This guide is intended primarily for students who may not be avid cyclists but want to ride their bikes around the UM campus. The few blocks surrounding campus are often flooded with these cyclists, many of whom are riding on sidewalks or on the wrong side of the street. I don't think most of them are intentionally being unlawful or disrespectful – they've simply never learned how to ride downtown. Let's fix that.
Where To Ride
Ninety percent of the time: ride on the street. Your bike does not belong on the sidewalk along State Street. Riding along a sidewalk, especially a busy one, is stupid, dangerous, and disrespectful.
On a bike, you are subject to the same rights (and responsibilities) as the driver of a car. Ride on the right side of the road. Many students think they can/should ride in the opposite direction of traffic. This is an excellent way to get yourself killed. Drivers are not expecting a small, hard-to-see vehicle to be coming toward them, in their lane, at 20 mph. Do not be that small, hard-to-see-vehicle.
On busier, faster, and larger roads, likes Fuller and Plymouth, riding on the sidewalk is generally allowed and encouraged for most cyclists. (Along Fuller, if I recall correctly, the sidewalk is designated as the bike path.) If you are confident that you can safely ride in traffic and more-or-less keep up with the traffic, by all means ride in the road. But if you're reading this post, you probably aren't sufficiently experienced to do that.
See "Coexisting With Pedestrians", below, for additional info on riding on sidewalks.
I often see students biking the wrong way down one-way streets, at night, with no helmet and no lights. These students are suicidal.
Ride with the Cars
This means riding on the road, in the same direction as traffic. Do not ride down the wrong side of a road or the wrong way down a one-way street. Riding toward oncoming traffic is an excellent way to get yourself killed.
Wear a Helmet
I don't care how good you (think you) are; you will eventually crash. When you crash, you really want to keep your brains inside your skull. Helmets cost $20 and accomplish that goal pretty nicely.
I guarantee that, eventually, you will crash, look up, and notice a brick wall or something similarly unforgiving two feet (or, if you're unlucky, less) from your head. If you weren't wearing a helmet, that should scare you into starting. Why not cut out the near-death learning experience and start now?
Put a blinking white light on front of your bike and a blinking red one on back. These are cheap (or free!), and they let drivers see you at night.
Bikes without lights are absolutely invisible at night. Those tiny reflectors on your pedals don't make any difference whatsoever. No drivers can see them. A blinking light is the only way to draw attention to yourself. You really want to do that.
Watch for cars turning
As you approach an intersection, if you're in the bike lane or just to the right of the traffic, watch for cars turning right. Drivers do not usually look right before turning right; they check that nothing's coming from the left, then go. You need to be alert for that and avoid right-turning cars.
In some cases, it is easier just to leave the bike lane and merge into automobile traffic as you approach an intersection. This is safe – it means you're exactly in the right place for cars to see you, because you're right where a car would be. (As always, look over your shoulder for traffic behind you before changing lanes.)
Watch for cars going the opposite direction and turning left in front of you. You're smaller than a car, so they might not see you.
Do not ever trust turn signals.
Coexisting With Cars
Follow the safety rules outlined above, and follow traffic laws. You are subject to red lights, stop signs, etc. Disobeying traffic laws is an excellent way to get everybody mad at you and, eventually, be hit by a car whose driver assumed you were going to stop for that stop sign.
Assume that the cars around you can see you and are trying to kill you. This means you need to be alert and constantly watching your surroundings for drivers doing really stupid things. (This bit of wisdom comes from here.)
When a car hits a bike, the car wins. There are no exceptions. Don't let one hit you.
Coexisting With Pedestrians
At crosswalks, pedestrians have the right of way – you're treated like a car's driver, remember? You'll notice, however, that you're much smaller than a car and can therefore get through busy crosswalks much faster than any car could. (Just don't hit anyone.)
If you must ride on a sidewalk:
- Ride slowly: ride at the speed a runner would be jogging. People are not expecting a cyclist to blow past them on the sidewalk, and doing that is really unsafe.
- Slow down even more: when you're approaching a corner, a doorway, or anywhere that pedestrians could pop out and surprise you, you must slow down to walking speed.
- Look around: constantly be looking around for doorways, interseting sidewalks, and pedestrians. Being alert and aware of your surroundings is more important on the sidewalk than it is on the road.
- Don't be a jerk.
A Quick Note
Following all these rules is annoying. Indeed, you can get places faster if you ignore one-way streets, stop signs, traffic lights, and blast down the sidewalk along South U. Unfortunately, if you ride like that, you will eventually injure some innocent pedestrian or end up in the emergency room.
Consider this: even following all these rules, you still get where you're going many, many times faster than if you were walking.