Heavy urban traffic can seem like the most forbidding of environments for cyclists. But a few simple rules help make it safer: Stay alert, follow the traffic rules, stay alert, look out for HGVs and stay alert.
There's simply so much to look out for and quick decisions need to be made all the time as you fight your way through traffic. However, being aware and acting correctly in the circumstances you find yourself in will make light of most potential problems, from parked HGVs blocking your lane to pedestrians dashing into your path.
In fact, the traffic-clogged city can be where you most appreciate a bike, coasting past the rush hour traffic and dotting around town without having to worry about car parking fees and traffic wardens. To enjoy it you just need to Ride Right in the city...
Always be alert!
You'll need heightened anticipation and skills at the ready in any busy urban environment. When simply riding along, you should always have your thumbs hooked over the bars and be covering the brakes. Opening doors are a particular hazard so the primary road position is often the most useful, but don't neglect looking inside the vehicles to anticipate someone getting out. Try to predict what cars are going to do next - for example, a stationary car might not have its indicator on, but exhaust fumes could mean that it's about to pull out anyway and the driver may not have seen your approach.
Cycling in bus lanes
Cycling in bus lanes can be a great jam-buster but when is it allowed? In a nutshell, only if there is some indication to that effect - a sign on a post or painted on the road. Of course, bus lanes have their own hazards; emerging passengers are one obvious danger. When leaving bus lanes you will often be streaming into faster, busier traffic, so it's important to look for a gap and make clear your intention to drivers if you intend to pull out into it. If you are allowed in the bus lane this doesn't mean you have to use it - you still have the option of any adjacent vehicle lane if you feel that it's quicker or safer.
Although finding your way to the head of a slow-moving or stationary line of traffic is particularly satisfying and is often a low-speed manoeuvre, it is also one where extra care is needed because space is often tight and the visibility of motorists is restricted. As a cyclist you are still a road vehicle and so the general principles of overtaking apply - overtake on the right, check behind before you pull out, make sure there is adequate space to pull into up ahead and take care not to cause a danger to oncoming traffic during the manoeuvre.
'Undertaking' in slow-moving traffic is acceptable but only in certain circumstances. It should be practised with extra caution; drivers expect to be passed on the right and can therefore be less prepared to be passed on the left. For example, it may be okay to undertake where there is insufficient space to overtake, or a cycle lane (perhaps leading to an advanced stop line at the junction itself) might provide you with an opportunity to undertake.
Whatever the circumstances, make sure there is sufficient space to pass safely and cycle at a reasonable speed so you have time to react to the unexpected (be especially wary when crossing the mouths of roads as you undertake because vehicles can suddenly decide to turn into them). Never be tempted to undertake larger commercial vehicles or buses because their length and high sides mean they simply can't see you - they may set off and move left while you are passing unseen with disastrous results. CTC have launched a campaign highlighting how HGVs are involved in a particularly high percentage of serious cycling accidents for this very reason.
When overtaking or undertaking queues of traffic you need to be hyper-aware of possibilities that are normally present on town streets, but which you are now particularly exposed to, such as opening car doors (keep an eye on activity inside the vehicles to anticipate this) and pedestrians suddenly appearing from behind vehicles.
If in doubt, don't go ahead with the manoeuvre - you don't have an automatic right to go past stationary traffic, so only do it where there is sufficient space. While performing the manoeuvre be aware that the traffic can start moving again quite quickly. Keep an eye on what is happening at the head of the queue as well as close up and be ready to move back into the traffic mainstream if it speeds up.
Avoid getting cut up and other tight spots
Being cut up is another common cause of accidents between motor vehicles and cyclists. The situation arises where a vehicle is approaching a left turn behind or alongside you and then decides to overtake and cut in front, leaving you in danger of hitting them side on.
If you are about to be in a collision you have three options and you should make an immediate decision about which is the best in the circumstances:
1. Emergency stop
2. Accelerate away
3. Change direction
An emergency stop may be your natural instinct, but unless you are some distance away from the vehicle cutting you up it might not be the best course of action to take. Your automatic braking response may well be a learned response from driving a car, although remember that a car's brakes are far more powerful and progressive than the average bike.
Accelerating away is probably most useful when avoiding the otherwise likely outcome of a side impact - for example when a vehicle fails to stop at a roundabout or a side road junction.
A quick change of direction is often best to avoid an obstacle such as a car turning across you or a sunken pothole. In the first case, you'll probably have to make a quick, sharp left turn to stay on the inside of the vehicle cutting you up. This is done with a momentary turn of the bars to the right as you lean left, then immediately after the shift of balance the bars are turned left, following your bodyweight.
For an emergency stop, make sure your weight is as low down and as far back as possible (to aid balance and back-wheel traction) before pulling on both brake levers at the same time (harder on the front though obviously not so hard as to lock it up). If your back wheel locks up you can momentarily let a little pressure off the brakes and then re-apply them to avoid a skid.
You may have to perform a combination of 1, 2 and 3 to effectively avoid the erratic or dangerous behaviour of other vehicles.