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The Definitive Rules of the Road for Urban Cyclists

We spoke with a riding instructor for advice on how to navigate the city streets with confidence.


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Graphic by Madison McVeigh/CityLab

Biking in the city can make you feel like being a kid again: It lets you explore, hang out with your friends, and turn workaday chores like commuting into adventures. But urban cycling can also be terrifying.  

But fear not, for every street-winding speed-demon started from the same curb and lived to tell the tale. To explain how to survive the city streets, we called up Doug Smith, an Everyday Bicycling Coordinator with the Washington Area Bicyclist Association who teaches an adult city biking workshop, to give us a few pointers in the art and practice of safety-minded cycling.

Think Like a Car

The rules of the road were not written for cars alone: they protect cyclists, too. If you want to be smart, you might have to think like a car. That’s what drives Doug’s advice in his League of American Bicyclists-certified urban cycling course.

“You’re basically driving your bicycle,” Doug tells me. “You want to adhere to the same rules and laws as when you are driving your car.” It doesn’t just mean obeying the standard rules of yielding, signaling, turning, crossing, and following all other traffic laws—it means thinking of the bike as an actual vehicle that you maneuver through the roads.

Cyclists must remember to have the awareness of someone steering an automobile. It sounds obvious, but so many driving reflexes disappear on a bike. “You’re taking in your surroundings,” Doug says. “Asking questions like ‘Is this person going to jet out in front of me?’ ‘Are they going to stop shortly?’I need to leave some more room between me and this car.’ That kind of thinking sets you up for success.”

Doug’s three-hour city cycling class kicks off with drills in a parking lot, practicing maneuvers taught by the League of American Bicyclists. For the last hour, the class goes on a ride out in the city to put broader lessons about street safety into focus. We’ve distilled the tips here. Consider this your abbreviated version—a SpokeNotes.

1. You are on a vehicle—sometimes you will have to stop

Be prepared. Expect the unexpected. Don’t run red lights. Come to a complete stop. We want to ignore all these sage pieces of advice when we’re coasting downhill. But these aren’t John Denver’s country roads: we live on the grid.

Madison McVeigh/CityLab

“Stopping at stop signs and stop lights, we have to do it,” Doug says. “I’ve seen cyclists go through them but I've also seen cars that don't stop. We’re not unique [as law-breakers] but as bicyclists, we should be stopping, too.”

So no bell-ringing endorsement of the Idaho stop—that’s a drag. “My advice to anyone is follow the law at every and any time,” Doug says. “Ride safely, even if the law allows you do things that are not necessarily illegal.”

There are some glimmers of fun to be found. Washington, D.C., has a law permitting cyclists to split a lane, going in between cars stopped a light so that riders can sidle up to the front of the line. It’s called “filtering,” and it can spare cyclists the aggravation of following bumper-to-bumper traffic or changing multiple lanes to turn while traffic is flowing. (It’s codified in California, too.) Though legally ambiguous at best in most cities—and expressly forbidden at worst—there are bills pending across the country to make this informal practice legal, even for motorcyclists.

Another legal light-hopping technique uses the “leading pedestrian interval” that gives people a head start over cars at crosswalks. In D.C., a bike can take a leap during that grace period where they would otherwise be traffic turning the in opposite direction. It gives a cyclist the chance to turn through an intersection before the cars enter the fold.

But there are safety risks to weigh when deciding whether jumping the line will produce any comfort for a rider—especially since the largest proportion of cycling accidents involve cars rear-ending bikes. “You have to rely on your judgment—what are you gaining by going to the front?” Doug says. “If I have to filter through ten cars but then in two blocks they’ll go free and pass me again, I’m okay to hold back. But if I know I need to take a left on the next block and that I need to take my position, it makes it a lot easier.”

An instructor shows a student how to brake fast and balance weight while executing the quick-stop maneuver. Photo by Washington Area Bicyclist Association.

