EC Notebook #33 Part 1: Basic Principles of Traffic Cycling

by Donald Tighe

Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.

That is the basic principle behind the League’s Effective Cycling Program. Basic rules for safe cycling in traffic all conform to this simple principle.

To cycle safely and efficiently on crowded roads, you must follow both traffic law and safe cycling principles.

Legislators frequently find that it is far more difficult to tell you how to do something right than it is to tell you what not to do. That is why traffic laws cannot tell you all you need to know. Traffic law can be viewed as elementary knowledge, whereas safe cycling principles are the advanced knowledge and skills necessary for improving your performance and safety.

The five basic principles of cycling in traffic are:

  • Ride on the right side of the road with traffic–never against traffic and never on the sidewalk.
  • When you reach a more important or larger road than the one you are on, yield to traffic in the new lane or line of travel. [Yielding means looking forward and backward, and waiting until you see that no traffic is coming.]
  • When you intend to change lanes or move laterally on the roadway, yield to traffic in the new lane or line of travel.
  • When approaching an intersection, position yourself with respect to your destination direction: on the right near the curb if you want to turn right, on the left near the centerline if you want to turn left, and between those positions if you want to go straight.
  • Between intersections, position yourself according to your speed relative to other traffic; slower traffic is nearer the curb and faster traffic is nearer the centerline.

By obeying these five principles, you can cycle in many places with a low probability of being involved in traffic conflicts. With these principles alone you might not do absolutely everything in the best possible way, and you might not know how to get yourself out of troubles that other drivers cause, but you are sure to do better than those on the road who do not follow these guidelines.

There are many other aspects to sharing the road safely with others, from signaling intent to arranging your riding position on multi-lane roads. By recognizing and following these principles from the moment you leave your driveway, you can cycle safely while gaining the experience to understand and practice more advanced habits and maneuvers.

For additional training that can increase the enjoyment and safety of cycling, contact the League of American Bicyclists at (202) 822-1333,, or to locate a certified Effective Cycling Instructor near you.

This E.C. Notebook was adapted from the “Basic Principles of Traffic Cycling” and “The Why and Wherefore of Traffic Law” chapters of Effective Cycling by John Forester, Sixth Edition, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Reprinted here by permission of Bicycle USA Magazine. Bicycle USA is a member benefit of the League of American Bicyclists. For further information on the League go to

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