How to drive around bicyclists

Before you start, my dear commenters - yes, I am aware that not all bicyclists follow the rules of the road. For what it’s worth, I do. But this article is not about that. My goal here is to educate people who drive cars about how to minimize their risk of hurting or killing a person riding a bicycle, an effort I think we should all be able to get behind.

Much has been made of the supposed "war" between people who drive cars and people who ride bikes in Philadelphia. I’ll always maintain that my positive interactions far outnumber the negative ones, but I’ll acknowledge that over the years I've accumulated my fair share of scary stories - drivers trying to run me off the road, passing too close, yelling that I should be on the sidewalk, aggressively honking, and the like. Occasionally, this is because motorists have some genuine road rage they're choosing to take out on me, but most of the time, it's just plain ol’ lack of understanding about how to drive around bicycles.

If you're a motorist who chooses to take out your road rage on innocent humans who are riding bicycles, I feel sorry for you, and there is not much I can do except get out of the way (and occasionally call 911). If you're in the other category, though - your heart starts racing when you see a bicyclist ahead of you; you're not sure what to do; it all just feels very stressful - I hear you.

I'm here to help.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when driving around bicyclists.

1. People riding bicycles are allowed in the middle of the travel lane.

Bicyclists don’t have to squeeze all the way to the side, and in fact, it’s not really safe for them to be over there. I hear stories all the time of people opening parked-car doors into bicyclists. (Side note: Check for bikes before you open your door, please!) We’re not in the middle of the street to be jerks - we’re just there so we don’t get hurt. This doesn’t mean you can never pass. You just have to know when and how to do it safely. Which leads me to …

2. Technically, you’re required to pass with 4 feet of space between your car and the bicyclist.

Usually that means moving over to another lane to pass, just as you would for another car (except in this case, you’re even allowed to cross a double-yellow line). On one-lane streets, this means having some patience and waiting until there is enough space to pass safely. Safety should trump speed. For what it’s worth, I personally move over to let cars pass when I get to a stop sign if I feel as if I’m slowing them significantly. Mid-block on one-lane streets, though, it’s usually too dangerous.

3. Adults are not allowed to ride bicycles on Philadelphia sidewalks.

Kids 12 and younger are allowed, but not grown-ups. You might not like that there’s a bike in the middle of the lane, but pedestrians don’t like it when we’re on the sidewalk, so please take a deep breath and share the road. Sidewalks are for walking!

4. You’re supposed to look at the road, not at your phone.

Unlike some of these other rules that people might not know about, everybody knows this one. And yet, rarely a day passes when I don’t have to interact with a motorist who is paying more attention to Instagram than to the huge piece of machinery he or she is operating. Please look at the road while driving. Lives depend on it. When you look at your phone while driving, what you’re communicating to me is that you do not value my life.

5. Make eye contact, check your mirrors, use your turn signals.

Hint: This is a lot harder to do if you’re texting. This is basic communication and awareness - doing more of it will make you a better driver in general, and definitely make you a safer driver around bicyclists. Don’t forget that there could be a bike lane on your right side to check before you turn across it.

OK, so you understand the rules. Awesome! Don’t stop there. Here are a few more pointers that are just as important:

6.  Save your honking for emergencies.

You might not realize this if you haven’t ridden a bike near cars, but bicyclists can always hear when there’s a car behind them. “Courtesy honks” just to let a bicyclist know you’re there are unnecessary and confusing. And a honk, especially a surprise one coming from two feet behind a cyclist, can be really terrifying (they’re a lot louder when you’re not inside a car!).

7. Leapfrog is fun on the playground, not fun in traffic.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been passed by a motorist only to get to the next red light at the exact same time as the car that passed me. On a lot of Center City streets, a bicyclist can easily keep pace with the rest of traffic. There’s no rule that says a car “must” pass a bicycle just because it’s there.

8.  When you do pass a bicyclist, don’t do it at superspeed.

Especially if you’re passing closer than 4 feet. I think sometimes drivers take an “I just want this situation to be over as fast as possible” approach and jam their foot on the gas, which can be really scary from the bicyclist’s perspective. Take a few extra seconds to scoot past carefully, and we’ll all be safer.

9. Take a deep breath.

Please, no matter what happened at work today, no matter if you’re annoyed at the bicyclist who came before me, don’t lose sight of the fact that I’m a real human being riding my bike here, and I’m just trying to get where I’m going safely. I need your help to make that happen.

Thank you. And click here for more details on the city's laws.   

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