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“Look at what happens to you on a bicycle. You pedal. You make decisions. You experience the tang of the air and the surge of power as you bite into the road. You’re alive!”

—The late Richard Ballantine, from New York, founder of the assertive cycling movement

Cycling is quick, cheap, environmentally blameless, and great for the legs and heart. Local and provincial governments are encouraging us to ride our bikes to school or work. As this timeless student activity gains popularity, the key is not aerodynamic bikes and snazzy gear, but the skills to safely navigate campus and public roads.

That’s a daunting prospect in our car-centric cities. Typically, cyclists are expected to hug the gutter, and cycling accidents are cited as evidence that cars and bikes cannot co-exist. Increasingly, though, cyclists are re-occupying the roads.

How? By claiming our space in the lanes and following traffic rules just as we would when driving cars. This is the central principle of assertive cycling, also known as vehicular cycling, or simply taking the lane as a cyclist. And it turns out the middle of the lane is the most visible—and the safest—place for cyclists to be.

This approach is key to biking in traffic, experts say. Graydon Patterson, a retired Staff Sergeant in the Ottawa Police Service in Ontario, first learned to cycle on the road during mandatory bike training as a police officer. “It did take some getting used to,” he says. “We spent many hours riding on busy roads to acclimatize ourselves.”

The more time he spent on the road, the more benefits he saw of riding in the lane. “I thought, ‘This works and why was I thinking otherwise?’” Patterson now teaches and develops a variety of cycling courses as a National Examiner for CAN-BIKE, a program developed by Cycling Canada to educate riders on safe and enjoyable cycling.

Although every province has traffic laws that apply to cyclists and motorists to secure bicyclists’ right to the road, many riders still aren’t taking their place in traffic. “There are some new cyclists who fear riding in traffic, but this is mainly due to not knowing the rules of the road and their [status] as a ‘vehicle,’” says Andy Wilson, Coordinator of CAN-BIKE.

Students and bikes: Who’s riding and why?

Over 200,000 Canadians chose to commute by cycling in 2011, according to Statistics Canada. Data also show that cycling in metropolitan areas, such as Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal, rose between 2006 and 2011.

Of nearly 500 students who responded to a recent Student Health 101 survey, 27 percent ride their bikes on campus, or plan to. Their top reason (of five choices) was the physical fitness benefits, followed by low transport costs, convenience, access to fresh air, and enjoyment. Many students also cited environmental considerations.

“Riding a bike is very convenient and more affordable than a car,” says Aisha S., a second-year student at the University of Toronto in Ontario.

“I like it for the exercise, and it just feels better than driving or taking public transit. It’s good to know you aren’t spewing exhaust,” says Michael P., a third-year student at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

“I used to walk, but biking is much faster. Plus, it’s fun,” says Brandon D., a first-year student at Western University in London, Ontario.

Assertive cycling: what it isn’t

Ignoring road rules 
Different traffic regulations may apply across provinces and municipalities, says Andy Wilson: “[You] must stay current with the laws and bylaws.” Riding safely in traffic means adhering to its rules, just as any other vehicle should.

Cycling in gutters and on sidewalks
“Cyclists have been hit riding on shoulders, bike lanes, and sidewalks. In [many of] those cases, the motorists didn’t see them,” says Graydon Patterson. In fact, the four leading crash types are either caused by or made worse by riding on the edges of traffic. To stay visible, he urges cyclists to ride at least one metre from the curb.

Leading crash types involving cyclists

  • Right hooks: The motorist passes the bike then turns right across the cyclist’s path.
  • Left cross: The motorist turns left across the path of the oncoming cyclist.
  • Drive out: The motorist pulls out of a driveway and into the path of the cyclist, who is likely screened by trees and other obstacles.
  • Sideswipe: The motorist tries to pass without giving the bike enough space.

Cyclists’ risk of having an accident declines as they gain experience. The risk to cyclists also declines as more people take to their bikes and drivers become better at sharing the road.

Use caution when cycling in bike lanes
Bike lanes make us feel safer, but their effectiveness is controversial. They’re often not wide enough to allow vehicles (especially buses and large trucks) to pass safely. “If you’re riding one metre from the curb and cars or trucks have to change lanes to pass you safely, move left to take the whole lane,” says Graydon Patterson. Bike lanes are also associated with accidents at intersections, because cyclists are awkwardly positioned and difficult to spot. Stay vigilant.

Assertive cycling: what it is

Biking safely and confidently involves a skill set that enables you to position yourself in ways that motorists expect and respect, while keeping your distance from their mistakes. In addition, it gives you the confidence to overcome drivers’ occasional disapproval.

Follow the rules of the road
“The best way to be traffic-safe on a bike is to obey the rules of the road for drivers of vehicles,” says John Forester, a cycling transportation engineer in Lemon Grove, California, who pioneered this approach. “In-traffic skills are easily learned. The difficulty is the psychological strain of escaping from society’s taboo against cycling in traffic.”

Basic rules of the road

  • Never ride your bike on the wrong side of a street, including riding the wrong way on a one-way street.
  • Always obey red lights and other traffic signals. At stop signs, always yield to approaching traffic.
  • Long before reaching an intersection, check the traffic, signal, and move laterally to the correct position. Yield to traffic as you do so.
  • Claim your space in the road. Position your bike in the lane just as you’d position your car.
  • Never ride in the parked cars’ open-door zone.
  • Use your knowledge of how traffic operates to be alert to drivers making mistakes.
  • Remember to always wear a helmet.

Bell
Your bike must have a bell or horn.

Clothing
Black, gray, and pastel clothes blend into the background and shadows. Wear reflective clothing or bright colours to stand out in traffic.

Lights
Flashing strobes might help in daytime. At night, your bike must have a front white light, a red light in the rear, and side reflectors. Check the laws in your province and territory for specific requirements and penalties for failing to comply.

Overcome your fear of the road
“Perhaps the biggest challenge is that cyclists feel they are a burden on motorists,” says Adam Krupper, a cycling instructor for Safe Cycling Thunder Bay in Ontario. Hugging the curb creates a vicious cycle, encouraging cars to pass and giving cyclists less room. Cars will actively avoid bicycles in the lane because road cyclists are visible. Drivers see them ahead and change lanes, avoiding the dilemma about whether there’s room to pass. Road cyclists have no blind spots. And at their slower speeds, cyclists can process more information than drivers can, allowing for greater control of their environment.

Bike here not there


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Lucy Berrington is a health writer, editor, and communications manager. Her work has been published in numerous publications in the US and UK. She has an MS in health communication from Tufts University School of Medicine, Massachusetts, and a BA from the University of Oxford, UK.