How to play in the street — Part 1: learn where to ride

My school had a good driver’s education program when I learned to drive, with emphasis on defensive driving techniques. And my father was recruited by the local community college to teach a defensive driving course after he retired from his job as a rural letter carrier.

So from an early age, traffic safety was drilled into my head. Along with the fact that no one can control what other people do behind the wheel, so you have to anticipate their actions and be prepared for anything.

When I took up cycling, I quickly learned that beginning riders weren’t exactly welcome on busy streets. And that my survival depended on learning how to apply those defensive driving techniques to two wheels instead of four.

Evidently, it worked, since I’m still here after 29 years of mostly urban riding — including 19 right here in Los Angeles. Over the coming days, I’m going to share some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way.

Starting with where to ride. And where not to.

Choose your battles

California law gives you the right to ride on any street, with exception of most freeways. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to casually cruise Wilshire Boulevard at rush hour. Yes, you have every right to be there, and drivers are required to share the road. But having that right doesn’t mean that drivers fighting their way through heavy traffic will be looking for you, or be willing to share the lane if they do — regardless of the law. If you’re a strong rider, you can usually pull it off; if not, you may want to look for alternate routes.

Try a little something on the side

Maybe you already know how to get where you’re going. But roads that might be fine behind the wheel aren’t always the best ones to take when you’re in the saddle (see above). Usually though, there’s a perfectly fine alternate route within a few blocks of the main road — one with little traffic and lots of room for riding that goes exactly where you want to go. For instance, I frequently see unskilled cyclists plodding along Wilshire Blvd in Santa Monica on their way to the beach or the Promenade. Yet if they went just one block in either direction, they’d find a quiet street with a marked bike lane most of their way. Sure, you might have to deal with more stop signs. But that beats the hell out of dealing with an impatient bus driver running up your ass.

Consider your skill level

Sometimes though, the main streets may seem like the best choice, for whatever reason — despite the heavy and often unforgiving traffic. So look for streets that offer a marked bike lane, a wide smooth shoulder or a wide parking lane with room to avoid being doored. And consider your skill level before you decide where to ride. If you’re a beginning rider, or someone who only rides to the beach or the bookstore every now and then, you’re probably better off avoiding busy streets where you’ll have to ride in the traffic lane.

Practice the rule of 10 – 15

Over the years, I’ve found that relative speed is one of the most important factors in traffic safety. If you can ride reasonably close to the speed of traffic when you take the lane, drivers will usually accept you as part of traffic, willingly or not. But if you ride too slow for traffic, you become an obstacle, and the risk of danger increases dramatically. (Again, I’m not talking about what’s legal or right; I’m talking about what’s safe, given the realities of today’s over-crowded roadways.)

My rule of thumb is that I’ll consider roads where I have to take the lane if I can ride within 15 mph of the speed of traffic. With a cruising speed of 20 mph, that means I’m comfortable taking a lane for long stretches on streets where traffic flows at up to 35. But remember — that’s the speed of traffic, not the speed limit. On Olympic Blvd near my home, traffic frequently flows at 50 – 60 mph, even though the speed limit is just 35. If you’re not skilled or comfortable in traffic, use the 10 mph limit instead.

Learn to turn

If you’re still using your handlebars to turn, you don’t belong on busy streets. Your handlebars are great for going straight, but slow and inefficient method for turning — making you a hazard to yourself and those around you if you need to move quickly. So learn to turn by shifting your weight slightly in the direction you want to go. Shifting to the right will move your bike right, and vice versa, slight shift in the opposite direction will put you back on course. Find a quiet street or parking lot to practice until you feel comfortable. And before you hit the streets.


Stephen Box picks up the story of fellow Wheelman Rod Armas’ tragic death on PCH this past weekend, filling in the details and arguing that something has to be done. The best named bike shop in town gets new racers in stock. In case you missed it, a New York cyclist is intentionally doored by an SUV driver, then charged with causing damage to his vehicle. A Florida driver hits a cyclist, and drives off laughing. Korea plans bike-only subway cars. A 68 year-old cyclist says he’ll quit when it isn’t fun anymore. And finally, a Missouri writer argues that shared lanes should be painted red to hide the blood.

One comment

  1. timur says:

    That note about “choosing your battles” is spot on. I’ve been taking the bus to campus for most of the spring, and part of me always wants to suggest to the people riding Wilshire in morning traffic that there might be a better way for everyone – Fourth. The rule of 10-15 is also really helpful. Thanks!