Biking is on the rise: Here’s how to stay safer on the road.

By Lauren Phillips
June 25, 2020
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If you think you’ve been seeing more people of all ages on bicycles in your community lately, you’re not imagining it: Biking is having a bit of a moment. With the coronavirus crisis and ongoing outbreaks across the country keeping gyms closed and making crowded public transportation feel like an unnecessary risk, more and more people are hitting the road on two wheels for recreation, exercise, and transportation. (The fact that fewer cars are on roads in certain places helps, too.)

“Biking is a super safe activity to do right now,” says Eric Bjorling, brand director for Trek Bicycle. A nationwide survey from Trek in April revealed a spike in biking interest: Bjorling says 85 percent of people view biking as a safer form of transportation than a bus or other forms of public transit, and 50 percent say they’re going to bike move after the coronavirus crisis ends.

The sudden surge in interest in biking has contributed to a bicycle shortage in the U.S., The New York Times has previously reported, and retailers of bikes and bike gear are seeing huge growth in sales. “We’re doing probably two to three times the volume [of sales] we usually do this time of year,” says Gloria Hwang, CEO and founder of Thousand, a helmet and bike gear company.

With more riders on roads and paths—including adults who potentially haven’t biked in a few years—it’s important for everyone, bikers and drivers alike, to respect the rules of the road. Biking on roads and paths isn’t a dangerous activity, but biking safely requires a little know-how and care. Whether you’re used to taking your family out for bike rides or you’re planning on traveling around your city by bike in the coming months and years, following these guidelines can keep you (and everyone around you) safe.

Drivers must pass written and practical tests before they’re allowed on the road; bikers should also study up on what’s allowed in their area before biking, particularly if they’re planning on using surface streets. Laws and protections for bike riders vary a little by area, but most areas in the U.S. have similar guidelines.

“A bike is a vehicle,” Hwang says. “I think that’s something people forget. Have the same etiquette as a car would have while you’re on the road.”

This includes staying off sidewalks, riding with traffic, using signals—hand signals, in this case—to announce your intentions, and obeying traffic lights. Many seasoned bikers may roll through a stop sign or light if there’s no oncoming traffic, but this is technically unlawful.

Hwang recommends that bikers consider themselves a car: If there’s no bike lane, legally, bikers are allowed to ride in the middle of a road lane. Other road users—namely, aggressive drivers—will behave otherwise, but if the safest part of the road for you is the center of the lane, you are allowed to ride there. Biking in the middle of the road increases visibility for you, though if it’s safe for you to ride on the shoulder or near the edge of the lane, etiquette dictates that you move over to allow faster vehicles (aka, cars) to pass when there is room.

“The more respect you give, the more respect you get,” Bjorling says, adding that bikers should always pay attention to what’s going on around them. (That means no biking with loud music playing in your ears, and no biking and texting.) Even if you know the rules, cars around you (or other bikers) may not, or they may not respect them. Staying aware of what’s happening around you can keep you safe if another vehicle behaves aggressively or unlawfully.

If you’re biking in a new area, research the rules applying to bikes before you start pedaling.

Nowadays, leaving plenty of space between yourself and other bikes and cars is both a safety measure and a health one. For safety, Hwang recommends leaving three feet of space between yourself and moving cars or bikes. Leave plenty of space while passing others, and don’t tailgate a slower biker riding in front of you. For bonus points, announce yourself, especially when passing runners or slower bikers: A simple “on your left” suffices.

On bike paths and roads alike, riding together is fine. “It’s totally OK to bike next to someone, as long as you’re going back to single file when there’s someone else,” Bjorling says. “Cyclists can ride two abreast most places in the country.” Biking next to each other may be better left to quiet bike paths or empty roads, though: Cars and faster bikers will have a harder time passing you on busier streets. Fall back to single file in those situations, then resume biking next to each other once the other vehicle has passed.