Avoidance Drill: The Quick Stop

Inevitably, there will be a time when the bike needs to stop—fast. The first maneuver taught in the urban cycling course is the Quick Stop. Most of us know by intuition that if we really need to stop, we grip both brakes. But the Quick Stop allows a rider to stay in control and on the bicycle.

“You squeeze both brakes, but squeeze the front brake more—the gripping power is in the left brake,” Doug says. “The biggest thing is to keep the back wheel from getting off the ground.” That combination should stop the bike within six feet.

But how to avoid flipping over the handlebars? “In the same process [of braking], take your butt off the saddle—up and off, then back and down,” Doug says. This shifts your body weight back on the bike and keeps the rear wheel in contact with the road to give greater stopping power.

“Your legs would be extended so that your feet are still on the pedals, but you've thrown your body weight backwards and down so that the back of the saddle is free,” Doug says. When the maneuver is done correctly, you may find your seat at your stomach from inching as far back in the saddle as possible while still holding the handlebars. “It’s like doing a superman on your bike seat,” he adds.

TL;DR version

  • Squeeze both brakes to stop fast, but pull harder on the front brake
  • Keep the back wheel down by shifting your weight
  • Get off the seat, extend legs from pedals, slide back from the saddle
  • Here’s a video of bike cops practicing the quick stop

2. Take the Lane

There’s not always a need to be cowardly about cars. Here’s a more brash piece of the safety advice: take the lane! First of all, you are traffic; secondly, it gives a bike much more visibility to drivers. Ride to the side, and drivers lump you in with the roadside distractions they routinely ignore.

Madison McVeigh/CityLab

“When you're riding in the road, you should [be] aware of your space and where you are,” Doug says. “But you don't have to stay as far to the right as humanly possible as we were taught when we were younger.” When cyclists stay to the right, drivers think they can squeeze past them. It is safer if people on bikes take the middle or even the far left of a lane—that way, drivers will have no choice but to treat a bike like a vehicle and pass it with care.

“It encourages and communicates to cars that they will encounter you,” he says. “If they want to pass you, they have to fully commit to changing lanes and breaking the dotted yellow, the solid yellow line, or the dashed white line to give you more room.”

Doug also lists the many dangers that lurk in our beloved bike lanes—debris, broken glass, sticks, sand, gravel, dead animals—many of which lie on the far right-hand side of the road gutter, leaving cyclists to swerve around or ride over these obstacles.

Avoidance Drill: The Rock Dodge

Amidst heavy traffic, the comfort of the bike lane might be too good to pass up. That’s when the Rock Dodge becomes a necessary emergency maneuver.

“Right before you hit a rock [or other obstacle], you turn your handlebar very quickly to the left, almost to the 90-degree point, and then straight again,” Doug says. “When the bike is moving, the front wheel passes the object from the left, while rear wheel passes the rock from the right, so that rock splits the bike [between the wheels].”

When turning the handlebars, it’s preferable to turn to the left and back to center while riding with traffic. “If you were riding in the U.S., you're on the right side of the road,” Doug says. “If the bike starts to lean too much, overturn, or hit something and you fall off, your body weight is heading toward the right, where there are no moving cars.”

TL;DR version

  • Turn handlebars towards traffic quickly to avoid a small obstacle
  • Return straight to pass with the rear wheel, splitting the bike
  • Lean your bodyweight away from traffic in case of a fall

3. Prepare for the Unexpected; the Bike Lane Cannot Save You

Too often “life in the bike lane” means “smack dab in the door zone.”

Madison McVeigh/CityLab

“You feel more protected because everybody knows this is where you're going to be and you're going to want to ride to the right in the bike lane,” Doug says. “But it is so much closer to the car door and if a door were to open, it’s bad news bears.”

To avoid that problem, Doug suggests staying on the outer third or even the left edge of a bike lane. If a door opens, “it would give you extra time to swerve out of the way,” he says.  

