How To Commute By Bike, Safely

Sep 23, 2015

This Friday evening, a coalition of groups interested in bicycle road safety will rally at the Statehouse. Local Motion, the Vermont Highway Safety Alliance are launching an initiative called the Vermont Road Users pledge:

"I promise to follow the rules of the road, respect the rights of all road users, and share what I know about road safety with others."

In the spirit of that pledge we asked Jason Van Driesche, Local Motion's director of advocacy and education, to give us on-the-road instructions to  commute to work safely by bike.

Lesson 1: You Are Not A Car

"The obvious, logical car route doesn't look so appealing on a bike," says Van Driesche. Instead of substituting for car for your bike and following the same route, look for routes that are safe and more fun, even if it's more mileage and more time.

As an example, Van Driesche takes us on a ride from Winooski to Colchester. He says the Route 15 corridor that connects those cities "is not something I would ever choose to ride on. It's just too scary. There's no shoulder at all and no bike line, and really fast really heavy traffic."  Van Driesche says that kind of roadway if too risky for cycling, in his estimation. "Because if anything goes wrong, who's going to come out with the short end of the stick?"

Instead of taking your bike on your car route, Van Driesche to change your mindset.  "A lot of figuring out where you want to ride on a bike is contextual. It's not just about the street, it's about the time of day, it's about your own energy level and how you're feeling that day."

Lesson 2:  Avoid Messy Intersections

On Route 15 in Winooski, there is an uphill climb where four streets come together at awkward angles, and a train track cuts through the same space.  "Ostensibly, this is a spot where they're expecting people to cross, but looking at everything going on here," Van Driesche surveys the intersection, "nobody stops, and you don't know if somebody's going to go this way or that way. When you're on a bike, one real important principle is avoid unpredictable situations."

And when you can't avoid them, minimize the danger. Here's Van Driesche's tip for crossing train tracks: "You're best bet with railroad tracks is to hit it at a 90 degree angle. If you hit it at a steep angle, you might get your tires caught, and that's no fun."

Lesson 3: Be Consistent When You Ride In Traffic

"I operate on the assumption that being visible and predictable is always going to be my best bet," says our cycling instructor. "If I'm biking in a way where I'm giving [drivers] obvious cues about what I'm doing, and I'm not changing what I'm doing from one second to the next, then there's less for them to be guessing about." Van Driesche says that when riding alongside parked cars, it's better to ride in a straight line, rather than cutting into the curb and back out around a parked car.  This gives helps drivers keep you in their line of sight at all times.

Lesson 4: Have Some Fun, Will Ya?

One of the perks of getting on a bike is the ability to ride through places cars can't go. Look for parks or wooded areas to make your route shorter and more pleasant.  Drivers wouldn't know it, but there's a forested park right off Route 15 that offers a nature-filled shortcut to cyclists.  "All of the sudden we're on a beautiful little single-track going by the old Winooski municipal reservoir," says Van Driesche. "Giant trees and lots of green growing things and all of the sudden its peaceful and quiet."

Lesson 5: Safety First

"I wear a helmet, but it's not the only I do," says Van Driesche. "I'm always really aware of my surroundings, always tracking what's going on around me, making sure I know where cars are, what everybody's doing." And he says, he gives cars plenty of notice and information about what he planning to do. "I always signal when I'm going to make turns," and he talks out loud to drivers, even though they probably can't hear him.

Regardless of the safety measure that cyclists take, Van Driesche says a car is a deadly weapon and it's ultimately drivers who can make the biggest difference to a cyclist's safety. "I'm confident that the vast majority of drivers in Vermont are horrified at the thought of potentially hurting someone who's riding a bike."