Richmond Proper: Propriety of a modern cyclist

Learning to ride a bicycle is one of those childhood rites of passage that almost everyone goes through. Nowadays, with rising gas prices and an ever increasing downtown population, it only makes sense that people look for alternative means of travel. So what are the rules of the game when you take a bike into the streets? In actuality, they are the same as if operating a motor vehicle. Here is a rundown of things cyclists should be aware of.

Spring is here and as usual, Richmond is simply covered in bicycles. My friend and this week’s guest columnist Ian Dunwiddie was born and raised in Richmond and might as well have a bicycle for the lower half of his body. Which qualifies him to deliver some long overdue cycling etiquette.

Learning to ride a bicycle is one of those childhood rites of passage that almost everyone goes through. Like so many other things, once you learn how, you never really forget the rudimentary principles. Nowadays, with rising gas prices and an ever increasing downtown population, it only makes sense that people look for alternative means of travel. Cycling is the logical choice.

So what are the rules of the game when you take a bike into the streets? In actuality, they are the same as if operating a motor vehicle. Here is a rundown of things cyclists should be aware of.

A cyclist must obey all traffic laws, signs, lights and markings.

It is totally feasible to be pulled over for speeding on a bicycle (personal experience) or get a ticket for running a red light (personal experience). These are not instances of bored policemen harassing cyclists. These are instances of safety violations.

Always ride with the flow of traffic.

Cyclists must ride their bikes as close to the side of the road as possible. In the Fan there is plenty of space between the white line and parked cars for cyclists to maneuver without having to worry about traffic. Keep your head up and watch the parked cars as much as anything else in front of you. You never know when someone is going to throw their driver door open without checking their mirror first. Also, no one likes that guy who rides his bike against traffic on Cherry St. It’s dangerous and makes drivers do weird things. So don’t be that person.

Riding on the sidewalk is OK

Rumors were going around for a while that it was illegal to ride a bike on sidewalks in the city. This isn’t Brooklyn. If you must ride on the sidewalk then yield the right of way to pedestrians. That’s all there is to it.

Cyclists must signal their intention to turn or stop.

Remember those hand signals you had to learn when taking driver’s education? Yeah, the real dorky ones that just about everyone scoffs over. Well, cyclists are required to use those to alert motorists. Need a refresher? Form a 90 degree angle with your left elbow. Hand up means right turn. Hand down means stop. Hold your left hand straight out from your body to signal a left turn.

Safety considerations:

  • Wear a helmet. It’s for your own good. For all the times you get chastised for not “looking cool” the one time you have a serious accident is when you’ll be glad you were wearing a helmet. Helmet regulations vary depending on the county you live in. Wear one anyway.
  • Use front and rear lights. It’s required between sunset and sunrise. This is a super easy way to make drivers aware of you that is well worth it.
  • Keep at least one hand on your handlebars at all times. It’s really hard to brake when you’re texting and drinking coffee and a student walks out in front of you.
  • Don’t wear headphones in both ears. It makes it very difficult to hear traffic around you, which could be potentially dangerous.

The most important part of cycling in the city is to take a defensive approach to motorists and pedestrians. Don’t test your mettle against automobiles. Don’t buzz students as they walk out into the street oblivious to everything. Just enjoy your indirect exercise, infinite parking options and fuel savings. Visit VDOT for more information on bicycle laws in Virginia.

Have an etiquette question and need some advice? Email


  • VDOT’s Laws for Bicycling
  • [Also, here’s the only bit of Richmond City Code I could find about riding things on sidewalks. — Ed] – City Code Sec. 102-157.1.a – “It shall be unlawful for a person to operate an electric personal assistive mobility device, a motorized skateboard or scooter, motor-driven cycle or electric power-assisted bicycle, as defined in Code of Virginia, § 46.2-100, on a sidewalk or in a crosswalk where such operation is prohibited and where signs indicating such prohibition are conspicuously posted in the general area.”
  • A multimodal Pecha Kucha
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Tess Shebaylo

Tess Shebaylo is a freelance writer, crafter, history geek, and compulsive organizer. She works at Tumblr and lives in Church Hill with her daughter, Morella.

Notice: Comments that are not conducive to an interesting and thoughtful conversation may be removed at the editor’s discretion.

  1. Tess Shebaylo on said:

    P.S., Check out Bike to Work Day, coming up later this month!

  2. Thanks for reminding riders of these super important points. Together we can make our shared roads safer and more enjoyable. There is a great movement in Richmond for the city to become more cycling friendly. The mayor will Bike to Work on Friday May 20 from Monroe park.

    I’m so excited for a time when Richmond embraces all the people here who love to ride and welcomes new people to the pleasure of biking.

