Make me more comfortable with biking
May 22, 2012 7:09 AM   Subscribe

You started biking later in life, and you did it in a big city. How did you become comfortable biking on roads with cars? I'm kind of freaked out by this.

I barely know how to ride a bike. I bought my first bike- a heavy 70s-era behemoth that was difficult to steer, and that someone really should have stopped me from buying- at age 20. I learned how to ride it in the sense of 'making it go in a direction,' but I was absolutely not comfortable biking on roads. The one time I tried biking to school in the bike lane, I practically had a panic attack. Some girls were walking in the bike lane, and in the heat of the moment I had no idea how to stop without falling into traffic and dying, so I hurled myself onto the grassy median to avoid hitting them. Then I walked my bike the rest of the way to school, and I never rode on the street again. I pretty much only used the bike on the bikes-only path from my house to the grocery store.

Now I am a bit older and less skittish, and I've learned how to drive a car, which I also couldn't do at age 20. And I have decided that the time has come to face my fears and get a bike, because I live in Brooklyn and it would make my life so much easier if I could just bike places instead of walking 15 minutes to my subway, taking it to Manhattan, transferring, going back to Brooklyn, and walking another 15 minutes. Also... biking is fun! When I was riding on a bike path with no cars around me and no complicated traffic laws to follow, I really enjoyed it. I plan to go to Recycle A Bicycle sometime this month and buy one.

However, I am still afraid of biking in traffic, and I don't know how to become unafraid. People die all the time from biking in New York, don't they? Of course I would always wear a helmet and all that jazz, and I wouldn't take my bike to Manhattan until I was way more experienced, but is there any way to get over the fear short of just... doing it?

I really do feel that it's stupid not to do this just out of fear, because hundreds of thousands of people do it every day, and it would make my life SO much better if I did it too. But I could use some advice on how to get comfortable with the idea of sharing the road with 2000-lb skull-crushing machines.

I do have friends who bike, and they want to help me, but they've all been biking since childhood, so they don't really understand my reluctance.
posted by showbiz_liz to Travel & Transportation around New York, NY (40 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
I grew up in NYC, and rarely rode a bike. I got a bike to get around college, but didn't ride much at all. Then I fell in love with a woman who biked everywhere (in Boston) and needed to brush up on my skillz. I was more than a bit wobbly.

We did some short rides around cars, but in residential neighborhoods (Cambridge back streets) and then some longer rides in the middle of nowhere (Fort Point and Southie, sort of empty quasi-industrial areas). It didn't take long before I was bike commuting.

That said, if you "barely know how to ride a bike" I would leave the streets until later, and maybe go to Prospect Park, Central Park or the Riverway and practice. I don't think you want to have any doubts about your riding when you're first getting socialized with cars...
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:15 AM on May 22, 2012

It's part experience, but mostly just attitude. Consider this: People die driving cars every day, too. People die from eating the wrong foods every day, as well. So, not biking in the street because of the fear of dying isn't all that valid, or likely, actually. More people die from not biking and getting weight-related diseases than those who actually die from biking in traffic, right?

Typically, I would simply say "the best way to get comfortable biking in traffic is to simply spend as much time as you can biking in traffic," but in your specific situation, I think you need to take a step back, first, and bike a lot on the trails and relatively lightly traveled roads until you can practice certain maneuvers on a bike: practice stopping for a while, first, for example. Practice riding next to parked cars, while maintaining a straight line 3 feet away from the cars' doors, on a street without much traffic. Take the bike lane around Central Park and see if you can actually stay in the darn bike lane and not weave into "traffic."
posted by TinWhistle at 7:19 AM on May 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

You can take a class from Bike New York, that will teach you how to confidently ride in traffic, check out their Traffic Skills 101 Class.. They also have classes that teach adults who have never ridden to ride, bike maintenance, etc.

I live in New Jersey and get rid of my car, and until I took a class like this, I was really really nervous. It makes a huge difference. People who live elsewhere can take classes like this through their local League of American Cyclists instructor.
posted by katinka-katinka at 7:24 AM on May 22, 2012 [7 favorites]

I'd recommend reading John S. Allen's free online pamphlet, Bicycling Street Smarts. It's an excellent overview of the principles for riding safely and confidently on the road, and how to deal with tricky situations (left turns, crossing complicated intersections, etc.).