Another good rule of thumb relates to arguably one of the more useless forms of bike infrastructure: sharrows. “I always say stay to the left of the arrow,” Doug says. “Make sure the arrow passes you on the right, putting you in the left third of a painted bike lane.” That space gives more time to react to jaywalking pedestrians or delivery trucks and ride-hailing cars that frequently stop in city bike lanes.

Avoidance Drill: The Avoidance Weave

This move is similar to slalom for skiing, weaving to the left and right to avoid people or potholes. For the drill, the class sets up markers to prove riders don’t have to turn their handlebars to get around bigger obstacles.

Instead, the bike moves as the rider shifts balance and body weight. Whichever way the bike swoops, keep the inside pedal up while leaning to avoid contact with the road. “If you’re turning right really sharply, think about having the inside pedal (the right pedal) at the top of your pedal stroke in the 12 o’clock position if you’re looking at your crank as the face of a clock,” Doug says.

This counterintuitive footing lets the bike lean into a turn without a pedal snagging the road.

In the parking lot drills, riders practice wide swerves with left-right slalom lanes. The technique really becomes useful for navigating roads with multiple potholes or road bumps to dodge, making it easier to avoid flat tires or a derailed chain.

TL;DR version

  • Swoop with a wide berth to ride to the side potholes, pedestrians, or anything else that pops in the road
  • Keep the inside pedal (the way the bike will swerve) at the 12 o’clock position to lean without catching the road

4. Be Predictable: Don’t Assume Cars Can See You

Cyclists get into crashes or near-miss situations usually for two different reasons: overconfidence or under-confidence. The overconfident folks earn more of Doug’s scorn when they perform a phenomenon called salmoning, riding against the flow of traffic like salmon up a stream.

Madison McVeigh/CityLab

“Bike salmoning is one of the worst problems,” Doug says. “The only thing I want to say it is illegal.” Riding the wrong way down the road is the number one way that cyclists contribute to crashes with cars or pedestrians.

A rare exception to the one-way rules: sometimes contraflow lanes allow cyclists to go opposite directions on a one-way street, or cycle tracks create two bike lanes on a one-way road.
Doug warns these pieces of infrastructure should be approached with considerable caution. “The challenge with [opposing lanes] is when you encounter intersections, other cars and pedestrians are not expecting you,” Doug says.

The unexpected element applies to the less-confident bikers, the people who tend to ride on the sidewalks. Doug laments that this behavior is a symptom of cities not providing bikes enough space, but he says there’s no shame in riding of the sidewalk if that’s where you feel comfortable.

”It would be great if cyclists didn't feel that they had to use sidewalks,” Doug says. “It would be great if there was enough infrastructure and facilities, and dedicated space, where pedestrians could walk where they need to walk, bicyclists could bike where they need to bike, and cars could go where they need to go.”

But sometimes the law makes riding on those pathways a non-starter. Most municipalities ban riding on sidewalks in their central business districts or throughout the city—but sometimes you might have to do it. Doug only warns there are important safety reasons, beyond the common courtesies to pedestrians, to slow down.

“If you are on the sidewalk and at a crossing to go back on the road, cars are not always looking for bicyclists,” Doug says. “You are coming up much faster than a pedestrian, or they might not see you because of parked cars on the sidewalk.” Dangers can also come from the other edge of the sidewalk—especially downtown where vehicles might jet out from loading docks, parking garages, and driveways without expecting a bicyclist.

A student executes a quick turn using the proper footing needed to lean a bicycle far away from an oncoming car. Photo by Washington Area Bicyclist Association.

Avoidance Drill: The Instant Turn

We saved the scariest situation for last: what to do when you are heading towards a car head-on. Here’s the nightmare scenario that Doug described to me:

“Envision a scenario where you’re riding south on the 15th Street cycle track,” Doug says. “It’s two-way lane for bikes on the side of the street and at P Street, a car wants to turn to head west, making its left-hand turn right in front of you as you are going straight.”

