Five tips for cycling safely in traffic and overcoming fear

Tulane Public Relations, Flickr Creative Commons

WASHINGTON, January 23, 2014—One of the main reasons many do not take up cycling as a hobby or as a form of transportation is fear of riding with traffic. A survey by the Portland Bureau of Transportation, for example, shows that almost 60 percent of respondents were interested in cycling as transportation, but had personal safety concerns.

Fear of riding a bicycle in traffic is natural, but fortunately something that can be overcome with preparation and practice.

1. Have the right gear & know how to use it. Purchasing and knowing how to use the right kind of bicycle and gear is important in building confidence and feeling comfortable on the road. Having the right bike, helmet and reflective gear can make a huge difference.

Before spending thousands on a bicycle, consider whether you will be using it for commuting to work, riding trails for exercise on the weekends, running errands, or a combination. Try several styles of bicycle, get on and see how different bicycles feel, ride them around the parking lot of the bike shop, try a friend’s bike.

Beginners, especially those planning to ride in traffic, should always wear a helmet. Like bicycles, there are several different styles of helmet and it is important to try out several styles before deciding on a particular one. Make sure that your helmet is comfortable and looks good, that way you are more likely to wear it.

It is important to have a reflective device or piece of clothing, especially if riding in the dark. Make sure that you are as visible as possible to motorists, other riders, and pedestrians. Many riders find a mirror helpful when riding in traffic, and for beginners, being able to look behind you without having to turn around is helpful in being aware of your surroundings and riding safely.

Beginners can also build confidence by learning how to use and maintain their bike before getting on the road. Practice getting on and off your bike and changing gears. It is also important to learn how to pump air into your tires and learn to replace the chain at the very least.

Several bike shops offer training clinics on basic bike maintenance. Knowing your bike and how it works will help to boost confidence and reduce the fear of being stranded on the road without knowing what to do.

2. Build up your skills and confidence slowly. Beginners should begin riding in parking lots and on quiet streets close to home at light traffic hours. Bike trails can be helpful in learning to navigate obstacles like potholes, joggers, other bikers, dogs, etc. Once you have the confidence to clear those obstacles, you will have more confidence to face a road with cars.

“I became more confident from riding regular routes, primarily my work-home route,” says Allyson Criner Brown of Black Women Bike DC. “The first time was a bit scary but the more I got comfortable with the route, the more I learned how to anticipate drivers, what to expect, where drivers were most likely to do something that would threaten my safety, and certain ‘rules of the road.’”

Another important part of overcoming fear is to know you body and limitations. Long, difficult rides will discourage beginners, risk injury and reinforce fears. Confidence and endurance come with time and practice. Build both gradually and always listen to your body.

3.  Know the road and its rules. Beginners should start riding in their own neighborhoods where they are familiar with the streets, traffic patters and directions. When riding in a new place, look for local riding clubs, which usually have websites with information on bike routes, the best places to bike, etc.

Obeying all traffic laws when riding a bicycle is extremely important. Cyclists must avoid distractions and follow all street and road signs and signals. Cyclists should not wear headphones or listen to music when riding in traffic because it is important to hear cars, other riders, pedestrians, opening car doors, etc.

It is also important to learn cycling-specific rules of the road including hand signals. Talking to and riding with someone with more experience is very helpful in learning cycling-specific road rules.

4. Bike with others. Riding with more experienced cyclists is invaluable in overcoming fear and learning to ride in traffic. Friends who cycle are an excellent resource. Most people who cycle love it so much that they will be eager to give you tips and take you out for a ride.  

Joining a group is another way to overcome riding fears. Cycling groups of all kinds can be found online and on social media. Local bike shops may also offer or have information on beginner’s bike rides.

“As for other fears — riding with motorist traffic and going downhill — I found I was more comfortable with those things after doing RAGBRAI for the first time,” writes Molly, who took up riding again when she was 48.  “Riding with other cyclists and learning from them are my best means of overcoming my fears.”

5. Own the road. Even in cities with extensive bike lanes, riding in any city means riding in traffic some of the time. Owning the road can be one of the most intimidating things about riding in traffic but there are several reasons for taking the lane.

Taking the lane discourages motorists from passing in an unsafe manner and forces them to give the cyclist more space. Taking the lane also gives you room to maneuver when a car is passing you and something—say a car door suddenly opening—appears in your way. However, learning to take the lane can be difficult and intimidating.

Allyson Criner Brown puts it this way, “as a cyclist there are times when you have to ride like you’re invisible and assume that no one can see you, and there are other times when you have to just commandeer the road and make everyone else go around.” This comes with time and experience.


Laura Sesana is a writer and DC, MD attorney. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter @lasesana, and Google+.

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  • Mountjoy

    Your thoughts on motorcycling with a similar approach?