I also recommend a rear-view mirror, which is useful for letting you see what is coming up behind you, and verifying that it doesn't pose a threat, as well as telling when it's safe to change lanes. I find the small ones that mount on glasses or a helmet are easier to use than the big ones that mount on your handlebars, but YMMV.

Like Admiral Haddock suggests, though, you need to hone your bike-handling skills first, in a traffic-free environment such as a park. Until you can confidently shift, steer, and perform a panic stop (a misnomer; it's really a fast, controlled stop!), you shouldn't be riding in traffic, any more than a driver should be driving in traffic without having mastered those same skills.

Beyond that, it's just a matter of getting out there and doing it. You might try riding behind your friends, if they are good cyclists. (If they regularly weave through traffic, or blow through stop signs, then you might not want to follow their example.) The first few times my wife went around the Place de la Bastille (a giant traffic circle) in Paris on a bike, it was following my lead. Now she's confident that she can do it herself. The advantage of following someone is that you can concentrate on skills and not worry so much about navigation. Once you have the skills down, then you can focus on getting where you want to go.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:24 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't know how to become unafraid.

You don't really want to be unafraid. I gave up my car for a bicycle when I moved to Europe (I was over 30) and so I guess I "started" riding regularly as an adult. For the past 15 or so years I've ridden my bicycle in traffic every day and it is when I feel most confident that some car/other bicyclist/pedestrian puts the fear of sudden death right back into me.

Fear of cars is well-founded, realistic, and completely natural. Keep it. Feed it. Nurture it. It will keep you alive.
posted by three blind mice at 7:26 AM on May 22, 2012 [7 favorites]

I moved to NYC~6 or7 years ago and as a cyclist I was petrified when I saw the traffic in NYC. I still have my moments and at some point will leave this city for better cycling pastures, but here are a few things that helped me (actually I will back up a step if you "barely know how to ride a bike":

--Find areas to ride that are traffic free. Governor's island, for example, is absolutely traffic free, but go there early in the morning and at a time that it is not likely to have an event to attract too many people (because pedestrians can and will be hazards).

--Ride with your friends in good bike lanes (Prospect Park has great ones that are separated from traffic) or on sparsely traveled bike trails (the bike path on the western side of BKN is great). Here is a map that should help you. Many bike stores have a paper version of the bike maps, too.

--Ride with groups (more than just your friends). To be honest, drivers are a little more careful if it is a herd of cyclists. This may be the club for you if you are a beginning cyclist. I can recommend another one if you find them too slow.

--If you can eventually ride long distances, there are better rides out of the city the New Jersey area, or if you take a train to CT, etc. Do feel free to drop me a line if you reach this point (~50 mile rides), I can point you to maps, clubs, resources.
posted by Wolfster at 7:27 AM on May 22, 2012

I also came in to recommend a class. There are people who know how to ride a bike, and there are people who specialize in be able to teach these skills. For many experienced riders (self included), the skills become so ingrained that the best we can do is "Follow me!" or "Just do it like this!"

Plus you'll get a lot of good instruction specific to the quirks of your area.
posted by mikepop at 7:28 AM on May 22, 2012

assume no one sees you and those that do see you are trying to kill you. It's my experience that those that get messed up on bikes, rollerblades or just plain walking in the city are the people who foolishly assume they will be granted the right of way.
posted by any major dude at 7:29 AM on May 22, 2012 [6 favorites]

The League of American Bicyclists has a "bike ed" program:

Looking through their listings, or googling around for bike advocacy organizations or classes in your area might turn up something. A class would give you the chance to ask about some of the issues you're worrying about, and to practice some physical skills in a controlled situation: looking back over your shoulder while riding straight, emergency maneuvers, etc. That should help build confidence.

If you want to do it on your own, is a good concise introduction to cycling in traffic. Or check your local library.
posted by bfields at 7:32 AM on May 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

I have always felt more comfortable riding with a group/pack of bikers. Maybe join a local bike shop or club for a beginners ride or see if friends want to join you (without being judgemental)? It also increases your visability (generally) for cars, so that may help you become more comfortable. Enjoy!
posted by anya32 at 7:37 AM on May 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

So, I didn't ride a bike from then end of high school until I was around 30, when I started riding the streets of Boston. At first I found it terrifying, and I took another year or so off from biking. Then I got a fancier bike and that helped a lot. This is kind of dumb and wrong but I felt more like I 'deserved' to be on the road when I had a nice-ish Trek hybrid than when I was riding a big old cheap chain store mountain bike. Also I was able to go faster (and in Boston, at least, you can often keep up with car traffic at normal cycling speeds).

