Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Professor Jensen’s Guide to Urban Cycling

Posted 22 Aug 2018 / 0
Welcome to Brooklyn 1000pxWelcome to Brooklyn: it’s a great place to cycle if you know how to do so safely.
In August of 2018 I was asked to give a one-hour workshop on urban cycling as part of Pratt’s new student orientation program. I figured that I should condense my thoughts on the why, how, when, where, and what of riding in the city. Below is that condensation…

I have ridden my bike in New York City for many years. I started commuting to work by bike back in 1996, a time when there were almost no bike lanes of any kind and urban cyclists were still considered a radical fringe. A lot has changed since that time, and I have seen a really impressive improvement in the on-the-street conditions faced by NYC cyclists. Since joining Pratt’s faculty in 2007 I have done a lot of bike commuting to Clinton Hill from Greenpoint, from Ditmas Park, and now from Astoria, Queens.

I feel like I am an expert and accomplished urban cyclist, but I have had my ups and downs along the way. I have had only one bike stolen, but the loss of that bike stung in a way that’s stuck with me. And I have mostly enjoyed riding in complete safety, but I did have one accident back in 2000 that sent me to the emergency room and took me out of riding for 6 months as I recovered from shoulder surgery. I ride a lot more carefully now than I did then.

If there’s one thing that years of urban cycling has taught me, it is to stay humble about your place on the little bike in the big city. There’s always something new to be learned about riding in the city, and there are many elements of urban cycling that you can’t control. To be a safe and sane urban cyclist you need the right kind of confidence, one that’s as aware of what you can’t control as what you can.

The incredible potential of urban cycling

I would argue that there is no better way to get around the city than on a bicycle. Yeah, of course that argument is coming from a cycling aficionado, but it also has an evidentiary basis.

First and foremost, cycling is a very quick way around the city. It is almost always faster than walking and driving, and is in some conditions faster than the bus or subway. The wonderful advocacy group Transportation Alternatives used to run a “bike vs. car vs. transit” race, and the bike has almost always won. Why is this the case? Ride your bike just a couple of blocks and the answer becomes pretty clear: walking is slow, cars get stuck in traffic, and public transit is inefficient.

I guess that it is pretty obvious that biking is faster than walking, and because bikes are allowed almost everywhere that pedestrians are, hopping on a bike can get you there a lot faster. Riding is also a lot more efficient, so kilometer-for-kilometer you arrive at your destination less tired than you would be if you walked.

As far as cars go, the advantage of a bike can be pretty surprising at first. If you are used to suburban driving and riding, you will be really surprised. Even in moderate urban traffic, a bike is about as fast as a car because there are so many traffic lights in urban areas. And if there’s even just a little traffic, you will quickly find yourself whizzing by cars. One of my favorite pasttimes while riding is to note how many cars I pass that never pass me again. In the dense center of Manhattan, this count can literally be in the hundreds.

Sometimes taking the subway is faster if you are going directly from one transit hub to another. But most of the time, where you are and where you want to go are not exactly on a transit line. So while the subway cars may move faster than your bike, your bike can usually take a much more direct path to your destination. Generally, this saves you a lot of time.

The ability to ride a bike over bridges greatly expands the range of your urban travel.

Urban cycling doesn’t just get you to your destination faster: it also greatly expands the range of destinations that you can reach. In a place as big as New York City there are certainly distances that are going to feel “too far” for most riders, but you would be surprised by just how far you can get in about an hour of riding. The fact that there’s a great network of cycling-accessible bridges available in NYC adds to this range.

Many city bridges feature easily-accessible, dedicated bike paths.

Perhaps my favorite advantage of urban cycling is its predictability. If you know your fitness level and the distance to your destination, you can usually pretty well predict how long it will take you to get where you are going. Road closures? They usually don’t preclude cyclists (or there will be a fast way around the closure). Traffic? It really doesn’t apply to bikes except for in the worst of conditions (some Manhattan gridlock), as there is usually a space between all those cars stuck in traffic for you to safely keep riding (sometimes this is the safest riding you will experience, as a stopped car can’t do much damage). Major disasters? Even these are usually no match for the small riding footprint and flexibility of a bike. The one disaster that you do need to be prepared for is a mechanical failure, but if you are prepared for such a failure you usually only lose a few minutes while you fix your bike (see below for how to prepare for a mechanical failure).

