How to ride in NYC traffic: 5 Tips that could save your life.

by Jack on September 12, 2013

It seems crazy to me now, but just 2 years ago I had never ridden a bike in New York City. I grew up loving bikes, like any kid, setting up epic plywood-cinderblock jumps in the drive way, getting in brutal “skid” competitions with my friends (Skid length as a factor of speed + style points, no hands bonus), and eventually riding to school. I would have loved a bike like the brompton folding bike if I had known it existed. But I grew up in a small back woods town in Washington State, and when I moved to NYC, the idea of biking seemed a little overwhelming.

There's me on the Brompton Bike Tour

Now I bike around 100 miles a week, commuting 20 miles round trip from Bed-Stuy to work at NYCeWheels, and leading guided bike tours on the Brompton Folding Bike all over Manhattan.

Over the last few years, I’ve biked, often on the Brompton, in just about every type of New York Street and encountered just about every situation you can think of: bike lanes, highways, bridges, one way, two way, 4 way, riding alone, riding with my friend sitting on the rear rack (don’t try this), leading a giant group of tourists, in 100 degrees, in rain, in snow, on folding bikes, electric bikes.

I’ve been cut off, doored, hit by bikers, delivery men, rogue plastic bags in the face, closelined by a metal traffic gate which had been lowered at the entrance to a park (I went over, bike went under), sprayed with tomato sauce when my grocery bag got dragged into the spokes. Through it all, you start to get a sense of what it takes to really ride safely in a city as absolutely nuts as NYC. Here’s the top 5:

I. The Basics

So here are the basics – things every biker should already be doing to keep safe in a city like NYC:

1. Wear a helmet. I don’t care how hip you are. I don’t care how big your afro is. Just do it.

2. Put a nice white blinky light on the front of your bike and red light on your rear. If you want, wrap battery powered Christmas lights around your frame, and drape yourself in reflective neon.

3. Stop at red lights and for pedestrians. I know no one actually does this. But come on, at least stop at the red light and look both ways before violating your daily traffic law.

East river bike path on the Brompton Bike Tour

4. Pick your routes. In NYC, and I assume every city, some streets have great bike lanes and are super safe, others are jam packed with traffic and will inevitably get you into tricky spots.

In general if you’re going somewhere on the Westside, take the Hudson bike path, it’s awesome and totally safe, if you don’t mind slowing for pesky pedestrians. If you’re going north up the Eastside, take 1st Ave, if you’re going south take 2nd Ave (but only below 57th). And from 38th st and south, the Eastriver bike path is great, and has the advantage of beautiful water vistas.

5. Tune up your bike, especially your brakes.

6. Don’t ride drunk

And now for the subtleties:

II. Avoid Car Doors

Brompton Riders keeping approiate distance from cars

The most common bike accident in NYC is “dooring.” For those new to the game, to get “doored” is to have a parked car open their door right as you’re passing by, knocking you off your bike.

To avoid this, always ride with a least a doors length between you and any parked car. And, here’s an important note, remember that people are liable to get out of Taxi’s in the middle of the damn street. So any time you pass a stopped taxi, do it very slowly, or with a lot of buffer room.

III. Never Trust Drivers

Never assume that a driver has seen you and is going to cede the right of way/ act in a sane responsible manner. If you’re biking and you see a car waiting to pull out of a driveway or parking garage, slow down, wave, and make sure they’re not about to pull out in front of you. If you’re going fairly slow and you have your eye on them you’ll have enough time to avoid collision even if they pull a rambo. But if you’re blasting past and trusting that they won’t pull out, you’re definitely taking a risk.

Stop and wait for the turn

Here’s another common situation. Let’s say you’re on your Brompton Bike, blasting up the 1st ave bike path on your way to the annual Presbyterian chile cook-off and a car in front of you slows to make left hand turn. Since the car is entering your lane of traffic technically you have right of way and most bikers will blast by the car, assuming that they’ve been seen. Never do this, always slow and let the car turn in front of you. Here’s a great bike blog detailing what can happen if you don’t.

