I would like to ride my bike without dying.
June 5, 2011 9:03 AM   Subscribe

Do you have any advice for someone new to urban cycling?

I have decided to buy a bicycle to use around my Toronto neighbourhood (the Junction, for Torontonians' reference). But I have never ridden a bike in an urban setting before. I grew up in a town of about 250 people, and while I rode a lot, including up and down a logging-truck laden highway, it's just not the same experience.

So, what do I need to know? What do I need to buy? (Besides a helmet, which I know.) References on how to signal, where to stop at intersections, etc, would be handy, as well as tips and tricks to staying safe in big city traffic.

I am planning to buy a Norco Plateau or something very similar from either
West Side Cycle or Bikes on Wheels. I'm pretty confident on the bike choice, since it was recommended by someone very knowledgeable about these things, but I'll take suggestions on different shops or bikes if someone thinks they've got a better idea (please keep in mind that I weigh more than 300lbs, so any bikes recommended will need to be fairly sturdy).
posted by jacquilynne to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (62 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
The folks at 1 World 2 Wheels have a lot of good info here.

Congratulations on taking the leap!
posted by dr. boludo at 9:10 AM on June 5, 2011

The rules of the road are the same for bike riders as they are for drivers. For instance STOP SIGNS AREN'T JUST FOR CARS.
posted by Max Power at 9:15 AM on June 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Similar question
posted by canoehead at 9:18 AM on June 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's always tempting to ride as closely to the side of the road as possible, but where there's street parking that's a very dangerous area for a cyclist called 'the door zone'. You know, the area that's suddenly filled with door the second someone decides to exit their vehicle into the street without checking for approaching traffic behind them...

Stay out of the door zone, and don't fret taking up a lane of traffic.
posted by carsonb at 9:21 AM on June 5, 2011 [5 favorites]

Riding on the sidewalk is much more dangerous than riding in the road.

No matter how you feel about Idaho (rolling) stops (you will at least see people doing them), always ALWAYS yield to pedestrians.

Never ever ride in a bike lane going the wrong way.
posted by supercres at 9:33 AM on June 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Don't get any funny ideas about listening to an iPod or using your cell phone - you need your ears.

Buy a lightweight rainproof nylon jacket with a hood - maybe one you can fold into a tiny pouch - and carry it with you. Also carry a bandana for cleaning yourself up if you get rained on or sweaty.

Get good at using those tiny air pumps and carry one; learn to use a patch kit.

Be aggressive but follow the rules of the road - ie, if you want to make a left turn, get over into the left turn lane. Don't run lights or stop signs unless there is absolutely zero traffic all around. Be careful if you're squeaking by on a yellow light - another cyclist knocked me off my bike doing that last week.

Don't be afraid to hop up on the sidewalk for a few blocks in a scary-traffic area, but walk your bike if there are pedestrians.

Drivers will get pissed off at you no matter what you do - I have had people yell and honk at me for stopping at a four-way stop and waiting my turn; at the same stop, I've also had people yell and honk at me for going on through when they were stopped. I've had drivers get pathologically insanely angry because I was in the bike lane at a corner and they felt they couldn't pull around me to make a right turn - literally screamy frothy angry. If you're a woman, you will also get harassed by drivers and pedestrians, whether it's about how they're attracted to you, how you look too much like a lesbian or how you're too fat/dressed wrong. Try not to let any of this bother you; biking is so worth it.

I personally just bike in comfortable pants and shirt, but I rarely do more than 15 miles at a stretch. Don't assume you need lots of gear - some folks are really only comfortable in wicking fabrics and so on, but some are fine without.
posted by Frowner at 9:35 AM on June 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

If you have an experienced friend, have them take you around on a couple city commutes. They can worry more about cars and pathfinding while you just worry about proper traffic movement.

For general knowledge of how to ride safely with lots of diagrams:
Ken Kifer Table of Contents
Ken Kifer - How to ride in traffic
Ken Kifer - Avoiding Bike Collisions

Also get a u-lock and learn how to lock your bike properly:
Youtube - How to lock your bike

Bright LED lights for dusk/dawn/night riding, don't rely on reflectors (reflectors don't work).

And lastly, how to mount and dismount a bike and adjust your seat height properly:
Sheldon Brown - How to start/stop
Sheldon Brown - How to adjust your saddle height (and also how to pick one)

It may seem minor and obvious (and you might know it already), but learning how to adjust the saddle made me feel like I could ride 50% further because the right muscles were being used. A saddle too low can make the rider swerve to the left and right a lot and also make them so miserable as to give up commuting forever. Good luck and ride safe. I've been doing it for years and have yet to take a fall on pavement.
posted by just.good.enough at 9:37 AM on June 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

A high-visibility vest is a good idea, in daylight as well as at night--hardly stylish, of course, but they make a real difference. Drivers will notice you much more when you're not right in front of them: for example, in their mirrors or by their windows as you cycle up behind and alongside a car that's stopped at a red light.

And yes, don't hug the kerb.

That other thread was very useful, and the most useful thing about it was this. But here's something I would add: cycling, even in cities, is safe. The real risk of accidents (as opposed to perceived risk, especially among people who only drive) is very low, and with a few precautions you can reduce it still further.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 9:39 AM on June 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

-Check out your local bike advocacy group, which appears to be the Toronto Cyclists Union. They publish maps and handbooks for people like you.

- As carsonb said, TAKE THE LANE. In addition to keeping you out of the extremely dangerous door zone, a cyclist in the middle of the lane is much more visible to the death monsters than a cyclist way off to the right. Check out what's legal in your area. Here in california, cyclists are allowed full use of the lane (as in, ride down the middle) whenever there's not enough space to ride 3 feet from parked cars and for a car to pass you safely while staying in the lane, which is almost always in an urban environment. Once you know what the local laws are, assert your rights. A car that's honking at you is seeing you, and is unlikely to hit you.

