Tips for Riding your Bike in Traffic

As road cyclists we often do our best to choose the quietest roads with as little motor vehicle traffic as possible.  These roads often result in the most enjoyable rides and the fewest chances for conflict.  Unfortunately, not all rides are so free of cars. 

Whether there’s an unexpected detour on your quiet rural ride, the short section of thoroughfare you have to ride on your way home from your Saturday morning group ride, or the reality of your daily commute, heavy traffic is something you should be prepared to handle on your ride whether you’re expecting it or not.

Make Yourself Visible

This is advice I’d give to any road cyclist in a general sense, but it is especially important in higher traffic situations when drivers may not be looking out for bicyclists: make yourself visible. 

I’m not going to say you need to dress like a traffic cone, but bright colors for your shirt, jacket, or jersey that starkly contrast with your environment are never a bad idea.  (Click here to read an article on a great visible that jacket we reviewed and recommend)

It doesn’t mean that wearing dark colors makes you at fault if you were to get hit by a car, but I know I’d much prefer make myself more visible to try to decrease chances of that ever happening.

Blinking lights are also highly recommended in the daytime and will catch the attention of drivers who may not see you because they’re not looking out for cyclists.  At nighttime and in the dark, lights may be required by local laws. (Check our bicycle law pages to see rules for your state)

Besides staying visible with bright colors and lights, pay attention to your road position and avoid hugging the curb or edge of the roadway. 

In addition to avoiding numerous hazards like potholes, road debris, and storm drains, riding farther into the lane makes it easier for drivers to see you sooner as they approach from behind and gives them more time to prepare for a pass, discouraging unsafe same-lane passing as a result. 

I find that 2-3 feet away from the edge of the lane is usually a good starting point, often in the right tire track of the lane, and pretending that there’s an imaginary bike lane in the road when I ride.

Act Like a Car

Part of riding in traffic is riding predictably and defensively, just like you would in a car. Don’t weave in and out of of parking spots on the side of the road or the shoulder, as sudden and unexpected movements back into the travel lane may result in a split-second panic decision on the part of the driver or even a collision with you.

When approaching a stop sign or a red light, or even while riding in slowly moving traffic that you can easily keep up with, move to the center of the lane just as if you were a car.  This will discourage drivers from making half-hearted attempts at passing you that, intentionally or not, force you out of the lane. 

Don’t “lane split” between cars and don’t filter between stopped cars, which not only makes drivers incredibly angry that they will have to pass you a second time after the light turns green, but opens you up to the dangers of doors getting flung open in your path (think about how many times you’ve seen someone dump out a half-full cup of coffee at a red light) or drivers swerving to the side to try to see ahead; it’s also most likely illegal, depending on where you live.

Signal Your Intentions and Control the Lane

The last few decades of road design have focused primarily on motor vehicles, with bicyclists and pedestrians almost completely ignored.  Only in the last few years have traffic engineers finally realized that vulnerable road users need to be considered in design so that all of us – drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians – can get to our destinations and home to our families safely.

As a result of this, most roads are not created with enough space for a bicyclist and car to safely share space side by side, contrary to what ambiguous “Share The Road” signs may lead you to believe. 

On the rare occasion they are, it may be completely safe to ride as far to the right as you feel comfortable to allow cars to safely pass you without needing to cross into the next lane.

Most lanes, however, will not be so wide, and you’ll need to choose your position in the road not only to make yourself visible, but also to discourage unsafe same-lane passing that puts your safety at risk. 

When it’s unsafe for another vehicle to make a same-lane pass, or even if it’s unsafe for a driver to cross into the next lane to pass (especially on a one-lane road), it may be necessary to move farther left in the lane to discourage such a pass.

Some situations that may require this maneuver are when there is a median between lanes, there is oncoming traffic, or there is a blind turn up ahead and a driver shouldn’t be crossing into the next lane when it’s impossible to tell if another car is coming around the corner.

When making such maneuvers, it’s best to signal your intentions just like you would be signaling for a lane change or a turn.  Move your hand out so it is clearly visible – both the “left turn” and “caution/stopping” signals work well – and slowly start to move left in the lane you’re in, repeatedly checking over your shoulder to make sure a driver is not trying to pass you anyways.

While making a turn I make sure to do pretty much the same thing – perform hand signals and check over my shoulder multiple times as I’m moving to the left preparing to make a turn or change lanes.  The unfortunate reality is that some impatient and irresponsible drivers will try to pass you anyways, so double and triple checking that no one is passing is essential for safely turning or changing lanes.

If you remember these four key points – stay visible, act like a car, signal your intentions, and control the lane – you can help yourself make a stressful situation a bit easier and get to your destination safely, ready for another day of riding!

Rob is a New England native who has been living in Charlotte, North Carolina, since 2012. Upon learning how to ride at the age of five he quickly found that everything is better on a bicycle, and hasn’t stopped riding since.