Thursday, July 16, 2009

Five Things You Should Never Do On A Bicycle

I am holding myself out as an expert in what not to do while bicycling in the city. I declare myself such not because I consider myself an exceptionally skilled urban cyclist; nor do I do so because am I a boyscout when it comes to following the rules. It's just that I have violated most of what a good urban biker should do and have paid a price for having done so. Thanks, therefore, to my foolishly acquired knowledge of bad biking, and my legitimately acquired knowledge of the law, I share with you in no particular order 5 things you should never, ever do while riding a bike in the city:

1. Don't salmon: I have borrowed this term from blogger Bike Snob NYC who is known for deriding this practice. Salmon, of course, are hardwired to swim against river currents. Similarly, some bicyclists are inclined to ride the wrong way on one way streets. Not only does this practice violate Chicago Municipal Code, it is truly one of the more dangerous things you can do on a bike. Motor vehicles tend not to notice cyclists on city streets when they ride with traffic. If you are doing something wholly unexpected like riding in the wrong direction you are really asking to get hit. Furthermore, if you are in an accident with a vehicle while salmoning and you are seriously injured your chances of recovering from the driver in a lawsuit are slim to none. A jury will likely see your injuries as being the result of your own negligent conduct.

2. Don't ride on the sidewalk: In Chicago "no person shall ride a bicycle upon a sidewalk within a business district." A business district is an area of the city zoned for retail shops, service and commercial use. Outside such districts you must be younger than 12 years old to legally ride on a sidewalk. Frankly, unless you are a small child, riding on the sidewalk is dangerous and plain annoying to other walkway users. Bicycles are to be ridden in the street, period. If you do not feel comfortable riding in the roadway find a bicycle designated path on which to ride. Do not infringe upon pedestrians' use and enjoyment of city sidewalks.

3. Don't ride without lights at night: Several years ago I was hit head on by a motorist while salmoning at night without lights. I was not hurt but I did become a candidate for the dumbass biker of the year award. Even without doubling down on the danger by riding against traffic, riding without a light at night is dangerous. Of course, the city never really gets all that dark thanks to street lighting. But the city is full of distractions for all roadway users, so the purpose of riding with lights is to help motorists see you. The relevant Chicago ordinance states, "Every bicycle when in use at nighttime shall be equipped with a head lamp which shall emit a white light visible from a minimum distance of 500 feet from the front and with a rear red reflector capable of reflecting the head lamp beams of an approaching motor vehicle back to the operator of such vehicle at distances up to 200 feet or a rear lamp emitting a red light visible from a distance of at least 200 feet from the rear."

4. Don't skitch: Some of us may recognize this term from childhood. This practice can involve grabbing onto a car bumper on an icy road to go along for the ride. I've seen many bicyclists in the city grab onto taxis and other vehicles in order to get a free ride. To call this activity dangerous and stupid would be an understatement. Don't even think about it.

5. Don't carry an extra person: I often see adolescents carry a second bike rider on their handlebars. It always makes me cringe. The other day I even saw an adult carrying a very young child on his bicycle in this way. It is very dangerous and against the law. Unless you're riding a bicycle built for two (and please don't do that either. It just looks silly.) avoid this unsafe practice.

There are, of course, other common unsafe ways to ride a bicycle in the city. I wear a helmet while riding and I think others should too. I, and many others, tend to weave through stopped traffic, but those not used to doing so should avoid it. However, the practices I've noted above are in my opinion 5 things no one, regardless of their skill or comfort level, should attempt. Enjoy your bike in the city, but be safe and curtious and no one gets hurt.

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  1. The bicycle culture in Amsterdam is wonderful, and the first four of your rules are all honored there. The fifth, however, is utterly ignored:

    See, e.g.,

    But, of course, when something like half the people in a city use bikes as their primary forms of transportation, the rules of the road can be entirely different. Pedestrians and motorists in Amsterdam DO SEE bikers -- they have to. I have no doubt the photos on the site linked above (which are entirely consistent with my own substantial experience biking and walking in Amsterdam) violate many other rules that would be appropriate in U.S. cities. I have the scars to prove it, unfortunately.

  2. Thanks for the comment. Great photos. I am jealous of the folks in Amsterdam. It seems that they certainly have learned how to create a bike friendly city.

  3. One of my almost-major-incidents in my car was almost hitting an 6-8 year old salmoning in the MIDDLE of the street. I was making a right turn on to a one way street to pick up my wife from work and as I turned the corner, there was a young child (not visible over the tops of parked cars) salmoning. His dad was on the corner I just turned (on the sidewalk, sitting on his bicyle) waiting for jr to catch up! If I had been doing anything other than driving or going a little bit faster, or didn't maintain my tires/brakes, that kid would be dead now due to his father having him salmoning in the street.

    The kid when he saw me got so scared he almost tipped over but recovered. I thought he was going to burst into tears. I just waved to him as he went over to the sidewalk to catch up with dad.

  4. These are great tips for making your self safe when you are riding your bike on the streets. Thanks a lot!


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