How to Ride in Boston Traffic - Or Anywhere

Last revised Jan. 1997 by John S. Allen
Copyright 1996, Bicycle Coalition of Massachusetts

Learn from the Statistics:

Of all serious bicycle accidents, The rest are collisions with other cyclists, pedestrians, and dogs.

Of car-bike crashes,

In all, 95% of all bike-car crashes occur during crossing and turning.

Don't want to become a statistic? Here are the best tactics:

  1. Ride with the traffic.
    This can't be over-emphasized. True, you can't see cars approaching from the rear, but compare rear-end collisions with wrong-way cyclists in the statistics and you'll see why riding with the traffic matters. If you ride facing traffic, oncoming drivers and pedestrians will be looking away from you as they prepare to cross your path. If you need to stop suddenly to avoid a head-on collison with a car, both you and the driver will have to come to a complete stop. You'll need to see each other sooner, and stop faster, than if you're riding with traffic. If you're riding with traffic, however, the driver only has to slow down to avoid you. If you do collide, your relative speed will be much lower than in a head-on collision.
  2. Keep clear of road edge hazards.
    Hazards include gravel, sand, trash, and parked cars. Ride three feet out from cars whose doors might open in front of you. Don't hide yourself in the raodside scenery, either; be sure you are visible. Stay clear of places where drivers and pedestrians might pull out in front of you to look for traffic.
  3. Claim a lane if you must.
    Let cars overtake you as long as the lane you are sharing is wide enough for both of you. Some streets, however, may be barely wide enough for a car. Do not hug the right side of a narrow lane and invite cars to skim by your elbow. Ride in the middle of the lane and force drivers to either follow you or pass you in the left lane. You have a perfect legal right to the space you need to be safe. Most drivers will respect this right. Some may honk their horns: then you know they've seen you. If you block traffic long enough to cause a delay or backup, however, common courtesy (and the law) require that you pull over to let cars pass. Because your bike is narrow, this shouldn't often be neccessary. You should also take the center of the lane when you are going as fast as the cars around you, either because traffic is slow or you're zooming down a hill. You're not delaying anyone, and you're safer in the middle where the drivers can see you. If you ride the edges you risk having a driver swerve into you without ever having seen you.
  4. Ride straight.
    In any of the lane positions described so far, keep a straight line. Don't swerve left toward oncoming traffic, but even more important, never duck to the right between parked cars. If you do you'll lose your right-of-way, and drivers won't be able to see you. Stay three feet out from the cars at the right edge of even a very wide lane. Cars will have to overtake you before making right turns from your left side. Even if a driver misjudges your speed and turns too close to you, you can turn with the car and avoid a collision.
  5. If your lane is narrowed or blocked:
    Look, signal, and get cooperation. Stay predictable: ride straight, and claim the room you need. If your lane goes away, or is blocked by a slow-moving or parked vehicle, be sure the drivers behind you understand what you intend to do to get around it. Look back well before you reach the obstruction or lane drop. If there are cars behind you, keep moving, and just as one passes you, signal a left turn. Your speed and the following distance of the next car will allow its driver time to respond to your signal. In tight, slow traffic, keep your hands on both brake levers. A simple turn of the head, in this situation, is both your signal and your way of double-checking the following driver's reaction. If they have seen you, and made space for you, pull around the parked vehicle and claim safe space in the lane beyond, where the driver of the parked vehicle will see you if they pull back into traffic. If they pick up speed, stay in the middle of the lane until they overtake and pass you. Then use the same look-and-signal technique to move back to the right.
  6. Approach intersections in the correct lane position.
    Right turns: Keep to the right, but claim enough of the lane so that you aren't squeezed right by the back ends of cars as they round the corner, especially if the right lane of the cross street is narrow. When going straight through a regular intersection, or around in a rotary intersection, keep to the left of right-turning traffic. Stay out of right-turn lanes. Whether or not there is a right-turn lane, signal when you mean to turn right, check to be sure the following driver is cooperating, and move far enough into your lane that the driver behind you will pass to your right if they are also turning right. Watch for turn signals, but don't trust drivers to use them. You may ride (slowly) up to a traffic light past stopped traffic -- but pull in behind the first car so the driver of the next car will see you. That way they can turn right and you won't be in their way. Any time you are on the right of a car that may need to turn right, you are in its driver's blind spot. Don't endanger yourself or cause motorists unneccessary delays by riding straight from their right side.
    Left turns: Prepare for left turns well in advance. Look back, signal, and get the following driver's cooperation before moving into the left lane, just as you would when driving a car. If there is only one lane in your direction, or if a right-turn lane serves straight-through traffic also, keep to the left of the lane (if wide) or the middle (if narrow). Keep to the right side of a left-turn only lane. The point is that you should make turns on your bike the same way you would make them in your car, to avoid cutting across traffic in intersections. Some cyclists invent other ways to make turns in intersections because they don't know how to change lanes to prepare their position. The best and safest way is to act as though you are a car.
    If maneouvering intersections as a car is too intimidating, you can get off and walk. But then walk: don't follow a fudged, semi-pedestrian path when riding. That's dangerous and illegal. If it gets you into a collision, the driver's insurance will pay only minimum no-fault benefits.
  7. Know preventive riding techniques.
    Some drivers may try to pull out in front of you at stop signs in side streets, or make a left turn across your path. Usually they're just trying to out-bluff you. Keep riding. Make eye contact and yell if neccessary. Look back to be sure there are no cars behind you, then pull out farther into your lane to make yourself more visible, and to prepare an escape route. Most often the driver will stop before you have to brake or swerve. If there's actual danger of an accident, a quick swerve to the right into the side street is your best bet. You must momentarily yank your handlebars to the left in order to put the bike into a lean and begin the quickest turn to the right: practice this! Brake if you need to slow down before swerving, but don't come to a stop directly in front of the car you're trying to avoid. In panic braking, use the front brake harder than the rear. If the rear wheel begins to skid, however, the front wheel may lock and throw you forward: if this happens, reduce pressure on the front brake. Using the rear brake hard wears out the rear tire, and doesn't stop you any quicker, so don't do it. On soft slippery surfaces, or when controlling speed down hills, use both brakes evenly.
  8. Use correct equipment.
    You can use correct technique only on a well-maintained, correctly-equipped bike. Be sure front and rear brakes are functional. Dropped handlebars, pedals with toe clip and straps, and fast, lower-gear pedalling put you in better control of your bike, and make riding easier once you're used to them. Dropped handlebars and toe clips can be installed on any bike. Visibility is crucial. Keep your lights and reflectors clean, and keep your lights on at night, even under city streetlights. Wear brightly-colored and reflective clothing day and night. To ensure that you see well in tight traffic situations, attach a rear-view mirror to your helmet. Your helmet should be the best you can afford: a good helmet reduces your chances of death or permanent injury by 50 to 75%.
The most important safety item is your riding skill.

Learn the correct techniques and use them. Along with the correct equipment, they put your chances of serious injury into the same range as if you were driving a car. That's a risk everyone tolerates in cars, so you can tolerate it on your bike while also being faster, safer, legally correct, and getting better exercise than riding any other way.

For more information, try the following:
Street Smarts, Bicycling's Traffic Survival Guide, by John Allen (Rodale Press, 1988, 39 pages).
Effective Cycling, by John Forrester (MIT Press, 1984, 344 pages).

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