The other big thing that helped, and that has actually carried over into my driving style now that I drive again, was keeping an eye on what was going on way up ahead. Not letting myself get surprised. Like, if you had seen those girls in the bike lane earlier, you would have had the chance to slow down and stop in a controlled fashion. You need to pay attention to EVERYTHING on a bike. You cannot drift off and flake out like when you're walking.

Also: I like to wear ridiculous reflective clothing even in the daytime. Not "cycling clothes," like the kinds of vests road workers wear. They're hideous and very cheap. They are hard to ignore.
posted by mskyle at 7:38 AM on May 22, 2012

In my experience* the best way is to work your way up to it.

Are you OK riding on dedicated bike paths like the West Side greenway or the Ocean Parkway bike lane that goes from Prospect Park to Coney Island? If not, spend some time becoming very comfortable with that. The Prospect Park loop would be good too -- it's car free, yet very multi-modal in terms of different kinds of non-vehicular traffic (people strolling with their kids, walkers and joggers, slow cruising cyclists, super-fast crazy sport cyclists, the occasional police vehicle). If you can get along there, you're probably ready for the street.

Your next step should be bike lanes on the street. There are a few streets with separated lanes (Kent Ave in Williamsburg, Prospect Park West, a few in Manhattan as well I believe) which might be an easier start, but I've always liked the painted lanes on quiet streets with very little car traffic, for building confidence. Because eventually you have to deal with cars, and it's better to do it with one driving by every once in a while at low speed rather than the big streets that are popular with both cyclists and drivers (Wythe/Franklin Ave from Williamsburg to Clinton Hill, for example).

Once you've got the hang of the painted lanes, there's really no difference between that and any old street. I prefer to stay off of major roads like Flatbush or McGuinness, but I see people riding there with no problem all the time. They just have bigger balls than me, I guess.

* Caveat: I am a bike rider from way back, though I was a nervous little priss and not nearly as daring as other kids about stuff like tricks and rough terrain and deliberately peeling out/taking bike pratfalls.
posted by Sara C. at 7:42 AM on May 22, 2012

Also, you might want to practice RELAXING and learning to think on your feet a little more, if you still have problems like "how to stop without hitting pedestrians". I mean, the answer there is simple, unless you were doing 30mph somehow. Just... put your feet on the ground. It sounds like your problem might be bigger than inexperience, more toward losing focus in a panic.
posted by Sara C. at 7:45 AM on May 22, 2012

The key here is confidence. Confidence comes from proficiency. Proficiency comes from practice and repetition. It will also help to "know" what the vehicles around you are likely to do. Anticipate the worst case. Good luck.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:45 AM on May 22, 2012

I learned how to ride a bike as a child, but I have always been pretty skittish on a bike. I live in New York too. But I deal with it by avoidng riding with traffic whereever possible, going as slowly as I feel comfortable, and by getting off and walking the bike on my sidewalk through some really heavy traffic or snarly rats-nest intersections if that makes me feel more comfortable.

I almost never commute to Manhattan - only twice now have I done so, and both times were on a weekend when there wasn't anything going on. I stuck to low-traffic streets, went slow, and walked if I felt more comfortable.

I actually found that the Brooklyn Bridge freaked me out (too many people! Too many tourists walking! Walking right in my damn way!), but there are other Brooklyn/Manhattan Bridges - the Williamsburg one isn't bad. But hands down the best Brooklyn-to-Manhattan connection for a biker is the East River Ferry - that runs between about 3-4 stops on the East River (one in Dumbo, one in Greenpoint, two in Williamsburg), all of which are along dedicated bike paths; and brings you to a couple stops on the East River side of Manhattan (34th St. and Wall Street), both of which are themselves along the East River Bikeway. The ferry only costs a few bucks, and you can bring your bike on; rather than trying to fuss with the bridge, you can ride along the dedicated bike path in Williamsburg up to the ferry, ride across, get out at 34th and ride down the East River bike path to the cross street you need and get out there.

