Previously, we went over how to deal with static road hazards while riding a bicycle in the city. With the population density of Metro Manila, however, you’ll find that more road hazards are dynamic in nature rather than static. Here are a few tips on how to deal with them.
“ASSUME EVERY DRIVER IS BLIND AND STUPID”
The nugget of wisdom above comes from “AngryAsian” James Huang, formerly of BikeRadar and now tech editor of CyclingTips. The foundation of all other techniques here is to always look ahead and be hyper-aware of your surroundings. Fighter pilots have a concept called “situational awareness” where they maintain a good mental picture of everything going on around their immediate vicinity. The same applies to driving a car, and even more so riding a bike in urban conditions.
To build this mental picture, stitch it together by periodically looking ahead, looking behind, and checking your sides. The key is to keep refreshing this mental picture. As Huang himself says, “You can’t completely control your surroundings, but you can improve your odds.” Once you get into the mindset that drivers and other road users will not necessarily see you, you will gradually accept the need to make yourself visible to them – and act accordingly.
WATCH OTHER VEHICLES’ FRONT WHEELS
The surest way of knowing what a vehicle’s driver is planning to do is to watch his/her front wheels. It’s much easier to act accordingly when you can see what a driver’s intentions are. This comes in handy in so many situations. When a vehicle is parked on the roadside and is trying to leave its slot, the angle where the front wheels are pointed gives the game away.
For a more drastic, harder-to-read example, look no further than your typical multiple-lane road where vehicles are stopped due to traffic lights. Filipino drivers have the knack of changing lanes at the last minute, or shooting into gaps and empty lanes from a stop. Anticipating these movements is all a matter of looking at the front wheels – where they point, the rest of the vehicle will usually follow.
Increasingly, though, drivers are leaving their cars parked at the side of the road with the front wheels steered away from the curb. Be wary of these. The only time this should be done is if the car is parked on an uphill street, meant as a safeguard against rolling backward into traffic when the parking brake fails or isn’t applied.
WATCH OUT FOR DISTRACTED PEDESTRIANS
One personal pet peeve of mine is how oblivious pedestrians can be when crossing the road. The worst offenders are usually hunched over their cell phones while they walk into the street – many times while they’re not signaled to cross.
These are particularly egregious for cyclists. Because cyclists don’t have the same frontal area a car has, many people don’t – or, rather, can’t – accurately judge how fast cyclists are actually riding, and will tend to step into our path thinking we can slow down for them at the last minute…which of course we can’t, because we have only one front wheel to do our braking with. (More on this below.)
Often, the most you can do is to simply give them lots of room or evade them entirely. Again, anticipation is key. It can feel like you have to do the thinking for these guys, but it’s an unfortunate reality of living in the 21st century.
This is the single dumbest thing you can do while driving a car, in my not so humble opinion. Too many drivers oversimplify and overestimate their cars’ capability to shed speed quickly. Driving instruction at a racetrack will teach you that braking is a complex action, taking into account the tires, suspension, and the braking hardware itself – everything has to be given the time and space to do its job.
On a bike? It’s even worse. Beyond the obvious reasons (crashing is much more visceral), you have to do all those complex component braking actions…and apply them to the contact patch of only one front tire. Because of this, the laws of physics simply dictate that, if both are traveling at the same speed, a bicycle will usually take longer to stop than a car.
Counter this disadvantage by allowing at least a bike-length of space away from the vehicle you’re following.
AVOID RIDING ON THE GUTTER
Nervous newbies to urban riding will usually try to ride gutters or as close to the side of the road as possible. This isn’t really a good idea for many reasons – foremost of which is that drivers will take advantage of your smaller footprint and try to squeeze you out of the road.
Cars and other vehicles also naturally clean the road surface of debris by simply driving over it. Guess where all that crap ends up? Yes, in gutters. Riding in them greatly increases your chance of picking up a puncture.
The only times I actually ride gutters are
- to filter through when other cars are stopped, and/or
- I am making a right turn while the proper traffic lane is blocked by a stopped vehicle.
TAKE THE LANE!
Counter-intuitively, I’ve found the safest position on the road is almost right in the middle of the slow travel lane – at least 1/3 of the lane’s width away from the gutter.
Why is this the safest position? You’re effectively making the design of the road work for you instead of against you, greatly increasing your visibility to other road users. A bicycle is a vehicle, the same way a car or motorcycle are. If you can ride your bike and keep pace with traffic, you ARE traffic and you belong on the road.
In many urban situations, “keeping pace with traffic” isn’t as hard as it sounds. Around many areas in Metro Manila, highways aside, the average speed for car trips doesn’t break 20 km/h most of the time. If you can sustain this riding speed, you’re fit enough to ride along with vehicular traffic.
GOING SLOWER? LET OTHERS PASS
On the other hand, if you sense that vehicles moving at a faster pace than you can sustain, it is now time to be considerate, move over to the right, and let them pass.