IV. Look before you turn

 

Here’s another mistake I see pro bikers make all the time in NYC. Never make a turn, or change in direction without looking over both shoulders.

Brompton Tour Attendee rocking a safe left hand turnIf you’re riding in a crowded bike NYC bike path, I don’t care how fast you are, there’s probably someone who’s going to try to pass you on either side. Making abrupt turns or even drifting in your lane can be potentially disastrous for you and the over achieving speedster trying to pass you. Take the cue from this Brompton Tour attendee to the right and look before you turn.

V. When you’re in traffic, take your time.

One of the joys of biking in the city, is feeling like you can get anywhere super fast. By train it takes me over an hour to get from Bed-stuy to the upper east side, but booking it on the Brompton Bike I can make it in as little as 35min. Booyah.

Car parked in the bike lane beware

But man, whenever there are a lot of cars about, just take that extra minute. See a car in front of you parked in the bike lane? Don’t immediately swerve around it into traffic. Slow down, make sure there’s not a taxi on your ass and then proceed. See a bunch of cars in front of you stopped at a red light? Don’t immediately swerve amidst them in an heroic attempt to get to the front of the traffic line. Take a second and make sure the light’s not about to turn green or you’ll find yourself in the middle of a 4 lane NYC street with cars passing you on both sides.

If you follow these tips, and keep your head, I promise riding a bike can be just as safe as taking the train, and so much more fun. Come by the Brompton Bike tour some Saturday and we can practice the basics together.

Brompton Bike Tour

Hope this was helpful, please feel free to post your own tips in the comments.

Safe riding!

Jack

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  • gerry

    Hey Jack – tip 7. It’s also a good idea to stick out your arm in the direction your going to turn; and yes look the drivers in the eye and even then proceed with caution they may be thinking about texting.
    -Gerry

    • http://www.nycewheels.com/ NYCeWheels

      New York drivers are some of the worst I think, usually is a car waiting to cut off the car that’s planning on cutting you off… – Jack

  • metrosur

    This suggestions works everywhere! also here in Genoa, Italy, one of the most difficult italian city for bikes! On my Brompton I always have a flash red light on rear and many people asked me, “why during the day?”. More visible you are, better is! Ciao dall’Italia, see you my next time in NYC

    • http://www.nycewheels.com/ NYCeWheels

      Thanks for reading, look forward to having you in the city. Think you might try to come by the Brompton Bike Tour?: http://blog.nycewheels.com/tours/ – jack

  • Thomas Lutz

    Nice article, Jack. All very good tips that I mostly follow on a daily basis. Here’s another good one: be humble and learn from your close calls, which you will inevitably have. If you can learn from others’ close calls, that’s even better.

    • http://www.nycewheels.com/ NYCeWheels

      Good tip Thomas, riding a bike can be such an empowering experience, but a little humility can go a long way to riding safe – jack

  • Mike haveachans

    …also, never use headphones. They are illegal in NYC…besides it’s always good to hear a Taxi horn before it slams into you!!!

    • http://www.nycewheels.com/ NYCeWheels

      Absolutely Mike, I love listening to music, but it’s just not worth it out on the road. – Jack

  • Newton Gooner Dixon Jr.

    Jack, I just read these tips and very good information! I almost got doored a few times. One good thing about the Brompton is I feel more comfortable and able to easily maneuver around obstacles. In Queens, I find that some areas, the drivers have no respect for cyclists. Hoping the culture will change in the future.

  • jamban

    Another good tip, get a myrricle mirror if you can. I bought a Tern Link D8 with the mirror installed from you guys and it’s on the left side. The great thing about it is that it folds away when you don’t need it. I always open it when I’m riding in busy streets because I have a good idea of what’s behind me. If someone is driving erratically I can pull over or get out of the way.

  • Sam Joslin

    Take your time; time your take. If we’ve learned anything from the movie Groundhog Day, it’s that. Nice article by the way. All the advice works except which streets to take to work. Most of them don’t exist in Peoria.

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