Bicycling Safety in the City

Photo: jondpatton

A few years ago, I transitioned over to a part-time bicycle commuter. It was a fairly smooth transition considering I live in a bicycle-unfriendly city. One of the reasons I was able to effortlessly begin riding my bike in a bustling suburb that cares very little about cyclists is that I enjoy being outdoors and I really love riding my bike. My passion for bike riding and general common sense as a driver helped me navigate my town's busy streets and traffic clogged arteries. Yet, there were a few safety items I had to keep in mind: routes, gear, and basic traffic knowledge.

Choosing Routes

Most direct routes

I always check a map for the most direct route. Google bike map is a good start, but I've noticed that it doesn't account for paths that aren't necessarily designated as a bike or traffic path. For instance, one of my more direct paths leads me through a University Campus. Google can't see the wide sidewalk path that I ride on, so it doesn't offer that as a possible route.

Less trafficked routes

If I know the area well and feel the path is too car-heavy, I select a parallel side street that will guide me in the same direction, but with less traffic. Though the route may take me a quarter-mile out of the way, I feel my safety is more important. I'd rather ride for a longer period than be terrified for a shorter one.

Bikes paths and lanes

Bike paths and lanes are sometimes the best way to safely bike around a city. Unfortunately for me, my town has very few paths that connect to one another. Often, the paths start in an unusual area and end a few blocks down the road, making it confusing for both cyclists and drivers alike.

And the controversial sidewalks

Yes, I confess, I ride on sidewalks! Technically as a bicyclist I'm supposed to follow the traffic laws and ride in the street. However, unlike a car, I lack the speed and metal armor. I do make it a point to be considerate of pedestrians; they have the right of way. I also wouldn't ever ride on the sidewalks of New York City or any city where pedestrians outnumber cars.

Safety Gear


Front and rear lights are a necessity. I turn on my lights in the middle of the day; not so much for me to see the road, but for cars to see me. I do ride in the evenings and let me just say that lights have saved me on a few occasions.


When I first started riding my bike around town, I didn't wear my helmet. Yet, now that I've come close to getting hit by a car bumper on a couple of occasions, I realize that there's nothing really protecting me from severe head injuries! Personally, I like my brain the way it is.


Secondary to lights, reflectors again help vehicles see me. Front, side, and rear, my reflectors give cars a heads-up.

Basic Bicycle Sense


In my opinion, intersections are the most dangerous areas for cyclists. When I ride, I have to watch for cars turning right, left, or flying through red lights. When I approach an intersection, my head is on a constant swivel: It swivels behind my left shoulder watching for right turners, it swivels slightly to the left for red-light runners, it moves straight forward for left turners heading towards me, and finally it swivels slightly to the right for approaching right-turners going the opposite direction. I'm constantly looking for people who aren't looking at me; I always make eye contact with drivers a few feet from my bike!


Since I normally ride to the far right on a street or on side walks, I keep a look-out for cars coming out of driveways. Reverse lights are always a clue to slow down and wait to make sure a driver sees me.

Parked cars

Another hazard to street cyclists are parked cars. Not only do they occasionally pull out into traffic, but they also open doors, potentially pushing a bicycle rider into traffic. When I ride in the street, I make sure I'm a couple of feet away from parked cars and keep a close eye on tail lights; brake lights mean the car might be getting ready to move.

As the fall weather brings cooler temperatures, I make sure to take advantage of the gorgeous weather by increasing my bike commuting. Being a highly aware bicycle rider and picking direct routes with fewer cars make biking in the city fun and safe.

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Guest's picture

Can also add that using one ear bud instead of two when listening to music and ridnig... that way you can hear the cars coming...

Little House's picture

Excellent point! I don't ride listening to music since I really depend on listening to the traffic coming up behind me, but for those that do ride and listen, one ear bud is definitely safer.

Guest's picture

Are there rules on where you can lock up your bike? I have started riding my bike to work as well, and since there is no bike rack at the location, I lock it against a street sign post. I wasn't sure that this was legal or not.

Little House's picture

As far as I know, it's not illegal, but some cities don't like it. If you have been able to lock it there without anyone bothering it or complaining, and you have no other options, then I would say just use your best judgment.

Guest's picture

Other tips:
For routes- or to test route options. GMap-ped is my stand-by. Using it in "runner/pedestrian" mode will find routes through non-road trails. Both offer elevation profiles of the selected route, something very useful to commuters looking to avoid steep climbs (and those looking for hills to climb.)
Gear: rear-view mirror. For commuting, my money is on a bar-mounted mirror rather than a helmet mount. For safety gear, a mirror comes up right there between good brakes and good lights.
Sidewalks: It is legal in some jurisdictions to ride sidewalks. I move to the sidewalk when I think I will be an impediment to traffic (primarily hills) and won't be a threat to pedestrians. When I can ride the roadway, I do. By doing so, I am more visible to traffic at intersections, and I have more space/time to react to side-street and driveway traffic. Also, ride in the direction of traffic, even on sidewalks. There are a couple of short stretches of my commute where it makes sense to ride the sidewalk on the left side of the road, but I do so with extra caution.

Guest's picture

To Andy - my recommendation is to save the earbuds for the bus and the office. You need both ears and both eyes listening and looking for what's going on around you. My opinion after 3500+ miles of bike commuting.

Guest's picture

There's nothing "controversial" about riding on sidewalks: It's unsafe, and usually illegal. Bikes are vehicles, and belong on a road surface or designated pathway.

Apart from the hazard bikes pose to pedestrians, cars have a hard time seeing bikes on a sidewalk. That makes crossing the inevitable driveway or parking lot entry quite dangerous. Additionally, riding on the sidewalk reduces the distance between a rider and a car backing out into a roadway. We need that reaction time, because drivers often aren't paying attention. And they're certainly not looking for traffic on a sidewalk.

I don't mean to be legalistic about this. If it's appropriate to hop up on to a sidewalk for a moment -- perhaps to avoid a road hazard or because it affords a safer turn into your destination -- go for it. But we no more belong on sidewalks than do cars.

Apart from that, Jennifer, I'm glad to see such thoughtful articles here on Wise Bread. Here's wishing you a safe commute in this beautiful autumn weather.