Cycle commuting: the good, the bad and the ugly

21 Nov 2013, 14 minute read

I’ve been commuting to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford for the last week or so, and the hugely variable quality of cyclists, motorists and pedestrians has been a bit of a shock, so this post is a collection of my notes on transitioning from being “a cyclist” in the countryside to “a cycle commuter” in the city.

Moving down to Oxford has its advantages, and one of them is that I’m being forced to ride more. Living in Snowdonia I had a 35 minute ride (plus shower time) or a 10 minute drive, so it was easy for me to come up with excuses to get that extra 20 or 30 minutes sleep. Oxford turns that on its head. Living out near Farmoor on the western side of Oxford and having to commute to Headington means travelling through the centre or using the ring road, so in rush hour the slowest option is now the car, which took an amazing 1 hour 20 minutes to cover the 12 miles. Buses are (in theory) a little faster, and take an hour from the nearest bus-stop. Even cycling slowly on a commuting bike and carrying clothes, food, tech and a ridiculously heavy lock it doesn’t take more than 50 minutes door to door. I resolved to get into good habits, and even though Oxford buses are great and my woes were all caused by my own ignorance and lack of organisation, it only took one day of commuting by bus to cement the decision.

For those who don’t know me (and haven’t seen 2013’s Team Pedal adventure when I ride I tend to go fast (but not as fast as I’d like) and light (but not as light as I’d like).

It was only a couple of weeks before I moved that I realised I hadn’t put any thoughts into the practicalities of cycling to work in a cycle-centric city. I had been very lucky in Bangor to have showers and a secure place to lock the bike up inside, which I had pretty much to myself. That doesn’t scale well, and there are hundreds of bikes around the hospital, so I realised I’d need to lock my bike up in the nearest rack. This presented a few problems:

  1. My bike is far too shiny to leave locked up, tempting fate
  2. I don’t own a bike lock!
  3. I can’t carry any real loads (my road bike doesn’t have a pannier)
  4. I don’t have enough reflective/lit gear to ride through a city at night

Getting set up

Getting hold of a bike was my highest priority, but it’s not as straightforward as you’d hope when you’re on a budget but know a thing or two about bikes, and more importantly have expensive tastes. I set myself a budget of £250 for a bike, panniers and mudguards, and had a couple of requirements:

  1. The bike doesn’t look expensive. It’s going to be left in a bike rack all day, so can’t garner interest. The shonkier the better.
  2. Good reliability and ease of maintenance. This isn’t entirely compatible with (1), and ruled out a load of the really cheap bikes as well as anything older than 10 years.
  3. Needs to be able to tackle hills with heavy panniers on, so no single-speeds (shame).

After a few days finding nothing suitable, I realised I had another requirement: that it could be ridden at a good pace. There are plenty of city bikes and cheap heavy bikes with relaxed, sit-up-and-beg riding positions floating around the internet, but I wanted to be able to ride like I do my road bike. Accepting this narrowed the field down to just hybrid bikes.

Fortunately a good friend had a Boardman Hybrid Team he wanted to get rid of after upgrading to a nice Planet X carbon road bike. It ticked all the boxes but had done a fair number of miles. I can cope with a bit of bike maintenance and the bike you know is better than the bike you don’t…right? All I needed to do then was stick some gaffer tape over the saddle (who’s going to steal a ripped saddle?) and generally “shab it up”.

I’ve got a few things to write about cycling in the dark and protecting your bike, so I’ll leave those for another post.

After riding the Boardman for the past couple of weeks I’m happy with my choices. The stock saddle isn’t amazing, and the brakes need a bit of TLC, but it’s a sturdy workhorse. I see loads of people pushing up Headington Hill and hear more coming with the steady squeak-squeak of an unloved bike. Now that I don’t need to worry about keeping it on the road I can enjoy the 18 mile round trip to work, particularly the ride home when I can’t help but push myself.

The biggest challenge has really been altering my riding style so I get to work without needing to be hosed down. I’m used to jumping on the bike, getting into heart rate zone 3 or 4 (also known as getting a good sweat on) and berating myself if I start taking it easy. That’s not really compatible with cycling to work, where I have to look at least semi-respectable without the inconvenience of having a shower there. It’s taken a week or so but I’m now able to resist the urge to hunt down the person in front. I almost don’t feel bad when I get overtaken. Almost.