The new East River Ferry lines allow you to combine a boat ride with your bike ride.

Urban cycling also keeps you fit. By powering your own travel on a daily basis, you build “functional exercise” into your busy schedule. It’s likely that you won’t think of your riding time as exercise time, because you have to get around by some means… cycling just turns that means into a gentle cardiovascular workout. And riding your bike in the city isn’t just a way of maintaining physical health: it’s also great for your mental health. I find that I do some of my best thinking while I ride, as my daily commute is one of the few times in the day when I am not being assailed by a host of distractions (although it should be said that you need to be careful not to get too into your own head while you ride, because you need to maintain constant awareness of your surroundings in order to stay safe in traffic).

A final benefit of becoming an urban cyclist is the view that it gives you of your home city. I have seen so many more places and things in NYC because I ride everywhere. Like walking, riding in the city puts you into direct contact with the sights, smells, and sounds of the city. But unlike walking, you cover a lot more ground as a cyclist. Cycling is also more likely to take you off the “usual paths” of the subway lines and other infrastructure. New neighborhoods become familiar places when you ride through them, and the whole city feels more like it belongs to you when you are an urban cyclist.

What kind of urban cyclist are you?

As you think about how to realize all the amazing potential that urban cycling offers, it is good to take stock of what kind of urban cyclist you are. If you need a point of reference, consider this video for a moment (with apologies for the cuss words at the beginning):

Not ready to weave in and out of traffic? Considering following at least a few of the rules of the road? Maybe a bit scared to ride in traffic at all? It’s good to know that about yourself.

Cyclists are a very diverse group, and as more people join our ranks our diversity is increasing. Some people are in it for the thrill and enjoy riding fast and furious through traffic. Others are serious commuters who see cycling from a very functional perspective. Many people just like to get out for the occasional bike ride, and may limit where they are willing to ride to places that feel safe. There’s no right way to ride and so long as we don’t endanger other people with the way that we ride I think that our diversity is an asset.

The biggest question you need to answer as you conceptualize your “urban cyclist identity” centers on your tolerance of risk. Riding a bike in traffic is inherently risky, and I would suggest that most of the diversity among urban cyclists can be understood by considering how different people deal with the risk of riding in the city. You need to figure out what you can tolerate. If you are new to cycling in the city, it’s probably not the best idea to start out with a ride to midtown Manhattan, as you are likely to experience the most harrowing interactions with cars in this area. Most people work their way up to “riding anywhere”, and many people choose to limit where they ride to routes that feel safer. I encourage you to only take risks that feel appropriate to your skill and comfort levels.

Another thing that you need to consider is how committed you want to be to urban cycling. How often will you ride? How far are you willing to ride? Are you riding for exercise? For transportation? For adventure? Should you own your own bike? These are all questions you need to consider as you make your plan to enjoy the benefits of urban cycling, and it is good to “know thyself” as you make that plan.

Choosing safe (and enjoyable) routes

To really enjoy your ride, you need to choose a good route. Failure to think about the implications of a particular route can make for an unpleasant and sometimes dangerous ride. Luckily, the bicycle transportation infrastructure in New York City is really extensive, and includes a variety of designs to accommodate cyclists with different levels of risk tolerance. You can check out all this infrastructure by getting ahold of one of the Department of Transportation’s bike maps. I have also found that Google Maps (usually) does a great job of finding the safest bike route.

Riding with motor vehicles is the reality of urban cycling. Although there are a few places where you can ride completely separated from your fossil-fuel-consuming neighbors (such as the Hudson River Bike Path), most practical trips involve at least some on-street riding. You’ll want to consider what sort of on-street riding a given trip will require… and what you are comfortable with.

Protected, separated bike lanes are the gold standard for safe bicycle infrastructure.

