I’m currently spending five weeks working and visiting friends in and around London, UK – the “other” London, as we know it in southwestern Ontario. This is where I began my road cycling career 5 years ago, believe it or not, and it’s a place where I lived, worked, and commuted by bicycle for 26 months between 2012 and 2014.
London roads are full to bursting with cyclists these days, and it’s one of the reasons why the big, blue, bicycle “superhighways” that were introduced by former mayor Ken Livingstone are now undergoing a series of much-needed upgrades.
(Two images showing wide blue cycle lanes in London, England. One is a close-up shot on a quiet road, and the other a view from above of the lanes on a wide, busy street.)
When I commuted via “CS7” and “CS2” between my home in Tooting, south London, and my job in Mile End, east London, back in the day, the blue paint on the road was mostly for show: taxis, motorbikes, and double decker buses all crowded into our lanes, and I (famously, to me) got side-swiped by a Stansted Airport Express coach on CS2 outside Aldgate East station on Valentine’s Day in 2013. Why do I remember this in such detail? Because it hurt. And because the police did ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about it.
I rode along CS2 yesterday, after a trip out to Surrey to play in the hills on my new road bike, Freddie. (My bikes travel with me everywhere. Your question: how much does that cost??!! My answer: not a penny. But I do tend to fly with established carriers, not budget carriers. Your mileage may vary.)
Were there changes to the lanes in the time since my commuting days? Oh my, so many! The route is now fully segregated in the high-traffic zone between the City and Whitechapel, by a mix of pole barriers and concrete, poured barriers. The bikes also now have their own traffic lights, meaning if you obey them and cross only when it’s safe to do so, you no longer have fight with turning vehicles not looking for you.
(An image of London’s Cycle Superhighway 2, with a concrete barrier separating cyclists from traffic. This segregation is now the norm on what was once the deadliest road for cyclists in the capital.)
As I rode past The Spot Where I Got Hit four years ago, I thought to myself: that accident could not happen now. Or, if it did, it’d mean that the bus had jumped the barrier, which would also mean the cops could not just ignore it.
These much-needed improvements got me thinking a lot about how to be safe on the roads, especially in very busy, big cities. Lots more people now – in London, in Toronto, in New York, even in little London, Ontario – are commuting by bike, and bike lanes (and green bike boxes!) are more common in North America than ever before.
But I also know lots of people who won’t commute by bike, or ride on the road for exercise (Tracy is one), because they fear (very reasonably) the dangers that accrue to riding a pedal bike on roads built primarily for car traffic.
Which, of course, got me thinking that I should blog about how I have learned to ride safely in large cities, with the hopes that some of you who fear the roads now might use these top tips to give it a try.
1. Take up space.
This is my #1 tip by far. Beginner cyclists find the whole thing daunting with good reason: the majority of traffic on city streets is going 20-30kph (12-22mph) faster than you are. Gut instinct is often to cleave to the gutter, riding as close to the curb as possible. This is a mistake, though, because it gives traffic the impression that it can and should ignore you.
Basically, not taking up space gives cars license to not pay attention to you in the decisions they make as they pass you. This is good for nobody. It also means that you might hit stuff that’s been tossed into the gutter, possibly producing a fall. Trust me: there’s a lot of shit in the gutter.
What’s the alternative? Ride in the middle right (or left, depending on your national context) of your lane. That is: maybe don’t ride right in the middle (although there are times you can and should do this, and it’s legal!), but ride prominently in the middle of your “side” of the lane. That says to drivers: “I am here. I am riding safely, keeping about a metre between me and the curb. Go around me safely.”
(An image, from the U.S., of safe riding in the lane to avoid what the image calls “The Door Zone”. It shoes a woman on the edge of a wide, marked bike lane and two riders in the middle of it. The image encourages safe mid-lane riding to make you visible and help you avoid being hit by motorists as they open doors.)
Sure, some drivers will whip by and curse you, because they are jerks – or maybe because they don’t know any better. Most, however, will pass you respectfully.
When they do, smile and wave or give them a thumbs-up to encourage them to keep that practice up.
2. Ride assertively (which is to say, with confidence)
That accident I had in 2013 on CS2 would not have happened if I’d been riding with my usual assertion, taking up space and maintaining a consistent speed in the face of traffic dodging around me. I wasn’t being assertive, though, because I was having a hip joint issue and struggling to produce power with my left leg. So I went gutter-side, slowed a bit, and the bus chose to ignore me (or maybe didn’t actually see me?…) as it veered left. WHAM.
