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10 Essential Biking Rules Every Cyclist Should Know

Bicycles are a fun and increasingly popular way to explore destinations. But whether you travel with your own bicycle or rent a bike from an on-demand kiosk or local vendor, it’s important to know and follow the local biking rules before hitting the road.

From the monuments in Washington, DC, to the streets of San Francisco, it’s never been easier to rent a bicycle while traveling the United States. Traditional bikes can be unlocked from one of many bike sharing stations around town in mere minutes, and electric bikes can be rented for a few hours or for a full day. While bikes are a fun and convenient way to explore a new city, it’s important to know and follow all biking rules when riding your bike. 

A line of blue and silver bicycles for rent
It’s never been easier to rent a bike and explore a city on two wheels. But before you hit the road, be sure you know (and abide by) these biking rules.

When I was a teenager, I lived in the Netherlands. The small, densely populated European nation has three times more bikes than automobiles. Rain or shine, parents pedal their young children to daycare on their way to work in the morning and bring home groceries by bike in the evening. Packs of school-aged children ride together to school, and teenagers go on dates by bike. To make the car-to-bike ratio work, the country has an extensive network of bike trails, and everyone follows established biking rules. 

A Dutch minivan -- several bikes parked outside a home in Amsterdam
With an adult bike outfitted with a toddler seat and basket and school-aged kids pedaling along with mom or dad, I like to joke that this is what a Dutch minivan looks like!

Although I once lived in a country with more bikes than people, it’s been a hot minute since I’ve ridden a bike. And, it’s easy to forget biking safety rules when you haven’t had to use them for a while. If you grew up riding your bike exclusively on bike trails in your suburban neighborhood, you may not know all biking road rules. And, bike street rules vary by state and city. 

So, before you jump on a bike and pedal your way through the streets, be sure you familiarize yourself with these biking rules to stay safe and obey bike laws.

Have You Rented a Bike While Traveling?

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1. Where You Should (and Should NOT) Ride Your Bike

One of the most basic biking rules is this:  When you are riding your bike, you need to act like you’re driving a car. And when you are walking your bike, you need to act like a pedestrian. That means you ride your bike in the same direction as the vehicular traffic (not against it). 

And for the love of LeMond, you absolutely should not ride your bike on the sidewalk when a dedicated bike path is available. As a pedestrian in Austin, Texas, recently, this was one of the most egregious (and annoying) mistakes that fellow travelers made. What made it even worse was that there was a clearly marked and generously wide bike path right next to the sidewalk.

 

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Red stop sign against a European building

2. Follow All Traffic Laws, Signs, and Signals

Because riding your bike requires you to abide by the same traffic laws, traffic signs, and traffic lights as a car, you need to come to a full stop at all stop signs and obey all traffic signals.

3. Know the Pecking Order

One of the ways 8 million cars, 17 million people, and 33 million bicycles co-exist in a country only slightly bigger than the state of Maryland is by knowing (and following) an established pecking order. Bikes yield to pedestrians and cars yield to both bikes and pedestrians. So when you’re on a bike, remember this hierarchy. 

If you are riding your bike, you need to yield to all pedestrians on sidewalks and in marked crosswalks, just like you would in an automobile.

4. Use Biking Hand Signals to Change Lanes

It’s easy to indicate a lane change when driving a car:  Either push up (or down) on the indicator to signal a desire to turn right or left. When riding a bike, the indicator is your left arm. Know biking hand signals and use them before turning right or left when riding your bike.

To signal a left turn while riding a bike, extend your left arm straight out. And you can indicate a right turn by extending our left arm and then bending it upward at the elbow.

A graphic showing left turn and right turn hand signals
You should know biking hand signals before hitting the road on your bicycle.

And just like you should always, always, ALWAYS look over your shoulder before making a lane change in a car, you must do the same when riding a bike. After all, the consequences of a collision from not checking your blind spot can be much more catastrophic when you’re on a bicycle than when in a vehicle.

5. Stay to the Right and Pass on the Left

When operating a motor vehicle, slower traffic should stay to the right. Despite what you witness on the roads every day, the left lanes should be used for passing. However, I regularly see cars camped out in the far left lane going below the posted speed limit. 

You absolutely cannot do this when riding a bike. Be sure to keep to the right side of the road. When you need to pass a pedestrian (in a shared use lane) or a slower bicycle, be sure to announce your intention by providing an audible signal, like ringing your bicycle bell (if you have one) or saying, “on your left.” 

Woman Wearing Bicycle Helmet
Wearing a bicycle helmet, especially when required by law, is an important biking rule to follow.

6. Know and Follow All State- and City-Specific Helmet Laws

While a bicycle helmet is always a good idea, states like California, Delaware, and New Mexico mandate that anyone under the age of 18 wear a helmet when riding a bicycle. Additionally, some cities have additional rules that go above and beyond the state law regarding bicycle helmets.

Sage Advice: It’s also wise to wear bright colors when cycling so you stand out to motorists.

A grey brick bike path along the waterfront
Bike lanes help motorized vehicles and bicycles safely share the road.

7. Use the Bicycle Lane When Available

As a cyclist, I’m always thrilled to see a bicycle lane and always use it when one is available. Some states have laws requiring cyclists to use the lanes, and police officers might issue tickets to cyclists who aren’t using the bike lanes when they are available.

Girl Riding Bike on Street
If a dedicated bike lane isn’t available, biking road rules allow you to share the road with cars and other motorized vehicles.