My favorite piece of cycling infrastructure is the separated bike lane. These are clearly-marked lanes, usually going in both directions, that are protected from automobile traffic by either a lane of parked cars or a barricade (or both). Riding in these lanes is pleasant because there is plenty of space and you don’t need to worry about cars suddenly veering into your space. Where parked cars are involved you still need to worry about abruptly-opening car doors, although generally it is easy to see when someone is getting into or out of a car parked next to these wide bike lanes. Pedestrians also tend to love these bike lanes, as they make it easier to cross the road, so you still need to watch out for the walkers.

Most bike lanes are not protected, but map out dedicated space for cyclists.

There are a lot of protected bike lanes, but most of bike lanes are of the unprotected sort. These lanes are generally one-way, and are distinguished from the main road by lines and cyclist icons. The big benefits of a bike lane are two-fold: recognition and space. Drivers should expect to encounter cyclists when they are on roads with bike lanes, so you will generally be treated with more respect by drivers when you are in the bike lane. This respect is facilitated by space: roadways with bike lanes have adequate space for both you the cyclist and they the driver, so there’s less likely to be conflict between you and motor vehicles.

When the bike lane ends, things can quickly get a lot more harrowing for the urban cyclist,

Once you enter onto a street without a protected bike lane, things get a lot more scary. Suddenly you don’t have a designated space in which to ride, which means that you will be negotiating on the fly with drivers for limited space. How scary riding without a bike lane will be really depends on where you are riding. The worst areas are places where drivers expect to be able to drive fast and don’t expect to see cyclists. Although the Visions Zero initiative‘s 25 MPH enforcement has improved conditions, there are still some streets that just aren’t safe for bicycles.

Staying safe on your route

Choosing your route isn’t the only thing that you can do to make sure you are safe when riding in the city: with every moment that you ride, there are opportunities to make good (and of course) bad choices about how you ride.

I recommend that you always ride with what I call “confident humility”. You need to be confident when you ride because lack of confidence and the indecision that results can be deadly. But you also need to stay humble. It’s good to remember that you are sitting on a small piece of very crumple-able metal while drivers are sitting behind many layers of metal, thermoplastic, and glass. You won’t “win” in a collision with a motor vehicle, so you need to do everything in your power to avoid those collisions.

There are some obvious things that you can do to ride safely. Open your eyes and open your ears: they are your danger detectors. For this reason it makes no sense to ride with headphones on (get a bike speaker if you must rock the tunes on ride) or to be on your cell phone while riding. I do use my phone to navigate while I ride, but if a text message that I absolutely must answer pops up while I am riding, I pull over before texting back.

It’s also obvious that blowing red lights without looking and riding in the opposite direction of traffic is not safe. That said, there are circumstances where you may choose to go through a red light or briefly ride in the wrong direction because this is the safest thing to do, so there are no all-purpose rules.

Road “chevrons” provide drivers with a warning that they will encounter cyclists, but many drivers seem to ignore them.

The biggest question for an urban cyclist is “how do drivers see me?”. This is a hard question to answer because different drivers see you in different ways. Some are respectful and cautious and others drive as if you are not there. It’s crucial to be constantly gauging what kind of driver you are dealing with as you ride. At first, how to make this assessment is unclear, but after you ride for awhile you can pretty much guess how safe a driver is going to be. When in doubt, you need to get out of their way. There’s no point in testing the compassion of a person with two tons of twenty-mile-an-hour momentum on their side.

I always try to make eye contact with drivers. This includes drivers that are trying to pass me, drivers that I am trying to pass, and drivers that are traveling across my path. Human eye contact is a pretty amazing communicative tool, and most people can’t avoid it: if you look them in the eye, they will notice you. If a driver seems like they want to pass me in a dangerously tight spot, I will look over my shoulder to show them that I see them. Usually this puts the driver on guard and lowers their willingness to risk my life with a dangerous pass. As I pass drivers I try to look in their rear-view mirrors to see if they see me coming. And even when I have the right of way, I always make eye contact with drivers who are pulling up to cross my path. You can instantly see if they see you, and if they don’t it is best to yield even if you have the right-of-way (again, you = small, them = big).

