Screen shot 2014-07-23 at 8.38.02 PM

I’ve been zipping around town on Divvy bikes for a few months now. (And have recently been reunited with my actual bike, and it feels so light in comparison.) I keep hearing over and over from other folks that they’d like to bike in Chicago … they’re just too scared to do so. Which I totally understand, that’s what kept me from biking for awhile.

When it comes to cost and time, biking is quite an efficient way to get around the city. When I needed to get to McCormick Place for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Chicago expo, it would have taken me 40 minutes by bus (plus wait time), or $10 by cab, or 20 minutes for “free” by bike. Commuting by bike during rush hour can be a little bit quicker than taking the CTA. Plus you get in a workout and you don’t have to deal with fellow commuters in your personal space. An annual Divvy membership is $75 … cheaper than one month of taking the CTA every day, and you don’t have to worry about theft. Also, if you live a mile from the nearest L station (as we do), it can be a lot easier to bike to certain places than taking public transit (and cheaper than UberX).

20140518-155706.jpg

Have I convinced you yet? Here are my tips for getting over your fear of urban cycling …

Wear a helmet. There is no law requiring cyclists to wear helmets, but I like my skull intact. So I just deal with helmet hair – I often wear a braid when I cycle, and sometimes pull my bangs back with a clip or one of my many cute no-slip headbands. (I also keep a hair dryer at my desk at work, because we have a locker room where I can shower after pre-work workouts. So I can easily fix my hair.)

Pretend you’re a car. Legally, cyclists have to follow the same rules of the road as cars. So, stop at red lights and stop signs, use the right lane to turn right and the left lane to turn left, don’t go the wrong way down one ways, yield to pedestrians, etc. There are some exceptions (in the bike lanes), but follow the rules of the road. That’s what cars expect you to do. Especially the stopping at red lights and stop signs. I don’t understand cyclists who speed through intersections … seriously, that’s how you die. 

I highly recommend taking this Bike Safety Quiz from the League of Illinois Bicyclists to brush up on the bike rules of the road.

Start on the side streets. It took a bit before I ventured out of residential neighborhoods and biked in the Loop (aka downtown Chicago). For my first couple rides, I didn’t even venture onto main roads, and stuck to side streets. So, do a few “practice” rides on quiet streets while you get comfortable. The great thing about Chicago’s grid system is that you can get around almost totally on side streets. And if you Divvy, there is nothing wrong with Divvy’ing part of your trip, and then walking or taking public transit the rest of the way. Eventually you’ll get comfortable riding in the Loop.

Be more wary of parked cars. Cars that are driving around you (particularly behind you) see you. Don’t worry [too much] about them. I’m more worried about getting doored by someone in a parked car, or about a parked car pulling into traffic suddenly. So I generally give a wider berth to parked cars than cars in traffic. Don’t worry if you feel like you’re “blocking” traffic. Traffic is slow in Chicago. They can wait until they get a chance to go around you.

Be seen. Divvy bikes have flashing lights in front and back. But if you have your own bike and plan to ride after dark, get front and tail lights. And regardless, wear something bright and reflective if you can. Put reflectors on your helmet (I need to do this). Po Campo sells cute reflective pins you can wear.

Don’t be afraid to go slow. I stop for all red lights and stop or slow down for all stop signs. And a lot of times, other cyclists blaze past me when I do. (Again, I don’t get it … do they have a death wish?) They also pass me when we’re riding on the road. I’m OK with this. It’s not a race.

Plan your route before you go. I’m always consulting Google Maps for the best route. For example, if I need to get out of the Loop during rush hour, I want to avoid roads that have on-ramps to the expressway, as those have more traffic (and traffic back-ups). Monroe and 16th St are good options for this. I also want to avoid the busiest roads or most traffic-congested stretches. So I usually plan my route before I get on a bike, and also have some alternatives in mind. (It helps that I seem to have inherited my father’s natural sense of direction and almost photographic memory of maps.) There is nothing wrong with pulling to the side of the road (safely) and consulting the map app on your phone mid-ride. Route is a good app to suggest a route and the best Divvy stations to use.

You can avoid left turns. I usually try to make left turns from one-ways or onto one-ways or on side streets, but have occasionally made them in larger 4-way intersections. Sometimes I happen upon the intersection at the right time that traffic behind me and in front of me is clear and I can jet over. Otherwise, if there is a left turn lane and protected left turn arrow, and a car already waiting to make a left turn (which guarantees the left turn arrow will be activated), that’s a good bet. Usually though, I do the sneak around. Stay on the far right. Go through the intersection, and then when you get to the other side, stop and wait for the light to proceed across. Like the Pedestrian Left Turn below:

Bicycle-left-turn400

Stay out of the right turn lane (if you’re going straight). Generally, you want to ride as far to the right as possible (without putting yourself at risk of getting doored.) But if you are stopped at an intersection, and want to go straight, you don’t want to block cars from making right turns. So, wait just to the left of the right turn lane. I often pull up so that I’m almost in the crosswalk, and sometimes a little bit in front of the waiting traffic that will go straight. That’s OK. As soon as the light turns green, you’ll get out of their way. Also, it’s OK to ride to the front of traffic at red lights (if you stay on the right and do so safely). You want drivers to see you, and you also don’t want to hang out behind a bus and it’s exhaust.

Pass polietly. If you’re passing other cyclists (I so rarely do this), say “on your left.” It can avoid an accident. Generally cyclists should cycle single-file. If you know you’re a slow cyclist, when you get to a red light (particularly on roads popular with cyclists), move to the side so faster cyclists can go ahead of you when the light changes.

Be aware. Pay attention. Be ready to brake at any time. Keep your seat low enough so that you can put your feet on the ground – this makes it much easier to stop at intersections.

Anything else? How did you ease into urban cycling? Or, if you don’t cycle, is there anything else holding you back?