Also, riding around in the dedicated paths in Brooklyn will help you get more comfortable on the bike in general. The one in Williamsburg Greg Nog mentions above is great; but you can also get from that one down to the Navy Yard, then follow a bike lane a few blocks to Dumbo, and from there connect to another totally-protected-by-concrete-barriers bike lane that leads through the Brooklyn Bridge Park down to the Columbia Waterfront, connect to yet another dedicated bike path there that takes you to Red Hook, and then tool around Red Hook, which is generally pretty sleepy and calm (because it's a bitch to get to Red Hook on public transportation so no one much goes there unless they're heading to Ikea, and you can stay clear of that). There are a lot of other Greenways and bike paths and bike lanes in Brooklyn that you can try - one leads all the way from Prospect Park down to Coney Island.

Another thing is to join the Tour De Brooklyn, which is a very safe, leisurely, police-escorted big bike rally through Brooklyn. You'll be part of a big pack, and police will be trying to hold up most traffic for you, but you're still out and on the main streets (without cars) so you have a chance to see what's the what in many of the neighborhoods and can see for yourself "oh, this wouldn't be bad to try on my own" or "hell no, this would be a disaster in this spot here".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:48 AM on May 22, 2012

Practice, practice, practice, practice.
posted by Stagger Lee at 7:54 AM on May 22, 2012

I'm trying to work on my own confidence, as I haven't biked in years and now my daughter loves it so much that she wants to use it as a mode of transportation, not just entertainment. So, I'll be going on some Cupcake Rides, I think, to get my confidence up - maybe there's something similar for you?

And, to teach my kid to ride safely, I'm paying attention to the information at It sometimes seems in our city that the goal in bicycling for transportation is not to get from point A to point B, but to not get hit by a car. Because I drive, I think like a driver when I'm on my bike, so I'm aware of some of what's mentioned here. Biking Toronto also has this great series with good perspectives about cycling with traffic.
posted by peagood at 7:56 AM on May 22, 2012

I'm in a fairly similar situation (learned to bike younger but didn't really pick it up again until a couple years ago). I still only bike around Brooklyn, haven't been into Manhattan. I want to mention that I have generally felt safer biking on (relatively quiet) streets, even those without bike lanes, than on the Ocean Parkway bike lanes. Ocean Parkway's less stressful when you're in the lane itself, but every road crossing is a Big Event since lots of cars are turning onto the parkway. I think it's easier to ride on a street where there's not so much stop-and-start, since you're more a part of the traffic flow.

Don't know where you live, but I live in Ditmas Park and most of the streets around me are nice and quiet, as is Prospect Park. I also like biking down on Clinton and Henry streets in Carroll Gardens/Cobble Hill. I would avoid major avenues like 5th in Park Slope when you can. Generally, though, I think the best way to get comfortable in traffic is just to practice. You should be cautious but also remember that no one wants to hit you.
posted by mlle valentine at 8:00 AM on May 22, 2012

Per EmpressCallipygos -- Yes, some of the best advice I ever got (or came up with for myself?) is the fact that YOU CAN ALWAYS GET OFF AND WALK. Seriously, nobody is going to laugh at you. There is no Cool Cyclists club. Being safe and comfortable is the most important thing.

Agreed that the Brooklyn Bridge is rough. I used to commute across it early in the morning, before the tourists are awake, and it was sort of OK. Still crowded with other cyclists, joggers, and people who live in the Heights and commute to Wall Street on foot.

My preferred East River Bridge is the Manhattan, which has completely separated Bike and Pedestrian lanes on opposite sides of the bridge. Sometimes you'll see a walker on the bike side, but it's rare. And there's less traffic on the Manhattan Bridge, in general.
posted by Sara C. at 8:00 AM on May 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

It is just as scary as learning to drive a car or a motorcycle. You keep at it until you are mostly fearless or blasé but you work your way up. Nobody learns to drive a car on the interstate. You start with a big empty parking lot and work on very basic skills. Practice near someone you trust on a bike or on foot. I am teaching my wife slowly and make her ride near static objects without being afraid they are going to jump out at her. I won't let her on the street until she masters the parking lot and riding near me.
posted by JJ86 at 8:19 AM on May 22, 2012

Oh oh oh! I got this. Read Lots and lots of excellent resources. I suggest starting with You Lead the Dance.

One thing that helps me in traffic is a helmet-mounted bicycle mirror. You can get a really good idea of what's behind you. Because there is no car structure around your head, it's actually better than using a car mirror.

Finally, a great general resource
posted by Doohickie at 9:07 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I did this. Learned to ride when I was 20 and rode consistently for the first time in Philadelphia. The bike lane situation is still pretty dismal here now but it was worse 6 years ago. But all my friends rode bikes and it was the best way to get around.