8. And Know How to Properly Use the Road When Bike Lanes Aren’t Available

When a bike lane isn’t available to cyclists, all 50 states allow you to share the road with motorized vehicles. This means you have the right to ride on the main road and not the shoulder. However, you do need to ride your bike on the right side of the road, generally within about three feet of the white line on the right side of the road.

9. Biking Under the Influence

Because traffic laws for motorized vehicles also apply to bicycles, you should never, ever ride a bike under the influence of alcohol or other controlled substances.

10. Cell Phones and Cycling

I’m not talented enough to ride a bike and navigate my cell phone. But if you possess such skills, don’t display them on the road. In addition to the laws on the books for drivers, many states have additional, specific laws prohibiting cyclists from speaking, texting, or otherwise using their cell phones while operating a bicycle.

Sage Advice: For state-specific biking rules of the road, visit The League of American Bicyclists.

Do You Know (and Follow) These Biking Rules?

When did you last ride a bike? Do you like renting a bicycle to explore new towns and cities when you travel? Were any of these biking rules new to you? Any additional biking safety rules to pass along? Share your experiences in the comments section below.

Bike Safety Tips - Pin 7 - JPG
Bike Safety Tips - Pin 8 - JPG

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26 thoughts on “10 Essential Biking Rules Every Cyclist Should Know”

  1. Bicycles are indeed an increasingly popular way to explore places. And I think it is a great idea, better for our health and environment as well. I love tour tips for cyclists, as they are handy!

  2. I love this list. I find that some bikers think that the rules don’t apply to them. Years ago, I spent a year living in DC and I biked to and from work. I remember some bikers wouldn’t even stop at lights! People were good about riding in the street or in bike lanes here. It was definitely better than Spain, where I live now. If people do ride bikes, it always seems to be on the sidewalk.

  3. I lived in London for over 6 years and I was so scared to ride them there, despite growing up with a bike and being confident in my ability to ride one. Reading the details of rules of the road (as it were) and would feel more confident now in hiring one during my travels. The cycling hand signals are a must to know!

    1. To be honest, I’m terrified to cross the street in countries where they drive on the opposite (left) side of the road. I am not sure I’d get on a bicycle there for that reason alone!

  4. Our college town has recently painted a few ‘bike lanes’ on one side of the street, running side by side with one lane going against the flow of automobile traffic. There is an available lane to bike on the right side of the streets, with the flow of traffic. Which is best?

    1. When sharing the roadway with motorized vehicles, bikes should ride with traffic. However, if there is a dedicated bike lane that gives cyclists a designated spot to travel, it shouldn’t matter what side of the road it’s on. The first image that comes to mind for me is a wide two-way paved area running parallel to the street with some sort of median that separates it from the street, probably because that is commonplace throughout Europe. However, it sounds like your college town has simply painted a line on one side of the street. In that case, I personally would feel more comfortable riding with the flow of traffic. What about you?

  5. I love Netherlands for it’s biking culture. Here in India, hardly anyone respects bikers and there are no rules. I myself did not know some of these rules like the one where we have to ride within 3 feet from the white line. Great post, learnt a lot. Thanks

  6. I’m actually going to Amsterdam next month and looking forward to biking around the city. This post could not have come at a better time. I’m generally aware of the biking rules, but it definitely was a nice refresher of the rules 🙂

  7. These are all great tips. I love to stay in hotels that offer free bikes when we travel. We also use city bikes when they are available. What would be your suggestion for the helmet rule then? The bike share system doesn’t come with helmets 🙁

    1. It’s a sticky situation, for sure. From what I understand, bike kiosks aren’t available in cities with mandatory helmet laws. In some cases, cities repealed their mandatory helmet laws before allowing bike rental stations. And although I’ve read about some bike rental kiosks that include sanitized helmets, like HelmetStation, I’ve never seen one in person. Because my travel companion is my 12-year-old daughter, we tend to rent bikes from kiosks only when we’ll be on dedicated bike trails and off the street with cars. Hopefully more bike rental stations will find a way to include helmets as part of the experience!

  8. Yes I did know most of these. Especially the biking signals and the pecking order. You would definitely know your stuff having lived in The Netherlands where as you stated, there are more bikes than people!

  9. sunsetsandrollercoasters

    This is such great advice. Even here at home, there are so many people that just don’t know the proper rules for riding a bicycle. Many visitors consider renting bikes while on vacation and run the risk of having a serious injury if they don’t totally understand the laws and expectations.

    1. Exactly! I love how easy it is to visit a new city and rent a bike to explore, but folks have got to be sure they’re following the rules of the road for their safety and the safety of others.

  10. This is an interesting article and very useful in reminding cyclists what the rules are. I live in Sydney and most cyclists are pretty good but some really take their lives in their own hands… I am flabbergasted as to how you would ride a bike and use a mobile at the same time, it’s hard enough to do that in a car!

  11. Thank you for sharing these. I live in an area where people ride bikes a lot and I’m always amazed at the people who ride on the sidewalk and/or don’t follow the street signs.

    1. Cyclists riding on the sidewalks, especially when they are actively used by pedestrians REALLY chaps me. When I was in Austin a few weeks ago, it was so bad. Way too many people on rented bikes on sidewalks filled with pedestrians when there was a clearly marked bike path on the road. In fact, that experience was one of the prompts to write this article!

    1. Having lived in Maastricht for more than three years, I’m going to guess it’s visitors to the Netherlands (and not the Dutch) who need these reminders. 🙂 The biggest thing that chaps me here is when people ride their bicycles on the sidewalks. So dangerous for people as well as cyclists!

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