The rules of the road are not always easy to decipher for people who are just getting started riding in the city, and yet they are crucial to safety and a stress-free experience. So, we’re sharing answers to 8 questions frequently asked by new cyclists, with the help of Bike New York, which includes Bike Commuting 101 among its educational programs.
When I took the class as a newbie years ago, one of the first things I learned and the among the best advice I ever got was “Ride like you’re a car.” Because bikes are considered vehicles in NYC, bicyclists enjoy the same rights to the road as motorists (don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!), and are subject to the same set of responsibilities (and fines) as drivers: Adult bicyclists must ride on the street, not the sidewalk, with the flow of traffic.
Traffic rules and our entire traffic system are designed to maximize predictability on busy, congested streets. When bicyclists ride predictably and visibly, according to the rules of the road, they can avoid conflicts with drivers, other bicyclists and pedestrians, making for a more pleasant and less stressful ride. And that’s when riding a bike becomes the most fun!
So, here goes:
1. If there is no bike lane marked, what side of the street should I ride on?
For starters, even if a bike lane is marked on a street, bicyclists are allowed to decide for themselves whether to ride within or outside those white lines, depending on how safe and usable they consider the bike lane to be. For example, if there’s a big pothole in the lane, if it’s blocked by a parked car, if there are pedestrians milling about in it, you are welcome to leave the bike lane and merge into a full traffic lane. If the bike lane is free of hazards, though, you should stay in it (until you approach the next hazard). Now that that’s clear…
If no bike lane is marked on a one-way street that’s at least 40 ft. wide, bicyclists are allowed to ride on either side. Be sure to watch out for bus lanes on these wide avenues, though. Bus drivers are bold and on a tight schedule! You don’t want to be in their way, and you shouldn’t block buses in their express lanes.
On two-way roads, cyclists should stay in the middle of the right-most lane that serves their destination.
2. How can I avoid being hit by a car door that opens into traffic or into a bike lane?
Easy! Always ride your bike at least four feet away from parked vehicles. By riding outside the “door zone,” you eliminate the chance of being hit by an abruptly opened car door, which itself can be quite painful, but can also knock you off your bike and into moving traffic.
Sometimes riding outside the door zone can place you right in the middle of a narrow traffic lane. That’s okay! You have the legal right to take a full lane of traffic (i.e. ride in the middle of the lane) if necessary, no matter how slowly you may be pedaling. By “taking the lane,” you not only stay out of the door zone, but you also deter drivers from trying to squeeze into the lane alongside you. Win win! (Note: This kind of riding takes some confidence, but makes all the difference. Own your space! If you delay a driver for a few seconds while you take the lane, so be it.)
3. If I need to move into traffic to avoid the “door zone,” will cars see me and give me right of way?
If you need to move into traffic to avoid the door zone or to go around a double-parked vehicle or hazard, you should do your best to be predictable and communicate your intentions with everyone around you. First, look over your shoulder to see if the coast is clear. Then, signal your intentions by pointing down to the adjacent lane into which you plan to move. Look again, signal, and – if no one is approaching from behind – make your move.
When you change lanes, the moving vehicles in the lane you’re changing into actually have the right of way. Often, though, when you signal confidently and look at the driver next to you, he or she will yield to let you into the lane. (Wave and say thank you when that happens.)
4. Where should I stop when I approach an intersection?
When you approach a red light at an intersection, you should try to position yourself so that you are as visible as possible, stopped in the right-most lane that serves your destination. This will usually be at the front of a line of stopped cars, sitting between the stop line and the crosswalk. Some New York City intersections actually feature “bike boxes” in this space – distinguishing the area as a sort of bike waiting zone. This way, when the light turns green, bicyclists pass through the intersection first before scooting over to the side of the street or into the bike lane, when drivers then are able to pass and go on their way. It’s all very civilized! (If you keep catching up to the same drivers at intersections, forcing them to wait for you to go before passing on your side, consider hanging back at the next intersection. Let the drivers go ahead just to get them out of your hair.)
One place you definitely want to avoid when stopped at an intersection is the right side of the street immediately next to a stopped vehicle. This is often the driver’s blind spot, and if the driver suddenly decides to turn when the light changes, and you’re going straight, you’re setting yourself up for a crash. Instead, get out front and avoid getting tangled up with turning vehicles.
5. Is it necessary to stop at every red light? I see that many riders don’t…
Yes. Bicyclists are legally obligated to stop at red lights. Many riders will say that they don’t stop at red lights because signal timing is set for car speeds, and because stopping at red lights defeats the purpose of a speedy bike commute. Yes, these are true. But, ride through enough red lights and you will eventually pay the price or come close to it. Not only that, but you could get a hefty ticket, you’ll annoy and possibly hit a pedestrian, and you’ll do a disservice to all bicyclists by making us look like scofflaws (which makes it harder for the rest of us to advocate for better conditions).
6. What hand signals should I use to indicate a turn?
I’m glad you asked! Signaling is so important, yet so underutilized by bicyclists in NYC! When turning left, simply reach your left arm all the way out (parallel to the street) while pointing left. When turning right, reach your right arm out while pointing right. When changing lanes, point down towards the lane into which you intend to move. When riding with other people, or when surrounded by other cyclists, you may also want to signal when you’re slowing down or stopping by lifting your left arm and holding your left hand out, palm facing the cyclists behind you. Visuals here.
7. Is it safe to ride at night in the city?
Sure, it’s safe to ride at night in the city as long as you remain visible at all times. You can do that by using front white lights and rear red lights – both of which are mandatory when riding your bike after dusk or before dawn. Consider wearing clothing with retro-reflective features, or add retro-reflective tape to your bike and/or helmet. Stick to routes you’re familiar with so that you aren’t taken by surprise by hazardous road conditions that are hidden in the dark.
8. Is it safe to ride with headphones?
Bicyclists are legally allowed to wear one earphone while riding a bike, but it’s not a good idea in general. Here’s why: When riding a bike in New York City, it’s critically important to be hyper aware of everything that’s going on around you. Street sounds, like a revving car engine, ambulance siren, or even another cyclist calling out that he’s passing, require certain responses that will keep you flowing smoothly with traffic. Plus, music can cause you to zone out a bit, delaying your reaction time or encouraging you to take risks you probably shouldn’t take. We say, use all of your sense to their maximum potential while riding a bike and you’ll be better off!
This post was updated on 5/14/16.