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Why We Bike With (Not Against) Traffic

Don't be a bike salmon.

Many cyclists, especially those who are new to riding, feel some degree of anxiety about riding in the road. After all, in a crash between a vehicle and a bike, it’s the cyclist who is most likely to be injured or killed. It makes sense, then, that cyclists want to do whatever possible to minimize that risk, be it donning neon colors from head to toe for added visibility, seeking out less-trafficked side streets, and eschewing headphones so they can better hear their surroundings.

This usually leads to a well-intentioned question: “Why do I ride with my back to traffic?” On the surface, this is a perfectly reasonable query – after all, it could make sense that riding against the flow of traffic, instead of in the same direction, allows a cyclist to see oncoming traffic and get out of the way when needed.

But is this type of riding really safer for cyclists? In a word, no. In a study of cyclists riding on the road, cyclists traveling against the direction of vehicular flow were found to be an average of 3.6 times more likely to be in an incident than those traveling with traffic.

“Going the wrong way, against traffic, is known as ‘salmoning’ in the bike community,” says Laura Shepard of Bike New York, who explains that bike lanes flow with traffic for the safety of the cyclist, for many reasons:

You’re more likely to be seen.

When vehicles pull out of driveways or turn at an intersection, especially when making a right-hand turn, they’re most often looking in the direction traffic is already coming; rarely do they look both ways, and they’re certainly not expecting traffic in the bike lane to be coming the wrong way. Ditto for pedestrians, who look for oncoming vehicles their expected lane. In general, it’s safest to do what is expected, says Shepard: “Cyclists are typically required by law to travel in the same direction as traffic to reduce confusion for drivers, pedestrians, and other cyclists. The best way to stay safe is to ride predictably.”

Drivers can respond quickly and appropriately.

If you cycle with traffic and the car behind you does not have room to pass, the driver only needs to slow down to your speed until there it’s clear to pass. Riding against traffic, however, decreases the driver’s reaction time, leaving only two choices: hit the cyclist, or drive into oncoming traffic.

It’s basic physics.

If you’re riding at 15 miles per hour when a car hits you from behind at 35 miles per hour, the speed of the cyclist reduces the approaching speed to 20 miles per hour, since both the bike and car are going in the same direction. If there’s a head-on collision at those same speeds, however, the impact happens at 50 miles per hour. The higher the impact speed, the higher the risk of injury and death for the cyclist.

Riding with traffic protects your fellow cyclists.

“Salmoning is often frowned upon because it creates a hazardous situation for cyclists traveling in the correct direction,” says Shepard. Bike lanes are narrow as it is – and when two cyclists are traveling in opposite directions, one will have to swerve into vehicular traffic to avoid a collision.

Green (and red) lights aren’t just for cars.

Traffic lights and road signs are positioned for visibility by traffic traveling in the correct direction. When riding against traffic, you may miss important information – or worse, enter an intersection at an improper (and unsafe) time.

It’s the law.

In general, cyclists tend to follow laws, not break them. One study found that less than 5% of cyclists break traffic laws while riding, compared to 66 percent of motorists; another study found that on the rare occasions cyclists do break the rules, it’s because they have no other safe option. Still, none of these stats will fly with a police officer who wants to ticket you. If you’re riding the wrong way on the road, it’s breaking the law. If you are an in a collision while riding the wrong way, you will be at fault.

What about riding on the sidewalk?

In many states, bikes are considered vehicles, which means they are not allowed on sidewalks (some areas make exceptions for children). The majority of bike laws are determined by state and local officials, not at the federal level, so it’s important to make sure you check the laws in your state, particularly if you a visitor or new resident.

However, there are many areas where bike infrastructure is absent and streets are intimidating for cyclists. Speeding, double parking, and other reckless driving behavior cause cyclists to feel unsafe and vulnerable on streets that lack dedicated, protected bike lanes.

“It’s common to see bikes on the sidewalks where these conditions persist, particularly where there are few pedestrians, says Shepard. “Most cyclists will assess the risks and make a case-by-case decision.”

For some, that may mean briefly moving to a sidewalk. However, Shepard says taking the lane is also an option to consider: “In general, the best way to stay safe is to ride confidently and predictably. When there are no bike lanes, taking the lane is often the safest strategy. This means riding in the center of a lane on either side of the street to deter drivers from attempting to pass at close range. We recommend signaling when changing lanes, slowing down, or stopping.”