountain bike, a commuter-specific 'cross' bike, or a 'town cruiser,' which is a retro-looking ride with a cushy seat and an upright riding posture. Ask for help fitting your bike. A proper fit anchors you in the saddle with a low center of gravity and eliminates straining to reach handlebars or brakes, increasing stability and control.

Plan your route. If you're accustomed to driving and you attempt to follow familiar roads on your bike, chances are you won't be riding the best -- or even the fastest -- route, and a stressful ride is both dangerous and discouraging. Seasoned cyclists develop knowledge of bike-friendly, efficient routes.

According to the book How to Live Well Without Owning a Car (Ten Speed, 2006), when you're planning a route, look for designated paths, ample shoulders, smooth riding surfaces, streetlights, and light traffic. Finding roads on which you feel comfortable makes riding pleasurable. Websites like Bikely.com and RouteSlip.com allow users to plan, map, and share their favorite routes.

Play it safe. There's been a lot of hype lately about helmets, after some studies showed that helmet wearers sustain more head injuries. The reasoning is twofold. Momentum reports that cyclists who feel protected ride more aggressively, and drivers give a wider berth to folks who look dangerous (bareheaded yahoos, for example) but pass polished-looking cyclists assuming they'll follow laws and ride straight lines.

The bottom line is to be smart. Wear a helmet. Keep your bike in proper repair. Increase your visibility with rear- and front-facing lights and reflective tape on your bike frame or clothing. And once you look like you know what you're doing, ride that way too. Bicyclesafe.com describes typical scenarios, such as 'the crosswalk slam' and 'the [car] door prize,' and explains how to avoid them.

Improve your riding. 'Cyclists eternally hone their ability at skills such as cornering and staying stable when they're bumped or crowded . . . but it shouldn't take an eternity to master the basics,' Yeager writes. Simple techniques, such as riding 100 yards as slowly as you can without seesawing the front wheel, can improve balance and handling skills.

Justin Berger, a former bike messenger writing for Momentum, suggests finding an empty parking space and trying to make a U-turn, turning your handlebars before turning your head. The result is a sloppy, wide turn, yet when we're faced with a sudden obstacle, we tend to do this, staring at it while we're steering to avoid it. Repeat the exercise, this time turning your head to anticipate the way you're about to go; your turn will be easier and tighter. 'When a car door opens or a dog jumps in front of you, you can turn much more quickly than you can stop,' he writes. 'Look where you want to go, never at the thing you hope to avoid.'

Advocate. Hate biking to work down that unavoidable busy stretch, or not willing to ride down a poorly lit path? Sometimes there are barriers to biking that even the savviest cyclist can't avoid -- and shouldn't try to tough out.

'Public officials have been known to implement bold initiatives to protect the public's health,' writes Matthew Crosby in Urban (Fall 2006), citing indoor smoking bans as an example. Assert your right to enjoy public spaces safely; if there's a gap in your city's cycling infrastructure, let your representatives know. Get in touch with a local cycling advocacy group, and help create a transportation environment where everyone can enjoy riding a bike.