7 Tips for Bike Commuting on Busy Roads

Bike commuting on busy roads is something that many cyclists have to face, but it shouldn’t stop you from getting out on the bike and cycling to work more often than not.

Big cities and high volumes of traffic can be daunting, but you can do lots of different things to minimize the risks and improve your cycling experience.

So, here are 7 tips for bike commuting on busy roads:

  1. Don’t undertake (ever)
  2. Start turns early
  3. Don’t ride in the gutter
  4. Only use a good bike
  5. Wear an anti-pollution mask
  6. Take the (quieter) scenic route
  7. Wear reflective clothing and accessories

With that noted, let’s make sure you get the full low-down on all the points above by going through each one in more depth to give you the confidence, knowledge and inspiration to make your bike commute in a busy environment a success.

Don’t undertake (ever)

If cycle commuting in a busy area, it’s often quite tempting to get around any kind of traffic jam by just weaving in and out of the traffic.

Being on a bike, you don’t have to sit there at the back of the line and wait your turn – you can just jump the queue and get to your work that bit faster.

But the problem is that you might well end up ‘undertaking’ some vehicles to have to get there. If you’re not sure, undertaking is when you pass a vehicle by going around the wrong side of them (i.e. to their right in the USA).

By undertaking the vehicles in front of you, although this might not be technically illegal when cycling on a road in the USA, it is seriously dangerous in that drivers just do not expect to see you there.

As per the rules of the road, there should be no-one or ‘no thing’ that could possibly be in that position while on the road, so drivers will not be checking for this in their wing mirror.

If they have to make a quick change of direction to avoid an obstacle up ahead, chances are that they will swerve to the side you’re undertaking on to get out of the way, which could spell disaster for you while riding in their blind spot.

The golden rule here is to wait your turn at the stoplights and don’t try to swerve, weave and work your way to the front by undertaking other vehicles as this only serves to massively increase your chances of being hit and saves very little time on your commuter journey.

Start turns early

Riding along on your way to work will inevitably involve turns. The problem is that you don’t get to choose exactly who is behind you when making your turns.

Turning off to the right in is easy enough since you can just put your arms up, slow down a little then make your turn, nice and simple.

However, turning left (across the lane of oncoming traffic) has a couple of issues that can be worrying and a little stressful, but it doesn’t have to be.

First thing to remember: turning left needs time and some ‘planning’ when you’re out on your bike. Keep focused on the road and make sure you look over your shoulder to judge the nearest car to you and their driving or even mood. If they look aggressive, best is to just let them pass and even risk missing the turn.

When you see a good opportunity, put your arm out and make your way to the middle of the road, slowly but surely. You’d probably want to start the process earlier than you think, just to be sure.

If you leave this too late, you might end up swerving, leaving the drivers behind you surprised and with little time to change course, especially if they are trying to overtake you without you realising.

Think of it as fading into the position for the turn, edging your way into the middle of the road. You’ll probably find the best chance to start your move for a turn right as one car overtakes you, or just when you see a more respectful driver behind you.

Thinking about these few things should give you the confidence and awareness to make difficult turns in rush hour traffic on your way to work.

Don’t ride in the gutter

This is something I was guilty of when I first started out: I was often riding apologetically close to the sidewalk and often at risk of hitting the kerb.

The problem here being that, as soon as you need to get out of the way of something, dodge a pothole or just some discard obstacle on the road, you’ve got nowhere to go except into the unforgiving kerb!

With this in mind, even in high-traffic areas, always stay about 1.5-2 yards out from the kerb to give yourself enough ‘wiggle room’ to make any adjustments for things that come your way (and they will from time to time!).

The same is true for riding past parked cars on your bike commute. Give yourself more than a door’s width of space to allow for anyone jumping out of a car, especially since many people will do this on sound alone or just for looking for cars in a rear-view mirror.

The other time when it is really important to allow enough space between you and the gutter is when you are being overtaken as these kinds of maneuvers are often quite aggressive, fast and unpredictable.

Drivers who are overtaking you don’t always leave enough time to do it and can end up swerving back at you, so be ready to have to give way a little to these drivers, the best way being to leave yourself that room between you and the gutter as your safe space!