Making eye contact with drivers is just one part of what I call posturing for safe riding. Your “posture” on the road makes a big difference in how drivers treat you, and it is for this reason that you need to ride actively, with confidence, rather than passively. You will learn your own way of posturing, but beyond making eye contact some of my favorite posturing methods include standing up and pedaling, looking back, and moving slightly towards motor vehicle traffic to assert more space on the road (this only really applies to roads without bike lanes).

A very common mistake made by new riders is to ride meekly. This can be manifested in a number of ways, including the tendency to ride really close to parked cars to your right. If you don’t have a bike lane, you kind of need to make one yourself. Riding next to parked cars basically gives you no margin of error should a driver pass you too closely. I have also found that drivers are less careful when they think that you are going to just squeeze out of their way. And then there’s the risk of being “doored”: should the driver of a recently-parked car decide not to look in their side mirror before wildly opening their car door (it happens all the time!), you are going to get knocked into traffic. You don’t want to make contact with either the cars passing your or the parked cars to your right (trust me, I speak from post-surgical experience), so ride in a confident manner that affords you space on both sides.

Many NYC bike lanes are poorly maintained; a worn lane marker is much more likely to be ignored by drivers.

Taking the perspective of the drivers you encounter is also valuable. You may know that you are riding in a designated bike lane, but if that bike lane is worn to the point of being unrecognizable to drivers, you can’t expect that they will respect your space. Riding through traffic you can often gauge the level of impatience that drivers will display, and it is smart to adjust your riding to account for what a frustrated driver may do.

Bike lanes are not sacred: construction is just one of the many things that can divert your bike lane.

We all wish that we could just cruise along mindlessly in a protected bike lane, but often there are multiple obstacles that can spoil that fun. New York City buildings and streets are under almost-constant construction, so you need to watch out for sudden shifts (or even total loss) of your precious bike lane. Take it easy and ride more conservatively in these temporarily-unfamiliar conditions.

Parking in bike lanes seems to be a right of passage for NYC drivers; poor enforcement compounds this threat.

It’s also a reality that all manner of vehicles will block your bike path. This creates a greater danger because cars expect you to be in the bike lane and suddenly you must steer into the space alloted for cars. Perhaps not surprisely, drivers almost never seem to realize that it is the obnoxious bike lane parker — rather than you the cyclist — that is causing you to veer into “their” lane. As such, it is good to pass bike lane blockades with caution. Sad to say, but you will get plenty of practice because people park in the bike lanes all the time.

I wish this wasn’t true, but police vehicles are (ironically) a very common obstacle found in bike lanes.
Double parking is a threat to the urban cyclist because it forces you to ride closer to traffic.

Double parking is a similar threat, because it places you out into traffic when you would prefer to be riding a safe distance from the parked cars to your right. As with a blocked bike lane, it is important to ramp up your humility and pass a double-parked vehicle with care.

Pedestrians are another common road obstacle, although I encourage you to yield to them (even when they are in the wrong).

Pedestrians are also a very commonly-encountered “road obstacle”, and can cause danger to cyclists. Maybe even more so than cars, trucks, and buses, pedestrians can be unpredictable. Many of them walk right into traffic without looking. Some are wearing headphones so they can’t hear you, some are looking down at their cell phones so they can’t see you, but many more simply aren’t looking out or listening for cyclists.

As annoying as some pedestrian behavior can be, I see it in a very different light than driver behavior. This is in part because I see myself as part of a “hierarchy of road users”. In an ideal world, trucks and buses should always yield to everyone else on the road because trucks and buses have the most potential to cause harm. Next come cars, which should always yield to motorcyclists, bicycle riders, and pedestrians. Down through this hierachy, the larger and faster-moving road users should always respect the space of those “lower” in the hierarchy (notice how this hierarchy idea elevates the rights of the least-empowered and most-vulnerable).

If you accept that the more dangerous road users should always yield to the less dangerous road users, then you have to admit that as a cyclist you should always yield to pedestrians. They might be obnoxious and entitled, but they are without a doubt more vulnerable: you can kill a pedestrian if you hit them on your bicycle with sufficient speed.

Count on pedestrians walking in your path, even when you have the right of way; always steer behind pedestrians as they walk.

