Gaining Confidence in Traffic

One of the largest hurdles faced by cyclists is learning how to operate in traffic. When starting out, it is beneficial to ride on bike paths and streets with low traffic volumes. As you become more experienced, streets with medium and high traffic volumes may become more comfortable. No matter where you ride, the following skills will come in handy:

Riding in the Correct Position
As a general rule, cyclists should ride on the right side of shared travel lanes. This trajectory is typically located where a car’s passenger side wheels pass. Don’t ride so far to the right that you put yourself in danger. Stay out of the "door zone" (the 4’ to the left of a parked car where doors open). Don’t ride too close to the gutter line, or where debris has piled.

As a general rule, ride where a car’s passenger side wheels would pass.

When necessary, use the entire travel lane, particularly when the lane is too narrow for motorists to pass safely, or when you are moving at the same speed as traffic.

Ride in the center of the lane, especially when the lane is too narrow for motorists to pass safely.

Don’t weave in and out of parked cars. Stay on a straight and predictable path.

Riding with One Hand
Riding with one hand is an important skill to master, so that you can communicate your intentions. You will need a free hand to signal your turns, in addition to looking over your shoulder. When practicing, use a level surface, and start by placing one hand on your hip. Continue steering your bicycle in a straight line. Then graduate to signaling turns with this hand. After you have mastered riding with one hand on a level surface, practice doing so on hills. This will come in handy when you need to merge with traffic on an incline.

There are 2 benefits to scanning: you will see others and others will see you. Scanning communicates that you are a responsible road user, willing to communicate and follow traffic laws. Scanning is useful in all directions, but it is particularly helpful to learn how to scan to the rear. Typically, you will scan to the rear on your left side. In some instances, you may want to place your left hand on your left hip (stabilizing your body), in order to look back. In other instances, you may want to keep both hands on the handlebars, more briefly looking to your left. Scanning can communicate to a motorist or another cyclist that you are about to change your path.

Scanning to the rear is helpful in telling motorists that you are preparing to merge.

Making Turns
When turning, you should always use a hand signal (unless you need both hands to maintain control). For left turns, extend your left arm to the left, and for right turns, extend your right arm to the right. Consider 2 questions when making a turn: 1) Am I in the correct lane? 2) Am I in the correct position in that lane?

When making a right turn, you should generally be in the right lane on the right side of that lane. You may want to ride in the center of that lane though, particularly if the lane is narrow, and if you want to be more visible. If there are two right turn lanes, you should be in the far right lane, unless you will need to merge to the left after turning.

When making a left turn on a lower volume 2-lane, 2-way road, you should position yourself in the center of your travel lane so that vehicles cannot ride up on your left, thus preventing your turn.

When making a left-hand turn on a 2-lane street, position yourself behind other vehicles, and not to their right.

If you are making a left-hand turn on a road with more than 2 lanes, merge across lanes one at a time. Before your turn, check over your left shoulder for traffic to your left, and move over as opportunities arise. Always use scanning and hand signals, so that other motorists and cyclists understand your intentions.

If there are 2 left turn lanes, you should be in the right lane, on the right hand side of that lane. Again, you may want to ride in the center of that lane, if it is narrow. You may also turn in the far left lane, particularly if you will need to merge left after turning. If left turns do not feel comfortable, you can always ride ahead on the right side of the street, and then ride or walk to the left using the perpendicular crosswalk.

As a general rule, position yourself on the ride side of a left turn lane, so that you can easily ride onto the right-hand side of the intersecting street.

Merging in Traffic
Always check over your shoulder and signal when merging. Move over one lane at a time. When you are transitioning from a sidewalk to a street, use these merging techniques.

Riding Defensively
Scanning is the most powerful tool you can use to keep yourself safe. Motorists in Minneapolis aren’t always accustomed to looking for cyclists, since cycling accounts for only 1% to 3% of trips. Be prepared to stop short and veer out of the path of inattentive motorists, especially when traffic is heavy.

Using Bike Lanes
On-street bike lanes are intended for the exclusive or preferential use of cyclists. Pay attention to the directional arrows on each bike lane (particularly downtown), to ensure that you are traveling in the correct direction. If the bike lane is full of snow or debris, you are not obligated to ride in it. Furthermore, if you need to make a turn or avoid a stopped vehicle, or if you approach a bike lane which ends, don’t feel that you have to dismount and use the sidewalk. All vehicle lanes are open to cyclists. Simply scan, signal, and merge. If a bike lane is located partially within the door zone, ride toward the edge of the bike lane away from parked cars. Read more in the Bike Lanes Brochure (pdf) .

At the end of a bike lane, cyclists should merge into traffic.

Bike helmets are a form of inexpensive insurance against traumatic injury. They are particularly useful when riding in traffic. Most bicycle deaths and permanently disabling bicycle accidents are due to head injuries. Make sure that your helmet is fairly snug. Additionally, wear it in a level fashion, so that most of your forehead is protected.

Sidewalk Riding
As a rule, bicycles are safer on the road than on a typical city sidewalk. Sidewalks are generally designed for pedestrians traveling at 2 to 3 mph, while bicycles travel at 5-20 mph. Sightlines at sidewalks are oftentimes shorter and narrower, and motorists don’t anticipate a fast moving bicycle on sidewalks at intersections. However, cyclists have the right to ride on sidewalks in Minneapolis (except in business districts). If and when you ride on a sidewalk, remember to yield the right-of-way to pedestrians. This means slowing down, giving a comfortable berth when passing, and announcing your presence if necessary. Travel slowly as you approach intersections and alleys. Cyclists have the right-of-way at marked crosswalks and at intersections with unmarked crosswalks, but they must ensure that road users have the ability to stop before entering the crosswalk. Off-street paths are considered to be sidewalks.

Many off-street bike paths have marked crosswalks across streets. You have the rights and responsibilities of a pedestrian in these situations.

Last updated Oct. 21, 2011