A beginner’s guide to cycling in the city

Did you ride a bike as a kid?

I definitely did, spending copious summer afternoons riding in laps in my laolao’s neighborhood. And when I was younger, my laoye took me to school everyday on his bike – back then, biking was how most Chinese people got around, until car culture arrived in the late 90s.

Learning to ride a bike was like a joyful (and painful…?) rite of passage for almost all of us, but at some point, most people stop riding. I stopped biking in high school – for reasons unbeknownst to myself – and when I finally did start biking again after college, it honestly felt life-changing. WHY THE HELL DID I EVER STOP BIKING??!

Now, biking is a big part of my life again. I bike-commute, I join group rides, and I do most of my errands on bike too (thanks to my Ortlieb panniers). I feel healthier, happier, and part of an adventurous and growing community of cyclists. I am also 100% that person who shows up sweaty and stinky at work, but feeling powerful as hell flying past all the cars stuck in rush hour traffic. (Ok I’m not actually stinky; my work has showers!)

Plus, should we talk about the environmental benefits of biking? Cycling is a carbon-neutral activity; bikes take much less resources and energy to make than a car; biking helps reduce congestion, noise and air pollution…(I can go on and on…) A study by ITDP and UC Davis estimated that if 14% of mileage traveled in cities around the world is done by bike or e-bike by 2050, we could cut carbon emissions from urban transportation by 11% (for reference, bikes and e-bikes accounted for ~6% urban trips mileage-wise in 2015).

Ok – are you convinced? Here is a primer on how to bike more in the city, and have fun doing it!

Where to ride

Seek out bike lanes: surveys show that safety is the number 1 barrier for people who want to but don’t currently bike, and the number 1 thing that would make them feel safer is more bike lanes. Thankfully, bike infrastructure is getting better everywhere, and if you live in a relatively large city, you can probably find bike friendly routes online. Google Map’s bike function has gotten somewhat better over the years too.

Ride where everyone else is riding: the power is in the masses! Ever notice a street with lots of cyclists? That’s where you should ride too. Drivers pay more attention when there are more of us, and if a road is known to have many riders, drivers are naturally more cautious on these roads.

Use your common sense: aka, don’t be stupid. Don’t weave around cars, don’t ride against traffic, don’t go on sidewalks, especially when they are full of people.

A beginner's guide to biking in the city

How to ride

Always, always wear a helmet: in an accident (sorry – not to discourage you – they do happen!), wearing a helmet reduces the risks of a serious head injury by nearly 70%, according to one recent, large study. There is an infamous debate online where some cyclists argue that not wearing a helmet will force cities to create a safer environment for people to ride helmet free – don’t listen to them.

Be a cat: as in, always be on high alert. Pay attention to pedestrians and cars (especially parked ones), and learn to read the “body language” of cars. Aaron Tsuru has an excellent article on Medium on the “5 Laws Of Bicycling Survival,” read it, read it, read it.

Use hand signals, and your words: learn how to signal to cars that you are turning, stopping and passing. In group rides, it’s often common courtesy to point out potholes etc. to cyclists behind you. I have a bell on my bike, but I find shouting “PASSING ON YOUR LEFT!” much more effective. (Shouting in like a gentle voice though? You don’t want to startle anybody.)

Be visible: time to pull out your favorite neon outfits, reflective vest, front light, rear light…whatever you do, make sure you can be seen!

When to ride

Start with shorter trips: did you know that 20% of all US vehicle trips are under 1 mile? and 5% are under half a mile?! (See table I made here using government data). Ask yourself: could some of these trips could be realistically replaced with biking or walking?

Join a group: I can’t count with my fingers and toes the reasons why you should ride with a group! Fellow cyclists are your best allies on the road – they are my go-to resources for all things cycling, and they can make your ride safer and more fun. Don’t know anybody? Look for a bike advocacy group in your area: League of American Bicyclists is a nationwide organization; MassBike and Boston Cyclist Union are some of my local orgs. Many of these groups also organize rides, which are some of my favorite group activities. ever.

Boston Bike Party (every 2nd Friday of the month): giving full-grown adults the excuse to be silly and dress up since 2013. This was me and my friend on a 2016 Halloween ride. (Although, 2019 me definitely does not approve how much TP we used here.)

Whenever YOU want to: truthfully, you should ride whenever it works for you, whenever you want to, and whenever you feel comfortable to. Lugging 20 lbs of groceries on your bike is NOT convenient by any means, and I’m not advocating you do that. I’m scared of riding in most weather conditions, so I opt out on rainy, snowy and windy days (which are A LOT of days in New England). Point is, cycling can be a sustained habit only if you feel safe and have a good time doing it, so… do you!

There are so many grounds that I didn’t even touch…so I’m linking a few more articles here:

  1. Feeling overwhelmed and don’t know how to choose a bike? This is a good start.
  2. Not ready to commit to buying? Try a bike share program – things you should know.
  3. How to theft-proof your bike in the city, extremely important!
  4. Tips for first time bike commuters. I strongly echo the “extra clothes at the office” suggestion.
  5. A comprehensive cycling safety guide.