How to Get Over Your Fear of Urban Cycling

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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).

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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:

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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? 

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16 Comments on “How to Get Over Your Fear of Urban Cycling”

  1. I stopped in the middle of reading this post to find the reflective stickers I knew I had, and put some on my bike helmet!

    I don’t think I intend to ride in truly urban areas here (i.e., downtown Portland), but I am trying to use my bike to do some “commuting” to the grocery store, friends’ houses, etc. in the suburban busier streets. I’m gradually getting more comfortable with it (or, rather, less uncomfortable). Going out of my way to avoid left turns at busier intersections is definitely the biggest thing I do to make it feasible.

  2. I joined Divvy last month after not riding a bike outdoors for 7 years. And as I live in the South Loop and work/workout in the Loop area, I pretty much just ride in the Loop. It really isn’t so bad as several of the streets have bike lanes and more are getting them.

    I agree with the helmet – get one! It’s just silly not to. I also wonder about the cyclists who don’t follow the traffic laws…they must like to play with fire I guess.

    1. I agree that Loop bike riding is not that bad – the rules are the same, there are lots of bike lanes and lots of one way streets. It’s really not that bad. I’m more worried about pedestrians and other cyclists than I am cars (or buses) in the Loop.

  3. I definitely needed this post! I tried a friend’s road bike when I was living in the city, and I was terrified. I wore a helmet and followed the rules, but the buses made me SO nervous (I was in North Center). I do think I just need to get used to it, and now that I am out in the ‘burbs, perhaps it will be less intimidating?

    1. That’s why my first few rides were on side streets with no buses and not much car traffic. Definitely helped me ease into it.

      I don’t know if the burbs would be better or worse. At least in the city, the cars know to look out for cyclists and we have dedicated lanes. In the burbs though, you probably have more quiet side streets on which to bike, and less pedestrians to look out for. Also, I didn’t bring this up, but I have yet to bike on the LFT. Honestly, I’d rather stick to streets than deal with that clusterf***.

    1. It’s a lot of fun once you get the hang out it, and honestly it does not take very long to get the hang of it! 🙂 These days I prefer cycling to running but that’s probably because of my knee. And I FAR prefer cycling to taking public transit.

      1. The cars and traffic freak me out. But I know it is just that I need to get the hang of it. I am glad to see that you enjoy it. I heard on the news or somewhere that they’re looking to possible expand it somehow and rent helmets. Of course I thought of you.

  4. I like this post… mainly because I LOVE the idea of a bike commute but it scares me… like a LOT. I think I would be ok in the morning getting to work simply because I get to work so early, which helps with the traffic thing. I really just need to bite the bullet and do it…

    1. Do some practice rides in your neighborhood before you attempt a bike commute. At first, I was only Divvy’ing home from Pilates class (not even 2 miles from my apartment) for maybe a month before I attempted Divvy’ing home from work. Also, the nice thing about Divvy is you can take it one way. I often take the bus to work and then Divvy home. So you could take Divvy to work and then go home the usual way until you feel ready to Divvy home too. However if you have your own bike, that’s trickier.

  5. Great tips! I’ve only biked once in the city and it was a bit scary. Suburban cycling is pretty awesome only because you can take the less traveled back roads!

    My newest tip is to not ride too far right. I’ve found that if I ride just inside the white line on roads then cars are much more likely to cross the yellow middle line and go wide but if I am just on the other side of the line they will just try to “squeeze” by and not give me much room. Of course, if there is a big shoulder that is really nice!

    1. I try to ride as far to the left as I can because I don’t want to get doored. Although I was honked at this weekend! WTF dude in the SUV. Where do you expect me to go?

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