Like it or not, when you ride your electric bike (or conventional bicycle) you will encounter traffic, road hazards, and certainly other folks. This is true whether you're taking a recreational ride, running an errand, or commuting, so it's pretty important to ride carefully and safely in traffic.
In this episode of The Electric Bike Podcast from EVELO, Bill Cummings, a long-time rider and the director of customer service at EVELO talks about how to safely ride a bicycle in traffic. You'll learn about the rules of the road, taking the lane, and all about a right hook.
You can listen to the full podcast and follow along with the complete transcript below.
Bill Cummings is an Experienced Rider
Bill, welcome. Why don't you start us off by telling us a little bit about yourself and your electric bike journey.
I've been with EVELO since almost its inception. I've been here for over six and a half years. I started out in the customer service department as a direct contact for our customers, and my role eventually evolved into the Customer Service Director, where I hire and train everybody on the team. I still pick up the phone, still answer emails, but that's my overall role. I also do side things like manage our owner's manuals and other supporting documentation and things like that.
So if a customer had a question related to the owner's manual, you'd be the guy to call?
I would be the guy. In fact, one of the models that we've moved towards is being able to edit some things live on the Internet. For example, if we get customer feedback about that not being clear, I can make that change the same day and update it for the next person that opens a brand new EVELO Electric Bicycle.
Our topic today is riding in traffic. In fact, this is a topic you suggested to me. But before we get into hand signals and helmets, tell us a little about your riding experience. How often do you ride? Where do you ride?
Yeah, sure. I started riding enthusiastically as a teenager, so without dating myself too specifically, I've got about 35 years of riding in real traffic. That started in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio.
Eventually, as an adult, I moved into San Francisco, which is a very intense urban environment for cycling with lots of different environments. You've got railroad tracks embedded in the roadway, buses, other cyclists, cars not paying attention, people on cell phones, pedestrians on cell phones walking out in front of you.
I currently live outside of Boston, and the cycling infrastructure where I live is very limited. Roadways are narrow. There are curbs, virtually no shoulder. It's very important to a very honed skillset and I really believe that riding in traffic is a skillset, it can be learned, and it makes you safer as a rider to have a basic set of skills going forward.
Hone Your Skills to Ride in Traffic
You mentioned the intense traffic in San Francisco and the curvy roads and limited cycling infrastructure near Boston, where you are now. Maybe, as we start to talk about how someone can hone their riding in traffic skills, tell us, where should we be on the road?
Sure. You want to be in the flow of traffic, meaning, you want to be on the right side of the road. You don't want traffic coming at you. You want to be moving with the cars. Most states, the way that the legislation is written is, you should be riding as far to the right as is safely possible. That means, sometimes the pavement in front of you is beautiful and you can ride just to the right of the white line. But there are times where there is broken pavement, road hazards, like a broken bottle, a tree branch down, overhanging trees, and in those situations, it is perfectly acceptable to move more central in the lane so that you're safe. A hand signal before you move to the left is always a good idea, but you want to be as far to the right as possible.
I often get asked about riding on sidewalks. Most municipalities say that it is illegal for an adult to ride on the sidewalk. There are certain exceptions, but for the most part, you're not allowed to ride on the sidewalk. You should check with your local authorities to see what the rules are in terms of that.
Bicycling Hand Signals
You mentioned that, when you need to move further to the left in the lane, you should communicate with the drivers around you. How do you do that? Are there particular hand signals to use?
Great question. Going back to driver-ed days. There are three standard signals for ... using a hand signal in an automobile.
If you're moving left, it's, your arm should go straight out from the shoulder, that indicates a left-hand turn. A right-hand turn is a 90-degree bend at the elbow with your hand pointing up. With a caveat on that one, I'll get to in a second. And lastly is stopping, which is your arm out to the side, bent at the elbow pointing down.
The caveat I mentioned is these signals were developed for automobiles before the days of turn signals. If you wanted to turn to the right, to point to the right would mean you were pointing across the passenger seat. Your arm would be not visible. As things move forward in the cycling world, it is actually perfectly acceptable to simply point your arm straight out, 90 degrees to your body, to the right, if you're making a right-hand turn.
