Bike commuting is a great way to add a little workout into your day. Bike commuting saves money, is environmentally friendly, is often quicker than public transportation, and best of all, it’s fun!
One common concern I hear as a bike commuter from my car and bus bound friends is that they would bike more, if they only knew anything about city biking safety. The mysterious world of city biking can be hard to penetrate, and you can’t necessarily just take your cues from other bikers (there are a lot of bikers out there who have, shall we say, liberal interpretations of the law). This post tackles some common questions new city bikers have.
Where do bikes fit into the whole car-motorcycle-pedestrian dynamic?
First and foremost, under Minnesota law bicycles are vehicles, and therefore subject to all the same laws as cars. That means coming to a complete stop at all stoplights and stop signs if you don’t want a ticket.
However, there is a red light exemption which allows bicyclists and motorcyclists to proceed through a red light if they fail to trigger the signal to turn green (only after coming to a complete stop and taking the time to determine that the signal isn’t going to change).
Behaving like a car also means you need to signal your turns and merges at least 100 feet before you complete them. Hold your left arm straight out to the left to signal a left turn/merge. Hold your left arm out in an L shape with your hand pointing up to signal a right turn (if you’re biking safely, it’ll be a rare occasion that you need to merge right).
Can I just ride any old bike?
While you certainly don’t need a fancy-dancy road bike to be a bike commuter, there are a few important safety considerations:
The bike must have brakes that allow you to make the wheels skid on a dry, level, clean pavement (which is just a legalese way of saying you should be able to come to an abrupt stop).
The bike must also be the right size for you. You need to be able to put one foot down on the pavement when stopped, and restart the bike safely.
What sorts of reflective gear and lights do I need?
How many times have you seen bikers decked out in expensive biking shirts, gloves, shoes? Like many hobbies, biking has tons of gizmos and gadgets you could spend 1000’s of dollars on. But what if you just want to get where you’re going safely and cheaply? What biking gear is essential, and what’s just fluff?
In short, all you need are lights and reflective gear.
The state of Minnesota doesn’t require any reflective gear or lights during daylight hours. Nighttime and periods of poor visibility are an entirely different story, though. The state of Minnesota requires
- A white light on the front of your bike, visible from a distance of 500 feet.
- A red reflector on the back of the bike, visible from 100 – 600 feet away.
- Reflective tape on either side of each pedal, visible from a distance of 600 feet
- 20 square inches of reflective material on each side of the bicycle or its operator (but it’s okay to have more).
Where should I ride? On the street or on the sidewalk?
While it seems counter to everything our mothers told us about staying on the sidewalk, on certain streets riding on the sidewalk can be more dangerous than riding on the road. This is often the case on multi-lane streets with a high traffic volume and a large number of pedestrians. Not only are you more visible to drivers when you ride on the road, you register as another vehicle whose actions they need to consider. You also avoid the hazards of pedestrians, sidewalk signs, and chairs and tables of cafes.
Think about the number of times you’ve seen a car stop right in the middle of a cross-walk to make a turn onto a multi-lane road, such as Lake Street. Unless you’re fond of slowing every single block to make sure someone isn’t about to tear through the intersection, I would recommend riding on the street.
Lastly, riding on the sidewalk is illegal in businesses districts (don’t know if you’re in a business district? There’s usually a bicycle with an X through it painted on every curb).
If you do prefer riding on the sidewalk (or need to ride on it to access an establishment), remember that you have all the rights and responsibilities of a pedestrian. You must also yield right-of-way to pedestrians, and give an audible signal of your presence. You can do this by clearly yelling “on your left!” or “on your right!” when you’re far enough behind them that they have time to process what you said. Pretend all pedestrians are your dear old granny; give them adequate warning, give them their space, and pass them slowly.
When riding on the roadway, you should always ride “as close as practicable” to the right hand edge of the road, unless there’s a designated bike lane. It’s alright to move left when overtaking another cyclist, merging to make a left turn, or if there’s something obstructing your way.
It can sometimes be difficult to determine if there’s enough room for cars to move unimpeded with you riding along the right-hand side of the road. Minnesota drivers are required by law to give 3 feet of clearance when passing bicyclists or pedestrians, so try to find routes that allow drivers to pass you safely and legally.
How do I turn left?
Turning left can be tricky as a cyclist. The proper procedure is to first signal to merge into the left turn lane, and then signal at least 100 feet before turning.
