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Urban Cycling Basics

Urban Cycling Basics

Becoming a new urban cyclist can be extremely intimidating. But armed with some basic knowledge, anyone can become a confident urban cyclist. In the midst of speeding cars, semi trucks, unregulated intersections, and ignorant motorists, situations can go from bad to worse in a matter of seconds. The safest way to go about cycling in

Becoming a new urban cyclist can be extremely intimidating. But armed with some basic knowledge, anyone can become a confident urban cyclist.

In the midst of speeding cars, semi trucks, unregulated intersections, and ignorant motorists, situations can go from bad to worse in a matter of seconds. The safest way to go about cycling in an urbanized area, at least as a beginner, is to cycle defensively. Here, we’ll cover the do’s and don’ts of urban cycling from before you leave the house, while you’re on the road, and cycling after dark.

Woman on Bicycle


1. Wear a helmet

It’s what your mother would want. If you do choose to wear a helmet, wear one that fits well.

1. Leave the house late

One of the biggest mistakes a new urban cyclist can do is put unneeded pressure on themselves. This includes making silly mistakes simply because your mind is focused on getting to work quickly, and not on that car merging into your lane right on top of your back tire. See also: showing off to attractive strangers.

2. Know your state’s bicycling laws and bicyclist’s rights

Can you ride in tandem with another cyclist in a single road lane? Are you required to use hand signals? Are you allowed to ride in the lane of traffic with cars at all? Know these, and you can diffuse any angry motorist in seconds.

2. Over eat directly before leaving

This is a general rule for all cardio activities. If you start feeling like a lard lump on your ride, you’re probably not going to get where you need to go anytime soon, if at all. As much as you may want an excuse to eat extra pasta, beginning cyclists likely do not need to carbo-load.

3. Pack water

You may want to pack snacks as well, depending on the length of your ride. This, too, is a general rule of all cardio activities.

4. Bring a bus pass

Especially if weather conditions are questionable, you may want to bring a bus pass and take a break while en route to your destination. Just know how your local bus system wants bikes loaded, and you’re set.

5. Own and pack a bike chain

Bikes are so commonly stolen and then sold on Craigslist, they have their own category. Some even find their stolen bikes for sale on Craigslist. Be aware and don’t buy a cheap cable lock. U-locks are best.

Woman on Bicycle


1. Stop everywhere you normally would in a car

I’m looking at you, red light runners. In my eyes, you are the scum of the cycling community if you do this regularly.

1. Make sudden movements

Cars have the turning radius of a planet in comparison to a bike. Keep that in mind especially when changing lanes. Drivers do not appreciate bicyclists who weave through traffic or split lanes- even if it’s legal in your state. Be particularly mindful of semi trucks.

2. Use hand signals

Knowing the basic cycling hand signals can save your life. Even if drivers don’t know exactly what the signal means, they will at least know to watch you more carefully in the coming moments.

2. Use major arterials

This might seem obvious, but a beginning cyclist who might hit 20mph on a good hill has no place being three feet away from a car going 40mph on a level arterial.

3. Use neighborhood streets

You’ll find less vehicular traffic and more wiggle room on neighborhood streets. They’re a haven for all cyclists- new and experienced. Use them whenever you can.

4. Take the lane
Take the center of the line, just as if you were driving a car.

3. Constantly switch from sidewalk/lane of traffic/bike lane

You’re just asking to be doored or otherwise hit by a car. I’ve even seen a cyclist run over a pedestrian while switching from the lane of traffic to the sidewalk simply to bypass a red light. It’s not pretty. Don’t be that cyclist.


1. Know your state’s night riding laws

What sort of lights should your bike be equipped with before riding at night?  Are you required to have lights at all? Is it illegal for you to cycle after dark entirely? These nighttime riding laws are in place to keep you safe, not be a nuisance. Prepare appropriately before leaving your home for a nighttime ride.

1. Wear dark clothing

Visibility is key at night. Bonus points for anything reflective!

2. Use a headlamp

If your state doesn’t have any night riding light laws, it’s smart to at least ride with a headlamp. They’re worth the expense and handy in a variety of situations aside from cycling.

2. Ride in an unfamiliar area

People are usually nervous driving a car in a new place at night, so why cycle somewhere strange?

3. Have an out

This may take some practice and a few rides around the neighborhood, but it’s good to know at least a couple of places you can find refuge if the worst occurs.

