Bicycle Safety is Totally Rad, Dude!

Placingstudded Tires

Installing front and rear studded tires is a good way to help prevent falling in winter conditions.

One of my old roommates used to be in charge of quarterly safety drills at his workplace. He liked to say, “Safety is not just another word here on Friendship Street.” We lived on Friendship Street. When we gave directions to our place, we told people to look for the street where everyone was hugging. For my birthday that year he gave me a bell for my bike, and it still makes my handle bar ring.

It’s fun for me to imagine bike safety points as a list, and I thought it might also be fun to share them.

Safety for cyclists starts before you become a cyclist. The first step is positive, happy advocacy. Some ideas are: offer input to the city council or the mayor; support the Midtown Greenway Coalition; volunteer for bike events; if you can, donate time or money to grassroots causes that improve the Greenway and other bike routes; if you can, consider patronizing locally owned bike shops. Patronize bike sharing companies. There are even some bike businesses that help teach young or underprivileged people about bike mechanics and riding. Notify the city about dangerous intersections. Politely correct misconceptions about biking when you hear them. Spread general excitement about biking. Watch and share videos about bike safety.

Maybe you can love a life of moseying. You might like connecting with the vibrant interior life of your city more than you like rushing yourself down the grayness of its interstates. Trying to drive a little or a lot less is also a gesture of advocacy and happiness. Each subtracted car makes the roads much safer. If you drive, take it very seriously. Take pride in driving slowly without hurrying. Be proud of your deliberate and immediate awareness of the road. Always assume there are people, pets, plants, and local critters directly nearby who are depending on your care. They’ll return the favor by filling your world with color and play.


Traveling on the Sabo Bridge over Hiawatha Avenue is much safer than crossing at street level.

For me, the next part of bike safety still happens before getting dressed to bike: planning your route. I wish I had more experience with other cycling navigation apps to relay, but here I will just say that I’ve had reasonably good luck using the cycling function on Google maps. Perhaps readers of this article can offer more or better recommendations in the comments section.

  • It’s important to take routes that have marked bike lanes, if you can. I’m lucky enough to commute on the Greenway, and I have gratitude for my route every day I take it. If you can find routes that have car-free paths, you are very fortunate. It’s great to take advantage of such a wonderful infrastructure. That’s what it’s there for!
  • In my experience, “sharrows” are ineffectual. As with marked bike lanes, they can become obscured in the winter to such an extent that motorists can’t tell they are there. In good weather, they still amount only to a subtle suggestion.
  • If it’s extremely cold or hot, plot places where you might be able to duck inside and recover. When I biked in -15 degree weather, my goggles completely froze over and I couldn’t see, but I was lucky enough to stop inside a local bike shop to thaw them out and give a road report and high five to the employee.
  • I like taking side roads that have less traffic.
  • Be open to changing your routes in the winter. Some will be better plowed or safer.

The next part of bike safety has to do with getting dressed. I always know I will have my trifecta: Helmet, lights, and reflective vest.


The author’s helmet, equipped with front and rear lights.

Helmet: I like one that adjusts to accommodate either my bare head or my winter hats. I also like it lightweight enough that it’s easy to turn my head around without the weight making me feel like a bobble head. I also like a lot of ventilation for hot summer riding, and I can typically offset the cold in winter with nice warm hats.

Lights: I like a headlight that clips on to my helmet. It’s nice to have light that follows where I turn my head. I’ve also found it helpful for looking at drivers who don’t otherwise see me. Extra tip: I think directing my light on the ground to my left gives a respectful “hello” to passing cars. Extra extra tip: you probably don’t need to use the brightest setting, which can be blinding to oncoming cyclists. Directing your light downward also helps. I also use a red rear light. Extra tip: having the rear light on steady instead of flashing is less disorienting to people behind you, and it improves driver’s depth of field in locating you.

Vest: Many cyclists do it, but I don’t like wearing all black at night. I’m fond of my bright, reflective worker’s vest, and I’m pretty sure it’s prevented me from getting hit more than once. Heck, I’ll wear it in broad daylight, like a piece of sun on the road.

I also pack a bottle of water and a camping emergency kit, which I started packing after encountering two extremely scary situations where people were very seriously hurt.


Taking advantage of a clear bike lane on Summit Avenue.

The last step is riding carefully. Bikes are traffic. Maybe the biggest misunderstanding about bikes is that they are not traffic. Be predictable, don’t swerve, signal turns. Stop at stop signs and stop lights in front of pedestrian walkways. Yield to pedestrians. Take the lane when necessary. (That might be the hardest thing to do because your impulse is to ride as far to the edge of the road as possible, but in many situations the very safest thing you can do is take the entire lane, which is completely legal because you are traffic.) Avoid riding on the sidewalk. When in doubt, hop off your bike and evaluate the situation. Sometimes biking means walking your bike a little ways.

The actual last step is waving hello to other people you see biking. What a great world you’re sharing with others!

26 thoughts on “Bicycle Safety is Totally Rad, Dude!

  1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Bicycling outside of the U.S. is so much easier (and approachable for average people). Rarely a need for route planning because most (or every in northern Europe and increasingly elsewhere) route option is safe and comfortable – most w separate protected bikeways.

