Surviving city cycling

No matter how long you've been riding a bike in Toronto, it's still a daily act of courage. Like it.


No matter how long you’ve been riding a bike in Toronto, it’s still a daily act of courage. Like it or not, our streets can be mean, no matter your mode.

But even though we’re steeped in car culture, the bike boom has taken root, and more of us than ever are enjoying the benefits of making our own self-propelled way from A to B in all kinds of weather, on all styles of bike.

It may not feel like it, but we are making slow, steady progress in the growth and improvement of our cycling infrastructure. While the meaningful integration of bikes into all aspects of city planning will take some time, we’ve got a pretty bikeable city to make use of. It’s how we use it that makes all the difference.

Here are 12 good habits (out of many more) that will help improve your ride and the experience of those with whom you’re sharing the road.

1. Respect the red

When you ride through a red light, you’re not just putting yourself and others at risk you’re breaking the social contract that keeps road chaos at bay. It can cost you $325. Unfortunately, it also reinforces the widely held belief that cyclists can’t be trusted. Lack of trust leads to fear and anger, neither of which is useful on city streets.

2. Ride predictably – and hold your ground

You’ve got a right to ride on the road – do so responsibly. Swerving in and out of the line of sight of fellow riders and drivers or making sudden moves makes you dangerous and unpredictable. At the same time, don’t be afraid to own your space: 1 metre from the curb or parked cars when possible. Otherwise, you’ll be ceding it to cars.

3. Embrace the light

We’re talking the lights on your bike. Use them – white up front, red at the back, both on flash mode. Seriously, you’re just not visible enough to those around you without lights, and the law requires them. Make it a habit to put them on when you unlock your bike, and to avoid theft take them off when you lock it back up. Always bring lights along for the ride if there’s any chance you’ll be out after dark.

4. Communicate your intentions clearly

Letting other road users know what you’re planning to do goes a long way toward reducing your risk of collisions and close calls. Your best tools for this are hand signals, eye contact, your bell (legally required), voice and body language. Be as clear as possible, and watch for the messages and cues others are giving you. A smile and a wave can work wonders, too.

5. Take the scenic route

Side streets are less stressful to ride. With fewer cars, the air is also cleaner, and you can stay cool by riding in the shade. But you’ll need to pay extra attention to driveways and intersections. Tip: look for the sometimes obscured three white dots in the roadway (vertical ellipsis). Ride over and stop on it to help trigger a light change.

6. Be kind to your bits

Your sit bones are where most of your weight should be supported on your bike seat. Check your seat height and angle. Adjust accordingly.

7. Stay focused and alert

If you’re attentive to what’s happening ahead and around you, you’ll be able to take evasive action and reduce risk. Always be sure to check over your shoulder, sometimes both of them, before entering the roadway and prior to making any moves. Mirrors are okay, but lots can get lost in the rear view.

8. Pass like a pro

It’s best to pass on the left of most right-turning motor vehicles. When passing fellow cyclists, do alert them before you pass, with your bell or by saying, “Passing on your left.” Either is way better than blowing by unexpectedly. Don’t ever pass other riders on the right.

9. Beware door prizes and the blind spots of large vehicles

Any of the doors of parked or stopped motor vehicles can swing open at any time, so watch for signs of life and stay out of the door zone. Trucks and buses have a wide turning radius and large blind spots. Do not engage this enemy! Stay well back to stay safe!

10. Mind the gap

Yes, those streetcar tracks are trying to bite you. Cross them at enough of an angle to keep your wheels from getting stuck in the gap, watch for cracks/holes in the surrounding concrete and be extra-cautious when the tracks are wet, because your wheels can slip out from under you on a turn. Same goes for all metal road surfaces like utility hole covers and metal plates covering construction sites.

11. Don’t be a jerk

Everyone loves almost getting nailed by someone flying by on a bike when they’re getting on/off the streetcar or crossing the street. Not! Don’t be that jerk. Yield to pedestrians, anticipate the next transit stop, slow down or stop until people have cleared the road, and proceed on your merry way once the doors of the streetcar have closed. Remember to watch out for stragglers. The few seconds you may gain by cutting the line just aren’t worth it.

12. Lock it or lose it

A good lock is worth the money and should always go through your frame and ideally both your wheels. When it comes to locking up, trees, gas pipes, accessibility ramps and flimsy wooden fences should all be avoided. Consider getting a rear wheel lock for extra protection.

Most importantly – enjoy the ride!

Yvonne Bambrick is the author of The Urban Cycling Survival Guide, now available online (ecwpress.com/urbancycling) or at your favourite bookseller. A launch party for the book takes place Thursday (April 9) at the Gladstone Hotel’s Melody Bar from 7 to 10 pm.

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