In terms of moving left, mirrors are helpful but don't trust them implicitly. I like to look at it. If I have a mirror, I look in it, if I see a car, I know not to move. If I don't see a car, that's not necessarily a go-ahead to make the move left. You should still glance over your shoulder, mirrors have blind spots. After you've determined that it's clear to move left, point your arm out to the left, move left and then, when possible, as soon as possible, you want to move back to the right.
Riding with Cars
Now, cars have the right of way, or rather, can pass you when you are on the right side of the lane. Is that correct?
That is correct. There are varying rules state by state, but the typical standard is between three and six feet of cushion, they should give you.
I'll tell you, three feet, surprisingly, feels quite close, but it is safe. If you're riding in a predictable straight-line fashion and not weaving all over the place, if you're riding a nice straight line, especially if you acknowledge a car, something as simple as just glancing over your shoulder, oftentimes the driver then knows that you know that they're there. Sometimes I will actually waive somebody on. I don't actually ... I don't like cars to sit right behind me waiting, waiting, waiting to pass. If I know that it's safe for them to pass me, I sometimes will wave them on, just to get them past me. I don't want a car just to hovering just on my side.
That makes sense. Please speak a bit more about what it means to ride predictably.
I like the term telegraph. You want to telegraph your intention. There are formal things like the three hand signals we discussed, left, right, stop. But also, just head movements, waving people on. I sometimes will actually talk out loud, not with the intention that they could hear me, but rather that they can see that I'm talking and communicating with them. Sometimes drivers can actually read your lips. The idea of, if you signal, if you look, if you ride in a nice clean line, that kind of stuff lets drivers know what your intention is.
If you come to an intersection and you haven't made a decision if you're going to turn right or left and you're trying to decide right there, that confusion can then project onto the drivers around you. They don't know what you're going to do, so that means they don't know what they're supposed to do. The more you can clearly communicate to the drivers of vehicles, the better off you are.
Be an Ambassador
There's almost a sense in which the cyclists should be in charge of the situation. As a rider, you need to know the rules of the road, and you need to be using all the means you can, all the means we just discussed, to communicate what's correct to those around you. Do you think that's right?
I do. I think that folks that are riding down the road, riding a bicycle on the road, you somewhat act as an ambassador.
In the current age, some drivers do have animosity towards cyclists. They feel as if you're not supposed to be on the road, that's not where you belong, when in fact you are supposed to be there in most places.
Anything that you can do to be a courteous person sharing the road. We see those signs, they say, share the road and it. They show the car and the bicycle icon. That is as much for the cyclist as it is the driver. It doesn't mean the driver just has to be courteous. It means the cyclist has to be courteous too, and that includes things like clear communication, waving people on when you want them to go. Getting out of the way. If you're indecisive about what your direction should be, pull off the road, get out of the way so that people can make ... they can ... that tells them that you are not riding on cluelessly, that you are now clearing the roadway and letting them by.
Roads are Public Spaces
It was interesting to hear you say share the road. There is an idea or a concept out there, it may have come from Barcelona, Spain, that first, roads are public lands, public spaces, and second, owning a car does not give you some special entitlement to those public lands and public spaces. I think that's an interesting way of thinking about sharing the road. Do you want to comment on that?
Sure. I completely agree with that. This was especially true in the urban environment of San Francisco. I saw cyclists riding incredibly irresponsibly, riding straight through stop signs without stopping. We're required, by law, to obey traffic signals, just as a car would. Stop signs, traffic lights, all that stuff. And when you behave in such a way that you're ignoring those things, you're aggravating the drivers. That's where that ambassador role comes in, that now you just ... that driver that just saw you behave badly has a different view of cyclists, in general. You've added to a negative perception. Whereas, when you are clear about your intentions, when you're riding legally and safely and with courtesy, you then add to the positive side of that equation and improve people , like, wow, that cyclist, that guy was ... it was really clear to me what was going on. It was ... happy to see them out. That kind of thing.
Armando Roggio: Makes sense.
What about the idea of being invisible? Not necessarily in the sense that the driver doesn't see you, but in the sense that you're following all the rules of the road, you are communicating well, and the experience of sharing the road is seamless or invisible from the driver's perspective. I guess, also touch on actually being invisible.
Bill Cummings: Yeah. I'd love to make a couple of points on that.