The social distancing requirements we’re all following to slow the spread of COVID-19 apply to cycling, too, even if you are outdoors. “If you are riding with someone you’re not quarantining with, you might just have to make some adjustments as to where you’re riding,” Bjorling says. Do your best to stay six feet apart, and find a time to ride together when paths are mostly empty, so you can stay distanced while still chatting.

“Ride predictably: no sudden movements, no unexpected movements,” Bjorling says. Swerving between lanes or turning suddenly can unnerve other cyclists and drivers alike; protect yourself—and them—by moving carefully. “Let people around you know what your intentions are before you do it,” Bjorling says.

Bjorling and Hwang both recommend the use of hand signals. Indicate a left turn by holding your left arm out straight to the side; indicate a right turn by making an L-shape with your left arm or by holding your right arm out straight to the side.

And if you’re an unsteady biker—or biking with kids just ditching their training wheels—you may be better off sticking to bike paths where no cars are present.

A helmet is a must. In many areas, children are legally required to wear helmets; laws for adults vary, but the science is clear: Wearing a helmet is the safe way to go.

“Helmet first,” Bjorling says. “Every ride, people should be wearing helmets. You don’t wear your helmet for the 99 times you don’t fall—you wear your helmet for the one time you do.”

In addition to a helmet, Hwang says bike riders should focus on protective tools that increase their visibility: namely, bike lights. (Some protective gear, such as Thousand’s new Chapter Collection helmets, offer a combo of head protection and built-in lights.) Even if you’re not biking at night, lights can help protect you: Bjorling says most bike accidents occur in daylight.

Baskets, cell phone holders, and other bike attachments can further help keep you safe by leaving your hands free.

RELATED: Biking More Lately? Here’s How to Wear and Care for Your Bike Helmet

If you plan to commute to work by bike, plan ahead. Get a bag—ideally a backpack—with accessible pockets you can reach while in motion. If you plan to bike in your work clothes, make sure your pants won’t get caught in the bike chain by rolling the hem up, Hwang says. And fear of messing up your hair isn’t an excuse to not wear a helmet: Bjorling carries a haircare kit with him when he bikes, so he can fix his hair quickly upon arrival.

A missing bike can put your day on hold. Avoid it by using a sturdy bike lock, and attaching your bike correctly: Hwang says to make sure the lock goes through your front wheel and the bike frame, and to make sure it’s all locked to something that sticks into the ground. (Make sure you’re allowed to lock your bike somewhere before leaving it.)

It’s important that bike riders practice good safety habits on the road; it’s equally important that cars allow them to. As a driver, the safety of everyone on the road is up to you, too.

“With the uptick in cycling that we’re seeing right now, there’s going to be a lot more children biking on the road,” Bjorling says. When driving, watch out for small children on bikes, particularly in neighborhoods. Give them more space—even more than you think is necessary—and slow down.

Hwong says drivers should remember that bikers are very unprotected and avoid honking at them: Honking at a biker can startle them into crashing their bike, causing an accident. (Plus, in most cases, bikers aren’t behaving in unlawful ways, even if they are irritating you.)

When passing a biker, give them plenty of space—a minimum of three feet—and move lanes if possible. When parking on the street or getting out of a car, check before opening the door to make sure bikers aren’t approaching; getting “doored,” or hit with a car door that is suddenly opened, is a common concern among urban bikers.

However you interact with bikes—whether in a car or on a bike—on the road, get used to it: Both Bjorling and Hwang expect the popularity of biking to continue to grow. 2018 data from the U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy reveals that almost 60 percent of vehicle trips in the country are six miles or less, a very bikeable distance for most able-bodied people.

“You can already tell that, from a vehicle perspective, it doesn’t make sense that we’re so car-dependent when the trips are so short,” Hwang says.

Plus, the benefits of biking are hard to ignore. Bjorling says it’s a trend we’re going to see for a while, and that biking more frequently is associated with improved community health and living standards.

With some improvements to protections for bikers and bike-friendly infrastructure, biking as a form of transportation can be even safer and accessible for many people. Making spaces for cyclists safer and more abundant, both experts agree, is the next step.