Only use a good bike

The last thing you want in a stressful bike commuting situation is a bike that just won’t do what you need.

Unreliable bikes are not only frustrating, but they can also be downright dangerous. I know from years of riding cheap and worn-out bikes, things go wrong with those kinds of bikes at the wrong times, generally exactly when you need them to perform!

The main thing that I’ve had go wrong with old bikes is the gears slipping. This means that your pedals can suddenly ‘pop’ and lose all resistance, causing you to lose balance and be almost free-wheeling for a second. Not a good feeling in the middle of busy rush hour traffic while on your bike!

The key to avoiding this is by regularly servicing your bike, be it by hand in your garage or home, or by paying a few bucks in a local bike store.

They will see the issues before they become problematic and tell you what’s going and on be able to fix them in good time.

The thing I’ve found about having my bike maintained is that I’m often expecting prices like when I get my car fixed, but it’s usually about 10% of that, which is understandable and also welcome!

The point here is that, if you think your bike is not up to regular commuting on busy roads, either look at getting it fixed, or just get a new one. You’ll be safer, less stressed and probably have a lot more confidence in riding on a bike to work.

Wear an anti-pollution mask

This one is not the ‘perfect’ solution, but it can help you in the long-term. Getting an anti-pollution mask for cycling on busy roads is a good option to help protect your lungs from the nasty air pollutants from the motorised vehicles around you.

Although there aren’t really any dedicated bike pollution masks at the time of writing, I’ve found the Airinum mask to work well.

I chose this one since it has an N99 filter, which means it filters out 99% of pollutants and particulates (or tiny particles) floating in the air. OK, so these filters still leave 1%, but it’s 99% better than nothing!

Added to this is that deep breaths in polluted environments can have negative effects on your health, so you really don’t want to be taking the chances in the long term.

Me testing out the anti-pollution mask I had for my birthday

Take the (quieter) scenic route

If cycling to work on your usual busy route is getting you down, then there is one other thing you can try, the scenic route!

Well, maybe it won’t be ‘scenic’ in the sense of hills and natural landscapes, but in all likelihood you can find a way to avoid at least some of the busiest parts of your cycling commute by taking an alternative route.

It’s also likely that another route might be slower, but if it is more enjoyable, then you really do win from the reduced stress and anxiety of being stuck on busy roads the whole time. Just remember to give yourself a little more time and you probably won’t feel the extra 5 or so minutes that it adds to your journey.

It might also take a while to figure out the best route but keep at it and you can no doubt cut some of the traffic out of your ride to work.

Wear reflective clothing and accessories

Traditionally, everyone thought hi-viz clothing was the way to go for safety when riding a bike on a road. However, recent research has shown that some drivers actually drive closer to cyclists when they see them wearing hi-viz, which is pretty worrying in itself.

What you really want to do, though, is wear reflective clothing and accessories on every part of your body possible as this comes into its own in low-light or dark conditions, or even in the rain when most vehicles will have their lights on.

This is because the reflective detail on clothing and accessories actually bounces back any light that shines on it, meaning it reflects some of the light from cars back at the drivers. This can make you stand out a heck of a lot more in low-light or dark conditions, giving you more visibility to drivers on the busy roads around you.

To add to the above, the best place to wear these reflective items is on the moving parts of your body as these draw most attention, so extremities like your feet, lower legs and hands work well.

I added spoke reflectors to my old commuter bike for added visibility at night

Related Questions

Is it legal to ride a bike on the highway? Generally, it is not legal to ride a bicycle on the highway in the USA, although there are some specific (and rare) sections of the highways network that allow this. Arizona, Wyoming and Oregon are examples of US states that do allow cycling on highways.

However, even in said states, cycling on highways is usually not allowed around or near major urban centres or cities. Cycling is also only allowed in such places if there is not an alternative route that is equal to or better than the highway in question.

Why do cyclists ride with traffic? Cyclists ride with traffic because their route means that they have no other option, the cycleway or path is of poor quality or simply because taking the road is the fastest route. Roads often have better maintained surfaces than cycleways.

Cyclists looking to go fast are the most common riders in traffic and you will often see them with aerodynamic road bikes racing along the roads.

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