First off, you mentioned the concept of invisibility and I ... when I ride, I assume that to be true. I assume that, literally, the cars can't see me, because in many cases they can't or don't. We regularly see people distracted by their cell phones. They're either talking on them or poking at them. I don't assume that somebody can see me. That said, I still try to be visible. I wear neon colors, flashing lights in the day time, that kind of thing.
But the other thing is, we have the right to, as they say, take the lane. There are times where you actually want to take over the traffic lane. A perfect example of that is making a left-hand turn.
Imagine this scenario you. You're rolling up to an intersection. You know you want to make a left-hand turn, the light is red, you check over your shoulder, no cars are coming. You signal that you're moving left, you move to the center of the lane and you pull up to the white line at the edge of the intersection. Light turns green, the cyclist actually has the ability to accelerate very quickly, especially if you're on an e-bike. What you should do is, as you make that left hand turn, you should move gradually from the center of the lane to the right-hand side so that by the time you have completed your turn, you're actually back all the way over to the right-hand side. You've cleared the intersection for the car behind you, and if all goes smoothly, you haven't inhibited the car behind you one single bit. Even though you went into the middle of the lane before you took the turn and you took control of that lane decisively, but you also didn't impede the person behind you.
Armando Roggio: I've experienced that myself on an electric bike. I feel like you can get through an intersection very quickly. This is especially the case if you start off with a throttle, get your pedals going, and then let pedal assist help you finish the turn.
Bill Cummings: Absolutely.
That's one of the great benefits of an electric bike, is you're able to accelerate up to speed almost instantly and in many cases faster than most cars, unless they're stomping on the accelerator. But you could definitely pull away from that intersection, get through the intersection and get yourself back out of the way.
Armando Roggio: I think the next thing I want to cover, or things I want to cover, are some of the hazards of riding a bike, be it a conventional bicycle or an electric bike. Let's do that within the context of, how can I become a better rider in traffic?
Bill Cummings: Sure. On the right-hand side of the road, where we're supposed to be riding, that is often where the riding surface is the worst. That's mostly because cars aren't going there so they are naturally knocking gravel, debris and so forth out of the way. It's where it resides. That's where you've got the loose sand, the broken pavement, especially if you live in an area that has snowy winters. So you want to watch out for bad pavement. In coastal regions, oftentimes there's sand that is drifted and you can have sand near the edge of the roadway. That's not great.
One of the biggest things that I've noticed is something I call dappled sunlight. It's where you've got trees and you've got bright sunny spots and dark shadowy spots. The problem with that is it is difficult to discern potholes or broken pavement amongst the shadows and bright light. It's something that we often get asked about when people are looking for an electric bike. They say, "Hey, I want one that goes really fast." They want to go 25, 30 miles an hour, and the reality is that, if you can't clearly see and discern what you're coming up on at speed, you're going to fast. Riding at speed really is a skill. And one of the issues is your visual acuity and your ability to sort out the difference between a shadow and a pothole.
Armando Roggio: What about the hazards, if you will, of the cars that are around you? I remember learning to drive years and years ago and we talked about defensive driving, assuming that not every driver was going to do the proper thing at the proper time. What about from the cyclist's perspective? How do you deal with cars?
Bill Cummings: Yeah. The biggest thing that I think of is awareness. Not only active looking, every time I am going past a roadway, maybe entering from the right, I take a quick glance down that street to see if there's a car approaching the intersection who may plan on just going through without seeing me. I use my ears as much as my eyes. I listen for cars approaching from behind. For that reason, I strongly recommend that people never ride with headphones in. In fact, I, when I go on long recreational rides, I actually have a little speaker that I put on my bike that allows me to ride with music, which I very much enjoy, but it also allows me to hear what's going on around me. I listen for cars approaching from the rear. When I do hear one coming up behind me, I like to take a glance over my shoulder. Again, that's a nonverbal cue to the driver that I know they're coming because they're often wondering, does this biker know I'm coming? Is it safe to pass? Are we on the same page here? I look out for that.
In an urban environment, especially, one of the biggest hazards to cyclists is not actually moving cars, but the parked cars. Bikers have a term called being doored. What that means is, a driver in the car just suddenly flings the door open and gets ready to get out of their car without checking their review mirror, and all of a sudden you've got a solid barrier that has been thrown up in front of you without any time to react, and it can be a significant problem.