    No need for a helmet or helmet light or safety vest or anything else. Just get on your bike in whatever clothes you’re wearing and go.

    I’m not in any way denigrating what you’ve said or what you do. You have to deal with the circumstances that you’re dealt. But your bike life seems third world compared with elsewhere.

    1. Kyle Constalie Post author

      The biking situation you’re describing is enough to make any cyclist swoon. I think not needing a helmet is a good standard for safety: if it’s reasonable to go without a helmet, THEN it’s safe enough. If your route takes you directly through traffic, as most do, it’s best to strap that bad boy on your noggin.

  2. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    “Avoid riding on the sidewalk. When in doubt, hop off your bike and evaluate the situation. Sometimes biking means walking your bike a little ways.”

    I’m going to strongly disagree with you on this as a blanket statement. I think in a dense population area with many people walking on a sidewalk then yes.

    OTOH, there are a multitude of sidewalks with few people walking that are quite appropriate for riding a bicycle on. For example, I frequently ride on the sidewalk along County Road E in Vadnais Heights. Riding w/ 40-55 MPH traffic would be much too dangerous and the distance is too far to be practical to walk so if I don’t ride on the sidewalk then my only other alternative is to drive a car.

    There are many children who ride bicycles on a sidewalk to go to school. Should they instead be driven in a car by their parents? Ride the bus?

    Then there is the issue of what defines something as a sidewalk? What is the difference in a sidewalk and a MUP/SUP?

    1. Jenny WernessJenny WernessModerator  

      Your points are all reasonable, and I think those situations are precisely why the author said “AVOID riding on the sidewalk” and not “NEVER ride on the sidewalk”

      1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

        In this usage I’m not sure what the difference in Avoid and Never are.

        In many instances we should probably encourage people to use ‘sidewalks’ when appropriate. At least twice I’ve been told by people that they didn’t ride a bicycle because they thought their only option was to ride in the road with traffic and that is something that about 95% or more of our population (and similarly Dutch and Danes and Germans and…) does not want to do.

    2. Monte Castleman

      I’d disagree with that statement too. Growing up in Bloomington we’d catch it from our parents if they ever caught us riding on the street instead of the sidewalk. I still have a key chain a police officer gave me as a reward for riding on the sidewalk instead of the street.

      Even as an adult there’s no way I’m riding anywhere that there’s not a least a concrete curb exasperating me from cars.

      1. Frank Phalen

        There is a difference between a 7 year old riding on the sidewalk and an adult riding on a side walk.

        1. Monte Castleman

          What’s the difference? Does an adult bicycle have an invisible force shield to provide the same protection from cars that a concrete curb does?

          1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

            I agree with Frank. Two things distinguish young children and adults:

            1. Young children have trouble maintaining lateral position on their bikes — that is, they swerve side to side. This makes riding on the street less safe, especially within a narrow bike lane.

            Adults (other than perhaps those bicycling for the first time) are generally able to keep a straight line. When we do Smart Cycling classes for adults, practicing a straight line while signaling / looking over shoulder is one of the most critical skills we work on.

            1. Adults ride faster, which makes riding on a sidewalk more dangerous, because they have less time to react to traffic conflict, and traffic has less time to react to them.

            But child or adult, if riding on sidewalk, I would always give the advice to ride on the right-hand sidewalk if at all feasible. This reduces many of the risk factors of sidewalk riding, and is more analogous to riding in a cycletrack. In most cases, for adults, the road is probably still safer.

            1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

              I’ll repeat my comment from above. On County Road E it’s either ride with multiple lanes of 55 MPH traffic or ride on the sidewalk. I’m an adult, former Cat 1 racer and can hold a line quite well. Even so will not ride w/ the traffic on County E (or on many other similar roads). For me it’s either ride on the sidewalk or drive my car. Perhaps I should stop riding and drive instead?

              This issue is not isolated to me though. This is the situation with perhaps 95-98% of our population. And similarly 98% of Dutch and Germans and Danes and Swedes feel the same and would make the same choice as I. When CROW standards have been relaxed on roads there are immediate and substantial reductions in the number of people who bicycle – even in The Netherlands.

              Vehicular cycling or cycling savvy or bicycle driving, what is touted in this post, are fine for the more adventurous 2%, and I’m glad for these people being out and about, but it’s not appropriate for the rest of the population. If we want more people to ride bicycles then we need to stop telling them to not ride on the sidewalk and encourage them to do so where it’s appropriate. If we keep telling people to never ride on the sidewalk and that they must dress up like an aircraft beacon every time they get on their bike then nobody will want to ride. We’ve been trying this approach in the U.S. for at least 40 years (I use to testify about the benefits of vehicular cycling in the 1970’s) and it has resulted in the lowest level of bicycling in the world and the highest rates of bicyclist fatalities of all developed nations – that’s not success.

              1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

                As was the case in the original article, these are general statements about the relative risk in most situations. They are not absolute pronouncements applicable on every single street and every single rider.