-Watch out for right hooks! If you're passing a line of slow-moving cars on the right, be sure that nobody is turning across your path. This is a major, major cause of accidents around here.

-If there is any tiny chance you will ever ride at night, get really good, bright, blinking lights. In our house, we use these. I also ride in a fluorescent windbreaker ALWAYS. this is not for everyone, and you'll look like a big dork, but it makes me safer and I like that.

- Get a good u-lock, and learn to use it properly. There is no sadness like coming out of hte movies to find a shattered lock where your bike used to be.

-Get a rack and some waterproof panniers. Carrying things low to the ground is much, MUCH more comfortable than any backpack or messenger bag, both in terms of balance and sweatiness.

Have fun!!
posted by juliapangolin at 9:41 AM on June 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh yeah--and I can't believe I was into my twenties before I learned that using all the gears is a good idea, and well into my twenties before I got into the habit of dropping down to a low gear as I pulled up at red lights. (Makes it easier to start again, see?)
posted by lapsangsouchong at 9:42 AM on June 5, 2011

Ride defensively. Take the entire lane as much as possible, and when it's not possible ride as far into the lane as you can without totally holding up traffic (make it so they can't ignore you). Do not pass cars on the right when you come to a red light. Do not listen to music. When you come to a line of cars split the lane and go to the front if possible (this is legal where I live, not sure about other places). It's very uncommon to be hit from behind while riding a bike - the safest place to be is in front of the cars where they can see you. Watch out for doors, people turning, and STAY OFF THE SIDEWALK. If you ride on the sidewalk you will get hit by a turning car and it will not be pretty.

The rules of the road are the same for bike riders as they are for drivers. For instance STOP SIGNS AREN'T JUST FOR CARS.

The rules of the road are not written with cyclists safety in mind, they are written for several ton death machines driven by people talking on cell phones in hermetically sealed glass cages. Follow the rules as much as possible and act in predictable way, but always always do whatever will keep you safe. Since the safest place to be is in front of car traffic I treat stop signs as yields and red lights as stop signs when it is safe to do so. I don't care if this is illegal or make cyclists look bad or whatever excuse people use, the laws aren't written for cyclists and I don't want to die.

Realize that some car drivers are going to get pissed off at you for being on their roads no matter what you do. Smile at them as they floor it to the next red light.
posted by bradbane at 9:45 AM on June 5, 2011 [8 favorites]

You might want to look into one of these urban cycling skills courses from CAN-BIKE.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 9:48 AM on June 5, 2011

you will find practical and respectful answers to most questions pertaining to large people riding bikes at the bikeforums clydesdale subforum.

MEC is an excellent place to buy a bike, they will help you every step of the way, you get a year of free service, and have a satisfaction guarantee. they can also help you find a local bicycle skills course, and a friendly bike ride group.

budget for a brooks saddle and high end schwalbe tires (virtually flat proof).

know that bike thieves can defeat virtually all locks in a matter of minutes or less, and they can do it in broad daylight. it happens many times every day. plan accordingly.
posted by paradroid at 9:50 AM on June 5, 2011

I think the thing I've learned that has made me most comfortable riding in the city is to ride with confidence. (Some people call this being aggressive, but i feel that's a loaded term and the same words used to describe overly risk-taking cyclists so I call it confidence instead.) If I'm riding in a bike lane or to the right and there's a UPS truck in my way, I glance to the left/behind me to make sure I have room, and stick out my left arm and take the lane to get around it. I even hold my hand open flat, palm back to tell any cars behind me, "I am coming out into the lane, now is not the time to try to pass me." it seems to work. (As a cyclist and as someone that also drives a car, I hate a timid cyclist because they're so squirrelly and unpredictable.)

I feel like dooring is my biggest single risk. Pay attention to parked cars. Do they have their lights on, or wheels turned, or can you see someone in the drivers seat? Give them lots of room.

Avoid riding the wrong way on a one way street; no one is expecting traffic coming from the wrong direction.

If you're behind another cyclist and are generally slower than them, please do not roll past and stop in front of them at a light. This just forces them to have to pass you in traffic, which is not cool. This happens to me all the time and drives me crazy.

I do roll through four-way stops when it is safe to do so, but i go very slowly and always stop if there is any doubt. I agree with Frowner that cars will be mad at you no matter which you choose. Use hand gestures to communicate with cars (heh, no I don't mean flip them off), like waving a car on that is waiting for you or waving thank you to courteous drivers.

With experience you will learn that cars have body language. That car that is angled slightly to the right but doesn't have a signal on? Probably turning. That car that comes barreling up to a four way stop at top speed? Not likely to let you go first even if it's your turn. Use your senses, you'll hear that car behind you gunning their engine and it may be better to pull to the side and wave them past.
posted by misskaz at 9:54 AM on June 5, 2011 [5 favorites]

Ride predictably. Always. Your instinct will be to ride as far to the right as possible in a traffic lane, and that's a good instinct, but on a street where there are widely spaced parked cars do not swerve to the right when there's open curb and then come back out again when there's a parked car. Pick a line and stick with it.

When stopped at an intersection, always stop in front of cars - if it's not possible to be directly in front of the car, pull your bike out far enough that the driver can see your entire bike as you both sit there (your back wheel should be level with or in front of the car's front bumper).

As others have said, absolutely NEVER cycle in the city with headphones on or while on the phone. You're a danger to yourself and others when doing that.