Signal a lane change to the right with your hand, then as you complete the lane change, check over your shoulder and wave to vehicles behind you to overtake. I like to do an “ushering” motion, waving from back to front, inviting cars and trucks to pass on my left. This is courteous, and actually pretty effective; many drivers seem to appreciate the gesture. Make sure you leave yourself enough room.
See? It’s a lot like driving a car in a considerate manner: Left for overtaking, right for slower traffic. Which brings me to…
IN GENERAL – RIDE YOUR BIKE THE SAME WAY YOU WOULD DRIVE A CAR
This means stopping when the traffic light turns red, and crossing or turning only when the traffic light turns green. This means slowing down, stopping, and looking both ways before crossing or turning at an intersection. This means a ban on riding against the flow of traffic, such as the wrong way along one-way streets. This means relinquishing the left lane for faster vehicles, and yielding to pedestrians and other traffic at an intersection. In other words, it means being a responsible road user.
So you ask, “Why the hell am I on a bike if I’m going to ride it the same way as I would a car?” Apart from giving other people a good image on behalf of other bike commuters, and keeping in proper flow with other vehicular traffic, the answer is in the next principle.
ANTICIPATE 10-15 SECONDS AHEAD, AND BE PREDICTABLE
All the lines and lane markings on the streets are painted there because they’re an effort to tame the beast that is vehicular traffic and make it predictable and easier to manage. Simply following and making use of this existing framework already goes a long way into making you predictable to other road users.
Conversely, you as a bike commuter should get into the habit of looking around and behind, reading other road users’ actions and predicting how they could possibly behave in the next moments. Remember situational awareness? It’s a very important concept in operating any sort of vehicle. A good prediction margin is anywhere from ten to fifteen seconds, maintaining enough space from vehicles in front for braking or obstacle avoidance.
BE CONFIDENT AND CONSIDERATE
This feeds into making use of signals. Any time you have to change lanes, evade obstacles, make a turn, or come slowing down to a stop, signal your intentions as early as possible – even if there’s no one behind you. Whenever it is safe to do so, signal!
Signals are most effective in informing road users from behind if you do them early and confidently. Outstretch your arm when you signal and point to the direction you are going, either left or right. When slowing down or anticipating a stop, lower your arm around 45 degrees to the side and perform a pushing motion towards the rear.
All of this signaling requires, of course, that you are able to control your bicycle with only one hand on the handlebars. Practice this before setting off on a bike commute.
In the absence of brake lights and turn signal lights, confidently done hand signals may feel like inadequate substitutes, but they go a surprisingly long way toward saving your skin on a bike commute, in my experience. Many drivers quietly appreciate the effort a bike commuter puts into early signaling because it decreases their mental workload and guesswork, reducing nasty surprises.
USE YOUR BELL OR RAISE YOUR VOICE WHEN NECESSARY
If you are in a situation where you are compromised because a car driver did not see you, don’t hesitate to use your bell or raise your voice. Riding in busy districts, I find my bell a little inadequate – a yell of “Bike on your left!” or “Bike on your right!” is more effective. This serves two things: it calls attention, and it gives the driver an idea of where you are in relation to his/her vehicle. I find the bell more effective in quieter areas with a lower density of vehicles, where it’s primarily jaywalking pedestrians you have to worry about.
RIDE YOUR BIKE AS STRAIGHT AND AS WOBBLE-FREE AS POSSIBLE
For predictability’s sake, I recommend riding at a fast enough speed that wobbling becomes impossible. This isn’t even that high – around 10 km/h is enough, equivalent to an easy spin on the cranks. Now that your legs are moving straight up and down, instead of splayed to the side while bent, you stand a better chance of keeping your bike running straight and wobble-free. Remember that the faster a bike is ridden, the more upright it wants to stay. Riding your bike straight and wobble-free exudes confidence in what you are doing, and in turn, instills confidence in other road users that they can trust you.
AVOID FILTERING THROUGH AND IN BETWEEN LANES AND CARS, UNLESS…
This is a pet peeve of car drivers, and as a driver myself I know exactly why. When driving a car or riding a bike on the road, the safest position to be is the center of the lane behind another vehicle – with enough of a gap for braking. Conversely, the most dangerous position is immediately beside another vehicle. Surrounded by a metal and glass cage, car drivers simply don’t enjoy great visibility on their sides of their vehicles – especially on the farther right side, where the dreaded “right hook” collision can happen. This is why filtering through and in between cars in motion is normally not a wise idea.
The best time to make use of a bicycle’s narrow dimensions to weave through and in between lanes and cars is while they are stopped, are stopping, or queued up. You are effectively limiting the number of things that can go wrong by waiting for cars to stop before making your move. In this situation, all you will have to worry about are car doors opening, which can still hurt on impact, so care should still be taken.
The moment you see cars begin to move off while you are “caught” filtering in between them, you should pull into a lane behind a car, stay in the middle, and keep pace with the car in front. Don’t forget to signal your lane change. This is the safer way of navigating through start-stop traffic. See below for a good example from a London cyclist.