How to Bike to Work in Philly and Make It There In One Piece

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Mother Nature’s fury, which we are experiencing in full force right now as I type this, forced Philly’s Bike to Work day to be rescheduled for Monday. That’s actually a good thing because it gives you more time to study up on the unspoken rules of the road.

I’ve been biking to work for a solid eight years now, first in DC and now here in Philly. I’ve learned a few things in my time about how to do it without getting run over. Yes, there have been a few close calls, but we’ll call them learning experiences, the fruits of which I will now impart to you.


If you're an experienced city cyclist, you'll probably find this list a tad obvious. That's fine—I'm not writing it for you. This list is for newbies who have always wanted to ride their bikes to work, but for whatever reason haven't yet taken the plunge.

Here, the unspoken (and a few spoken) rules of conduct for successfully riding your bike in the city.

1. Don't hog the bike lane. 

Bike lanes are great inventions: They provide visual, and sometimes physical, cues for drivers and cyclists about who is supposed to be where on the road. If you're a new city cyclist, you should probably plan a route to work that involves as many bike lanes as possible.

What a lot of people don't realize, though, is that there's a bit of etiquette required when it comes to bike lane usage. You'll notice that bike lanes are wide enough to fit two cyclists abreast, and you may be tempted to ride two abreast; do not give in to this temptation. You should stay to the curb side to allow other cyclists to pass you on the car-lane side.

My biggest pet peeve is when two people are riding side by side, laughing and talking and carrying on a conversation, all while going one mile per hour. Remember that bike lanes are travel lanes, not Sunday-afternoon-meandering lanes, and people are trying to get somewhere. Never ride two-by-two, and always leave space on the car-lane side for faster cyclists to get around you.

2. Don't ride on the sidewalk. 

In Philly, you're only legally allowed to ride on a sidewalk if you're under the age of 13. Sidewalk riding is a nuisance to pedestrians (don't try to say you've never been annoyed by it), and it's just plain dangerous. Stick to the road.

3. Don't blow through stop signs and lights. 

Cyclists are supposed to follow the same rules of the road as drivers; this means coming to a full stop at stop signs and waiting at traffic lights. But of course, almost no one follows these rules. If you're brand new to cycling, I would implore you to follow the rules. You're naturally not going to be the most confident person on two wheels, so sticking to the rules here is crucial.

To everyone else: I get the temptation to run red lights and stop signs. Full confession: I do it, too, sometimes. But there is a difference between riding through an intersection at 800 miles an hour without looking or pausing to see what's coming, and slowing down—or even coming to a full stop—to see if you can safely pass through a red light without getting you or someone else killed (including pedestrians in crosswalks!). The 800-mile-an-hour cyclist is the one that drives me up a wall; that person is reckless (Breaking news: No one else on the road can read your mind and predict what you're going to do, so you make us all nervous) and stupid, and gives the rest of us a very bad name.

4. Don't ride like you're timid and scared. 

You know those people who ride their bikes veeerry slowly one inch from the curb in hopes that a car won't hit them? Don't be that person. The biggest piece of advice I give to everyone who asks me about city bike commuting is to be confident on the bike in every possible interpretation of the word.

For me, this means actively taking up enough space on non-bike-lane roads that a car will have to slow down behind me to get around, and peddling at a speed that can at least somewhat keep up with cars. There are two reasons for this: First, riding all the way in the gutter will give drivers the impression that they can pass you without slowing down because they don't have to move to get around you. This, of course, is an easy way to get swiped by a mirror. I like to ride about two-and-a-half feet out from the curb. There, I'm not taking up the entire traffic lane—a no-no; remember, you have to share the road as much as drivers do—but I'm defining my own, very visible space so that drivers see me and have to slow down to get around me.

Secondly, riding very slowly is a good way to royally piss off everyone else on the road. I'm not saying you have to ride at 800 miles an hour (see above) but you want to make an effort to keep up with the flow of traffic as much as you can. It's not that hard in a city, where drivers can't go all that fast, anyway, because there are stop signs at almost every intersection. The slow, timid people are the ones that drivers get annoyed with and honk at. These are the cyclists whom drivers angrily swerve around before flooring it just to make a point. In my experience, riding at a speed that keeps up with the flow of traffic makes everyone happier.

5. Don't try to squeeze between cars when they're backed up at a light.

I know you've seen people do this successfully, but trust me: It's harder than it looks. I only do it in very rare, very dire traffic situations, and I will never, ever do it when I feel like the light is about to turn. Drivers aren't really looking in their side mirrors to see if cyclists are squeezing through before they accelerate through an intersection, so it's a good way to get yourself hit, or at least thrown off balance.

6. Don't forget hand signals. 

You'll feel like a total geek doing it, but signaling your turns or merges with your hands/arms is a good idea. It gives everyone around you an idea of what you're about to do. I always do it when I need to make a turn that involves leaving my bike lane and crossing a car lane. In fact, I often signal with my arm and turn to make eye contact with the oncoming driver. Better to be safe than sorry.

7. Don't ride on streets with trolley tracks. 

They're tricky to navigate, even for more experienced cyclists, so I wouldn't recommend attempting to conquer a set of trolly tracks on your first, or second, or even third time out.

8. Don't hit a pothole. 

My first day riding in Philly, I blew a tire riding around Rittenhouse Square. The pothole situation got insanely bad this winter, thanks to the terrible weather, and while many of them have been filled, there are still plenty of brutal potholes out there just waiting to devour your tires. So be heads up when it comes to potholes. And if you see one, score yourself some good Karma and report it so it can (someday, hopefully) get fixed.

Like what you’re reading? Experience Be Well Philly live at Be Well Philly Boot Camp fitness fest on June 7th!

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  • BCGP

    Great column, Emily! Two things we’d add:

    1) Taking up the full lane isn’t a no-no. It’s totally allowed and, if you can reasonably keep up with the speed of traffic, encouraged. Riding in the middle of the lane keeps you out of the “door zone” so people opening doors of parked cars won’t hit you. If you feel you can’t keep up with traffic, it’s still okay to take the lane and then pull over at intersections to let cars pass you.

    2) People new to city biking should know about our urban riding basics classes. They’re free, 1-hour classes designed to give people the information and confidence needed to get around Philly on two wheels. Check out our website for upcoming dates.

    Have fun and ride safe!

    • Emily Leaman

      Yeah, maybe it’s not technically, legally, a no-no. But taking up the full lane is a good way to make drivers hate you and earn yourself a few choice expletives, and maybe even a loud honk (which, for new cyclists especially, can be terrifying). So in the spirit of sharing, I like to give drivers enough space to pass slowly and carefully.

  • Oskar

    A suggestion, can you do a corresponding list of do’s and don’ts for pedestrians and bike lanes? For instance, don’t stand in the middle of the bike lane while waiting to cross an intersection or don’t stroll down the middle of the bike lane as if it is your personal sidewalk extension.