I'm a big guy too, and the most valuable advice I can give you on that point is do not ride at speed over driveway lips and big pavement cracks. If you see one coming, slow down a tad, lift your butt off your seat a bit (most of your weight should be on your hands and your feet), and don't pedal when you ride over them. It takes a bit of learning but it's much easier to do that than to re-true your wheel every time you hit an obstruction.
posted by pdb at 9:55 AM on June 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Try to bike on roads where cars are traveling at around 50 km/h or lower - this will help you merge into traffic if you need to make a left across an intersection.

Don't cycle at the extreme edge of the lane. Instead, leave yourself so room in case a car passes by too close.

At stop lights, don't pass all the stopped cars to get to the intersection. For one thing, these cars will have to pass you again following the intersection.

Instead, stop as though you were a car, behind the final car at the red light. Take up the full lane. When the light turns, this will give you plenty of space to gain speed, and it also helps assert your space in traffic. Of course, move to the right side of the lane as soon as you can.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:59 AM on June 5, 2011

Get a bell, use it often, esp when you are overtaking someone in a car who is acting a little confused or taxis whose passengers might open the door into you.

Always wear a helmet. I work with someone who was out for 3 months due to solo bike crash due to knocking her head hard against the ground, Dr says helmet would have given her a headache instead of a brain bleed.

Ride out of the "door zone"

Don't weave in an out, take your lane and be predictable

Read about urban biking (or take a class), lots of great resources at the SF Bike Collation web site
posted by bottlebrushtree at 10:03 AM on June 5, 2011

I'm a toronto urban cyclist! (And i bought my norco bike at Bikes On Wheels!) My tips are:
- Don't wear headphones - pay attention to what's going on around you
- Try to cycle in bike lanes and on side streets (especially as you're getting comfortable, but after too)
- Don't be afraid to turn at major intersections as if you are a pedestriasn - walking (or slowly riding) your bike across cross walks may take longer than mastering a proper left hand turn, but do what's comfortable
- Don't ride on the sidewalk! Its harder for you, and dangerous for pedestrians.
- When you're on a bike on a city street, you are equivalent to a small slow car - follow the rules you would under those circumstances

Also: use this map of bike lanes and sharrows to plan your route.
posted by Kololo at 10:04 AM on June 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

While there's lots of good advice here, nothing beats in-person instruction.

If you feel you want some pointers, I'd reccomend looking at a CAN-BIKE course, offered by the city. It usually takes a weekend to do. These course are well-regarded, aiming to be like the Red Cross swimming courses but for bikes.

The CAN-BIKE 1 level looks like exactly what you want.
posted by bonehead at 10:05 AM on June 5, 2011

I think it pays to go out driving with a friend and spend some time watching how traffic interacts. Watch other drivers, both going in the same direction as you and others, and try to guess what they are going to do. Do the same with cyclists, too. It's instructive to see life from a driver's perspective. Once you've done that, ride defensively and proactively.

As others have said, keep your eyes and ears open. Ride confidently. If possible, ride at speed: it makes it a damn site easier to own lanes, or move across lanes confidently. It ust makes drivers think of you a little less like a pain in the ass and more like a valid road user.

Finally, if you can't do it already, learn to do life savers (the glance over your shoulder to make sure it's ok to pull left or right) and learn to ride comfortably while signalling and looking back.

Finally, finally,do not ride on the inside of any large vehicles, but especially trucks. Do not overtake anyone turning left. If you want the quickest ways to do yourself a great disservice, these are them.
posted by MuffinMan at 10:14 AM on June 5, 2011

A lot of great advice above - just thought I'd add this link that my bike fanatic father sent me when I started biking in a bigger city. It gives a bunch of general tips on bicycle safety, and it also goes through the most common reasons for collisions with cars and how to avoid them. I found it quite comprehensive and helpful.
posted by mossicle at 10:16 AM on June 5, 2011

Don't forget about the scenic delights of biking, such as riding through parks and back-streeting in neighborhoods with beautiful gardens. Bring a camera on those excursions. Enjoy.

My cautionary note: watch out for wheel-capturing driveway lips, separated sections of pavement and the like. I saved myself a lot of spills and flat tires over the years by watching the road.
posted by Anitanola at 10:18 AM on June 5, 2011

At stop lights, don't pass all the stopped cars to get to the intersection. For one thing, these cars will have to pass you again following the intersection.

Instead, stop as though you were a car, behind the final car at the red light. Take up the full lane. When the light turns, this will give you plenty of space to gain speed, and it also helps assert your space in traffic.

If they have to pass you again that's a feature not a bug, if you're in front of them it means they see you.

Most urban lights are very short. You will not be able to get up to speed enough from the back of the line to safely make it through the intersection (especially when making a left turn), and the people behind you will get very pissed (and likely try to pass you unsafely) because they can see everyone else taking off and YOU are in "THEIR LANE". Split the lane, go to the front, continue on your way when the light changes, and the rest of traffic will flow around you like normal and no one gets held up. Some places (ie. California) this is explicitly legal for cyclists/motorcyclists.

I have found that when there is a line of cars, the other cars will treat you however the first car in the line does. If you are all the way over to the right and the first car in a line blows past you too close, the rest will follow. If you ride far enough into the lane so that the first car has to adjust and go around you safely, the rest will follow their lead. This is why you should split the lane and go to the front of the line at red lights.
posted by bradbane at 10:19 AM on June 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

carsonb writes "don't fret taking up a lane of traffic."

