Travel Health: Safe Cycling

Your in-depth guide to biking around a new city.

By Hannah Wallace | Illustration by Kirsten Ulve

In recent years bike-share programs have proliferated around the world, from New York City to Paris. As a traveler, how do you navigate an unfamiliar city on two wheels as safely as possible? We interviewed a range of specialists, from city planners to apparel designers, to get their tips.

Get to Know the Law

“Look up your destination city’s bike laws ahead of time—Paris will be different from Portland,” says Lake McTighe, senior transportation planner at Oregon’s Portland Metro. Cities with bike-share programs typically have a website packed with bike maps, safety information and local bike laws. For instance, Seattle’s Pronto! (prontocycleshare.com) has advice on how to plan a hill-free route and a “Pronto Pointers” video with reminders of hand signals and traffic laws. If a city doesn’t have a bike-share program, check its department of transportation site. The Portland Bureau of Transportation  (portlandoregon.gov/transportation), for example, has a detailed “Portland Biking Guide” and downloadable bike maps. In New York City, where Citi Bike offers 470 stations, the Department of Transportation (NYC.gov/bikes) is still the best place to go for bike-safety tips, the city’s biking laws and info on how to carry bikes on subways.

Map Out Bike Routes

Most bike-friendly cities have protected bike lanes on certain streets. It’s worth riding a few blocks out of your way to get to these streets—especially if it’s a city you don’t know well. In New York City there are three types: bike-only paths (the Hudson River Greenway and the East River Greenway); separated lanes, where parked cars provide a barrier between the bike lane and car traffic (First, Second, Eighth and Ninth Avenues); and “green lanes” (where the bike lane is painted green but there’s no barrier). Study the bike map ahead of time to familiarize yourself with these routes. Most cities let you order paper maps in advance, but you can also find free maps at local bike shops.

Protect Your Noggin

Some places have mandatory helmet laws. In King County, Washington, where Seattle is located, you can be fined $30 for not wearing a helmet. Seattle makes it easy to comply: At each of Pronto!’s 54 bike-rental stations, you can rent a helmet for $2. (Helmets are sanitized between uses.) Bike helmets are required in Australia, too. Melbourne’s bike-share program has 150 bikes equipped with helmets (melbournebikeshare.com.au); if you rent a bike that doesn’t have one, you must rent one for $5 from a vending machine or retail outlet. And in New York City, where kids 13 and under must wear helmets, you can rent them from Bike and Roll (bikenewyorkcity.com; $3 a day), a rental shop with 10 locations, including Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge. That said, in places where cycling is embedded in the culture, you may not feel obliged to wear a helmet. “In Copenhagen, cyclists are super law-abiding, and the streets are designed to accommodate the flow of bike traffic even more than motor vehicles,” says Dani Simons, communications director at Motivate, the largest bike-share operator in the United States.

Spring for Lights and Bells

Most bike-share bikes have lights that activate when you pedal, as well as built-in bells. But if you’ll be renting a bike that doesn’t have either, and you plan to bike in the evening, pack yours from home (or buy them at a bike shop). Most cities require a white light in front and a red light in the rear; both should be visible from at least 500 feet.

Pack Reflective Gear

The more visible you are, the safer you’ll be. “A light on a bike is just a pinpoint,” says Sarah Canner, founder and designer of reflective clothing line Vespertine. “Wearing a reflective belt or vest delineates the body—it gives a sense of the person’s width at night.” The Vespert Reflective Safety Vest (vespertinenyc.com; $68) is stylish and lightweight—perfect for travel—as are Vespertine’s windowpane-patterned blazers and dresses (from $138). Canner also recommends reflective wristbands and armbands, easy to find at bike stores.

Ask the Pros

Got any lingering questions about safe routes, laws or helmets? Pop into a bike shop. “In general, bike stores are very friendly,” says Charlie McCorkell, the amiable owner of New York City’s Bicycle Habitat (bicyclehabitat.com).

  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: Summer 2016