Cycling safely in the city

Maybe this is better titled “my rants about how a lot of people don’t seem to value their own lives”. Cycling through the centre of Oxford on a morning has done a lot to remove my indignance at poor driving and cycling. If I got hung up on each person who jumps a red light I’d just be a big ball of anger. There are so many cyclists on the road that you’re bound to see at least one misdemeanour or near miss each day, and a side effect of this is that drivers expect you to behave erratically.

Anyway, to the point. Cycling every day through busy, built-up areas increases your chances of being involved in an incident. My primary objective is to control as many aspects of the ride as possible to reduce the possibility of one occurring. Here are a few of the things I do to feel comfortable.

Ride decisively & confidently

One of the biggest problems for drivers is that often they don’t know what to expect from a cyclist. Many cyclists weave around, turn suddenly and without warning, and don’t really look where they’re going. I make an effort to show the traffic around me that I know what I’m doing, and they can expect me to behave in a consistent manner. This means a few things:

  1. Dress like a cyclist who knows what they’re doing. A bright yellow jacket is great for being seen, but together with a helmet and gloves at least gives the impression you take cycling seriously.
  2. Accelerate away from the lights (when they go green) and keep a reasonable pace. Giving the impression you know where you’re going (at least for the next 100m) means drivers will feel more comfortable around you. Keeping a good pace makes merging into traffic much easier and safer.
  3. Don’t keep looking over your shoulder (unless you need to merge or turn). Checking traffic might make you feel more comfortable, but it gives the impression you’re about to move out into traffic.
  4. Signal clearly and in plenty of time. I will check over my shoulder, and signal well before my manoeuvre, making the turn knowing that everyone around me knows exactly what I’m about to do.
  5. Don’t make sudden movements. When you change lanes emulate a car’s path, and try not to veer wildly (where possible). If I’m coming up to an obstacle and I’ve misjudged things, I’ll indicate to pull into the side of the road in preference to jumping out into traffic.
  6. Stick with your decisions. If you go to turn across traffic and suddenly realise it’s not the right way, carry on anyway and sort it out on the other side, when it’s safe again…

Look well ahead

Quickly pulling into traffic because you’ve almost ridden into a stationary bus is a recipe for disaster, and I see it most days. This sounds really obvious, but seeing what’s coming and taking steps early on does wonders for stress-free cycling. Seeing the bus 100m ahead of you means you can filter into traffic early, thank the driver who let you in and navigate around the bus, without any near-death experiences.

If you’re overtaking a stationary vehicle and there’s another one 20m further down the road hold your position and overtake both. Getting “sucked in” towards the curb means you have to re-merge with traffic, and reducing the number of times you need to do that makes your journey safer.

Expect everyone to make a mistake

This is somewhat tiring, but if you can second-guess every driver’s actions and alter your speed/course/noise to take yourself out of the equation you’re much less likely to be caught by surprise. It’s so easy to see a situation developing when you’re riding assuming the worst, and even if 9 out of 10 times it amounts to nothing, that last time you’ll be thankful.

If in doubt, take the lane and be a car

Stop-start city traffic is relatively easy to keep up with on a bike. If I’m in an area I don’t know well and might need to make lane changes at short notice I’ll merge into traffic and take the space of a car approximately 1/2 to 2/3rds of the way across the lane. Once you’re there be sure to put in that extra effort to keep up with the car in front. This can work both ways, and I’ll often sit in a queue of traffic at the lights rather than scooting through the narrow gap between two queues of cars to get to the front. This is also a useful tactic if you’re not feeling confident, or just need a low-stress ride. Sure it’s slower, but it feels a hell of a lot safer!

Be extra careful of buses, lorries and the dreaded taxi

Buses and lorries are, and probably always will be, a threat to cyclists in cities, wholly because of their size and manoeuvrability. Driving one of these monoliths and keeping track of traffic around you as well as passengers, routes, and so forth must be a challenging job, so giving them extra space is wise.

In particular, I will never pass a bus or lorry as we pass a road entrance, and don’t squeeze down the side of them at traffic lights. In the past couple of weeks I’ve seen at least two instances of buses pulling away from traffic lights as someone squeezes down the side to undertake, which is definitely not a position I want to be in!