This made the biggest difference when I first started urban biking. Just taking the lane instead of letting cars perform squeeze jobs made me feel a lot safer. Motorists are going to get pissed but it's impossible to make them happy anyways so you have to learn to let there crazy making run off you like water on a duck.

pdb writes "When stopped at an intersection, always stop in front of cars - if it's not possible to be directly in front of the car, pull your bike out far enough that the driver can see your entire bike as you both sit there (your back wheel should be level with or in front of the car's front bumper)."

Watch out though for large conventional cab trucks. If they pull right up behind you at a light they often can't see you over their hood. And then when the light turns green they can forget you are there and end up running over you. I always move out of the run over zone when this happens.
posted by Mitheral at 10:23 AM on June 5, 2011

I said this in a different askme about this issue, but it bears repeating: please, please use good strong lights on the front as well as the back of your bike. I'm a car driver; at dusk, when other drivers are turning on their headlights, cyclists coming up from behind me get made invisible from the wash of headlights coming from cars. I really don't want to hit you if I'm making a right turn! But if I can't see you, even though I've looked, I might. Even if you never plan to ride except in broad daylight, things happen - your bike breaks and it takes longer to fix than you thought, you run into friends and hang out longer than you planned, etc. The most visible cyclists to me seem to mostly use both a strobe-type lamp and a strong steady one on the front of the bike.
posted by rtha at 10:30 AM on June 5, 2011

There is no shame in jumping off your bike and walking up a hill (on the sidewalk).

And if it should happen that you are the bicycle in a pickup-vs.-bicycle hit-and-run that occurs RIGHT IN FRONT OF THE ER ENTRANCE, it is a better idea into go to the ER, as the three friendly nurses who peeled you off the sidewalk suggest, than to walk the rest of the way to your destination dragging your bicycle and then call your spouse and say, "I think you need to come get me and take me to the doctor, I think I broke something." Because you will be suffering not only from a broken collarbone but your spouse's endless "WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?"s for the next six weeks. (Look, if you crash in front of the ER, that's a sign you need to go into the ER.)

But the real moral of the above story is, wear the helmet. Every time. Because this would be a very, very different story had my husband not been wearing his helmet. As it was, ugly painful road rash, huge bruises all up one side of his body, sprained knee, and a broken collarbone ... and a terrifying dent in his helmet that I am very thankful was not a dent in his skull.

Also, for urban cycling, you may prefer to wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts -- you can get them very lightweight -- in case of road rash or minor projectiles thrown up by car tires or whatever.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:30 AM on June 5, 2011

They peeled him off the sidewalk because in trying to avoid the pickup, whose driver didn't look before pulling out, he ended up on the sidewalk. He had been on the road.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:32 AM on June 5, 2011

Make eye contact with drivers that are near you at stop lights and stop signs.
Small changes in route can make big differences in safety, comfort and beauty.
Never gesture angrily at the drivers in the iron murder machines.
posted by the Real Dan at 10:34 AM on June 5, 2011

My husband, who has a cycle commute of 40 miles (round trip) through the suburbs and downtown Seattle, says "Taking the lane is more important than anything else. If cars are annoyed by you, it means they know you're there. In urban traffic, you can typically ride at the average speed of the traffic anyway. The guy who says to treat stop signs as yields and red lights as stop signs if it's safe is dead on, particularly if it's hilly. Wear your visibility gear, including bright, strong lamps, and if people still don't see you, duct-tape an air horn to the handlebars."

Oh, and get fenders for your bike. They'll deflect a lot -- well, some -- of the gunk on the road so it doesn't end up on your pants.
posted by KathrynT at 10:34 AM on June 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I second the in-person instruction comment! It was soooo helpful for me and I still remember what they taught now, 5 years later. Take CAN-BIKE if you don't have an experienced commuter friend... or take it even if you do.
posted by bread-eater at 10:35 AM on June 5, 2011

1. I'll second just.good.enough's recommendations above for Ken Kifer's and Sheldon Brown's websites.

2. And I'll add John S. Allen's Bicycling Street Smarts, which has invaluable advice for anyone riding in traffic. The basics: Ride predictably, signal your intentions, and be aware of your surroundings. But John gives you lots of specific advice on how to deal with complicated intersections, etc. He deserves a lot of credit for making the booklet available free online.

3. I think bradbane (above) is wrong about wanting to stay in front of traffic. You can't guarantee that a car driver will see you just because you're in front of him or her. (Google "gorilla effect"; drivers often do not expect to see cyclists, so they don't.) You do want to know where you are vis-a-vis other vehicles and pedestrians. I think a rear view mirror is highly desirable, if not essential. If you wear glasses, a glasses-mount mirror is easy to use once you get the hang of it, and because it moves with your head, it's easy to scan the entire area behind you. But unless you are very experienced, don't use your mirror to judge the speed of overtaking vehicles; turn your head.

4. Keep in mind that cycling is a relatively safe activity. In Canada, an ongoing UBC study has determined that it's not as safe per vehicle mile as driving, but it is getting safer. You can dramatically reduce your risk of getting seriously injured on your bike by studying the most common risk factors and avoiding them. John Allen's pamphlet/website, which I mention above, provides a good guide.

5. Have fun!
posted by brianogilvie at 10:38 AM on June 5, 2011

I live in Minneapolis and I've ended up moving the vast majority of my biking onto our various greenways and onto streets that have been redesigned with big, clearly-marked bike lanes (I know there's some debate about bike lanes, but these streets are lightly-trafficked most of the time and the lanes do seem to help, unlike the awful lanes on super-busy streets). I used to be really hard-core about biking on regular streets, which I still do sometimes, but biking on bike paths has substantially cut my stress levels. Reading these threads here, I realize that I hardly ever worry about the things that most commenters are describing because I am fortunate enough to avoid cars most of the time. If you have access to bike routes, chains of parks or specially-zoned areas, incorporate them into your riding as much as possible.
posted by Frowner at 11:12 AM on June 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

You've gotten a lot of great advice in this thread and I only have a few things to add as a commuter cyclist,

Remember that drivers are REALLY FUCKING TERRIBLE at judging the speed of cyclists, they will only ever get your speed correct by accident. How bad they are is very counter-intuitive, but once you understand it a lot of dangerous behavior by drivers will make a lot more sense and you'll be able to predict and avoid it.