You have two options: T-bone the car or do a quick turn in the same direction as the car. The Quick Turn maneuver combines all the three previous drills: the Quick Stop, Rock Dodge, and Avoidance Weave all come together to help you avoid an oncoming car.

“What we teach to do is turn 90 degrees instead of traveling onward. So in our situation, you would make a sharp right-hand turn, parallel with a car. Naturally, you’ll want to brake and lean your body weight back [as with the Quick Stop]. You quickly turn your handlebars to the left [as with the Rock Dodge], but instead of returning to the center you complete the turn to the right and lean all the way over to get through the turn [as with the Avoidance Weave] and finish remaining upright again after completing the turn,” Doug says.

“To do it well, you have to commit to having your bike lean over,” Doug says. “You get more comfortable leaning, but everyone is really comfortable upright.”

Once people get the hang of the maneuver though, Doug’s students like to practice it the most. “It's a fun drill,” he says. Plus, he says, the neat thing about bikes is the tires are so grippy that you can lean over and still have that friction to remain staying upright again.”

TL;DR version

  • Even in a protected lane or track, look out for traffic that might turn to cross your path at intersections
  • When a car does cross your path, turn with it to avoid a head-on collision
  • Combine the weight-balanced braking of the Quick Stop, the handlebar turning of the Rock Dodge, and inside pedal leaning of the Avoidance Weave to execute a sharp turn that avoids the vehicle as much as possible
Screen Shot 2019-05-24 at 11.58.16 AM.png

The intersection of 15th and P in Washington, D.C., where cyclists can be difficult for drivers to see. (Andrew Small/CityLab)

One of Doug’s colleagues hands out this common piece of advice: While you should maximize your visibility, when in doubt move as if you were invisible. “It forces you take the extra moment to figure out the best way forward,” Doug says. “It’s always possible to get where you want to go without putting yourself at risk.”

That might stretch the imagination a bit much, but Doug says that at its core the idea is to ride predictably—being visible and signaling intentions—and knowing where you are going before you head out on the road. Drivers plan routes ahead of time instead of wandering around like pedestrians do.

Doug recommends practicing a commute on a weekend before trying to tackle it with full traffic. Once it is a route you do regularly, there’s less possibility for surprises. ”For example, I was riding behind a bus on the commute the other day,” Doug says. “I knew I was half a block away from a bus stop and I knew the bus was going to be switching over to pick up a passenger. So I could take over from the left rather than going in the bike lane.”

Remember: Comfort Means Confidence

A host of specific questions pop up from students in Doug’s urban cycling class. There are whole websites—and other classes—dedicated to covering them.

Bike shops and cycling clubs host classes on bike maintenance or how to fix a flat tire (the quick ABC routine reminds riders to check air, brakes, and chain before going on a ride). Doug recommends taking a look at the Smart Cycling materials on the League of American Bicyclists’ website or reaching out local cycling advocacy organizations similar to WABA to learn more about local routes and group rides.

Another common question Doug gets in classes: “what gear should I get?” Aside from wearing a helmet, using lights at night, or having a bell, Doug says he has no one-size-fits-all answer to gear-related safety questions. He might steer beginners toward a hybrid-style commuter bicycle, since they offer thicker tires that can handle “gnarly surfaces and roadways” without adding too much extra weight or the resistance that mountain bike tires have. The classic city bike has the advantage of giving riders an upright position to see the road more easily.

But ultimately, Doug says, having brand-new gear doesn’t matter that much. He wants people to start riding with what equipment they have and then make decisions that suit their needs as they build the skills to take on the city with confidence. His guiding motto is pretty simple, too.

“I always say, you do you,” he says. “Do what makes you happy and feels comfortable and you will be set up for success.”

Andrew Small is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C., and author of the CityLab Daily newsletter (subscribe here). He was previously an editorial fellow at CityLab.

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This post originally appeared on CityLab and was published May 22, 2017. This article is republished here with permission.

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