As a rider, I like to look for occupied vehicles. I like to look for brake lights. That means that there's somebody in that car and they may be getting out. The main thing you can do to protect yourself from that is, when you are driving along parked cars, is to ride more than a door width away from them. Three, four feet away from parked cars, especially if they're occupied.
In as much as I pretend that I'm invisible and I do everything that I can to react preventatively towards things that drivers might do, I do make an effort to make myself as visible as possible. I want to put everything that I can on my side of the column to prevent an accident. So if somebody can see me all the better.
Things that I do. I wear bright reflective clothing. One of the best things you can actually wear are leg bands or bright colored socks. I read a study not to long ago that said that biomechanical movement is more readily perceived by people than just a static color. So, if you had the choice between a bright leg band and a vest, even though the band is much smaller, you're far more likely to be seen because of the motion. The vest is more or less static moving down the road.
In the daytime, I use flashing lights, both front and rear. Anything I can do to pull that driver's eyes off of their phone and to me is a win. This is not so much a visibility thing, but I can't emphasize enough the importance of wearing a helmet. Head injuries are catastrophic and new helmet technology can really reduce the odds of that happening. So a nice comfortable helmet that's well ventilated, well-fitted, get it at a local bike shop, have somebody help you fit it, and bright colors on the helmet don't hurt.
Electric Bikes are Fast
Armando Roggio: One of the things I have noticed when I ride an electric bike is that I go faster than people, than drivers think I can go. I've even seen an amazed look on a driver's face. He can't believe I'm going as fast as I am. Speak a little bit about riding in traffic with an electric bike.
Bill Cummings: I'm so glad you brought that up. Yes. The average cyclist, on a traditional bike, travels about 12 miles an hour. When a driver sees somebody on a bike, they kind of, they subconsciously dig into their experience and judge your speed based on that. Because in most cases you're coming at them more or less in a straight line, they don't have a lot of background to perceive your rate of motion against. We can, easily, go 20 miles an hour, and some bikes can go 28 miles an hour. You need to assume that other drivers may misjudge your rate of travel. It's important that you know you're bike and the controls well. Knowing that, for example, on EVELO electric bikes, all our bikes have brake cutoff switches. When you squeeze either brake lever, that disables the motor. That is good to know. If you feel like your motor is pushing you too much for a situation that has the potential for emergency, you don't need to reach for a button and power your bike off. You can just squeeze the lever and that's going to instantly give you more control of your bike.
Good bike maintenance. Simple stuff. Before you go out, give each tire a squeeze. Every, once a month, go over the bike head to tail, tightening your bolts, make sure your brakes are working properly. Just real basic stuff so that you don't want to be in a situation, obviously, where your brakes aren't working, for example.
Keep in mind that your forward rate of speed needs to be consistent with your reaction times. Things as simple as vision. For example, I wear glasses when I drive, I wear nonprescription sunglasses when I ride. That means that my vision is not as good when I'm on a bike as when I'm driving, so I'm not seeing things as clearly and I need to adjust my speed accordingly, based on those conditions.
Kind of the last point that comes to mind here is, how things differ in the rain. Whether you're a commuter and you're intentionally going out in the rain, or maybe you're out there recreationally and you get hit by a late afternoon a thunderstorm or something. It's important to know that braking distances are increased, even with disc breaks. Your braking distances are going to increase. Visibility for everyone is effected. Drivers have got droplets running down their side windows, their wipers are going. A huge factor that I've come to realize over the years is that you don't ... if you can avoid puddles, it's a good idea, not because of the wet, but because of what that puddle could be hiding. There could be a pothole a foot deep below the surface of that puddle. You really do want to avoid puddles when riding in the rain.
Those are some things, some are e-bike specific, some apply to all cycling. But those are definitely some things to be watching out for.
Armando Roggio: What role does route selection play in safely riding an e-bike in traffic?
Bill Cummings: That's a really good question. It's one of the things I almost do intuitively, but, obviously, side streets are better than main thoroughfares. Sometimes, if I have a series of errands that I'm running on my bike, I will plan my route in such a way that I'm making as many right-hand turns as possible and as few left-hand turns as possible. They're just easier, they're cleaner, and in many cases faster, because you can make a right on red if there's a traffic light. That's something I keep in mind.
