Saved By The Bell

Editor’s Note: One of the missing voices in bicycle planning in the Twin Cities is college students. This series aims to include the perspectives of a generation that is much less likely than their parents to own vehicles. The authors are Macalester students enrolled in the “Bicycling the Urban Landscape” course. The overarching objective is to provide intellectual and active engagement with bicycling, including understanding transportation politics, equity, bicycle culture, local, national, and global trends in bicycling, and steps toward increased bicycle mode share locally and globally. This piece was contributed by Dylan Edwards-Gaherty.

Nearly every man and woman across the United States has had a traumatic experience regarding a lack of awareness of bicyclists on and off the road. In many cases, this can be dangerous for both the cyclist and the pedestrian or driver that are part of the near-misses and accidents that take place every day. Many different states have laws that force cyclists to adhere to specific standards in terms of equipment, with safety being driving force behind nearly all of them. Why aren’t bicycle bells a part of these laws? Bells come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from bright and eye-catching to small and nearly unnoticeable, which allows them to fit the broad range of uses that bicycles are designed for. Most importantly, they all ring, and they all say “Hey! I’m here!” which is why they are so necessary and important in a community filled with cyclists.

It is safe to say that nearly every cyclist, especially those in urban centers like the Twin Cities, have experienced the notorious “On your left!” shout from a fellow cyclist. A fair number of us have been the ones doing the yelling, as well. Most of the time this gets the job done, although it can feel abrasive depending on who is doing the shouting, and the manner in which these interactions take place. The problems, though, are the times when the out-of-breath “On your left!”  starts to resemble “Move left!” and suddenly a cyclist or pedestrian is about to be rear-ended by another, faster cyclist.

Above, the Oi bell by KNOG. The Oi is 15mm wide and weighs 18 grams for the small and 25 grams for the large.

Above, the Oi bell by KNOG. The Oi is 15mm wide and weighs 18 grams for the small and 25 grams for the large. It comes in two sizes and is compatible with 22.2, 25.4, 26. and 31.8 mm handlebars. Credit:

Currently, Minnesota has laws that require cyclists to have a front light and a rear reflector, or a front and rear light, when riding at night. In addition, cyclists must have reflectors along the sides their bikes to make them visible at night to go with these lights. In cities like New York, there are laws requiring riders to wear a helmet, based on statistics that show riders are more likely to survive a crash when wearing a helmet. All of these laws are meant to promote rider safety on roads and spaces shared with cars. Making sure a car can hear you and is aware of your position on the road promotes safety and is equally important.

Alongside the laws in Minnesota concerning cycling equipment is a statute that reads “A bicycle may be equipped with a horn or bell designed to alert motor vehicles, other bicycles, and pedestrians of the bicycle’s presence.”[1] The statute adds that these bells are meant to alert vehicles, other bikes, and pedestrians that there is a bike headed towards them, in the same way that car horns are used to alert other motorists of the car’s presence when necessary. No one wants to be surprised by a bicycle coming up alongside them at high speeds, the same way no one wants to be surprised by a car in the lane beside them. So why aren’t they required, the same way car horns are?

There really aren’t any good arguments for not having a bell on your bike. If you want them to be big and colorful, they can be. If you would prefer something small and black, or bare steel or copper, or the color of your bike, they exist. If you want something that will sit up on your handlebars and in sight, there are bells that will work for you. Maybe you would prefer not to take up a lot of space on your handlebars. You can find minimalist bells that take up almost no space and add almost no weight to your bike. There are bells that are out of sight, out of mind, and yet still within reach when the moment necessitates them. There are, quite literally, bells for everybody.

Above, the Spurcycle Bell, from Spurcycle. This bell constructed from stainless steel and is handmade in the USA. It comes in two sizes and is compatible with handlebars of any diameter ranging from 22.2mm-31.8mm. Credit:

Above, the Spurcycle Bell, from Spurcycle. This bell constructed from stainless steel and is handmade in the USA. It comes in two sizes and is compatible with handlebars of any diameter ranging from 22.2mm-31.8mm. Credit:

I, personally, love my bell from Spurcycle. It is loud, has a nice ring to it, and the brushed-steel look fits in perfectly with the old-school Rivendell style I am going for on my Cross Check. Almost daily, it helps me to make sure that the car pulling slowly through the crosswalks at stop signs in St. Paul know that I am coming, and let me cross in front of them before they continue on their way. As a cyclist who also on occasion has the necessity to drive, I have tested and found that my bell, among many others, are perfectly audible inside the confines of a closed and running car, even with the radio playing.