It may take some practice in your neighbourhood, on quiet streets, or with trusted friends to build your confidence, but do it. Do it so you know your bike and your reflexes. Get friends to join you and ride very close to you so you know what that feels like. Get another friend to hop in a car and pass you in different ways so you know what that feels like.
Nope, you cannot simulate crazy traffic, I know – but you CAN simulate your responses to different kinds of driver actions. And that’s important.
Riding assertively means riding like you have every right to be there and to be moving at your preferred pace on the road. Drivers do it all the time; so can you. Take the time to get comfortable with both your bike and that feeling of belonging. You’ll feel stronger in every way once you do.
3. Don’t use routes you don’t like
Some routes to your final destination are more direct than others, and they probably involve high-traffic roads. If you aren’t comfortable riding on them, don’t use them. There are lots of alternatives. Get an app like Citymapper or Cyclemetre to help you find one, or use Google Maps to plot the best routes to and from preferred destinations. (And: use the “street view” function to be sure those routes have appropriate road surfacing for your bike. If you commute on a road bike you don’t want a gravel road: trust me.)
Over time, as your confidence builds, your willingness to use busier routes will increase naturally. Let that happen; there’s no rush. I may ride some of the busiest roads in London when I’m here, but back in LonON, I commute primarily on the bicycle paths, going at a much more leisurely speed. There’s no shame in that; in fact, it’s often the smartest route for me to work.
4. Drivers will get mad at you. Don’t engage.
I get yelled at. A lot. It’s probably the fancy bike and the lycra, plus the fact that I take up space and always move to the front of a line of traffic when we are waiting at a stop light – whether or not there’s a bike box. (Why? I want everyone at the top of the queue to see me and know I am there. They may hate it, but I know they would hate hitting me more.) Anyway, pretty much once a ride I get a drive-by “fuck you! Get off the road!”
Why do drivers do this?
Sometimes because cyclists are being jerks. (Some cyclists are jerks, just like some motorists are.) Sometimes they yell because they are having a super bad day and you are in their way. Or they are in a rush.
Or, they yell because they have been conditioned (by, you know, media outlets that are maybe not always sympathetic to the cycle commuter) to believe cyclists are all arrant rogues in flashy pants who deserve all the *#&$^% they get.
You might not ride like me, which means you might not get yelled at as much as I do. But you will get yelled at, guaranteed. When that happens, I urge you to let it go. Assume the motorist is being ignorant, not malicious. Assume it’s not really about you.
Remember that you do not know that motorist as a human being, and that motorist similarly does not know you.
Of course sometimes you’ll yell back. Of course you will use hand gestures from time to time. We are all human. Just remember that it’s not actually about you and the person in the car. It’s about a system that encourages us to see roads as car “territory” and bikes as interlopers. Until that changes, altercations are inevitable.
(A cartoon image that encourages creative responses to car-cycle altercations on the road. My preferred response to the yellers? I smile, wave, and blow them a showy kiss. A kiss that says “I’m not fazed by you.” It’s disarming, and thought-provoking.)
5. Wear. A. Helmet. (Always.)
The bus collision in 2013 is not my worst ever bike accident. My worst ever bike accident happened 1.2km from my house in London, Ontario, in a parking lot at my local outdoor pool. I hit a speed bump, went over my handlebars, and hit the deck.
I had decided it was too short a distance to bother wearing my helmet.
Luckily, I landed on my chin. I had a big bruise but my head was OK. The first aiders from the pool were kind, but when I went back later to get my bike (I was taken to a hospital in an ambulance, for fear of broken limbs, but was discharged later the same day) they reminded me that helmets save lives.
Now I always wear one, even if I’m going just down the street.
You will fall. You will; it’s normal. Just be prepared.
Know that chances are the fall will be minor. Know that helmets are excellent protection against serious brain injury. Know that proper cycling clothes protect skin! (I have awesome road rash from that parking lot crash. I was wearing a swim suit and flip flops! Better idea: cover up for the ride, and wear proper shoes to ride, too. Closed toe – protect those small bones!)
Practicing how to fall is also a good idea, by the way. Choose a path near grass. Bring a friend.
That’s it. In sum:
Practice until you feel confident with and on your bike. Then, on the road, own some assertiveness. Take up space. Let drivers pass you, and if they yell, don’t engage angrily. Find routes that work for you. Wear protective gear to keep yourself as safe as is reasonably possible. Then: relax and have some fun.
Oh, and if you have any energy left over, get involved in cycling advocacy! See a route that needs improving? Call your local representatives. See an intersection that needs a bike box? Ditto.
Like I said above: safety for cyclists is tied to systemic assumptions about road ownership. Let’s change that system, one commute at a time.