That said, it is also true that the dangerous behaviors of pedestrians can get you killed. The biggest risk is that a pedestrian will force you into automobile traffic. As with drivers, the best way to deal with this risk is to make eye contact and to not assume that the pedestrian will make the best choice.

As it is pretty much a given that pedestrians are going to be jumping into your path, it’s good to have a solid plan in your head about how you will deal with their erratic behavior. Stopping is always a good default: sure, it is annoying to have your valuable momentum interrupted, but it’s better to be conservative when a collision is possible. If you are going to pass a pedestrian who is crossing your path, do so by riding behind them (“at their heels”) rather than in front of them (“at their toes”).

Protecting your head

I just don’t get it. So many people ride without a helmet. It just doesn’t make sense.

As a biologist, I can tell you that everything that you are is in your brain. There’s no such thing as “muscle memory”: you bones, muscles, and skin are just mindless machines that do the bidding of your brain. Injuries to bones, muscles, and skin can usually be repaired, but we have no real way to repair brain damage.

What’s cool is that we have some really good ways of protecting our brains from damage. Bike helmets come in a diverse array of styles and designs, so you should be able to find one that fits your head and your identity. There are even folding bike helmets for those of you who like to keep it light and small. All bike helmets sold in the United States must meet basic safety standards, so if what you are buying is labeled as a “helmet” then you can be assured that you are being protected from the most common types of bike head injuries.

Everything you have ever learned is in your brain. All the work that you have put in to become good at the things you do (including riding a bike!) is housed in your brain. If you care about your future and you like riding a bicycle, a helmet should be the first (and a constant) part of your cycling wardrobe.

Choosing (the rest of) your wardrobe for riding

What you wear on the bike is really a matter of personal choice. I have seen pretty much everything under the sun on a bike, including sequined dresses, high heels, three-piece suits, and — well — almost nothing at all.

Figuring out what you will wear on your bike relates to how you conceive of yourself as an urban cyclist. The casual rider doesn’t want to change anything about their wardrobe as they step on the bike, whereas the serious commuter may have a complete wardrobe from head to toe that’s designed to make riding more comfortable or efficient.

One thing to consider is how to stay comfortable on the bike. You won’t be very comfortable if the rain soaks you through, so it is good to invest in lightweight rain gear that you can carry with you. Being too cold isn’t very pleasant either, so if you want to ride year-round you should invest in some kind of head/ear cover and quality gloves. In warmer months, cycling-specific clothing can wick away moisture and keep you from becoming a sweaty mess when you arrive at your destination.

That destination has a big impact on how you will dress for your ride. For example, when I ride to work I always carry my more formal clothing in a bag so I can change in my office. Will you need to look your best when you arrive? Will the place that you are traveling to have a space for you to change? If so, you may want to wear more athletic clothing on your ride and then change when you arrive.

Choosing the right bicycle

Choosing the right bike for your urban cycling adventures can greatly expand your ability to enjoy the many benefits of city riding. The first question you should ask is whether owning your own bike is ideal. With the broad availability of Citibike, many people will find that owning a bike is unnecessary or even undesirable. I must admit that I have never ridden a Citibike, but I do see them in wide use. Annual membership is pretty cheap ($169 per year in 2018), and you can make as many 45 minute trips as you want to between the many Citibike kiosks located in the five boroughs. If you don’t have space in your apartment for a bike or you don’t want to deal with maintaining your own bike, Citibike could be your bike of choice.

Why would you want to own your own bike? I think that it’s the customizability of personal bike ownership that makes “having your own” most appealing. If you have the money and the time, you can set up a bike that’s perfect for you.

There’s no one “right urban bike”: you need to figure out what bike format meets your urban cycling needs.

Some clear criteria for choosing a bike are fit and comfort. If you are going to buy a bike and ride it all over, it has to fit you. Bike shops have a variety of ways to assess fit, but the most important measurement on a bike is the “cockpit length”, which is basically the distance between the seat and the handlebars. If you are a very tall person (particularly if you have a long torso), you need a longer cockpit (and you can guess how tall I am looking at the cockpit of my bike above). Cockpit length also affects comfort. Shorter cockpits can also mean a more upright stance, which most people experience as more comfortable (but less efficient).