3. Ride without the correct gear

So, you stayed a little late at the meeting/party/game night and you biked there without lights attached? Don’t risk it. Take the bus or catch a ride with a friend.

Do you ride your bike through your city? Are you guilty of any "don'ts"? Let us know in the comments section below!

Credit: References linked to sources. Photos taken by Aascot Holt.

Intern photo

Aascot Holt is an undergraduate at Eastern Washington University, pursuing a major in Urban and Regional Planning and a minor in Geography. She will graduate in the spring of 2013. She is from Stevenson, WA and currently lives in Spokane, WA in a bri...

  • Don’t do this:

    4. When in doubt, hug the white line

    Even the article you reference says not to do this.

    The relevant part is:

    “Not Actually a Bike Lane – Sometimes areas on the roadway are mistaken for bike lanes when it’s actually just a “clear zone” mandated by many design standards. Sometimes, these clear zones turn out to be great places to ride a bike, so they are easily mistaken for bike lanes. However, these clear zones tend to disappear and reappear without warning, or have other design aspects (like rumble strips) that make them an unsafe place for cyclists.”

  • abra1

    DO NOT hug the white line on the edge of the road as a matter of course. It will encourage cars to squeeze into the same you, usually going too fast, and often not leaving nearly enough space. There is also often a lot of debris and uneven pavement (chunks missing, etc.) at the white line.

    The closest call I’ve had to a serious accident is when I was hugging the line on a long incline in a 45mph zone and a dump truck shared the lane with me and didn’t even brake while passing me. Definitely wouldn’t have walked away from that if I’d had to swerve to miss a grate or hit a pothole or something. That was only the last and the scariest of incidents when I was uncomfortably squeezed before I changed my approach.

    Take the lane: ride in the the middle of the lane or at the least in the right tire groove — that makes cars go into the next lane to get around you and they tend to give you enough room if they have to cross the lane line anyway. Move over periodically to allow cars to make their way around you if you get cars backed up behind you.

  • Brian Neary


    This article has been examined by the people on Reddit’s /r/bicycling and is very poorly regarded:

    Please improve your research before writing about this subject.

  • Chris Miller

    If there is one thing you *DON’T* need to do, and which can be dropped from the list, it’s wear a helmet. They are little more than talismans for the ignorant.

    If they were necessary (or even useful), then the Netherlands would be at the bottom of the biking safety charts. (With the huge share of cyclists of all ages and both sexes in the transportation mix there, nobody but for a small handful of nuts, most from the benighted Anglosphere countries, wears helmets.) Instead, they are the safest in the world bar none. That would be an impossibility if helmets were even a factor in cycling safety.

  • Aascot Holt

    I’ve removed the statement about hugging the white line, and added taking the lane. I’ve also edited the bit about helmets. Are you happy, people of the internet?

  • TRTP

    Thanks for the updates. Your article is good for some quick black-and-white advice, my complaint would be that many situations are more nuanced.

    Regarding “Hug the white line” (which you deleted), I would advise beginning cyclists as follows if they encounter a busy street without a bike lane: A) check if there’s an alternate route (like a neighborhood street), B) if they don’t feel comfortable taking the lane, go on the sidewalk if one is available. If any pedestrians are present, slow down to 3mph (walking speed) or dismount in their presence. C) If neither option A) nor B) is available take the lane.

    Regarding helmets, I would advise people to wear them if that is the common practice for cyclists where they live and/or it makes them feel safer. No one in the Netherlands (or any country with high bike usage, or Davis, CA) wears a helmet, but those places have substantially safer streets than most North American cities.

    Regarding hand signals, many drivers do not know what they mean. The only hand signal I’ve found effective is to point exactly where I plan on going, when the driver can actually see my hand. I would advise beginning cyclists to A) make eye contact with drivers, B) point where they are going and C) proceed after seeing an affirmative response, such as a nod or wave from the driver. If the circumstances of the encounter are such that the driver cannot see you, make eye contact, or have time to respond, I can only advise option D) assume the driver does NOT know what direction you plan on turning and act accordingly.

    • Aascot Holt

      Sounds great, TRTP! I highly encourage you to write your own piece on the subject. You’ll reach more readers through your own page than through a comments section.

      Best wishes,
      Aascot Holt

  • Pingback: The Do’s and Don’ts of Urban Cycling « Cleats & Cranks()

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