The Beginner’s Guide to Biking in NYC: Rules of the road

A simple breakdown of how you're supposed to behave on the streets—because we want to keep you safe, and from ending up like Alec Baldwin.
biking rules
Sometimes, you even get your own bike stoplight! (Photo: Lisa Elaine Held for Well+Good)

One of the things I learned very quickly as soon as I started pedaling around the Big Apple was that some cyclists love to ignore the rules of the road. This is New York, after all. If you’re a pedestrian, you jaywalk. If you’re a driver, you cut people off. It’s rough out there.

Still, it helps to know what you’re supposed to be doing, to stay as safe and sane as possible—and to do your part in helping to prevent chaos all over the grid.

“When you ride a bicycle, drive a car, are a pedestrian…you’re part of this intricate ballet of the streets,” says cycling aficionado and Velojoy founder Susi Wunsch. “And the choreography can be more congruent than people think, as long as people are predictable and make their intentions known.”

Keep that in mind as you read through this simple breakdown of how you’re supposed to behave on the streets. Because we want to keep you safe—and from ending up like Alec Baldwin.

This lane is your lane

“The great thing is you have the same rights as someone driving a car,” says Transportation Alternatives‘ Caroline Samponaro. “The flip side is you have the same rules you have to follow.”

Biking Rules
Biking Rules helps you get to know the street markings for bike lanes. This one means a “shared lane.” (Photo:

That means always riding in the direction of the traffic flow and obeying traffic lights. If there’s a bike lane, get in it. If not, you have the exact same right to a full traffic lane as a car (although most people ride to the side). I take advantage of this on narrow one-way streets where it’s hard to stay far enough away from the parked cars. “You’ll get honked at but you have that right,” Samponaro points out. (In fact, the city even allows you to ride side-by-side with another biker in one lane, but most people avoid this.)

Where you can’t ride

As for sidewalks, if your bike is on one, your feet should be planted firmly on the ground, walking alongside it. And you also can’t ride on highways, so scratch those dreams of being stuck in traffic on the FDR.

Is your bike up to code?

You’re required to have brakes (duh), reflectors, and a bell. If you ride between dusk and dawn, you also need a white headlight and a red taillight. Only children under 14 are required to wear helmets, but do it anyway. Here are some cute ones.

Texting while riding

One headphone is permitted, but most say better to let the city be your soundtrack. “You want to be as present as possible in the streets, not only as a matter of safety but as a matter of just enjoying the ride,” says Wunsch. Similarly, chatting on your cell or texting is really not a good idea, since it makes you unstable, distracted, and therefore vulnerable.

Learn your hand signals. (Photo:

Learn to communicate

Turn signals don’t seem to be required by law (the language surrounding them is slightly murky), but it’s a good practice to get into. “If you make your intentions known, then the bicyclists or the cars behind you can deal, because they know what you’re going to do,” Wunsch explains. And hand signals can really be as simple as just pointing in whatever direction you’re headed. Most people use bells or verbal alerts (“on your left”) for passing. Some riders (and lots of bike messengers) use whistles. Although personally, they startle me so much I feel like they might cause a crash rather than prevent one.

The bottom line

Overall, it’s important to follow the laws first, but Samponaro and Wunsch both stress the importance of using common sense and etiquette to making riding less dangerous and more pleasant for everyone. “If you ever feel uncomfortable or see something that’s uncomfortable, get off the bike. You don’t have to gut it out,” Wunsch says. Get up on the sidewalk, walk the bike, get past the obstacle, and then get back on when you feel comfortable.” Sounds simple, but it’s something that never actually occurred to me when fretting about construction zones or navigating Midtown Tunnel traffic jams. —Lisa Elaine Held

For more information, visit Transportation Alternatives’ Biking Rules and Velojoy

Loading More Posts...