    Fore more information on safe riding at and laws and

  3. Consider adding a horn or a ringer to your handle bars. I love my “ice cream” ringer. It’s a gentle way of letting people know you are behind them.

    Also, I won’t ride without a mirror. I like to know who (or what) is behind ME!

  4. Marc on said:

    Excellent article!

    Few additonal points:

    1) When practical bicyclists should hug the white line so cars can pass, but that’s not always the best thing to do. Sometimes you SHOULD ride in the middle of the lane (which is legal) when the road is narrow enough that hugging the white line would result in drivers passing you just inches from your handlebars. Huguenot Bridge is like this and, to a lesser extent, Meadow Street in the Fan.

    2) Personally, I follow the “Idaho stop” rule for stop signs and signals (so-called because the following has been Idaho law for many years). Treat stop signs like yield signs and treat signals (except major signals) like stop signs. It’s basically a recognition of the fact that even though bicycles are legally vehicles, it kind of goes against plain common sense to treat a bicycle is exactly the same thing as a car. Of course, bicycles are *always* responsible for making sure the coast is clear.

    3) Watch for pedestrians in crosswalks! A bicycle hitting a pedestrian is nowhere near as bad as a vehicle hitting a pedestrian, but it can still cause serious injury and has even caused deaths in rare cases.

    4) Biking Under the Influence (BUI) is just as bad as DUI. I actually tried to do this once a few years ago in the Bottom. Thankfully I was not so drunk that I didn’t realize after half a block that was a BAD idea. I had a hard time just staying upright. I ended up locking my bike and walking or taking the bus home.

    5) I’d agree with riding on sidewalks, but it should only be done in rare circumstances. And if you’re in, say, Carytown on a nice summer weekend, you should just get off and walk the darn thing if you don’t want to ride in the street.

    6) Richmonders are a pretty polite bunch of drivers, so you shouldn’t get too many one-finger salutes. Help keep the peace between cyclists and drivers by resisting the urge to flip the bird or yell at drivers who do cut you off.

  5. Jake67 on said:

    Excellent piece, and thanks for helping to promote safe cycling in Richmond. I’d like to add my two cents on watching parked cars and where to ride: it’s not enough to watch parked cars trying to see if someone is going to open their door; you need to ride about 6 feet to the left of parked cars to be out of the “door zone.” I cringe watching cyclists in Richmond ride within a foot or two of parked cars. That encourages cars going around you to squeeze you from the left (also a problem of hugging the curb when there are no parked cars), and makes you really vulnerable to being “doored,” which can easily knock you out into traffic in addition to injuring you directly. It takes some getting used to, but if this means being further out, even in the middle of the travel lane, that’s really the safest place to be even if it feels like you’re “in the way” of cars.

    Check out the Virginia Bicycling Federation’s video on the door zone:

  6. Nandalal Rasiah on said:

    But is it proper to yell out of your window if you see cyclists violate every single rule? That seems to be everyone I saw who biked while I was commuting to school at VCU. I certainly don’t mind people being their own risk managers and choosing whether or not to wear safety gear and be wary of vehicular traffic but the #1 concern of any driver in a close shave is whether or not the cyclist (or their estate) will sue (as the helmet mfg is only involved when they actually wear one.) Can we have a societal pinky-promise that it won’t follow the general American trend of litigious excess?

  7. Jolene on said:

    Nice pointers, everyone! Marc, I have to say I’m with you on the Idaho Stop thing. While I’m generally a rule follower by nature, I just don’t think it’s practical to sit by myself at a stoplight on a bike until it turns green (unless there’s a cop around, of course). I come almost to a complete stop at signs, and always if there’s another car in the area. It does bother me, though, when I see other cyclists completely running through 4-way stop signs and disrupting the flow.

  8. Have you seen the NYC DOT’s “Don’t Be A Jerk” videos, which are aimed at cyclists?

  9. Julie on said:

    How about a few comments aimed at drivers for interacting with cyclists? In my area we have bike lanes. At one particular busy intersection, smaller cars always try to creep to the right into the bike lane to use it as a turning lane and not wait for stopped traffic. It is ~just~ big enough. I find that infuriating! Also, thanks for the “with the flow of traffic” bit…I recently pulled to a stop at a one way, looking to my left for an opening in vehicular traffic so I could go, had to pull far enough up to see around some bushes…and a cyclist came barrelling down from the other side, on the sidewalk, and barely swerved around the rear of my vehicle, shouted profanity at me for being in his way and angrily slapped the back of my van with his fist… I was sorry, because I normally give plenty of space to cyclists, but if he were going the direction of the one-way traffic, I would have seen him, and totally granted him right of way.

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