Commuting 101: Essential Tips For New Riders

…or, Father Knows Best.

So, I got the call a couple nights ago: “Dad, my car died.” Yep, looks like my eldest son is about to join our ranks. He actually came up with the idea of commuting by bike before I did. As a parent, I immediately launched into a lengthy, one-sided conversation regarding my experiences. I hope he absorbed some of it.

Anyway, as long as I was on a roll, I thought I’d share my list with you. As always, please feel free to comment. Bear in mind, the following is a list of suggestions for someone I care about. You may not agree with some items on the list, and that is fine, but I don’t want to see you hurt either… Now, where did I put my cardigan?

The List:

Wear a helmet!

A bicycle is a vehicle. Follow the rules of the road.

Be visible. Wear bright colors in daylight hours. At night, wear something reflective – or – at least wear something white. Use front and rear lights and reflectors.

Be predictable. Make eye contact. Ride on the correct side of the road, not against traffic. Look behind you before you make a turn or lane change, that lets drivers know you’re up to something. Use hand signals (not THAT one) and don’t wobble around. Don’t weave in and out of the lane when parked cars are spread out.

Plan your route. Your drive to work went straight down the busiest street in town. You’ll add about a mile and a half to your bike commute by heading down to the next street down that crosses the highway with a nice over-pass. Believe me, it is more than worth the extra 5 minutes. (You’ll then be able to pick up part of the bike path and get out of traffic completely. Girls in Spandex use this path for jogging. I’m just sayin’.)

Bike/hike paths are great – but remember – Don’t ride on sidewalks!

Ditch the headphones. I like the fact that you enjoy the iPod we got you for Christmas. Don’t use it while you’re cycling in traffic.

Take the lane: Don’t be afraid to get out in the middle of the lane in stop-and-go traffic, when changing lanes to make a left turn and to avoid being “doored.” You WILL be tempted to blow past a line of cars queued up at a stop light; don’t, just take your place in the middle of the lane and take your turn.

On the other hand, when the going gets really tough, there is no shame in moving off the road for a minute to let a long line of drivers go past you.

Speaking of “winning the door prize,” make sure you look through the windows of parked cars. You’re looking for people in the car that might be trying to exit and also for people who are stepping out into the road in between parked cars.

Glare can blind motorists. If the sun is in your eyes, the people driving up behind you DON’T SEE YOU.

Bells and horns are a great way to get the attention of people on the bike path; in traffic you’re better off yelling at the top of your lungs. This is not to say you need to be rude to drivers. You only yell to catch people’s attention, not to express your displeasure.

And, finally, the three most common causes of drivers hitting cyclists:

  • Driver turns left in front of an on-coming cyclist who is going straight through an intersection.
  • The driver doesn’t stop at a stop sign.
  • Driver passes a cyclist and turns right, directly across their path.

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    31 thoughts on “Commuting 101: Essential Tips For New Riders”

    1. Mindy says:

      These tips were helpful to me — thanks very much. I’m an overweight, middle-aged woman who’s been commuting for only about a month, and once a week or so I have to work til closing, which means riding home in the dark. I’m in Tucson where all the astronomers live so light pollution is a big no-no around here, which is fine until I’m riding in a bike lane and can barely see the pavement in front of me. I have a light but it’s mostly shining up so I can see vehicles and vehicles can see me. If there’s ever bad debris in the lane, I’m afraid I’ll crash hard.

      Any tips on how to stay in one piece riding at night when there’s no moon and no street lights?


      1. franz says:

        get a head lamp flashlight with some real juice.

    2. Warren T says:

      Mindy, I’m glad you’re giving it a go. In the Fall and Winter my route takes me through some dense woods and through traffic. The cheap Bell light set I bought at first worked well — as long as I dropped my pace a little. Err on the safe side.

      There is no rule against having one light pointed down at your path and another pointed up at traffic… In that case I’d point the brightest at the street and have the other (flashing if possible) pointed at traffic.

      Headlights mounted on your helmet have the advantage of easily being pointed wherever you need the light most at any particular moment.

    3. Mindy says:

      Well gee, I wish I could say I had already thought of a second light. Duh! I will get another one, that’s a great idea.


