21 Tips for Riding a Bike in Philly

The weather's gorgeous, bike share is launching, and there's never been a better time to be a cyclist in the city. Here's what you need to know.


Photo illustration | Alyse Moyer. Background photo | B. Krist for Visit Philly. Other photos | Shutterstock.com

Savor this. It’s a great moment to bike in Philadelphia.

The weather is just peachy, our bike-lane network has grown by 50 miles under Mayor Michael Nutter, and the city’s long-awaited bike-share program, Indego, is launching Thursday of this week.

So if you’ve been on the fence about getting on two wheels, there’s never been a better time get off that fence and onto a bike. Just think: While cycling, you won’t have to circle your block for a half-hour looking for a parking spot, wait for a bus that’ll never show, or leave a party early because the trains are going to stop running for the night. You might even get glutes without trying.

Better yet, you’re in one of the best bike cities in the country. Philadelphia is relatively flat, has great scenery, and is home to a charming cyclist community. But there are risks to biking, too. Here are a few tips for cyclists who are new to the streets on how to bike safely and legally (well, mostly legally).

1. Buy a helmet. Partly for your head, mostly for your mom’s emotional wellbeing. Yes, lots of helmets are dorky-looking, but lots of newer ones are, well, less dorky-looking — and some are even, dare we say, stylish. And while they’ve yet to invent a helmet that doesn’t mess up your hair, there are ways to do your ’do — for women and men — that minimize the effect.

2. Buy a bike light, too. Just because you’re in the big city doesn’t mean you don’t need one. A front light is nice; a rear blinker is essential.

3. Follow most cycling laws. Don’t ride the wrong way down one-way streets and don’t ride on the sidewalks. It’s rude and dangerous.

4. There are a handful of laws that cyclists break routinely. Many bikers treat red lights like they’re stop signs and stop signs like they’re yield signs. Both are technically illegal, but if you’re safe and considerate (i.e. you actually stop and yield to oncoming traffic rather than careening carelessly through), you’re pretty unlikely to get stopped by cops or cursed out by grouchy motorists. Some special places in the country even have “stop-as-yield” laws on the books. Philly cyclists dream of Philadelphia some day being one of those special places.

5. Assume the worst about motorists. It sounds mean, but hyper-cautiousness will go a long way while biking alongside 4,000-pound vehicles. Though the driver next to you might be a splendid human being who donates regularly to animal charities, they also might not be used to sharing the street with bikers or simply might not see you. Just be alert and aware. A mere fender bender for a motorist is a potentially deadly incident for a cyclist.

6. Assume the worst about pedestrians. Again, it’s nothing personal. I walk places, too! But pedestrians can be unpredictable. They sometimes walk and text, they’re prone to changing direction unexpectedly, and they occasionally don’t look where they’re going. Be prepared. A small crash for you could be a serious injury for a pedestrian.

7. Yes, assume the worst about other cyclists, too. You don’t have to pass a test to ride a bike, so there’s no knowing what other cyclists consider to be the rule of the road. Plus, some bikers don’t adhere to Tip No. 3.

8. Bike assertively. It might take some getting used to, but you’ll be safer on the road. Think about how dangerous timid drivers can be. The same goes for timid cyclists. For instance, it’s better to take the lane and stay in it than to weave in and out between parked cars.

9. If you’re not feeling confident because traffic is out of control or you’re riding on a high-speed street, don’t be ashamed to pull over, hop off your bike and just walk it on the sidewalk. Sometimes, it’s the best option.

10. Learn how to fix a flat tire. You’ll eventually get one, and knowing how to handle it will impress attractive men and women alike.

11. Take steps to avoid getting “doored.” Some bikers say it’s not a question of if you’ll be hit by a door thrust open into your travel lane, but when. I don’t think that’s true. I’ve biked for seven years in Philly and I’ve never been doored. I believe I’ve avoided it by making sure my handlebars are a few feet away from parked cars at all times, never swerving around automobiles, and keeping an eye out for telltale brake lights and motorists getting out of their vehicles. A healthy dose of anxiety has probably helped, too.

12. Avoid streets with trolley tracks. They are the natural enemy of the cyclist. Girard and Baltimore avenues and 11th and 12th streets are a few examples. Getting stuck in a trolley track is a recipe for a spill and a case of road rash (or worse). And when you have to cross trolley or train tracks, do your best to do so at as close to a right angle as possible. This minimizes the amount of time your tire is in contact with potentially slippery metal. And speaking of street hazards to avoid, even though it doesn’t have any trolley tracks, the stretch of Seventh Street between Market and Walnut is a morass of potholes. You are not welcome there.

13. Always, always, always lock up your bike. To do this, you should buy a U-Lock and nothing else. Those coiled cable locks they use in the ’burbs? They can be a good compliment to a U-Lock, but they should never be used as a substitute for a U-Lock. Also, always lock up the frame of your bike.

14. If at all possible, never lock up your bike overnight outside. If you absolutely, positively must do it, lock it up on the busiest, best-lit street you can find.

15. Don’t worry too much about using the cycling hand signals seen in DMV handbooks. They’re confusing and who even knows them? But making a pronounced pointing motion in the direction that you are turning — preferably well before you make the turn — is always wise.

16. Always pass other cyclists on the left, just as is custom while driving. On that note, don’t freak out when another cyclist yells “on your left!” for the first time while you’re being passed. They’re being polite.

17. Get to know Google Maps. The site offers specialized directions for cyclists, which I’ve found to be fairly dependable. It’s also pretty darn good at estimating how long it will take for you to bike somewhere.

18. Consider stashing extra clothing or footwear in your bag. You can still wear heels to work if you bike; you’ll just have to buy a bigger bag to fit them in while you wear sneaks on your way in.

19. On long trips, stash a bike pump in your bag.

20. At all times during the summer, stash deodorant in your bag. And don’t be surprised when you need to use it on several parts of your body.

21. Visit the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia’s website for more tips. The nonprofit is a great resource, and we’ve surely forgotten something important.

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