                More riding takes place on 30-35 mph streets that have a lot of access. Casually street viewing on County Road E, I do see some situations that look high-risk for sidewalk riding. In my own risk assessment, I would prefer to be using the travel lane than that particular sidewalk in that particular section. That does not mean that is the appropriate or best choice for every person riding. In general, I maintain that sidewalk riding is more unsafe at speed, and more safe if less stable.

                There are other roads where I would be more open to sidewalk riding. Old Hwy 96 is well access-controlled and seems like a perfectly good place to ride on the sidewalk or trail — although the wide shoulder also provides a great riding option.

    3. Kyle Constalie Post author

      The thing about riding on the sidewalk is in the city, it’s more dangerous. The primary reason is: cars turning right. Cars turning right are way less likely to see a cyclist crossing an intersection from the sidewalk. This problem is compounded by strange laws permitting right turns on red lights.

      The other issue is that cyclists pose a hazard to pedestrians (which I know you already recognized above). That’s obviously mostly an issue in dense areas like you said.

      Lastly, in some neighborhoods cycling on the sidewalk is illegal and is posted as illegal, so you have to break the law to do it. I don’t know enough to comment on that law one way or the other, but it’s currently the law in some places.

      1. Monte Castleman

        I’m aware that in some neighborhoods riding a bicycle on the sidewalk is illegal. Since I can’t ride on the sidewalk and I’m not about to ride on the street, I simply don’t ride a bicycle at all in those neighborhoods.

  3. Frank Phelan

    My default is to wear my reflective vest, nearly all the time, day or night, regardless of the season.

  4. Jenny WernessJenny WernessModerator  

    I usually use google maps for route planning too, but one other resource that’s invaluable is other cyclists. If you know someone who bikes to your work or lives in your neighborhood, ask them what they recommend. There are also a couple of twin cities bike groups on Facebook that can be good resources. (In the end, for me, it becomes a lot of trial and error to get my routes right…)

    Thanks for writing this lovely article on an important topic. It’s heartening to see more winter cyclists and hear their stories! I especially enjoyed your points about appreciating (and protecting!) the “people, plants, pets, and local critters” around you.

    1. Kyle Constalie Post author

      Excellent advice! Talk to other bikers! This is also community-building. Wonderful.

  5. Russ Booth

    Thanks for recommending a dim head light setting. Too many riders think a brighter light makes them safer.

    They sell ‘tactical’ flashlights on the TV. Your assailant will be temporarily blinded when you shine one into their eyes.

    Blinding oncoming traffic would only make you safer if all the blinded drivers came to a full stop.

    I don’t fully understand why my bicycle head light cannot stop a full lane of moving traffic, but I can attest that super-bright head lights do not have this effect.

    Besides, most urban areas are well lit.

    1. Kyle Constalie Post author

      Fantastic points—thanks for making note of this. In the meantime wield the power of your headlight responsibly!

  6. Brian

    Are you really safer when you take the lane? The average driver is going to be at your rear wheel and trying to find a place where they can get by you even if it means being six inches from you as they go by.

    Sure, drivers are supposed stay three feet away, but how many cops are out ticketing drivers most days?

    1. Kyle Constalie Post author

      Great point—I’d guess approximately zero drivers are ticketed for that. In my experience I’ve actually gotten the drivers to give me a lot more space when I take the lane. When I try to scoot to the right, it creates an invitation to attempt passing within the same lane, and it always feels too close for comfort. By taking the lane I can force them to have to pull out into the oncoming lane to pass me the same as they would if they were passing a car. Note that I would only do this in certain areas/situations, such as on narrow curves. If you travel West Down Marshall Avenue, in the two-lane section you will notice a sign saying cyclists may take the entire right lane. Of course, it’s always true of all lanes, but it’s cool that it’s noted there.

    2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      My basic thinking on this is that a small percentage of people are malicious, and a large percentage of people are lazy.

      If you stay to the right and invite an unsafe pass — say, hugging the curb on an 11′ lane with no shoulder — most drivers will accept your invitation and squeeze past, even though it is less than a legal passing space.

      If you take that lane, such that the driver must wait for a safe gap in oncoming traffic to complete the pass, most will wait behind and make a complete lane change. Since they already had to wait to pass, there is almost no advantage for them for passing right next to you versus going completely into the oncoming lane.

      Maybe 1 in 1000 drivers will be so irritated that they’ll deliberately pass you closely to make a point. I’d rather have that than 999 passing me too closely just because i’ve left space for that to happen.

    3. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      I agree with Kyle and Sean. In many or most situations, if you must ride in the traffic lane or if there is only a very narrow shoulder, then it’s best to take the lane.

  7. Andrew Evans

    I used to ride on the sidewalks a lot. It was a nice protected place for me to be. I wasn’t going fast, or doing it in places where there was a lot of pedestrian traffic. Right hand turning traffic, or any for that matter, wasn’t an issue because I’d look over my shoulder and generally cross the street with the same attention I would as if I were walking. Also not sure why reaction time would be less for a biker on a sidewalk, that seems more like a rider issue than where they are riding, and if they can’t be safe for conditions on the sidewalk then I really have to wonder if they would be safer on the street.

    Basically I agree with Walker Angell.

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