It’s a good idea to have a regular means of carrying water on your bike: a bottle cage isn’t the only solution, but it is a solid one.

Another thing you need to think about when setting up your urban bike is how you will carry what you need to carry. There are many different ways of carrying stuff on your bike, so you need to explore what works best for you. Do you want a bag that you carry on your body? Bike-specific backpacks and shoulder (“messenger”) bags can be really valuable if you are not carrying too much stuff and you need to get on and off your bike frequently. Do you want to carry a lot of stuff on your bike? If so, you will likely want some sort of rack system that allows you to carry bike bags (“panniers”) and get all that weight off of your back. Will you be carrying things that can’t get wet? You may want to invest in a bag system with a waterproof feature.

What do you want to carry on your bike and how do you want to carry it? Bike bags are one potential answer.

Speaking of rain, it’s good to prepare for not only keeping your stuff dry but also avoiding arriving at your destination a soaking wet mess yourself. Fenders are a great (and usually cheap) investment in staying dry. Even when rain is moderate, your rear tire can turn your backside into a wet and dirty mess (ruining the bike wardrobe you already selected) by chanelling all the water you roll over up your back.

Do fenders make your bike look dorky? Sure, but they also keep your butt and legs dry!

Be prepared to stay rolling

If you are going to get serious about urban cycling, you need to be prepared for the occasional mechanical issue. The most common mechanical issue is a flat tire, and flat tires can be a real pain in NYC. There’s just a lot of little shards of glass out there on the roads, and in wet weather these shards will adhere to your tire and start to work their way towards your inner tube. There are flat-resistant tires that can reduce the risk of flats, but in my experience every urban cyclist will encounter a flat tire. You should learn how to fix a flat by practicing. Yes, that means brewing some herbal tea, putting on some smooth jazz, and actually taking the time to practice taking your tube out, replacing it, and reinflating it. Practicing on the side of the road is not good form.

The right toolkit is the one that allows you to use your mechanical skills to keep rolling.

To make repairs on the roadside, you will need a toolkit. What’s the right toolkit for you depends both on the kind of bike you are riding and your mechanical skills. One clear benefit of Citibike is that you don’t need to carry tools or have mechanical skills: Citibikes are pretty robust and well-maintained, but should yours fail you just need to dock it and grab another one. For the rest of us, our toolkit should anticipate the most common mechanical issues. At minimum you need a spare tube, patch kit, tire levers, and hand pump to repair that inevitable flat. As you learn more about how your bike works, you should add tools that fit the various parts of your bike that can fail.

Not every mechanical problem is going to be fixable: it’s good to know where the bike shops are on your route.

Obviously you can’t carry around all the tools and spare parts needed to fix any mechanical issue, so you should always have a plan B. The best plan B is to know where there are bike shops on your route. In many places you will ride, there is always going to be a bike shop in walking distance. Get to know those bike shops and the people who work in them and you will be able to deal with pretty much any mechnical snafu.

In a worst-case scenario, one in which you can’t fix your mechanical problem yourself or find an open bike shop to help you, remember that the subway is your friend. Bikes are allowed on the subway at all times, so if you need to bail, bail to the nearest subway. This will of course work a lot better if you don’t try it at rush hour, but even at rush hour you have the right to bring your bike on the subway.

Security of your bicycle

New York used to be the capital of bike theft, so much so that a certain lock company named a series of their locks after our fair city. It’s my impression that bike theft has become much less of a risk in recent years (perhaps because the internet makes it harder to safely sell stolen bikes?), but you still need to protect yourself from theft.

Again, Citibike presents a clear advantage: all you need to do with your Citibike is dock it, and anything that happens to it afterwards is not your problem. But for those of us who have built our dream urban bike, it is important to protect our “baby”. You need a good lock. No cable locks or cheap chains and a padlock: these are so easy for a bike thief to defeat that you are basically inviting theft. Beyond this advice your choice of lock depends on the conditions in which you will lock up your bike, the duration that your bike is locked, how valuable your bike is, and your level of risk tolerance.