    4. Bay-Ite says:

      More lights don’t hurt in the rear.

      A BRIGHT red blinkie on the helmet, facing rearwards, and a SECOND blinkie facing backwards on the seat post or rear rack.

      Ditto on the front:

      White on the helment mounted headlight, that any driver will see when you LOOK HIM IN THE EYE before passing in front.

      Then there’s the SECOND headlight facing forward to see the street.

      Maybe even another one or two pointing sidewards?

      (If they see if from the side, you’re already in front of them — TOO LATE!)

    5. Darrin says:

      I hope everyone whoo even rides at dusk will get a good light.. It makes the rest of us look good. People who are leaving work are tiered and are ready to get home and may not be looking for a biker.. be seen! enjoy the ride.

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    7. amulet28 says:

      Any tips for a complete newby that doesn’t even know how to inflate using a bike pump
      ? My goal is to bike 15 miles to work and then return. I have about a month to work up to the 15 miles…how much should I try each day to work up to it? (I’m a fat middle aged gal, who needs to lose weight)..Just did 12 miles and thought I was going to die on the way back..

    8. ohio biker says:

      First, congratulations for even making the attempt.
      I am an occasional bike commuter, but my trip
      is 22 miles each way. This poses its own problems.
      A number of suggestions in no particular order

      Start by reading …

      Give yourself plenty of time. Learn how to change a
      tire and fix a flat yourself. Always carry a spare
      inner tube and pump, or at least a cell-phone and
      an alternate way to get where you are going.
      While you do not want to ever push yourself
      to your ultimate limit, at least on the way home,
      it is good to push yourself a little. If you never
      pushed yourself a little, you would possibly not
      ever improve at all. Don’t expect too much
      of yourself too soon. Give your body time to
      adapt and gain strength and endurance.

      When starting out, you might want to alternate
      days cycling with other forms of transportation.
      I would use the days when I would drive to
      work, to take changes of clothes and lunches
      for the days when I would cycle in. In this
      way I did not have to carry everything with
      me on the days I cycled.

      Search out various routes to work and home.
      In some cases, by going a little out of your
      way, you can find a much more pleasant
      route for cycling.

    9. Ian from Auckland says:

      Kia Ora from Aotearoa / New Zealand !
      Yeah, I definitely agree with claiming the lane and good lights and mirrors. I have two ‘Cateye’ 5 LED lamps side by side under my saddle and one also facing back from my right hand handlebar ( we ride/drive on the left here ) – that one made a big diffrence to how close car drivers pass. On the front I have two homemade lamps with a 12v 3w Luxeon LED in each powered from a ‘big’ 12v battery hung the bottom bracket where the weight’s not noticed. With that setup I can have lights on all the time in dull weather without worrying about running out of power. Oh, and one LED lamp on top of my helmet so that I can “look-and-point” at drivers. I also wear a high visibility vest and have high visibility covers on my panniers. I ride 1 – 1.5metres from the kerb and then out to the middle of the lane as I aproach red traffic lights. So that I can keep an eye on whats going on behind me I have a wide angle view mirror and a ‘normal’ one. I always hand signal and I ride in a deliberate and predictable manner. It is not enough to just be ‘optically’ visible but you need to make yourself leap into the sleepy conciousness of the Dum Average Motorist – “what the hell’s that…!” Since taking these approaches I’ve found a big reduction in near misses and mostly have to deal with discourtiousness rather than real danger. Ride On !

    10. Perry says:

      I carry a coaching whistle around the neck (loud!) that I use when:

      1) Approaching cars with drivers who might “door” me
      2) Approach intersections where cars might turn in front of me
      3) Approaching cars who are entering the roadway by crossing the bike lane – they are looking for cars, not me

      It works very well, gets a friendlier reaction than the AirZound horn I was using and seems to be just as effective at getting their attention. Be sure to use a breakaway lanyard so that in the unfortunate event that you should go down, you don’t get a neck injury.

    11. Eliza G says:

      I am considering to buy a bike and commute to work but to be honest I never have ride a bike elsewhere than a park or sidewalk and I a feel a bit terrified of it. Any suggestions or tip in how to approach the road without being so afraid of cars? Thanks

    12. Perry says:


      Get a copy of “Effective Cycling” by John Forester, or look up the concept of vehicular cycling on the web. John Forester’s website is here: Lots of people follow this advice, some more than others. IMHO, it’s a very good thing to understand in a situation like yours.

