my bike is a car: lessons from commuting 101

Bike Lane Marker
photo: velojoy

My decision to attend a “Bike Commuting 101” class last night was prompted partly by a recent comment from a friend, an artist who began riding her bike a few months ago from Manhattan to her Brooklyn studio.

“So we’ve got all these new bike lanes, now what?” she asked.

Good question, especially for those who are new to city cycling. It’s true that the number of commuters is on the rise, thanks in no small part to the addition of 200 bike-lane miles to the five boroughs between 2006 and 2009.

Build Road Confidence

But riding around town can sometimes feel like an urban obstacle course with skaters whizzing the wrong way in the bike lane, drivers opening cars door into traffic, pedestrians jaywalking while talking on cell phones. And cyclists, we’re no angels either.

How to keep all this from undermining confidence and interfering with the pluses of city cycling was on the minds of my fellow audience members at last night’s “Bike Commuting 101” class, sponsored by Bike New York, a not-for-profit that promotes bicycling and bike safety through education, and presented at Eastern Mountain Sports in SoHo.

Emilia Crotty, Bike New York’s bicycle education program manager, packed a remarkable amount of helpful information into the free, one-hour session. A dedicated commuter with 11 years of cycling under her belt, Crotty started off with a cheerful note of reassurance. “See?” she said. “I’m still here to tell you about it.”

Think of Your Bike as a Car

New York State law says that “bicyclists are granted all of the rights and are subject to all of the duties of the driver of a motor vehicle.”

“Remember that, and you will feel like you belong on the road,” Crotty advises.

“You can be Lance Armstrong out there,” Crotty says. “But you have no control over what the other 8 million New Yorkers will be doing.”

And yet, the gulf between knowing and acting may be wide, at least in the beginning. Both Crotty and the more experienced commuters in the audience acknowledged that developing road confidence is not only a matter of familiarity with rules, but also of saddle time and practice. Among common examples in which “owning” the road may help improve confidence and safety:

  • Car doors opening into bike lanes: To avoid getting doored, keep four feet of distance between your bike and the line of parked cars. Crotty noted that this will usually place you far enough into the traffic lane to deter cars from trying to pass you. This way, you’re protected both from opening of doors on one side and being squeezed by traffic on the other.
  • Left turns from the right lane:  Anticipate your turns well in advance to give yourself enough time to scan, signal and change lanes as many time as needed to move safely from the right lane to the left turn lane. (Until you get used to this, stay to the right, dismount at the light and cross with pedestrians in the walkway.)

Wear a Helmet. Just do.

Crotty reminded the audience that a 10-year study of New York City  bike crashes found that 97 percent of cyclists who died as a result  were not wearing helmets. New York State law requires helmets for children under the age of 14.

Play Nicely with Others

Crotty’s presentation advises sharing the streets safely and respectfully with cars, pedestrians and cyclists by being:

  • Visible — Wear bright clothes, mount front and rear lights (required by law).
  • Predictable — Telegraph your intentions in advance, scan over your shoulder and signal left or right.
  • Alert — Stay focused, and avoid using ear buds and cell phones.
  • Assertive — Once you’ve signaled your intentions, make your move.
  • Courteous — Make eye contact with drivers and pedestrians; wave thanks to a considerate motorist; and despite temptation, forego cursing.

Avoid Breakdowns

Mechanical problems can add an unwanted layer of stress to your commute. To help prevent them:

  • Keep tires inflated to recommended pressure; invest in a bike pump and use it frequently.
  • Carry a Metrocard so you can hop on the subway with your bike in the event of a flat tire or mechanical problem.

Crotty sums up her presentation by noting that the need for cyclists to protect themselves is ongoing, no matter how sophisticated one’s riding skills eventually become.

“You can be Lance Armstrong out there,” Crotty says. “But you have no control over what the other 8 million New Yorkers will be doing.”

Rider resources:

Bike New York

Transporation Alternatives

photo: velojoy

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