There are a lot of lock designs on the market, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. If you don’t mind hauling around a very heavy chain, there are lock systems that are very hard to defeat. But if you want something lighter, you are going to expose yourself to more risk. Some systems will allow you to secure your wheels and even your seat (a commonly-stolen bike part), whereas other systems just lock your bike’s frame. Explore options, because there are many.

Choose the right lock to balance your need for bike security with your willingness to haul around that lock.

Perhaps as important as your choice of lock is the duration and location where you lock. I have a garage in which I can store my bike at home and most of the time I am locking it on campus (which is very secure) or for short intervals on the street while I do errands. Because I don’t lock my bike in isolated areas, and because I don’t lock it up for long periods of time, I can get away with a lower-security lock. But if you need to lock up in an area that’s more isolated — or if you lock up for long periods of time — you need a more secure lock.

It’s important to realize that any bike lock is defeatable. Given enough time and cover, a bike thief can get any lock off. So as you make your lock-up choices, you should assess context. How valuable — and thus desirable — is your bike? Are you locking it somewhere that will allow a bike thief a few minutes where no one will notice the sparks flying from an angle grinder? Are you locking your bike up in the same place at the same time day after day? Most bikes get stolen because they are valuable, because they are easy to steal, or both.

Proper locking rides high: the higher up your bike you place your lock, the harder it is for bike thieves to defeat.

Proper locking technique is also important. You need to make sure that the object that you are locking your bike to is solid and secure. If you lock you bike to the links in a chain-link fence, then obviously it doesn’t matter how strong your lock it: the bike thief will easily snip the fence and deal with your fancy lock later. I recommend shaking and trying to lift up any object that you are locking to. If it moves a lot or lifts up, move on to a different anchor point. It’s also best to lock as high as you can on your bike: many of the tools that theives use require leverage, and you reduce their mechanical advantage by locking high rather than low.

If you want to keep your locking process fast and simple, locking axle nuts/skewers are a great security add-on.

A very annoying kind of theft is component theft: your bike may still be locked where you left it, but you aren’t going to get very far if your seat or one of the wheels is missing. A cable lock can be added to a u-lock to secure these components, but there are also specific locking systems that allow you to keep these parts on your bike while it is locked up. Again, the more you lock up in risky conditions, the more it pays to have everything locked down.

Maintenance of your bicycle

Bikes are pretty simple machines that can provide service for years when properly maintained. Here’s a quick list of maintenance practices that can keep your bike rolling:

  • Buy a floor pump and pump up your tires regularly. Nothing puts you at higher risk of mechanical failure than under-inflated tires, which are more prone to flats and also cannot sufficiently protect the rest of your wheel.
  • Buy some chain lube and keep your chain both clean and well-oiled.
  • Periodically check your bike for loose parts. At first you might have to literally take a wrench and check every bolt on your bike, but over time you will come to “feel” and “hear” things that are loose. Pay attention to your intuition that something doesn’t feel right.
  • Change your tires when they get worn. This is a way to prevent flat tires. Sometimes a string of flat tires are your old tires’ way of saying “our work is done here”.
  • I like to periodically take a headlamp and shine it on my tires in a dark space. Why? Well, this is the best way to detect bits of glass that are on their way to giving you a flat. Pick them out with a flathead screwdriver or bluntish knife, making sure not to puncture your fingers in the process.

Put your faith in the cycling community

My parting words are these: if you are choosing to become an urban cyclist, you are joining a vibrant and passionate community (and one that’s usually very welcoming). As you venture out, get to know your fellow cyclists. They can help you find the best route, choose the best bike configuration, learn safer ways to ride longer, and bail you out in a crisis. Bikes aren’t just different from cars in the way they are powered: they also create a very different kind of social interface. Take advantage of the fact that you aren’t entrapped in a glass-plastic-and-metal box, and get to know your cycling neighbors.

Welcome to Brooklyn 1000pxCycling is a great way to get to campus… and off of it.
A Major Post, Altruism, Pollution, Pratt Institute, Sustainability, Sustainable Transportation, Urban Planning

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