How to be a Bicycle-Friendly Driver (and a Responsible Cyclist)

John Kondos Climate Change, Sustainability, Transportation

Thanks in part to an implementation grant from the Monadnock Alliance for Sustainable Transportation (MAST) and an anonymous donor, Main Street in Keene recently got a bicycle-friendly makeover.  Whether you drive, walk, or ride a bike down Main Street, you’ve probably noticed some of the changes.  For example, the bright green “bicycle boxes” on Central Square are hard to miss.  A bicycle box provides space at the head of a traffic lane for bicyclists to queue during a red light, increasing visibility and safety when they enter the intersection.

Pictured: a bicycle box on Central Square in Keene, NH provides space for bicyclists to queue while waiting at a red light. Photo credit: Mari Brunner.

Another change is the addition of “sharrows” – aka shared bicycle lane markings – along Main Street starting at Central Square and continuing south past Keene State College.  These pavement markings are visual reminders for drivers to share the road with bicyclists, and they indicate where bicyclists should travel within the lane.  Typically, sharrows are used on roadways where traffic speeds are slow and there is no room for a paved shoulder or bicycle lane.

These infrastructure changes are a great step in the right direction towards creating safer roads for people on bicycles.  In fact, the City of Keene has received recognition from the League of American Bicyclists (LAB) for being a bronze-level “Bicycle Friendly Community,” and the recent changes on Main Street are part of a larger effort to implement “Complete Streets,” i.e. streets designed for all users of the roadway of all ages and abilities.  However, to create a truly “bicycle friendly” community, we need more than just infrastructure changes.  We need bicyclists and drivers alike to understand how to safely share the road.

But why should drivers want to share the road (aside from the fact that it is the law)?  Even if it has been years since you’ve hopped on a bicycle, bicycling benefits you in a variety of ways.  For starters, each person riding a bicycle is a person who is not driving a car, which means fewer cars and trucks on the road emitting less pollution and causing less congestion.  According to LAB, if the average person biked to work or shopping once every two weeks instead of driving, we could prevent the pollution of close to one billion gallons of gasoline from entering the atmosphere every year.  Unlike cars and trucks, bicycles cause almost no wear and tear on the roadway, which reduces road maintenance costs.  And while some bicyclists use their bike as their sole mode of transportation, most bicyclists also own a car and therefore help to pay for the transportation infrastructure that supports cars and trucks.

However, in order to get more people riding bicycles, we need everyone to safely and responsibly share the road and make sure that people feel safe whether they are behind the wheel or behind handlebars.

For bicyclists, it is important to follow the law and take preventative measures to stay safe.  In New Hampshire, bicycles are considered vehicles and bicyclists have the same rights and responsibilities as motorists.  This means that bicyclists must obey all traffic laws, including traffic lights, stop signs, and yielding to pedestrians at crosswalks. In addition, bicyclists should always keep their bicycle in good repair, wear visible clothing, ride predictably (i.e. don’t swerve), and wear protective gear such as a helmet.

As a driver, there are many things you can do to improve safety and prevent crashes with people riding bicycles, including:

  1. Watch for bicyclists at intersections. Intersections are one of the most dangerous places for bicyclists because drivers making turns through the intersection often don’t look for cyclists and therefore do not see them until it is too late.
  2. Pass with care. Bicyclists should always try to ride as predictably as possible, however sometimes debris in the shoulder, a pothole, or other circumstance can cause bicyclists to make sudden and unexpected movements.  Drivers should always pass cautiously and leave at least three feet of horizontal passing distance.  In NH, the law states that divers must leave at least three feet of passing distance, and more if the car is going faster than 30 mph.  In some cases, this may require crossing the double yellow line (this is ok, as long as there is no oncoming traffic!).
  3. Be patient. While it may be frustrating to get stuck behind a bicyclist for a few seconds or even minutes, remember that the person riding the bicycle is someone’s father, sister, daughter, or friend.  Wait until you can safely pass; saving time is not worth risking someone’s life.

If we are all respectful of each other on the road, we can make our community safe for everyone, regardless of how we get around.

For more information about how to safely share the road, visit the NH Department of Transportation Pedestrian and Bicycle Program page at www.nh.gov/dot/programs/bikeped or the Monadnock Alliance for Sustainable Transportation website at www.MASTNH.org.