Be in constant communication with the drivers around you, make sure they see you and make sure they know what you will do next. This means making eye contact as often as you can (though don't trust it), making clear hand signals, using clear body language, and interpreting the body language of the cars around you correctly. Taking ballroom dance classes made me a much safer and more considerate biker, learning how to lead with strong but seemingly subtle movements and follow the movements of others.

Don't ever confront a driver, they have a massive deadly weapon and you don't. In any kind of confrontation get away, get the license plate if you can, but get on the sidewalk and away from them.

Stay hydrated, both in the winter and summer, dehydration and heat sickness sneak up on you and you lose judgement and reaction time much faster than your direct awareness of it. There is no shame in getting of and walking for a while if you are worried. Actually, just in general, there is absolutely no shame in getting of and walking for a while if you are worried about anything, trust your gut.
posted by Blasdelb at 11:16 AM on June 5, 2011

I think bradbane (above) is wrong about wanting to stay in front of traffic. You can't guarantee that a car driver will see you just because you're in front of him or her.

Google any study on bicycle crash statistics - getting hit from behind is the least likely way for an accident to occur by far. In most places, it's less than 10% of all bike related accidents. Almost all bike accidents are related to the car not being able to see you (when making a turn, entering/exiting a break in the curb, etc.). It's not a guarantee that they will see you, but it's more likely than if you're behind them or anywhere else.

I haven't owned a car in a very long time and ride 200+ miles a week (mostly in urban traffic) and the only time I've been hit was a very minor fender bender when a guy rolled a stopped sign at a 4-way intersection when I was already halfway through it (he said the sun was in his eyes and bought me a new front wheel).
posted by bradbane at 11:48 AM on June 5, 2011

Toronto police do ticket you if you don't stop on a red. In the month I've been bixiing, I've seen two concerted police cycling enforcement runs on St George/Beverley alone. They were ticketing people who ran stop signs, then giving further tickets if brakes or bells were missing.

If you want to read something about cycling as a mode of transport, the North American edition of Cyclecraft is entirely excellent and devoid of rantiness.
posted by scruss at 12:01 PM on June 5, 2011

Hey, neighbour! If you need a riding buddy, you know where to find me. I can help you scout out useful routes to downtown and other destinations, too.

Some Toronto and Junction specific advice:

1) Bike learning:

I never took a CAN-BIKE course, and I learned by fits and starts, but I think any urban cycling newbie would really benefit from them. They offer various levels, but this CAN-BIKE 1 course or the Commuter Skills course are probably best suited to you. The latter is a one day course, too.

2) Bike maintenance:

South of you, at Bloor and Lansdowne, is Bike Pirates, a bike co-operative (with a temporarily screwed up website: you have to right click on frame contents to open them in a new tab or window). They have bike stands, lots of tools and cheap parts in a friendly space, and even have women only hours from 12-6 on Sundays. Bring your own parts if you have them and pay what you think is fair for the time and use of space and tools.

North of you is my garage with a bike stand, a limited set of tools, and someone who is still fairly new to bike maintenance, but I can show you how to fix flats, change tires, lube and change chains, etc.

3) Routes and general riding skills:

TAKE THE ENTIRE LANE WHEN GOING THROUGH AN UNDERPASS. This includes Keele north of Dundas (horrible pavement conditions) and St. Clair east of Keele (only one lane for bikes, trucks and cars, with streetcar tracks taking up the other lane). I never left myself share a curb lane with any vehicle going through an underpass, and I've learned how to take the lane completely and early to make this work. Once out of the underpass, I scoot back to my usual 2-4 feet from the curb. If you prefer to take the sidewalk through St. Clair at this point, do it. You can slowly scoot by pedestrians if they are around or even walk your bike for that stretch.

The Ministry of Transportation cycling site is pretty useful. If your alignment is Lawful Good, it can reassure you to know, for example, that they recommend that you ride about a meter out form the curb, taking the lane when you need it. These aren't just survivalist cyclist moves: they're permitted by law and encouraged by the province.

4) Bike purchase:

I have bitched repeatedly about my comfort hybrid not being at all comfortable, but I also know that a lot of people swear by them. The bike you linked looks gorgeous, and if it really feels comfortable, go for it. If you can take it out for more than 5 minutes, try some hills, and try riding against the wind. If you haven't cycled for a while, any riding will take some effort, but compare bikes and see if there's one that feels most comfortable and the most like an extension of your body from the start.
posted by maudlin at 12:04 PM on June 5, 2011

brianogilvie: I think bradbane (above) is wrong about wanting to stay in front of traffic. You can't guarantee that a car driver will see you just because you're in front of him or her.

bradbane: Google any study on bicycle crash statistics - getting hit from behind is the least likely way for an accident to occur by far. In most places, it's less than 10% of all bike related accidents.

Yeah, but what's that 10% relative to? -- A: the amount of people with the nerves of steel required to ride in front of traffic, which surely accounts for far less than 10% of cyclists. I'll take being doored or side-swiped over being run over from behind (a.k.a. skull-crushing imminent death) any day.

Frowner: Drivers will get pissed off at you no matter what you do

This a million times over. I have a theory that the same people that bitch at you for riding on the sidewalk or rolling through stop signs are the exact same people that bitch at you for riding in their lane and wasting their valuable seconds.

