Friendly Bike Tips

I’m a pretty avid bicyclist. I’ve ridden thousands of miles over the past few years all over the place, and in Canada too. I’ve commuted to work on my bike, and ridden in very remote isolated roads. In most of my time riding before moving to VT though, I was riding on back roads with very little traffic.

Now though, I frequently need to ride through the capital city of Montpelier. Sometimes that’s my destination, other times I’m passing through on my way to somewhere else. Montpelier isn’t exactly a bustling metropolis. In fact, it’s the smallest state capital. It has two main streets: Main Street, and State Street. These streets are joined together at a somewhat odd intersection with a pretty normal light. The thing about Montpelier, and truthfully much of Vermont, is that there aren’t many options for detours or bypasses. You have limited options when going through somewhere. In Montpelier, this pretty much means that depending on which direction you’re coming from and where you’re headed, you’ll have to end up on Main and/or State street.

Not really a big deal. Like I said, it’s a small city (only about half the population and physical size of the little dumpy town where I grew up). They’re constantly trying to promote what a “great city” it is for bicyclists. There isn’t much they have to “do” though, because it’s so small, and relatively busy that people can’t drive fast through it anyway. There are crosswalks, pedestrians, slow moving cars moving through the intersection, etc. It’s more dangerous as a driver honestly, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

I don’t know about everyone else, but when I was a little kid, probably in elementary school, we had a bike safety course. Of course, right? Truth be told, we probably had a few. A bike is the fastest, easiest way for a kid to get around before s/he can drive, so knowing how to ride safely was obviously something relevant to little kids. It was pretty basic stuff. Hand signals, riding with traffic, stopping, etc. Basically (and most state laws I’m aware of codify this), as a bicyclist, you’re afforded all the rights, rules and responsibilities of a motor vehicle operator except where such rights, rules and responsibilities simply cannot apply due to the physical nature of bicycling. For example, I have the “right” to ride my bike up to 50mph in a 50mph speed zone. Unless it’s downhill, it’s pretty unlikely I’m going to be doing that.

What’s more important is that bicyclists follow other traffic rules. As a motorist first, and a bicyclist second, some of the idiotic things I see frustrate me to no end.

Look, I know stopping on a bike is inconvenient. Is it really necessary for you to come to a complete stop at a stop sign? Probably not, but you should absolutely slow down and look around. That does two things. One, it makes you aware of the current traffic in the intersection. Two, as a motorist in that intersection, when I see you looking around, I can be pretty sure you’re aware of me. We’re both have an understanding of the situation, and can easily proceed safely.

Do not pass stopped cars on the right. I see this again and again. I even had one moron hit my mirror while I was waiting at a traffic light. It is so fucking dangerous. Not only are you riding on my right, a place I’m not expecting to see any other cars, but you’re riding in a narrow space with parallel parked cars on the other side! What if one of them opens a door in front of you? You can’t swerve left, because I’m there. If you don’t want to wait in line with the other cars at the light, fucking dismount, and walk your bike on the sidewalk and cross in the crosswalk with the pedestrians.

Obey marked lanes!! When you decide to ride diagonally the wrong way across the turning lane at an intersection, I don’t know what the fuck you’re doing. You didn’t hand signal. You’re just riding in some unknown pattern. It doesn’t matter that you’re “just zipping over there real quick”. A car can kill you like a bug! There’s a reason for traffic pattern rules. We all know (or should know) the same rules. This lets us anticipate what other drivers will and won’t be doing. If everyone just did what they thought they could because it would be “real quick” things would be “real shitty” for everyone…kind of like in Boston.

As a motorist, if I hit your dumb ass, it’s almost assuredly going to be “my fault”. I don’t want to hit you. I’m keeping as alert as I can possibly be to minimize that risk, but somewhere along the way, you need to behave in a predictable, rational manner. Otherwise you could get hurt!

When I’m riding my bike through downtown, I always stop, or nearly stop at all stop signs. I try to make myself as car-like as possible, especially on state street. They recently painted these bicycle symbol chevrons all down the street. Apparently they mean that bicyclists can take the full lane. This makes sense because both sides of the road have parallel parked cars, and in-road crosswalk posts. This often leaves drivers little room to pass bicyclists safely. Honestly though, I did that before the markings were there. With all the stuff going on on that street, it’s hard to break 25mph. Much of the time you’re going substantially less than that. Most bicyclists should be able to keep up, at least in the very slowest sections.

Taking the lane like that can feel weird. I admit I didn’t for the longest time because I just lacked the confidence. Once you build that confidence though, taking the lane makes you massively more visible to drivers. And honestly, even if you’re not quite keeping up with the flow of traffic, taking the lane means the person behind you won’t try to pass you. They may get frustrated by this, so you should exit the lane as soon as you can safely do so, but not before. If you feel that them passing you would be unsafe, remain in the lane. I so rarely see bicyclists do this, and I wish they would. I promise that most drivers in all but the most bike-unfriendly places won’t even notice. They may even appreciate it.

Every time I see a bicyclist following traffic rules, I feel all warm inside. All the motorists who see him/her will have a positive image of how bicyclists are. Every time I see a bicyclist running stop signs, or passing on the fucking right, a part of me dies. When you do that–when you do stupid shit that pisses motorists off (and rightly so)–I and other bicyclists have to deal with their negative attitudes toward us later. Maybe they decide not to give me any extra room when they fly past me. Maybe they decide not to make it easier for me by letting me go first through a 4-way stop, even if they were there first. Maybe they decide to yell things or throw shit at me when they pass me. As a traffic rule non-abiding bicyclist, you own some of the blame when those things happen to me or anyone else.

The roads can be safe and enjoyed by everyone, but we all have to do our part. If you wouldn’t do something in a car, don’t do it with a bike.