As an aside, the buses in Oxford are generally great for cyclist awareness and driving sympathetically. Thanks!

The same cannot be said for taxis. I don’t want to apply a stereotype (here it comes…), however I have been dangerously overtaken, cut up, squeezed out and generally harassed by more taxis than all the other types of vehicle combined. Although there are plenty of great taxi drivers than I never notice, it’s certainly safest to assume they’re all being driven by rabid zombies with complete disregard for your life. Steer well clear. When riding in shared bus & taxi lanes I make sure I’m far enough into the lane that I’m not going to be overtaken at speed with inches to spare, and edge in once they’ve slowed down, though your mileage may vary on that one.

Don’t shoot red lights

This is my biggest bug-bear of city cycling after people cycling at night with no lights. When you get on a bike you’re choosing to be a vehicle, and that’s true until you dismount. Just as a driver can’t choose to ignore red lights they don’t like, or cut across junctions, neither can a cyclist. A cyclist also doesn’t magically become a pedestrian by mounting the kerb.

A lot of people get away with jumping red lights, particularly at pedestrian crossings, but it carries with it a couple of risks. As soon as you pass the red light you’re entering territory where anything could happen and threats can come from anywhere. It’s much safer to just stop and wait for the lights to change. It makes you a standard vehicle which drivers around you know what to expect of, and it hopefully reduces the amount of ill-feeling towards cyclists (and the associated road-rage).

Avoid the cycle paths, seek the cycle lane

This is not intended as advice for others, merely what I do, and it’s obviously contentious. I’ll cycle along at around 15-20mph, and cycle paths introduce additional hazards I don’t fancy tackling:

  • (Often) lower quality surfaces
  • Pedestrians not realising it’s a bike lane
  • The path suddenly ending and merging you back with traffic (where you have to give way)
  • Many, many give way points at junctions, driveways, bus stops (this varies by region of course)

Nowadays I just avoid the cycle path as a general rule, unless it cuts away from the road and I know it to be good quality. The only exception to this is busy roads with flow control or frequent narrowings, where being in the carriageway is likely to cause the other traffic to have to overtake me dangerously or sit in a big queue.

Once you know an area well, the good cycle paths become apparent, and short sections can often be used to cut out traffic lights or queues of traffic.

Conversely, cycle lanes are (generally) great, and I’ll dive into one at any opportunity. There are some notable exceptions (such as coming into Oxford from the Botley Road) where the cycle lane is poor quality, but drivers expect cyclists to be there so often give it a wide berth. Be careful around constrictions, and always assume that a car will turn across your path without indicating.

Be visible

This is an obvious one at night, but wearing a bright jacket and having flashing front and rear lights during the day does wonders for your visibility. Just think of the night-shift worker on their way home at 8am as you’re commuting in, and make it even easier for them to spot you.

As it’s winter the commute home is well after sunset. Every evening Oxford is swamped with cyclists. A small portion have no lights at all, a slightly larger number have good bright lights front and back with reflective clothing, and the majority sit in the middle, with dim lights you often struggle to see and dark clothing. It’s obvious why - carrying clothes for the commute makes it heavier, slower and more hassle; is it worth the risk though? Ebay is a great source of cheap reflective sashes, clips for trousers and stickers. You can even get reflective tape to apply to your bike. Next time you’re in a car or walking around at night, notice how visible the road signs are and how much more they stand out than the side of the road. That’s a good property to have on your ride.

Get a good set of lights, and use them lots! Rechargeable batteries are easy to come by, so it doesn’t need to break the bank.

A less obvious way to make yourself visible is to stay far enough away from other vehicles and objects so you’re not lumped in with it in a quick glance.

Make eye contact

This is probably the most overlooked tool available to a cyclist. When you’re edging out into traffic or wondering if a car’s going to pull into your path it’s natural to look at the nearest part of the car to you. Try looking at the driver instead, and you’ll get an idea of whether they’ve seen you, are angry at cyclists, or are looking into the back to check on their child. Making eye contact registers you as a person in the driver’s mind, and lets you both know that you’re aware of each other. A smile never hurts too, and it’s surprising the number of times you’ll get one back :).


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Hi, I'm Ryan

I care about code, building great teams and the community. I run Slate Horse but I'm still a full-stack developer. Previously co-organiser of JSOxford and OxRUG.


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