This theory is yet to be disproven.
posted by matlock expressway at 12:37 PM on June 5, 2011

[Anecdatum: I often ride directly behind a city bus during rush hour, keeping pace as it makes its stops. I get honked at all the time, however, because I am unable to pass through five tons of steel and apparently this makes people very angry.]
posted by matlock expressway at 12:45 PM on June 5, 2011

Dasein: Signalling is not difficult - always use your left arm, straight out to turn left, in an L shape to turn right.

I also recommend signalling -- it allows drivers to better predict your movements and respond appropriately -- though I prefer the straight right arm to signal a right turn: too many people don't know these signals, and it seems (to me) more intuitive to point in the direction you're turning.
posted by matlock expressway at 1:04 PM on June 5, 2011

Great advice here. One thing that I will add that is kind of in line with what people are saying above with the getting in front of traffic, etc., is to never, NEVER assume that people in cars see you; a lot of the time, particularly in areas where people are cycling less, they are not looking for you, so any amount of lights, reflective tape will not make them see you. Make eye contact and watch for their sign that they see you.

With your lights, one that has some kind of fancy flashing pattern is better than a solid one because it draws attention to itself.

And finally, while you're worrying about cars, make sure to be considerate of other cyclists too and that signalling, courtesy and everything is nice to do for them too. Signal even on bike/shared paths. Never do things that are going to endanger other cyclists and NEVER roll up next to or in front of another person on a bike when they are stopped at a light; if you are truly faster than them, you can pass them in the next stretch (that is pretty much my biggest peeve and is - in my experience - mostly done by dudes on bikes to girls on bikes because those guys' sexual organs make them faster or something... grr...)
posted by urbanlenny at 1:13 PM on June 5, 2011

Know your local traffic laws and how they apply to bicyclists, because most motorists and policemen will not. Many jurisdictions govern bicyclists by tacking a short rider onto their automobile laws, something to the effect of "and all this applies to bicyclists, except when it wouldn't make sense." The second part actually makes a big difference, and often in ways that neither motorists nor the police understand. See, for example, this PDF decision from the U.S. where a court found that bicyclists could not be charged with obstructing traffic because they refused to allow a car to pass them. There's a blog post somewhere, which I cannot find, which quotes the policeman saying afterward that he had made the arrest because he misunderstood the relevant law, and then explaining the law in a way that was still incorrect.

That said, also keep in mind that it's generally a bad idea to hew strictly to the letter of the law, both in terms of practical police response and courtesy. As the U.S. judge pointed out, while the bicyclist was not technically in violation of law by refusing to let the car overtake him, he was still behaving in an impolite, inconsiderate and dangerous way. And, as a practical matter, the policeman still tasered him. So if you're not interested in martyring yourself to prove a point about bicyclists' rights, it's often a good idea to not to challenge the people with momentum and guns.
posted by d. z. wang at 2:37 PM on June 5, 2011

Yeah, but what's that 10% relative to? -- A: the amount of people with the nerves of steel required to ride in front of traffic, which surely accounts for far less than 10% of cyclists. I'll take being doored or side-swiped over being run over from behind (a.k.a. skull-crushing imminent death) any day.

Just to be clear, I'm not saying get in front of traffic so you can ride in front of them while they're sitting behind you. I'm saying you should treat a red light like a stop sign (if it's safe to do so) because when the cars get the green light everyone will see you and pass accordingly.
posted by bradbane at 3:05 PM on June 5, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for all the advice, folks, and the links to other places with more advice. I'm a little nervous about the whole prospect of riding in the city, so it helps to get a sense of what to do.

I suppose I should have expected some of the GRARDRIVERS thing, but I should probably point out that I am a driver, and plan to continue to be a driver. I'm just getting a bike for short hops around my neighbourhood and I have no plans to give up my multi-ton cage of death, destruction and despair any time soon.

I wish some of the CAN-BIKE clinics were closer to me. It seems strange that they have all these clinics for cyclists way outside the neighborhoods where I routinely see cyclists. I will perhaps try to register for the August one anyway, assuming my bike fits in my car, because otherwise, I could never get to it.
posted by jacquilynne at 3:17 PM on June 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Biking in Toronto can be awesome (the Don Valley trail is brilliant once you're feeling bike fit). Great advice already (good lights and ideally backups of same carried in your bike bag). Loads of people bike in Toronto, so learn to be courteous about telling other cyclists what you're doing (Say "On your left" or something when you're passing someone, for example, so they don't turn or swerve in front of you). And assume that even in a city as bike-friendly as Toronto that drivers will be idiots (I had someone who MADE EYE CONTACT WITH ME as he passed me in his car while I rode in the bike lane proceed to turn directly in front of me...which leads to my next point). Learn how to make an emergency stop and practice it enough that you can do it in an actual emergency. In the summer, take at least two bottles of water with you everywhere. Learn how to change a tire. Lots of bike shops offer biking and bike maintenance classes, it's well worth your while to take one.
posted by biscotti at 3:30 PM on June 5, 2011

I'm in New York and not Toronto, but one bit of advice/reassurance I'll add is that you shouldn't worry about the cars too much. As long as you're following the traffic laws (specifically, as long as you're acting like a vehicle and not a pedestrian) and riding in a predictable manner, drivers in the typical dense urban landscape* will know how to work around you.

The vast majority of drivers who get bent out of shape, honk, verbally abuse, or act like you are IMPEDING THEIR ABILITY TO DRIVE are just doing it because they're bitter, not because you're actually in the way.

