Tag: How To

How to make a left turn on a bike

Turning left on a busy road is the most difficult thing you’ll do on a bike. Photo by Toom Babin.

A few years ago, the New York Times reported on a new idea that delivery company UPS came up with to save time and fuel while delivering cargo in busy cities. It was so simple that it seemed almost too dumb to be true, yet the company insisted that it was already paying dividends: Stop making left turns.

Rather than staying stuck in the middle of an intersection awaiting a gap in traffic in order to turn left, drivers were instructed to instead take right turns only. That would send them around the block in the opposite direction, until they reached the destination. The company found this was faster and more efficient than the more direct route via left-turns.

Considering that making a left turn in busy traffic is one of the most harrowing and difficult things a cyclist can do, that UPS idea isn’t a bad one for cyclists too. It may add to your mileage, but you’ll avoid that terrifying moment when you are straddling your bike in the middle of a busy intersection, with traffic zooming by in two directions, awaiting a gap in traffic while an impatient motorist tailgates you needlessly just to assert their dominance.

You’re not buying it, are you? As logical as that UPS advice sounds, you’re thinking that, eventually, you’re going to have to make a left turn. And you’re probably right. So you best start practicing now.

There are two challenges with making a left turn. First is the lead-up. To properly execute a left turn, you need to get your bike in a position to do so. That means getting into the left lane. On a single lane with light traffic, this isn’t such a problem. Just await a gap, signal your intentions and move into position.

But what if the road has two lanes, and you are currently minding your business over in the far right lane where it’s safe and comfortable? That means you need to cross two lanes to get where you need to be, and that ain’t easy on a busy road. This is where those vehicular cycling lessons come in. Vehicular cycling – the philosophy of riding a bike in the same manner as you’d drive an automobile – has fallen out of favour, for good reason: it didn’t work on a mass scale because it’s terrifying to most people. But in the moment when you need to cross two lanes of busy traffic is the time to invoke its principles. Be bold! Be assertive! Be confident! Hold your left arm out straight to signal your intentions, wait until it’s safe and change lanes. Never mind the screaming of self-preservation going on in your reptilian brain because you’re cutting into a lane of fast-moving traffic – vehicular cycling means claiming your lawful place on the road, and expecting other road users to do the same. There, you did it! But you still have another lane to get to, so do it again. Still alive? Great work!

The second challenge of making a left turn is executing the final turn. Again, this is where you channel your inner John Forester and be bold – roll into the middle of the intersection, just as you would in a car, and pedal swiftly to make your turn when it’s safe. Try to ignore the fact that you are a baby bird in a stream of crocodiles. Uncertainty at this moment is dangerous. Confidence is what you need!



Congratulations. You made your left turn. Now that you have a moment to ponder your mortality, consider the place of effective bike infrastructure in it. Enter: the Copenhagen left. This is a concept from the great bike city that creates a completely different left-turning experience than what you just survived. In a city full of safe, separated bike lanes, a left turn has been developed that is safer and saner. Here’s how it works:

Three ways of executing a left turn. The one labeled in blue is an example of the Copenhagen left. Illustration is from the Cascade Bicycle Club.

You are rolling down a dedicated Copenhagen bike route safely separated from moving automobiles in a stream of fellow cyclists who, like you, look effortlessly chic while pedaling quickly with a coffee in one hand, a cigarette in the other and nonchalantly chatting on ear buds. You approach the intersection, you know making a left turn will be difficult because you’d be holding up the stream of bike traffic behind you when encounter a tiny off-ramp to the right that removes you from the flow of traffic, swings you around and stops you at a red light facing the direction you want to turn. The light turns green, and off you go, having successfully made your left turn without taking your life in your hands.

This is the Copenhagen left, and it’s one of the reasons why so many people in the city ride bikes. It’s safe, intuitive and easy. No special skills needed. Maybe it’s time your city started using these.