Here are my suggestions:

1) Start with a cruiser or a heavier commuter bike. Don't go for a sexy or fast road bike. Start with something that makes you feel in control and will stop easily.

2) Wear a helmet. Seriously. Get a red blinky back light. Get a white front light too.

3) Ride on side streets with less traffic and don't be ashamed to take the whole street or start with routes with clear bike lanes. Don't ride on the sidewalks as much as possible.

4) Don't be unafraid. Be afraid and careful all the time! Biking is dangerous. But it's super fun. Be careful, don't be an asshole and just remember you deserve your piece of the road.

5) If you bike a lot, you will get hurt. That's just statistical probability. I am typing this from home while recovering from my second bike related broken collarbone. It's terrible. But I still intend to bike. I got this one because I was dumb (so don't be dumb and ride really drunk!). But driving is also likely to get you hurt and lots of other things. It's a worthwhile risk for the freedom and joy of cycling!

posted by larva at 9:34 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would be REALLY EXTREMELY wary of relying on sources that don't specifically concern riding in NYC, or at the very least, large cities with an urban layout. Riding somewhere like Orlando is just completely and totally different than riding in Brooklyn. Especially in the case of dealing with cars.

I also find that suburban sprawl cyclists report a lot more road rage and tension with cars than I've experienced in New York.
posted by Sara C. at 9:35 AM on May 22, 2012

In New York, NO RIDING ON THE SIDEWALK EVER. Seriously, anyone over the age of 13 who does this needs to get punched in the face. Not only is it illegal, but it also terrorizes pedestrians for no reason and makes it far more likely that you will be hit by a car.
posted by Sara C. at 9:47 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding no riding on the sidewalk. But walking your bike on the sidewalk is fair, no?

(Not sure if you were responding to anything in particular in here.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:56 AM on May 22, 2012

Yes, of course. If you want to be on the sidewalk, walk the bike.

I was responding to larva, who said, "don't ride on the sidewalk as much as possible".

I don't know what it's like in other cities (hence my advice above), but in New York this is not only way illegal and likely to result in a ticket, it's also unbelievably dangerous behavior for cyclists and the people around them. It also poisons the relationship between cyclists and pedestrians. It's just seriously the most toxic behavior ever. Don't. Ever. EVER.

And, oh, god, if the person riding the bike on the sidewalk is also an inexperienced cyclist with a history of not being able to control their bike? Oy vey.

Sidewalk riding is one of the few cycling issues that makes me absolutely fucking LIVID.
posted by Sara C. at 10:16 AM on May 22, 2012

I never got past training wheels when I was a kid. Then, when I was 20 and in college on the south side of Chicago, I got tired of waiting for the bus just to get across the neighborhood. So I bought a used bike, rode around in the park until I was generally capable of not falling off, then took to the streets. If you can find a quiet-ish neighborhood with a lot of other folks on bikes, they are great places to start. Or go out for early morning practice, before everyone is up and driving around. I started with the small, low-traffic, one-way streets in my college neighborhood, where even if I was incompetent--which I was--I wouldn't be in much danger. The worst that happened to me there was some dirty looks from drivers. But make sure you do move up, gradually, to trying more difficult streets: the reason I am 100% comfortable on most streets now is because I have successfully navigated downtown Chicago, with its mess of cabs and buses and pedestrians and cars. It's nice when your day-to-day ride is an order of magnitude quieter than the hardest one you've done.

Here's some more skill-specific advice for becoming safe and confident. As you practice, don't just focus on the physical skills of turning and stopping and such, but also on awareness. Scan your surroundings and take note of possible obstacles or hazards: pedestrians, cars, other cyclists, driveways and alleys, potholes, &c. The safest riders are not those who are ninja-quick on their bikes but rather those who know everything going on around them. When I ride, I keep a running list in my head of what could be a danger: e.g., that guy on the sidewalk could move to cross, that parked car could open its door, there's an alley a car could pop out of that I'll reach in about three seconds, and so on. This sounds complicated, but it becomes automatic. Again, work your way up gradually, from a quiet neighborhood street where you have to keep track of 0-2 hazards at a time, to a busy city center where you might have a dozen.

This kind of awareness makes me feel much safer (as well as actually making me safer). Remember that your visibility and hearing is vastly better on a bike than in a car. Cars isolate you from your surroundings; bikes immerse you in them. I almost never get surprised on my bike.
posted by Aquinas at 10:28 AM on May 22, 2012

Great suggestions already, also:

- Map a route from home to the office (or another destination). I often refer to the Google Maps bicycling layer to find the best bike streets, plus Street View to scope it out myself.

