As I was biking home from work today, I saw another biker almost get doored (hit by a car door opening) and on the next block, saw a driver almost hit another bike, seemingly oblivious to the entire world around them.
After having biked every day for many years now, summer and winter alike, on bike paths, roads, bigger roads, and roads that probably shouldn’t be biked on, I figure that I’m qualified to give some tips about city biking. If I’ve survived thus far, it must mean I’m doing something right… right? Let’s go with that. So here are some ways to not die while biking (especially in Montreal).
1. Make sure that a car can’t hit you, even if it tried. The basis of survival on a bike is not to trust anyone: cars, bikes, pedestrians (especially pedestrians). Just make sure that you don’t get in anyone’s way, and make sure that whatever they do, you can avoid them.
2. Keep a door length between you and parked cars. This is probably the toughest guideline to follow, so if you are squeezing between a lane and parked cars, go slowly and watch out for a few things:
- Check the direction of front wheels; if they’re straight, the car can’t pull out unexpectedly.
- Check the lights; if the lights were just turned off, the door is likely to open any second. If the lights are on, it’s anyone’s guess.
- Look at the side mirror; often you can see if someone is in the car by glancing at the mirror.
- Check the lane next to the parked car (that is, the lane you need to swerve into if they open the door); if it’s tight and there are cars passing, make sure you’re going slowly enough, otherwise you can swerve.
3. Stay on the left side of cars that are turning right. While this may be counter-intuitive to some, it’s extremely important because drivers never check their blind spots ever, and even if they did you shouldn’t trust them to see you (see point 1). By getting between the turning car and the other lane, you ensure that the car can’t hit you, no matter what.
I’m quite sure this one is not legal, but is way safer than what is recommended. This is a photoshopped image of the “right” thing to do… in fact the recommendation is “drivers should yield to bikers”, but we know that doesn’t happen much.
4. Be aware of your braking and accelerating abilities. If you’re going down a hill in the rain, be aware that your braking distance will be significantly less than on a flat road when it’s try. And when a light turns yellow, you need to know what gear you’re in and how hard you can push it to make it through before the light going the other way turns green. Usually when you screw this up it doesn’t lead to death, but it’s just generally a dick move.
5. Don’t bike on dangerous bike paths. For the Montrealers among us, you may already know to avoid the De Maisonneuve bike path. I’m not sure what insolent city planner thought up that one, but so far I know three people who have gotten hit while biking, all three were hit while on that bike path. For those of you that don’t know, essentially it’s a one-way street with a bike path as shown below.
The issue is that because it’s one-way (and even if it was two-way), drivers will sometimes check their blind spot behind them to see bikers coming their direction, but then forget to look at the other side. Honestly it’s safer to bike on Sherbrooke (a bigger street without bike paths).
6. Take a lane! Legally, in Quebec at least (and likely elsewhere in the world too), you should take a lane and should not squeeze between a lane and parked cars. Further, you should definitely not squeeze between two lanes of moving cars unless death is the kind of thing that appeals to you. If you’re in a sketchy situation, take a lane. Yes, people might get pissed off because you slow them down, so maybe consider another route next time… but take the lane this time to be safe.
7. Don’t take risks if you don’t know the lights. Ideally, you wouldn’t take risks at all, and you’d come to a full stop at stop signs, and you’d never go through a red light. But if you’ve been biking for more than 43 seconds, you’re bound to do these things. My suggestion then, be smart about it! If you don’t know the walk light timing or the synchronization of lights while going down a hill, don’t risk it. Play it safe until you know your way around your route.
8. Clearly show pedestrians and cars where you’re going. What I do to make sure that people know where I’m going is that I’ll often dip my shoulder and turn my head a bit to the side, tilting my body as if I was leaning on my bike but not actually doing it enough that the bike turns. Usually this clearly indicates where I’m going and they react accordingly. It’s like that awkward thing where you walk straight at someone and don’t know which way to go, so you sidestep awkwardly. Just… higher speed.
9. Bike in front of where a pedestrian will be when you cross their path. This is probably the most controversial and debatable guideline. In many cases, I don’t even do it, but I believe that it’s the right thing to do. All of bike-bike, bike-pedestrian and bike-car problems are basic kinematics problems. In the case of crossing paths with a pedestrian, I’m going to present a very counter-intuitive idea.
If a pedestrian is walking at a constant speed, and you’re biking at a constant speed, it should be easy enough to predict where they will be when you cross paths with them. Some bikers choose to go behind the pedestrian, so as not to scare them or make them feel cut off, but this presents a big problem. If the person gets worried, they’re going to freeze or slow down instinctively. If you’ve predicted where they won’t be, well then you might be running right into them.
People rarely (if ever) speed up when they feel like you might not know what you’re doing, so if you plan to be ahead of where they will be then you ensure that if they walk at the same speed, slow down, or even freeze up (some people really don’t understand how much control of our bikes we have!) then you’re guaranteed not to hit them.
10. Avoid leaves, gravel, and salt. Especially if any of this stuff is wet, it can really slow down your braking time or make you slip if you’re turning. Wet leaves can be even more dangerous too, because sometimes they can get caught in your brakes and make your brakes hugely ineffective. The salt part is less for braking and more for the health of your drive-train, but this is usually a winter biking problem and most people aren’t that crazy.
That’s all the knowledge I have to share right now, I hope it helped at least to make you more aware of the decisions you make while biking, and maybe helped to create some good habits as well. I think that people who are just starting to commute by bike as well as people who have been doing it for a while can benefit from a reminder once in a while. Also I really like biking and was inspired to write, so there you have it!