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.
- 18% are car-bike
- 50% are single-bike
Of car-bike crashes,
In all, 95% of all bike-car crashes occur during crossing and turning.
- 0.5% are straight-line, rear-end collisions
- 4% are caused by cyclists swerving into the paths of cars
- 12% are caused by cars making a right turn from the left lane
- 12% are caused by cars making a left turn from ahead
- 14% are caused by wrong-way cyclists
Don't want to become a statistic? Here are the best tactics:
The most important safety item is your riding skill.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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
- 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%.
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).
[Other MassBike Pamphlets]