    13. FrankieJ says:

      Helmets are great places to mount cameras as well.

    14. steve says:

      keep your eyes open for dogs… not just your ears, your eyes too… some of the really bad ones won’t make a sound till you hear them snarling and see their slavering jaws just inches from your bare leg… even an agressive dog will generally think twice if you catch it early in the chase with your most growly, loud, assertive he-man voice… learn where the troublesome dogs are on your route, because they won’t take long to learn when to expect you

    15. Horace S. Patoot says:

      I agree with just about everything except the ipod. It’s no worse than a car radio; just don’t turn it up too loud. I’ve certainly never had a problem hearing a siren before the drivers in their glass cages. Listening to NPR and This American Life podcasts etc. is one of the great joys of commuting this way.

    16. Andrea says:

      Eliza (or anyone else who is new to commuting by bike),
      I recommend reading philosophies about safe vehicular cycling from various authors as a first step.
      Also, keep in mind that learning to ride a bike in traffic is similar to learning to drive a car safely. The defensive driving course that I took started me out in a parking lot, moving to low-traffic neighbourhoods and backroads, then eventually progressing on to major arteries and highways. As a result, I was able to practice skills to ensure that I could safely maintain a high level of situational awareness while driving, before I would need to use them in heavy traffic. By the time I made my way onto the major arteries, things like checking mirrors and blind spots, signalling, and anticipating the potentially unsafe manoeuvers of other drivers, were second nature. And, of course, I had to pass a test in order to obtain a driver’s licence.
      To ride a bicycle on the road, I only needed to get one and be able to balance on it.
      Cyclists seem to be expected to do something that drivers are clearly not expected to do – to be safe road users the instant they learn to operate their vehicles. I encourage new cyclists to practice the skills they will need to ride a bike defensively yet assertively in traffic, before getting into a situation where they will need them. Going for rides with a SAFE, experienced cyclist can greatly increase your confidence and abilities, as can planning routes on strategic streets for practice, or going at low-traffic times (such as early Sunday morning). Sounds like a lot of work, I know – but it’s not so bad when your practice routes lead you to places like beaches, parks, cafes, etc… 🙂

    17. Laura says:

      I admit that I take the bus to my university classes, but I don’t own a car, never have. So bringing home more than two small bags of groceries, or going places the bus wont take me, or on the weekends: I ride my bike. There are NO bike lanes in my town, but thank God there are wide sidewalks as I live in a college town near a major city. Drivers are dangerous sober, let alone drunk! And I am still very slow on my Townie, working on my endurance. For newbies who are scared of riding in the street (or grew up with that being against the law like myself), try to find wide sidewalks, park paths, or go before or after rush house traffic. Always stay far right on the road as possible and don’t apologise for being as slow as you are at the beginning. You’re living a better life than those poor suckers with car insurance and gas charges on their cards. 🙂

      Question for the experts: wool drives me crazy and spandex doesn’t feel pleasant. Is cotton okay for the Texas HEAT?

      1. What type of “wool” have you tried?

        Cotton’s fine if you can’t do anything else! Just keep riding

    18. Justin says:

      Good advice, I’ve actually had this one happen to me:

      Driver passes a cyclist and turns right, directly across their path.

      Normally I try to hide my aggressive side but that driver got a nice dent in their car from my cleated shoe that day.

      I will say it made me more aware of the people driving past me and turning and has saved me a few more times since then.

    19. Allie says:

      I’ve had that happen to me many times as well! Very common and VERY frustrating. Definitely just means you need to be totally aware as the cyclist..

    20. MD Miller says:

      Great article. I just got a bike for the first time since college and I lived on a much more bike-friendly side of our community back then! I need any tips I can get and these are some great ones.

    21. Steven says:

      Bells and horns are fine, I guess, but nothing beats calling out to anyone you’re approaching where you are and where you are going. Ringing a bell might cause someone to step in your path if they don’t know where you are. Just call out, “Passing on your right/left.”

