Happy Monday! Did you ride to the office? If not, what’s holding you back?

If you’re like many Americans, it may be fear of the open road: Navigating traffic is a huge hurdle that all cyclists have to overcome at some point. Thankfully, it’s getting easier. “In the last decade, more than 18,000 new bike paths and bike lanes have been built in the United States, and that’s just using federal money,” says Tim Blumenthal, president of the Bikes Belong Coalition, a non-profit that works to put more people on bikes. “State and local money have built a lot more.”

Whether you live in an area with a protected bike lane or you’re forced to ride alongside buses, taxis, and SUVs, commuting on two wheels can still be a fun, safe—and most importantly—healthy habit to adopt. The key is knowing your role on the road. Here are five ways to ride smart.

Get a tune-up
Make sure your bike is in good condition, says Blumenthal. The best way to do this is to bring your bike into your local shop for servicing. The mechanics can make sure your tires are properly inflated, the brakes work smoothly, and the gears shift well, among other things.

Look for the least trafficked route 
“Unless you’re an extremely experienced and confident rider, look for the most lightly trafficked route,” says Blumenthal, not the most direct. “Be willing to go a little further for a more relaxed ride. If you explain where you want to go, a good bike shop employee should be able to recommend a way there. Or, check Google bike maps and go where other bike commuters already are. “The more people who ride, the safer it gets for everyone,” says Blumenthal. “Motorists assume there will be riders on the road and they adjust.”

Be visible
If you live in a busy, congested area, you want to make sure that you can be seen—even during the day. “A lot of people wear a reflective vest, but I’d make it even more simple,” says Blumenthal. “Wear bright clothing.” In addition, during low-visibility hours, such as early morning and late at night, use a headlamp plus a rear light or flashing reflectors.

Obey the law
Cyclists are obligated to follow all the traffic rules that apply to cars, so don’t blow through that stop sign or red light. If you get in a sticky situation, such as having to make a left-hand turn on a three-lane road, stay visible (don’t squeeze between cars), ride down the center of the lane, and signal your intentions, says Blumenthal. The hand signals you learned as a kid, still apply. Read Turning Points for a refresher.

Ride defensively
One of the biggest challenges in sharing the road is when cars are turning right and you’re going straight. “Never assume that a car sees you,” says Blumenthal. “A lot of smart bike riding on the streets relates to direct eye-to-eye contact with people in cars. And that doesn’t mean eyes to review mirrors.” Ride defensively and assume the unpredictable, he cautions. “In other words, don’t think ‘they see me, they’ll never turn.’ Always assume they’re going to turn. It’s kind of a mindset.”

The same goes for riding past parked cars. “You’ve got to be very careful about people opening doors,” says Blumenthal. “That probably means riding three to four feet away from the curb to make sure you don’t get ‘doored’.”

  • markhhendricks

    I have to take a small exception with #2. Side streets are least heavily traveled, but you are far more likely to get doored. You are far more likely to have someone not used to any traffic run a stop sign into you and you will be far more likely to struggle with starting and stopping all the time due to all those stop signs. Often busier routes are so because they are multi-lane. If you choose a lane and control it, folks know to change lanes passing you. Yes, side paths, sidewalks, and magic painted lines FEEL safer, but they are not.