- Try out your route during less busy times, like Sunday morning at 7am. This will give you a chance to learn its quirks and any potential scary spots before it's rush hour. Practice for a couple of weekends if it makes you feel more confident.

Riding the same route over and over is less scary than city biking in general, you become more confident and learn which areas are problems due to low visibility, weird merges, etc.
posted by beyond_pink at 10:39 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Riding a route for the first time with an experienced cyclist who is also very careful is great for building confidence and alerting you to anything potentially tricky or that you might find scary. Also walking parts of the route helps you see issues that you might not spot in a car, so if there are large intersections also try that. And nthing riding first in a safe, comfortable environment, if you can find it; it's hard sometimes to find one of those that doesn't have a lot of other cyclists around and they can be as alarming at first as cars. If not, try cycling along quieter routes or at quiet periods like Sunday morning.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 10:59 AM on May 22, 2012

Plenty of good advice here. I wanted to add that you should not be afraid to take up the road--don't make yourself small by biking close to the curb. It's embarrassing when cars pass you and a little counter-intuitive, but it is VERY important that they see you. Think about it from a driver's perspective; where would you want the cyclist to be? When you are feeling more skilled on the bike, you can take up less space. This page on bicycle safety helped me visualize and plan for common accident scenarios.

Sidewalk riding is one of the few cycling issues that makes me absolutely fucking LIVID.

posted by rhythm and booze at 10:59 AM on May 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

Some of my friends in your situation have gained a lot of confidence from riding with other, more experienced cyclists who've been able to show them the most bike-friendly routes. So, for example, if you want to ride to your local grocery, get a friend to help you figure out the best way to get there and ride it with them the first time. You know their personality; choose someone cautious.

I got over this by simply riding a lot. A cute boy helped; I wanted to impress him, so I swallowed my terror and followed him. I don't particularly recommend that route, but more deliberate help from a friend is nice.
posted by linettasky at 11:22 AM on May 22, 2012

It's scary, but the best way really is to just get out there and ride. My best tip is to remember that you deserve to be on the road. Don't let cars bully you out of your right to be there. This is New York, so you need to learn to be a little bit obnoxious about your own space. Be loud and defend it. It's kind of like walking on the sidewalk or getting onto the subway, you need to assert yourself and push in. Trust that traffic will flow around you. Most of the time it will be okay, and sometimes there will be idiots and you'll just have to watch out.

However, unlike walking on the sidewalk, make eye contact with other drivers (and pedestrians). When you are stopped alongside a car at an intersection, turn and look the driver in the eye. Smile or wave, if you feel like it. Make sure they see you, and if they don't, you'll be aware that they are distracted/talking on the phone or just plain not being attentive on the road.

Ring your bell to warn pedestrians lingering in upcoming intersections and yell when a car starts veering into your lane. Make noise, wear loud colors and don't hug the side (keep a respectful distance from car doors).

And, if it gets to be too much, remember you can always get off and walk. There's no shame in that. I think walking around a dump truck or a school bus is miles better than trying to sneak your way around it.

Additionally, learn about blind spots, and the rules of the road. You can pick up a map at your local bike shop (Recycle-a-Bicycle definitely has them).
posted by hooray at 11:28 AM on May 22, 2012

I would suggest this sequence:

1) Walk your bike to safe, off-road spaces and practice the basics at low speed. Can you balance, steer, stop? Good! You're ready for the next step.

2) Once you're comfy with the basics, take a good course, as recommended above. They will take you from shaky novice to someone with broader knowledge of how urban cycling works, and you'll get some experience in traffic.

Bicycling Basics looks good: it's also free and only three hours.

Savvy Cyclist: Traffic Skills 101 looks like a good next step. This runs a whole day and includes a ride in traffic with other people.

3) Walk some low-traffic routes you'd like to cycle. Observe the traffic and how other cyclists behave. Are there traffic lights? Are some advanced greens?

4) Ride one of those routes on your own. I wouldn't automatically assume that riding with an experienced rider or two is a good idea right away. I found that when I was getting used to the road, trying to coordinate with another cyclist made me more stressed out. As others have mentioned, you will need to practice observing your environment and thinking a few steps ahead. If you're also leading or following a friend, or concerned about staying close but not too close, that's a lot to handle when you're new.