    22. Tina says:

      I live in and work in a suburb of Atlanta, and I have to ride on sidewalks for part of my commute (5.6 miles) because a lot of drivers are aggressive, there are a lot of polite drivers too but as someone told me it only takes one. I’m just extra careful when I am on the side walk, I don’t ride as fast, I slow down at the intersections and I can see all of the driveways clearly so that’s no problem. There is no way I would ride in the middle of the road here! For my portion on the road I stay to the right as far as possible, maybe a little too far! There are large trucks and hills so I’d rather be to the right then have someone barreling over a hill not seeing me.

      I always make sure drivers see me (look them in the eye) before I proceed if I’m crossing a street from the sidewalk or bike/jogging path. It is always better to be safe in any circumstance then right.

    23. Larry says:

      I wear a ball cap under my helmet that has 3 lights. One like a headlight on the bill and two under the bill that light up in front of my front tire. Of course I have a front and rear bike light and a light on the back of my helmet, and reflective vest. I commute in East Los Angeles so I need all the help I can get. Larry

    24. Urban commuter says:

      I always wear my ipod. No different than many drivers that blast their radio. I’m so hyper vigilant in other ways that I’ve never run into problems. We also have great bike paths in Montreal, so it’s quite safe.

    25. Madison says:


      I’m 18 years old, about to go onto college, overweight, and just bought my first REAL bike. I got a 2012 Diamondback Outlook. I need some tips…

      First off, I rode today and my legs feel like jello. And help on what I can do to slowly build muscle? Also, how long do you think it will take for me to be able to ride without feeling like I’m about to die.

      Secondly, I’m going to try to conserve as much gasoline as possible when I go to college by riding my bike around. Any pointers on how to manage carrying around all of my books, laptop, etc?

      Thirdly, I want to MAKE SURE that my new jewel doesn’t get stolen. I bought a ginormous lock; one that cannot be cut. Since my dorm room can be up to 40 stories high, I really don’t want to have to take my bike in with me.


    26. Dave says:

      I’d take my bike up to my dorm room. This will protect it from the elements. If your college is anything like mine there is a lot of bike theft and when you lock your bike correctly to prevent this sometimes they will ruin your wheel out of frustration. That and when the university decides to do something about the abandoned bikes around campus while you are taking summer classes and cuts your bike off the bike rack. Dorm room is a much better option and you will get used to carrying it up the stairs.

    27. Samuel says:

      Hi. I’m a new biker in the midwest. I would like to get some tips for riding in the winter. Currently, I’m looking into buying a pair of Giro’s or Izumi’s lobster gloves. Would it be warm enough if I have wind proof wears? Or is it essential to wear the under armor type body tights (I would like to avoid tight clothing….) Thank you!

    28. Dee says:

      I’m considering bike riding. Did many years ago, I want to thank you for the article and tips. I was unaware that you should not ride on the sidewalks! When traffic was heavy, living in Chicago, I would ride on the sidewalks. I felt it was safer, but your article states differently. Wow..there was an instance here in the Southwest, early morning, a bike rider was in the middle of the rode and a car came up behind and blared on his horn until the poor rider moved to the sidewalk. There are times when, it’s looking out for other cars and simply not seeing the biker and wondering why (especially in rush hour traffic)not ride on the sidewalk. My bag..didn’t know,again thank you

    29. Amanda says:

      Sidewalks may be tempting for nervous cyclists, but if you ride on the sidewalk you SHOULD be nervous. Statistically sidewalks are the least safe place. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but drivers just don’t see cyclists on the sidewalk. You may think this doesn’t matter, but drivers turn into roads and driveways across sidewalks all the time, and cyclists are most vulnerable at intersections. By riding on the sidewalk you are reducing your risk of a very unlikely accident (being hit by someone going the same direction as you) while dramatically increasing your risk of the most likely accidents (someone crossing your path without seeing you).
      Start with bike paths, trails, neighborhood roads with little traffic, but for your own safety please avoid the sidewalks!

      If you are caught in a position where you have to ride on a sidewalk, be extremely careful. Never cross a road or driveway without looking carefully in all directions (at least 8 directions!) and carefully considering possibilities for drivers to make sudden and unpredictable movements. They will not see you!

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