If you're in an urban environment and have taken to the streets on a pedal bike, be it through a bikeshare scheme or on your own bike, you're going to get yourself killed unless you benefit from my decades as a devoted city-rider. My bona fides include a couple of years as a bike messenger in Washington, D.C., in addition to the 25 years I have been riding the streets of Washington, Portland and Berlin -- all without a helmet or any lycra whatsoever. So, be it your own bike or one of the rentals such as Capital Bikeshare here in the D.C. area or Citi Bike in NY, please let me share what I know that has kept me alive for over a quarter-century.
A helmet doesn't protect you -- until you crash: It is true: helmets do save lives. On the other hand, if you need your helmet, you've hit something and crashed. Crashing doesn't have to be vehicle versus vehicle, but often is. And no matter how right you are -- how just -- in your riding, lane-choice, line, and speed, you're pretty much just skin, bones, tendons, plastic, wire, rubber, steel, vinyl, leather, and aluminum -- you're easier to crunch than a soda can. Avoiding crashing is very important because you're probably not armored up like a motorcyclist and your helmet, if you wear one, is made of Styrofoam. Let's work on both riding well and also avoiding situations that'll get you stuck in a very mortal situation. And, although, we like to blame taxis, buses, cars, and stupid pedestrians, if you think the city street is a scary, dangerous, unpredictable, and aggressive, the lowest common denominator is you: you might be reckless, you might be careless, you might assume you have a right-of-way, deserve space and respect on the street, or are even considered at all when there are coffees, radio, phone calls, Siri, passengers, traffic frustrations, indignant range, and bike-hating going on, potentially, in every single car, bus, cab, truck, and motorcycle on the road -- all of which means you're not really holding any cards at all. Yes, if that BMW driver mows you down that driver will go to jail; however, you'll be dead so you won't be able to gloat from your mortal coil. Maybe down from Heaven or up from Hell.
Keep your indignant rage in check: You're going to be cut off. People are going to "share" your lane. People will carelessly merge into you. The bike lane will be cut off. Other bikers will hurt your reputation by jumping lights, by riding contraflow, and there are always bike messengers out there to hurt your pristine bike-road-rule following-of-laws. You'll be fine as long as you let it go. If you play Indignant Chicken, "I will stay right here, this is where I am legally entitled to ride," you're going to eventually get squished. On the street, you need to be grateful every moment that you're still moving forward, unmolested, and spend more of your time and attention reinforcing good drivers by smiling, waving, and saying "thank you" to them as well as to the pedestrians, as well, who clear the way for you and enable you to flow as opposed to squealing to a halt.
Assume drivers can't or don't see you: They can't or they don't. In Berlin and most of Europe, not only are there separate roads for city cyclists, there are bike stoplights, bike turn signals, and, especially, bike-awareness. Some day, enough drivers will know enough drivers who are in prison for running over a commuting cyclist -- then people will look for cyclists too. If it makes you feel any better, drivers don't or can't see motorcyclists either, and riders have lights, blinkers, and loud pipes. If cars don't know how to see a motorcyclist on the road, they surely won't notice a 155-pound person on a 30-pound bike, even if it is red or blue or yellow, even if it has LED lights or even if you wear hi-viz and use the bell liberally. My BMW is a sound-cocoon on its own, with NPR on, I can't hear anything outside of my vehicle, sometimes not even emergency vehicles like ambulances, police cruisers, and firetrucks. D.C. is a rich city: everyone has an amazing stereo and a sound-sealed fine automobile, to say nothing of the white noise hiss of climate control.
Assume every taxi intends to kill you: they move slowly, they never signal, and they are happy to turn left from the right lane, right from the left lane, and if they see a fare, they'll do a U-turn in the middle of the road -- or just about anything else -- to get it.
During rush hour, assume everyone is channeling the Hulk: Everyone's late: for work or for home. If you're commuting to work on your bike, you're riding during the worst times of the day, twice.
After 4 p.m., assume all drivers, pedestrians, and riders are drunk: In fact, always assume everyone's drunk. Really drunk. It helps with vigilance. There are a lot of drunks in the city.
