The safety of a bike lane depends partly on how the lane is designed, but mostly on how cyclists use it. Bike lanes are traffic lanes; they still require that you pay attention, follow the rules, and make smart decisions. Here are some things to keep in mind.
Go with the flow.
Ride in the bike lane only in the same direction as other traffic. Riding against the flow of traffic is against the law and greatly increases your chances of having a crash, especially at intersections where pedestrians and crossing traffic are unlikely to see you. Plus, it irritates and potentially endangers other cyclists who have to veer out of your way. If you find yourself in one of the new two-way bike lanes, be especially careful when crossing intersections. Always scan the intersection to make sure that other traffic sees you.
Avoid the door zone.
Many NYC bike lanes, especially the older ones, are located in the “door zone”—that is, within four to five feet of parked cars. Riding that close to parked cars is dangerous, because it leaves you vulnerable to getting get “doored” (hit by an opening car door). Instead, either ride in the edge of the bike lane farthest away from the parked cars (at least four feet), or ride in the adjacent traffic lane. New York City law stipulates that cyclists should use the bike lane if one is provided, but it allows exceptions for safety reasons. Bike lanes that put cyclists in the door zone are unsafe.
Handle intersections with care.
At intersections, turning traffic may cross the path of cyclists riding straight in the bike lane. Take care to avoid being “hooked” by a turning vehicle:
Stay out of the path of turning vehicles.
Never pass other vehicles traveling in the adjacent traffic lane as you approach an intersection in a bike lane; you will eventually put yourself in the blind spot of a turning vehicle. Temporarily take the adjacent traffic lane through the intersection. Likewise, on multi-lane one-way avenues, cyclists who stay in the bike lane are likely to find themselves entangled with lines of turning vehicles at every other intersection. Move into one of the center traffic lanes to pass lines of cars waiting to turn.
Avoid making a left turn from a far right bike lane or vice-versa.
When turning out of the bike lane, either change lanes and then make your turn or go straight ahead to the other side of the intersection first (while staying in the bike lane) and then stop to turn and, if there is a light, wait for a green light in your direction (or a break in traffic if there isn’t a light).
Be predictable and respect traffic signals.
If the bike lane is obstructed, plan ahead: signal your intention to change lanes, scan for a safe clearing to move over (remember that other traffic in that lane has the right of way), and then blend smoothly into that lane. Also obey traffic signs and signals, even those in separated bike lanes (like the one on Ninth Avenue in Manhattan) that have special traffic signals for bikes.
Remember that every lane is a bike lane.
Cyclists have the right to use almost any road (with a few high-speed exceptions) both in New York and in all other states. Don’t use the absence of a bike lane as an excuse not to ride. If you don’t feel comfortable in traffic, take our Street Skills Class and Street Skills Ride to learn more and practice your skills.