*This doesn't go so much for cities that are sprawly and car-dominant, where traffic moves faster than 20-30 mph.
posted by Sara C. at 3:59 PM on June 5, 2011

Do not pass cars on the right when you come to a red light.

Caveat - you must pass cars on the right when you come to a red light and there's traffic backed up at an intersection. It's much safer for you to be in front of the traffic, pushing off as soon as the light changes, than in the middle of a bunch of cars trying to jockey for position. This also makes "right hooks" impossible unless the car behind you at the light is being driven by a homicidal maniac.
posted by Sara C. at 4:05 PM on June 5, 2011

It's helpful to search out good routes beforehand, using either the bike map or Google. In Toronto, especially outside the core, you need to find ways to get around the rail lines, highways and the ravines without getting stuck on the arterials. Most of the time I'll choose the scenic route if it keeps me away from cars. I have dependable residential neighbourhood/bike lane/ravine path routes that I use all the time. From the Junction you should be able to use the Humber and the Railpath to get places without dealing with traffic. I enjoy riding downtown, don't find it difficult or frightening at all, mostly because the traffic is moving slower and they know they need to be aware of bikes and pedestrians. It's biking down Eglinton past the DVP that scares me (tried it for the first time a couple weeks ago, but did it late at night when there wasn't much traffic).
posted by TimTypeZed at 4:12 PM on June 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Do not pass cars on the right when you come to a red light.
At stop lights, don't pass all the stopped cars to get to the intersection.
you must pass cars on the right when you come to a red light and there's traffic backed up at an intersection
Split the lane, go to the front, continue on your way when the light changes, and the rest of traffic will flow around you like normal and no one gets held up.
You may have noticed some contradictory advice there . . . here is my take on it.

Where I bicycle, I always treat traffic lights the same way I would if driving (or, say, motorcycling) here: I line take the full lane and line up behind traffic, wait my turn, and never 'filter up' along the right side of stopped cars to get to the front.

I ride some thousands of miles every year, I follow this procedure consistently, and it always works beautifully. I never have any of the problems some have described above, and I never could figure out why so many other people recommend filtering up to the front of the line at red lights.

Then I went cycling in some other places--notably urban core situations, like Washington, DC, or San Francisco--and soon enough I was filtering up alongside the long lines of stopped cars just like all the local cyclists were. Because it was just plain stupid to be waiting there taking up the whole lane for three or four cycles as cars slowly, slowly made their way through this crazy congested intersection, when there was a perfectly good space available to just continue up ahead and get on through. Waiting behind wasn't helping me or anybody else.

In short, there are some good, basic principles to follow (outlined nicely here). But how you apply them can depend quite a bit on the exact local situation.

A lot of the 'contradiction' in statements like those above are just people assuming wildly different underlying situations. For instance, I would give as a general rule 'always take the lane' (and I do that myself probably 90% of the miles I ride) but on the other hand I generally would never take the lane on rural highway with a wide, fairly clean shoulder and relatively fast traffic.

So one person says "Always take the lane" because that rule applies to 99.9% of the miles they ride and another person (often a non-cyclist), thinking of the one situation where you generally don't apply that rule of thumb thinks "That's insane!"
posted by flug at 6:16 PM on June 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

assuming my bike fits in my car

It probably will, but there are a couple of tricks. When you buy the bike, get someone to show you how to remove the front wheel. The bike then goes into your trunk front first, with the handlebars turned so that the bar is flat with the bike. There's usually enough room to get a single bike into the trunks of most cars, with the front wheel off and the seats as folded.
posted by bonehead at 6:33 PM on June 5, 2011

Response by poster: The sidling up on the right thing drives me batshit insane as a driver, so I'm not sure about actually doing it as a cyclist.

I hate it when I'm sitting at a red light signalling a right turn and a cyclist comes up beside me and sits in my path. Right turns on red are allowed here, and I was in front of him, so why does he get to steal my chance to turn right? I also hate it when I have to pass and repass the same cyclist red light after red light as they slip by at the light and then I catch up to them in the next block.

If it's really super safer, I guess I'd do it, and try to hate the cyclists who do it to me less, but there doesn't seem to be a consensus here.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:07 PM on June 5, 2011

Two things:

1. Since you are buying a new bike, you'll need to be extra diligent about locking it up. Lock up with two different kinds of locks, and try not to leave it out on the street overnight (if this is an option for you).

2. It is the law in Toronto to have a) a front light b) a red back light and c) a bell (or some other noise-making device).

Also, learn to use your bell to warn other cyclists or people in cars that you are coming up (it's kept me from being doored more than once). And if you are going to pass a slower cyclist in front of you (and the time will probably come when that happens), a shouted "On your left" is appreciated. Get used to hearing that from other cyclists and know that it means someone is passing you.
posted by Felicity Rilke at 7:10 PM on June 5, 2011

http://ridethecity.com/ gives bike routes for Toronto where you can choose how "safe" you want the route to be and identifies when it's a trail, a bike lane, or you're sharing space with cars. It's also got local bike shop markers for when you puncture a tire and realize you don't have anything to fix it...
posted by cathoo at 7:11 PM on June 5, 2011

About streetcar tracks: Cross at right angles, or close to, whenever possible. Merging over them nearly parallel is a good way to end up flat on the ground when your tire sticks in the tracks.

This often sucks when turning left, which is where the indirect left turn comes in. (That whole blog is a good Toronto bike blog, by the way.)

Also consider supporting the Bike Union once you're feeling committed to cycling. They do good.