Picture every pedestrian as a deer-in-the-headlights: I like to use my honed bike courier mind to anticipate the vector and acceleration of everyone around me on the street. From pedestrians to other bikes to vehicular traffic. Pedestrians are unpredictable. They tend to freeze, like a deer in the headlights, or double back or change their rate of acceleration. Cars, taxis, bikes, and buses have enough mass and momentum that one can easily make assumptions -- buses are slow to start, taxis dart, and cars don't blink. Sadly, it's getting worse. When I was a courier in the late '80s and early '90s, there were very few distractions -- really only Walkmen and big Nokia cellphones. Some people would read-while-walking. Now, however, your garden-variety ped is using his or her attention span to do everything outside navigating, allowing their autonomic autopilot to convey them home. They're plugged into music with in-ear sound-isolating buds or are so invested in conversations that they're far off in a much different brainscape -- the cloud? -- and aren't even paying attention to city buses, potholes, or even street light poles. You need to anticipate outcome -- and, if you've studied any quantum physics at all, consider all the possible outcomes about to spawn into new multiverse forks -- and be sure to cover your brakes, be ready to panic stop or swerve, and balance your body to the read to help keep upright as you come to a halt.
Assume every driver is both texting and daydreaming: I still can't believe how many drivers actually turn their heads to speak to their passenger. I don't know if sound works that way. We don't communication like directional shotgun mics. And don't forget: cities with bikeshare programs are tourist meccas -- not only are people listening to Pandora, checking Siri, being guided by GPS and having intimate eye-contact conversations with their passengers, they're also sightseeing, hungrily devouring monuments, points of interest, skyscrapers, museums, and statues.
Assume every parked car has a driver: I had two crashes when I was a bike courier. One was a washout on gravel when I ignored the laws of physics during a bunny-hop (90-degree turns only work on Tron) and the other was getting my front wheel pretzeled from getting doored. "Doored" refered to running into an open door of a parallel-parked car. In addition to dealing with being doored, people suddenly pull out, people walk into traffic, and run to fill up their parking meter. People actually hang out in their cars, too. Look into the car, look at the mirrors, look for lights (brake, head, and cabin), check the angle of the car, and also notice the front tires: are they angled as if to pull out? Sometimes drivers park like that; however, wheels angled out as if ready to pull into traffic are a very good indicator as to intent.
Follow the laws of physics: know your bike. What can it do? How well can you stop your brakeless fixie? How quickly can you come to a full stop at speed? How quickly can you get out of those clipless pedals? Can you reach the ground with your foot? How aggressively can you turn? (90-degree turns only work on Tron). And, can you accelerate as fast as you think?
Turn your head: Don't make any assumptions when you ride in the city: always check your lane, check your merge, check your angle of attack, and your follow through a turn. Turn your head, look all the way, check. Make sure you buy a helmet that doesn't in any way obstruct your field of vision, your peripheral vision.
Always have an escape strategy: The same thing is true when you're driving a car -- and especially on a motorcycle: don't get stuck and always have a plan B, C, D, and an exit strategy. Semis and buses take a lot of room turning or pulling up to the curb. How many times have I needed to bunny hop onto the sidewalk to avoid getting cut of by a big vehicle with zero visibility. Now, I make sure I leave room and anticipate worst case scenarios -- always leave room for a swerve, for an exit, or for braking quick.
Always cover the brakes: If you ride a bike with drop bars, you need to get bar-top brake levers, too -- they can work in unison with your drop levers. I have drop bars but I only have brakes on the top because when I am in a situation that requires the sort of agility being up and tall and on the tops of the bars requires, I also need the brakes; if I need to be on the drop for speed or climbing leverage, I am either in the clear or grinding slow.
Set up your turns and follow-throughs: don't turn blind. Set up your turn, look through your line, all the way through, and then pick your new line. Try to be three-steps ahead.
Keep your eyes up: Don't look down. Keep your eyes up, looking ahead, left, right, and turn your head. Keep your eyes off of your computer or phone. People walk into traffic from between cars all the time. The tell you the same thing when you learn to ride motorcycles and when you learn to waltz: look up, keep your eyes up, don't look at your feet, or the bike, or the road right before you. Notice those potholes well before you need to get off the seat and brace for impact.
Your body is better suspension than the suspension: Yes, you probably have suspension; however, your arms, shoulders, and legs are much better shock-absorbers than they are. Also, changing your weight fore and aft or getting off of the saddle help lighten the bike for speed bumps, curbs, debris, and potholes.
Your saddle is too low: Finally, you're driving me crazy: your seat's too low! Your leg should be almost fully extended when your pedal is at the bottom of the stroke, with just a little bit of knee bend. Your seat is way too low and this puts you into a position where you're just pedaling a bicycle and not actually piloting it. In the city, you need to pilot your bike -- you need to have complete control of it, even when it is one of those ponderous city bikeshare bikes.
Good luck and please keep the rubber down -- I am proud and happy to have so many of you all around me on the city streets. Every day, my D.C. is feeling more and more like my Berlin did.