(The second course I recommended does include a group ride, but I think there's more stress when riding with someone you know.)

5) Ride more routes on your own. Ride with 1-2 supportive, confident friends. Have fun!
posted by maudlin at 1:02 PM on May 22, 2012

Put your own comfort and preferences above the advice of bicycle experts. My experience:
I had a really tough time when I bought the bike my local bike shop recommended. I guess confident, skilled bike commuters like to lean far over their handlebars so they're more aerodynamic, but I felt physically uncomfortable and was very nervous about seeing the road because of how my head and neck were positioned. So after three years of never taking my highly recommended bike out on the road, I bought a heavy, inefficient bicycle that allows me to sit upright and that has such high handlebars it looks funny when parked alongside all the cool bikes on the rack. I may not win any races, but I finally feel like I can see the vehicle around me, and I've been regularly riding to work since buying it.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 1:33 PM on May 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

There's a ton of great advice here but here's one little nugget that's worth bearing in mind: most accidents between bikes and cars do not happen during overtaking. Being overtaken on a bike can be a bit harrowing if you're not used to it, particularly if it's a truck or a bus or something that's passing you, but it's far from the most common way that cyclists get hit by cars. It happens all the time and almost every time the car and bike manage to avoid colliding. If anything you have more to fear from a line of parked cars on your right than from a stream of traffic on your left, because someone exiting a parked car probably won't think to check for incoming bikes and could easily open their door right into you. So err on the side of being slightly in traffic rather than too close to the parked cars -- overtaking cars will see you (unless it's night and you have no lights -- you have lights, right?) and will go around you. The worst that will generally happen is some entitled asshole will honk at you as they go by.

Much more common is the "right hook" (or left hook I guess in left-side-driving countries) in which you pull up to an intersection and a car making a right fails to notice you and turns right through you. To prevent this, you want to avoid pulling up next to a car at an intersection. Either pull up slightly in front of the car so that you are clearly in their sightlines and can easily pull away without being crushed, or fully behind the car so that if/when they turn they won't hit you. Pulling up next to them can put you in their blind spot and since car drivers generally aren't expecting cyclists they may not even bother trying to look for you and will just turn without noticing that you are there. So make sure that you're either unavoidably visible or else totally outside of their turning path. Do not assume that just because they aren't signaling a turn they aren't turning, of course. (And don't assume that just because they are signaling a turn they are going to actually do it.)

That got a bit wordy but it boils down to this: don't worry so much about being clipped by a passing car, worry more about being doored or being squashed at an intersection. Adjust your riding behavior accordingly.
posted by Scientist at 1:43 PM on May 22, 2012 [5 favorites]

And yeah, definitely buy a bike you feel comfortable riding, ala croutonsupafreak's advice. Something with more upright riding posture like a mountain bike or a cruiser may be more comfortable for you than something that's a bit more foreward-leaning like a road bike or tourer. They're definitely slower though, as well as actually being less maneuverable. Once you get more comfortable you may want to switch up to a different style of bike, so I might suggest that if you're shopping for a bike, don't spend too much on your first one. Probably I would even suggest buying a decent used bike (from a reputable shop, or have a friend who knows bikes go with you) rather than a new one, because there's a good chance you will want to get another bike later.
posted by Scientist at 1:50 PM on May 22, 2012

OH! I have been telling people this for a while now.

Once you get comfortable riding, have a "race" with someone where you can see who can go the SLOWEST. Seriously. Beginning bikers and those who start later in life tend not to have good proprioception (I think that is the word). In other words, they aren't very comfortable on the bike.

You can see this when a person like that has to stop quickly. They don't shift their weight. They don't change their position. The just brake, and end up being forced forward. Likewise, their reactions are unnatural.

By forcing yourself to ride as SLOW as possible. You rely less on momentum and more on balance (hey, even a bike rolling forward without you can stay upright easily). Eventually, to go even more slowly, you will find that you need to get out of the saddle and stand on your pedals, and shift your weight around from pedals, to handlebars, to dropping your ass back behind the seat, etc.

The best part is, if you start feeling off, just pedal a bit and ride a bit faster. However, the slower you can can go, for longer time the better.

It sounds SO counter-intuitive, but it is one of the best things I think you can do once you are somewhat comfortable on the bike.
posted by This_Will_Be_Good at 9:39 PM on May 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

Don't forget Sheldon Brown's website - that link goes to the useful braking page (front, rear, or both).