There is often a temptation as a cyclist to turn left on a red light when there’s no cross-traffic and you can see it will be difficult to make a turn against opposing traffic. This illegal maneuver will save time and frustration (and stop you getting stuck in the middle of an intersection with cars whizzing by on either side of you), but you take your life in your hands when you make it.
If traffic is really bad (or you’re uncomfortable merging left), pulling onto the sidewalk and using a cross-walk is a good alternative.
A good rule of thumb for hair raising feats that involve crossing in front of opposing traffic is this: assume everyone is drunk. Be hyper-aware of their actions, and don’t assume you can trust them to drive logically.
What are good streets to bike on?
We’ve discussed general width requirements above, but how do you know what streets in your area are good bike routes?
My first piece of advice is this: bike where you see a lot of other bikers. There’s a positive feedback loop here. People bike on a certain street, drivers get used to cooperating with bikers, bikers feel safer on that street and recommend it to friends, and so on.
Other bikers have great tips about what left turns are easy to make or how to avoid that big hill, so try to make bike-commuter friends. Strike up a conversation with that person at the coffee shop holding a helmet, or go to a bike maintenance class at a local bike shop.
Many bike shops also carry local bike trail maps, which can be very helpful, especially when biking in an area you’re unfamiliar with.
Google your route beforehand. Google has a fairly good database of bike routes, and they make it easy for you to play around with different combinations of streets to optimize distance and safety.
I’ve arrived! Where is it okay to lock my bike?
Sadly, not every establishment you’ll be visiting will have a bike rack. Lucky for you, you can park your bike on any roadway or sidewalk as long as it does not prohibit normal traffic movement and is not prohibited by local authorities. Unfortunately, MN regulations are unclear on the definition of “local authority,” but I’d interpret it as “okay to lock to street signs, not okay to lock to anything on business property unless that business says so.”
Does it really matter what kind of lock I have?
Bike locks can be pretty spendy, so the prospect of piling an expensive lock on top of a helmet, bike, rack, lights, etc can be unappealing. However, springing for a solid U-lock now definitely beats buying a new bike and a new lock later when your rinky chain lock is cut through.
I’ve had my bike stolen once, and have at least a dozen friends with the same experience. It only takes one time of walking out the door in the morning and realizing you have no way to get to work to instill you with some caution about where and how you lock up your bike.
What are some common hazards?
You are now equipped with a thorough knowledge of the rules and regulations of biking in Minnesota, but there’s a certain level of street smarts that come with biking in the city for a long time.
Here’s a list of some common hazards bikers run into.
- Cars opening their doors into bike lanes: On-street parking is often on the right-hand side of bike lanes, meaning drivers must open their door into the bike lane to exit their vehicle. Prepare yourself for this possibility by keeping an eagle eye out for cars with their tail lights on, and making note of any cars that have recently pulled into a parking space.
- Cars pulling out into bike lane to make a turn: Just today I nearly hit a woman who pulled to a stop with almost 4 feet of her car in front of a stop sign. Pay close attention at intersections, especially ones with poor visibility, and be prepared to stop abruptly. Remember, a driver’s line of sight can be easily broken by trees or other cars. Don’t assume that they see you just because you see them.
- Cars making left turns at busy intersections not seeing you: Drivers can be easily distracted. It is all too easy for a driver to assume that a break in car traffic means a break in all traffic. It is also very easy for their line of sight to be broken by opposing traffic. I usually tackle this hazard by trying to make eye contact with the driver trying to make a left turn (to figure out whether or not they’re aware of my presence) and swearing profusely under my breath, while pedaling as hard as I can to get out of their way.
- Not being let in when trying to merge left: Holding your arm up to signal, looking over your shoulder for a gap in traffic, and biking slowly so that you can merge left before the turn you’re trying to make comes up is quite a feat of coordination. Combine that with the fact that most drivers don’t want to be stuck behind a biker, not even for 50 feet, and you’ve got yourself a sticky situation. The safest, easiest way to handle this situation is probably to hop onto the sidewalk and cross the street like a pedestrian
Lastly, remember it’s always better to suck it up when a driver makes an illegal maneuver. You might dent their car body, but they might dent your cervical vertebrae. One of those is much easier to fix. Take it slow, be aware of your surroundings, and have fun!
Have any pet peeves about how bikers, drivers, and pedestrians interact? Tell us in the comments!