Some areas have designated bike lanes, and knowing where those are can affect your route selection.
In San Francisco, for example, the San Francisco Bike Coalition, a nonprofit that did a great job of promoting cycling there. They actually had a route map of the city of San Francisco that maximized the use of bike lanes and, also, maybe unique to San Francisco, avoiding the really big hills, which was much appreciated when I was riding there on a non-electric bike.
The point being here is that there may be resources available to you, bicycle clubs and so forth, that may have specialized maps for your area. I think the idea of staying off main roads when possible, there are times when I will actually get off my bike and walk it across the crosswalk at really hazardous intersections. You want to avoid riding across a crosswalk because, again, you're probably not supposed to be on the sidewalk in the first place, a crosswalk is considered part of that. But that's one way that you can manage really complicated intersections if you need to. You can just get off and walk.
Other Bikes and Pedestrians
Armando Roggio: There is a greenbelt near where I live. It has several miles of bike and pedestrian lanes, going both directions, and if you are on the greenbelt during peak commute times or peak recreational times, there is a lot of bike and pedestrian traffic. What are the rules for riding in that sort of traffic?
Bill Cummings: If you're overcoming another user, for example, whether it's on a rails-to-trails bike path and you might have somebody rollerblading, or somebody pushing a child in a stroller, or somebody moving along with a cane and walker. Out a courtesy to those folks, I always announce myself. A typical sequence for me would be, I would ding my bell at about 30/40 feet from them and then, as I approach them more closely, I will say something like, "Passing on your left," nice and loud, nice and clear, or simply, "On your left."
Keep in mind here that something I've noticed as a trend in probably the last five years, as just about everybody has smartphones is, a lot of times the pedestrians are plugged in, they're wearing headphones, they don't hear you. Avoid passing really closely. If you are in a situation where you're overcoming another cyclist on the road, before you pass them, again, announce your presence, "Passing on your left." But then, look over your shoulder, make sure there are no cars coming, signal, and then move around the bike that you're overtaking. Because, especially with electric bikes, we're frequently going faster than folks on traditional bicycles and they'll be jealous as you breeze by them. But, if you did so politely and with courtesy, it shouldn't be a problem.
The Right Hook
Armando Roggio: Agreed. Bill, is there anything we haven't yet covered or spoken about that we should?
Bill Cummings: There's one specific point that has been on my mind that I haven't mentioned yet that is a particular hazard with driver behavior that I need you to know about, and that's something that cyclists refer to as the right hook. That is a circumstance where you're all the way to the right, a car overtakes you, and then almost immediately turns right, in front of you, either into an intersection or into a driveway. That is a real, very real hazard, so you want to watch for the right hook. Especially because we're going faster than traditional bikes, so the driver may think that they have more room than they do. That one specific safety point.
In general, I kind of want to be out there encouraging people to use their bikes as modes of transportation. I find that in many cases I am faster, especially over shorter distances, things three to five miles. If you live in a congested area, boy, the cars are just sitting still and you're just breezing by them. When you get to your destination, you're not looking for a parking space, you can just roll up to the bike rack, or the parking meter, or whatever you're going to lock your bike to, secure it and go on your way. I can remember circling intersections in cars, trying to find a good parking space. That's no longer part of the equation.
It allows me to be more engaged with my community. When I see a neighbor walking down the sidewalk and I'm riding by them, I can just pull over for a second and talk to them. If I was in a car, I'd just be .... wave, maybe beep, maybe not do anything, just be like, oh, there's Roger, and that's that. It allows me to be more connected. I like hearing nature and birds and the wind in the trees, all that.
I just find it to be such a fulfilling way of moving around that is so dramatically different from the insularity conditions of being in an automobile, which I think really does separate us from our environment quite a bit. In fact, some car manufacturers tout that as a point of their car, like, we can take you away from all that's around you. I find that being on a bike is a way to be more connected.
Armando Roggio: That's awesome. Thank you for taking the time to join me for this podcast Bill. I really appreciate it.
Bill Cummings: My pleasure. I hope some people got some information out of this that they can use. Stay safe out there and remember, wear your helmet.
If you would like to learn more about electric bikes, please check out The Complete Electric Bike Buyer's Guide.