Commuting Tips for Budding Philly Bicyclists

Cycling newbies, come with me if you want to live. Actually, just don't ride against traffic, and you'll be fine.

As Philly Post contributor Brian Howard recently pointed out, the Philadelphia Police Department—well, the third district, anyway—has turned its ever-watchful eye to cyclists who spurn the rules of the road. A little random in its enforcement, to be sure, but is the crackdown (yes, crackdown!) any real surprise? According to the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, between 2000 and 2009, bicycle commuting increased by 151 percent in the city. With such a massive influx of newbies to clog the roads and create traffic trouble, it should be no wonder that tensions between cyclists, motorists and pedestrians are coming to a head.

So, to help out the commuting neophytes out there—college freshmen, newly arrived transplants, fitness resolutionists, I’m looking at you—I’ve put together somewhat of a city cycling primer that, with any luck, will keep a few of you from catching a door to the face. Here, some tips that’ll (hopefully) keep you upright and on the road:

1. Ride Where You Belong
Ride through Philly on any given day, and you might think that basic cycling safety doesn’t cross the minds of most cyclists on the road. Don’t be one of those guys. To start: Do not ride on the sidewalk anywhere in the city—ever. Doing so only creates a more dangerous environment for everyone than if you’d just ride in the street. Pedestrian traffic gets disrupted, you have to ride slower—in short, everyone loses. Ditto for riding the wrong way down one-way streets and two-way streets with bike lanes on both sides. I’ll never understand why, but in my experience, riders on Snyder, Washington and Aramingo perpetrate the latter with alarming regularity. Not only can this get you a ticket, but it’s a great way to go head-first through a windshield. We’ve got to share the road, after all.

2. Be Assertive and Aware
As a general rule of thumb, you should assume at all times that, at best, the cars around you are indifferent to your existence, and at worst, want you very, very dead. What I mean is, you’re a bicyclist who weighs a couple hundred pounds all told, and cars are multi-ton cyclist squishers. Stay out of the “door zone” on more narrow streets to avoid a driver swinging open a door into the bike path and sweeping you under an approaching bus. Keep your head on a swivel; I want your eyes to dart around looking for threats like those of a meth head looking for a fix. And please, for your own sake, hold your line—the last thing anyone needs is some awkward-as-a-newborn-giraffe cyclist noob darting out into rear-approaching traffic only to get splattered across an undercarriage on 17th.

3. Learn the Art of Non-Reaction
This is Philadelphia, you’re going to get yelled at, cat-called and otherwise verbally abused by drivers and pedestrians alike. You are probably not really an “asshole,” “mook” or “pussy” (I’ve been called all these and more) for riding your bike on the road where it belongs, but that doesn’t stop drivers from trying to push the point in sometimes hilarious, but often infuriating ways. Mutter curses under your breath, scream into a pillow when you get home—do whatever keeps you from swinging a U-lock through someone’s window for sweet revenge. You simply can’t afford to be distracted by something so trivial while riding, so at the very least, put off your reaction until later. Perhaps these people—whom, I assure you, are the true mooks—are envious of your exceedingly fast, essentially free and supremely healthy mode of transportation? Who knows, you’ll pass them too quickly at the next light to find out.

4. Lock it Up Right
Speaking of U-locks, did you know that as recently as 2008, at least one bike lock manufacturer (hint: the only one that matters) considered Philly to be the worst bike theft city in the nation? It’s no joke, and I speak from personal experience. I’ve had bikes stolen, my friends have had bikes stolen, their friends have had bikes stolen—it’s almost a right of passage in this city, like eating a cheesesteak or being mugged. You’ll still want to avoid it, though, and the best way to do that is with the aforementioned U-lock that you won’t swing through anyone’s window. A Kryptonite U-lock is best (even though they are flawed), but anything is better than one of those floppy cable jobs that might unlock if you look at them mean enough. Buying the right lock is useless if you don’t know how to lock it, but luckily, there’s a guide. For added security, lock up in a populated, well-lit area and always use your locking cable.

5. Get Your Hands Dirty
Nothing wrong with a little dirt under your nails, and in cycling it’s almost mandatory. A basic toolkit that allows you to change tires and adjust parts—especially if it can fit in your backpack or saddlebag—is great to have. Most standard bicycle repair work requires only basic mechanical knowledge, so learning how to fix your own ride can save you hundreds of dollars in little repairs and hours or days of not having a bike in the long run. Learn also to replace parts before they go completely bad—things like brake pads, tires, shifting and braking cables and chains all wear out periodically. Be sure to regularly check your tire pressure to avoid pinch flats and improve riding performance. And don’t forget, for those moving parts: lube, lube, lube. (Lightly and often is best.)

And of course, having fun should always be a top priority—otherwise, why not just take SEPTA?