(Also: Yay Junction mefite! Nyxie and I just bought a house on Maria, moving in a couple weeks.)
posted by mendel at 7:34 PM on June 5, 2011

Toronto Cyclist here. Just to add, to all the very good advice here, some encouragement: Getting around Toronto by bike is fun and great and on the whole pretty safe. My own experience of learning to bike in traffic here was that it was really scary at first, but I got the hang of it pretty quick. Now I can't imagine living here without being a regular cyclist. So, much as all the zillions of tips here are good, it's also good to remember it's not rocket science, and a just a very little experience will go a very long way toward building confidence and skill.

Have fun!!
posted by ManInSuit at 9:04 PM on June 5, 2011

Just one thing to add: blinking lights (front and back) help your visibility even in the daytime. I use them whenever I'm riding in heavy traffic.
posted by mmoncur at 10:23 PM on June 5, 2011

Re lights: two reasonably new and not very common lights out there that will help you get seen:

Fibre Flare: these are really good. I recommend them highly. They are supposed to go on your bike, which is fine if it is securely stored at both ends of your journey. Otherwise affix one on your backpack (which is what I do, and most people I've seen with them do, which has the added benefit of a bright red light at driver eye height.

Cateye Orbit: These fix on your wheel. I have them too, but in honesty use them less as they are a bit of a faff to turn on and I am lit up like Christmas tree already. They do mean you can be seen much more easily by drivers on side roads.
posted by MuffinMan at 12:19 AM on June 6, 2011

Jacquilynne - a lot of your perceptions of what cyclists do will change once you become a cyclist yourself. You'll start to understand why we do (most of) what we do. You'll also start to see the concept of urban road space differently, for example just because a car is allowed to make a right on red doesn't mean that drivers are entitled to do so and any bicycle in their way is being a dick.

Re "consensus", you should watch what cyclists in your area are doing and generally* do what they do. If all the cyclists you've ever seen come to the front of traffic at intersections, you should do that. If it's more typical to act more car-like and wait amid the cars, then do that. Most cyclists in any given city do what's safest for cyclists to do in that particular urban landscape, and in addition to that, doing what the rest of the cyclists do helps you to be predictable, which is probably the most important thing you can do to help out drivers.

*Yes, sometimes some people do some boneheaded shit on bikes, and in some situations a "bad" consensus can start to build up (for example the number of entitled yuppie jerks riding on the sidewalks of perfectly safe and bike friendly SoHo). So definitely watch out and use your judgment. But in general, your best bet is to do as the romans do.
posted by Sara C. at 7:44 AM on June 6, 2011

I hate it when I'm sitting at a red light signalling a right turn and a cyclist comes up beside me and sits in my path. Right turns on red are allowed here, and I was in front of him, so why does he get to steal my chance to turn right?

My husband has multiple times gotten in arguments with drivers for staying in the middle (go-straight) lane in order to allow drivers to turn on red, just as you suggest. One car zoomed past him after the light changed, then pulled over and got out of the car to yell at him! His argument was, "You're inconveniencing people!" No joke, that's a direct quote. I guess the guy couldn't wait the 7 seconds it took my husband to get up to speed and move over. Another time he got yelled at by a driver that was able to take a right on red precisely because my husband stayed in the middle lane. The driver said something like, "Is that how they taught you to ride?" and when my husband said yes, he was doing the proper thing and see, now you can take your right on red, the guy seemed to argue that he could have turned anyway if my husband was to the right.

The moral is, you really can't win when you're a cyclist. On my commute, almost all the intersections are no right on red, or the turn lanes are specifically signed as right turn only except CTA buses and bikes. So I just don't bother trying to do otherwise anymore.
posted by misskaz at 8:21 AM on June 6, 2011

Your question is really broad and although people in this thread are giving some useful answers, it's a big subject that someone knowledgeable could write a book about. In fact, they have. It's cheaper than a helmet and far more likely to save your life.
posted by normy at 8:31 AM on June 6, 2011

Junction-specific advice!

The West Toronto Railpath provides you a quick and safe ride between Dundas and Dupont – five minutes, top to bottom. Instead of lugging your bike up the stairs at Dupont, there are level entrances available at Cariboo (off Osler north of Dupont) and Ruskin (off Edwin south of Dupont). The Wallace footbridge that crosses the tracks has a little bike-tire-sized ramp.

Heading westbound, making a left turn from the end of Dupont onto Annette requires you to be in the right-most lane.

If you're heading south to the lake, I recommend Sorauren-Jameson over Roncesvalles (construction) and Lansdowne (crappy pavement, ostensibly getting repaved this summer). There's a pedestrian-cyclist bridge over the Gardiner right at Jameson too.

Avoid Dundas (between Lansdowne and Bathurst) this summer.

Memorize the one-way street patterns of the Annex/Christie Pits area. Before I got over my fear of major streets (when I lived slightly further east) I had routes planned both to and from UofT that used only side streets and crossed all major streets at lights.

Those really cheap turtle-shaped front and back lights that you can buy at MEC for under $10 really shouldn't count as real lights. They're barely visible to others.

I'm sure I'll think of something else...
posted by avocet at 9:25 AM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh yes – if you're going to be biking around UofT at all, there are several bike boxes that have just been added to intersections on campus (with more to come). This is how you use them. (I just got cussed out for using it properly by a driver who didn't know how to use it...)
posted by avocet at 9:28 AM on June 6, 2011

Response by poster: Woo woo! I just got my bike parking spot assignment and it's on the main floor of the garage, so I don't even have to ride up the giant car ramps when I want to go places! That makes it super more likely I will ride my bike to more places!

Thanks again for all the advice everyone, and especially the Junctionites who Me-Mailed with offers of route planning help and real world assistance. Y'all are awesome.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:21 AM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

« Older Online resources for Turkish politics, in English?   |   Car rental at Union Station? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.