Since availability shouldn’t be an issue, and bells tend to be relatively cheap compared to other bike accessories, why is it that so many riders do not use them when they ride? They promote safety, are simple and easy to use, and help avoid uncomfortable yelling-match confrontations on our bike paths and other shared spaces. Like lights and reflectors, cyclists should make use of bells, if they are not currently, when riding on the city streets and paths.


[1] Minnesota State Statute 169.222: Operation of Bicycle.

Macalester Student Perspectives

About Macalester Student Perspectives

Contributing writers to this column were college students enrolled at Macalester College in Saint Paul. These posts were part of classes in the Environmental Studies, Geography, and Urban Studies Programs.

9 thoughts on “Saved By The Bell

  1. Noelle

    Bells are a super fun way to personalize a bike! Great for alerting bikers and pedestrians, but my bells haven’t been so great to alert cars. On quiet streets, maybe.

    How about a bell/airhorn combo? 😉

  2. Eric SaathoffEric Saathoff

    I don’t think anything exists that’s loud enough to alert cars but not offend pedestrians. I really enjoyed my brass Japanese bell but I also found that it was far less effective in rain – when I needed them most to alert drivers with limited vision. It also didn’t fit on larger diameter handlebars.

    I now keep a small bell like the Spurcycle bell for alerting pedestrians, but I often add “on your left” because otherwise a lot of peds don’t know what to do when they hear the bell. I wonder if it might be more effective to put a playing card in my spokes, which would possibly be more audible and recognizable by the peds, and I wouldn’t have to worry about timing it right.

    They make airhorn devices, but they look big and bulky and just as irritating as car horns are.

  3. Dale's Cannon

    I have always found it odd that bells aren’t a “thing” — even (or especially) for dedicated cyclists.

    When I’m pushing hard and fast, the last thing I want to do is also yell “On your left” when I’m huffing and puffing. Plus, I think a bell sounds friendlier and gets your attention better than someone shouting. You can hear a bell through earbuds, but that’s not always true for someone shouting.

    Bells are superior to shouting, and cheap. Like you said, there’s really no good reason to NOT have one.

  4. Clark

    I strongly believe that bells are better than “on your left.” Let’s make it happen! I can’t say how often the “On your left” sounds irritated, smug, annoyed, etc. Not that the rider actually has any of those emotions; it’s just that, as pointed out, when huffing and puffing, things don’t always sound right. Bells, on the other hand, are kind of the opposite: cheerful, friendly, polite.

  5. Luke Birtzer

    My bell has saved me a few times from people who creep into the bike lane to get a better view of oncoming cars for their right turn. Seems to get their attention well enough.

    Funny thing is, I like using my bell instead of saying “on your left” but sometimes it feels oddly impersonal and almost rude. Like… hey I could acknowledge your presence with my human voice but will instead opt to use a machine and then speed past you . And sometimes people don’t even know where the ringing came from. They just kinda look around like did I hear something? And then it’s already too late.

    Thanks for the bell recommendations though, cause I crashed my bike about a month ago, and the only thing that broke was my bell, oddly enough. Aside from scrapes, I was fine. It wasn’t anyone’s fault …just a stupid patch of sand that looked exactly like asphalt during the night.

  6. GlowBoy

    I have a bell on my main bike and use it regularly, but I don’t think it necessarily works better than “passing on your left”. I find that both types of audible warnings produce about the same range of pedestrian responses: most people react fine, a few startle, and a few stop walking and move off to the side, thinking the bell means “get out of my way”. In the latter case, I will sometimes say as I pass, “no need for you to stop – just letting you know I’m here”.

    Actually, when I’m passing elderly people I often find that using my voice actually works better than a bell. People with major high frequency hearing loss don’t hear bells very well.

    My favorite style of bell is the double-ding bell like the Incredibell Clever Lever. I think it conveys much more useful information about my speed and position, while providing a more consistent “ding” than the more common single-ding bells whose sound depends on precisely how you pull back and release the lever.

    Unfortunately, I have yet to find a bell of the double-ding type that works with 26.0mm handlebars. Although a decent number of bells can fit this size (the pre-oversize road standard), every bell of the double-ding style that I’ve found has a non-adjustable plastic mount for traditional mountain handlebars only. Anyone know of one?

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