Also read Why Reflectors Don't Work and get yourself some quaity bike lights. Yes, even if you only right in daylight.
posted by IndigoRain at 6:01 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

To prevent this, you want to avoid pulling up next to a car at an intersection. Either pull up slightly in front of the car so that you are clearly in their sightlines and can easily pull away without being crushed, or fully behind the car so that if/when they turn they won't hit you.

In New York, you want to be IN FRONT OF the cars at an intersection. More and more often, the city is installing "bike boxes", i.e. a space at the intersection between where the cars are supposed to wait at a light and the crosswalk. When riding on streets, you should PASS all waiting cars and go stop up in the bike box. NOT behind or next to the waiting cars.

This is one of those things that varies from place to place and which is extremely different in NYC/urban environments vs. sprawly suburban places.
posted by Sara C. at 7:39 AM on May 23, 2012

Yup. Lots of good advice. Nthing 'stay off the sidewalk', and nthing 'do not alleviate your fear'. It's good to be scared. I'm still terrified of biking here, and I've been riding my whole life. And while this will probably never be you, staying afraid will prevent you from ever being one of those incredible assholes that talks on a cellphone while smoking and careening obliviously through traffic on a bike with no hands anywhere near their brakes or handlebars. I too highly second (or third) pulling to the VERY FRONT and slightly ahead of all the cars at stop-lights so everyone knows you're there, and do obey all the traffic lights and laws, just like any other member of traffic, because that is what you are. You have every right to be there. It's just that no one in any of the cars, buses, cabs and trucks around you ever seems to think so. And that's a real pickle.

A note on low-traffic zones: depending on where you actually live in Brooklyn, it might not be much better, but I might still stay in Brooklyn until I was feeling quite comfy on my bike. I do NOT recommend Central Park for this project. Central Park is supposed to be low-traffic, but is not actually low-traffic. On any random day, Central Park always seems to have a veritable army of meandering tourist bike renters, your average NYC bikers just getting around, packs of Lance Armstrongs/Tour De France wannabes-in-training who use it as a closed-circuit race track, car/cab traffic that views it as a much speedier route than the avenues with all those pesky stoplights every block, horse-n-buggy traffic, pedicab traffic, the occasional careening Boathouse Trolley, and rollerbladers and joggers and strollers who all seem to exclusively need to use the bike lane, and feel 100% fine pushing you out into the car lanes with all those cabs zipping past that don't give two shits about mowing you down, because after all, shouldn't your ass be in the bike lane? Not low traffic. Not relaxing. One exception: if you're remotely a night person, then I very highly recommend night biking in Central Park. Because there's no one there, and that's a marvelous experience (and there are, in my extensive experience with Central Park after nightfall, usually quite frequent police patrols). But again: lights on your bike. Blinky lights everywhere. On that note, general weeknight biking, with the right equipment, might be a great way for you to experience being on the street with SOME traffic, but a large swath of people already tucked at home and thus out of your way. You might suggest to your cycling friends that you guys all take an evening ride to a semi-distant but still quasi-local ice cream joint, for example. Ice cream treats seem an excellent way to encourage enthusiastic Brooklyn group bike riding adventures.

Another thing that deserves a mention (and I know this probably isn't helping with anxiety over biking in NYC, but I never want no one to re-live this particular experience): potholes. Do keep an eye on the actual street in front of you as well. Because while keeping my eye on a bus and all the pedestrians and parked car doors and the cabbie trying to zoom around me to make the light, I had my entire front wheel fall down into an enormously deep pothole, causing both me and aforementioned asshole cabbie to come to an abrupt and blisteringly cursing halt, and simultaneously demolishing my front rim, to say nothing of my lady parts. The mere thought of this incident's intense and long-lasting bruising and swelling of my entire crotchal region still makes me cringe inwardly. Lesson learned. 'Watch the road' includes not just the traffic and everything going on about you, but the ACTUAL ROAD as well.

I am finished providing zero anxiety-alleviation to you now. But if it helps, you can perhaps bear in mind that I most often ride in Manhattan, usually during the thick of rush hour, on Lexington Avenue, which has zero dedicated bike lanes, copious delivery double-parking, and terrible, snarling traffic. And it puts a paralyzing fear of death front and center in my conscious mind every single time. But again, sometimes fear is terribly useful, and biking in NYC is surely one of those times.
posted by involution at 11:08 PM on July 18, 2012

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