Get more practical advice in our series called Bike Life Advice

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

More tips for keeping your feet warm while riding a bike

My blog earlier this winter offering tips for keeping your feet warm on a bike prompted some questions, so I thought I would expand a bit in video format. So here it is: Five tips for keeping your feet warm on a bike: the expanded edition.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

A practical guide for choosing when to ride a bike

The short answer to the question is easy: When should you ride a bike? Always. Any trip is better on a bike. It’s more fun, healthy and invigorating than driving a car. It’s often faster than public transit and always faster than walking. And it’s more affordable than Uber, a taxi or car-sharing program. In short, it’s, like, the best thing ever.

But using a bike for every trip in the real world only works if you’re a Dutch idealist or some kind of neighbourhood shut-in. Sadly, for the rest of us, particularly us North Americans, choosing a bike for many trips is a conscious choice. And as such, there are factors that go into making that choice. As someone who has spent years manipulating situations to accommodate bike rides, here is some advice on when it’s advisable to choose a bicycle.

Bike pics from Montréal

Short trips in your community are the low-hanging fruit of a bike life. Photo by Tom Babin.

In the ’hood

Research from multiple countries has found that bikes work best, and are the chosen as a transportation mode most often, for trips that are shorter than five kilometres. These are the no-brainer bike trips. At that distance, almost nothing is as fast in an urban setting as a bike. Most trips of this length can be completed without breaking a sweat (emphasis on most), you can roll right up to your destination rather than parking on the far side of an absurdly big parking lot, and you’ll arrive riding a wave of feel-good pheromones.

So maximize the number of times you choose a bike for short trips. Neighbourhood errands, trips to the local pub, joy rides for ice cream – all of these are the low-hanging fruit of a bike life. And put the grocery store at the top of your list. With a simple rack and basket, you will be surprised how many bags of groceries you can hump home with ease. And if you find yourself enjoying those grocery trips a little too much, look at buying a cargo bike. I once took a cargo bike to Costco on an experimental jaunt, and I managed to fill my cupboards for days.



Commuting

Bicycle commuting is a surefire way of transforming what, for many people, is the worst part of the day into the best. With more workplaces offering amenities to cater to bicycle commuters, such as bike lockers and showers, it’s also easier to ride for longer distances and not worrying about getting too sweaty or rumpled on the way.

It’s not just you. If you have kids, riding with them to school sets them up for mind and body success in myriad ways. Plus, they’ll be burning off excess energy that might otherwise be directed at annoying you.

Either way, commuting is a simple way to get more saddle time in your life.

Urban cycling in Vancouver

What date night isn’t made better with a bike? Photo by Tom Babin.

Non-traditional places

Automobile transportation is implied in many of our destinations. But it needn’t be. There are many times when a bike makes more sense. Few things are better after gorging yourself at a dinner party than a refreshing ride home. Date night on a bike is like two dates in one – nobody remembers the romance of the car ride home from a Nicholas Sparks movie, but they will if it’s a bike ride. Need to drop your car off for repairs (because, damn, those things require a lot of service)? Put your bike in the trunk and ride home. Home Depot? I’ve done it. New refrigerator need to be picked up? Yep, I met that person and their cargo bike. There are also endless photos on the Internet of couples riding their bikes to their wedding. Because why not?

Cargo Bike

If you have heavy hauling needs or are partial to Costco, consider a cargo bike. Photo by Tom Babin.

Longer rides

The difficult part about living in a city that was built for cars is the long distances between places you need to get to. This can be discouraging if you have multiple places to be and your chosen mode of transportation is a bicycle. Unless you’re up for logging hero miles crisscrossing a sprawling city to impress your Strava friends, there is another solution. Go multi-modal. Most city buses and commuter trains these days welcome bikes, so take advantage. Bringing a bike on transit not only gives you more time on the two wheels, it shortens the amount of time for what planners like to call the first and last mile. This method of combining a bike with another method of commuting is also part of the reason bike-sharing programs have taken off in so many cities. You can take public transit most of the way to your destination, and then hop on a short-term rental bike for those last few blocks.

Just do it

You don’t have to be a automobile-hating zealot to recognize that replacing car time in your life for bike time will make your life better. If you aren’t ready to ditch your car completely, there are plenty of opportunities to make your life better with time in the saddle. You just have to find them.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

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