Anticipation: a Bike Commuter’s Friend

@MrTinDC and his Brompton
@MrTinDC and his Brompton

Do you ever have commutes where you feel like you are in the middle of an urban obstacle course? Dodge this! Veer around that! Watch out for the crazy driver! No one is following the rules!

As I rode through the post-work milieu today, a particularly gorgeous early summer day in the city, I realized that over the years I have learned to anticipate many of the actions of those around me. That anticipation helps me en route to my destination, especially on days like today when tons of people are out and moving in every direction.

Even though there are traffic rules designed to control the chaos on the roads, there will always be people disregarding them, people not paying attention, or situations that the rules do not cover. That is why the skill of anticipation is so critical for us bike commuters.

I can usually tell if a pedestrian is going to venture out into the middle of a street by their body language. They may be engrossed in conversation with a friend. They do not look around at their surroundings to see what else is going on near them. They move forward, unaware. This is particularly common with tourists, most of whom are easy to spot. We’re on vacation! We have no idea what’s going on!

While I do not drive much in the city, I have developed a sense of what cars will do in certain places/situations. For example, I know that drivers love to run the red along 14th Street where it intersects with the National Mall. You can often see the red light running coming just by looking at the momentum of a car on a stale yellow. Red? What red?

At the intersection of Rock Creek Parkway with Ohio Drive going south I can anticipate that some cars will go straight even when they are driving in a “left turn only” lane. It’s an area where signage is more akin to a suggestion than a rule. Arrow? What arrow?

Cars preparing to leave a parking spot along Ohio Drive between the Lincoln and the Jefferson Memorials may pull out into the traffic flow but they may quite possibly make a U-turn, even if I am right behind them. Cyclist? What cyclist?

I did not learn to anticipate overnight. When I first started riding, I did not understand that I was one piece of a commute puzzle, one that is more complex than the written rules. I solely focused on managing my bike and trying to get from A to B.

Now that my bike skills are improved (most days, anyway), I have an opportunity to see more. Day after day of riding in the city has gradually taught me the complexities of the commute and the importance of anticipation. I’m still learning and there’s no way that anyone can anticipate every move of every puzzle piece that constitutes their environment.

But many aspects of the commute I can anticipate pretty well. It’s like a Spidey sense that certain bike commuters develop and hone that, combined with their own bicycling skills, helps keep them safe on the road.


  1. As a commuter in suburbia, I have some of the same obstacles, but different ones also. For instance, I have learned to anticipate where the turtles will be so I can easily avoid them. (And stop to take pictures.)

    I think I anticipate lights more than anything. I can tell from quite a distance whether I’m going to be able to hit a light green. I know that at a certain red light, if I’m 3rd or less in line, I can make the next light green but only if I work hard. More than 3rd and no point in working hard, I can’t make it before it turns red.

    For much of my commute there are almost no pedestrians, no parked cars, very few side streets or driveways to cause confusion. It’s mostly just me and the cars, everyone going straight. Not terribly fun, but fairly predictable. (I watch my rearview closely for the people on their phones who are predictably bad drivers too.)

    One thing that surprised me recently, though, was the guy who pulled off the side of the road up ahead of me so he could hand me a bottle of water as I rode by! Wow, I felt like I was someone famous in some kind of special race. The Tour de Van Dorn…


    • Deb, that’s awesome! The Tour de Van Dorn… I hope you made the podium! Also, I have never come across a turtle in the city.


  2. With all the afterwork cyclers (those who drive to a parking lot unload bikes, then haul butt to get a ride in) there are numerous riders going both directions, often crossing crossing paths on a heavily used two way suburban road. I continually check my mirror in those scenarios, anticipating whether the automobile behind me will pass, coinciding with an oncoming cyclist. It’s a perpetual game around 5:30 p.m., one that keeps me hyper vigilant as everyone jockeys for position.


    • One of the good things about rush hour in D.C. is that the traffic is somewhat limited in how fast it can go. I bet it’s a totally different ball game in the suburbs.


  3. Maybe it’s crazy talk but I love my city commute. Pedaling hard to make a light, knowing which cars are going to go rogue, swerving to avoid a pedestrian about to cross when there’s a turn light (and a don’t walk sign flashing at them) — all makes me feel exhilarated and triumphant when I arrive at work.


  4. In “The Immortal Class” (nonfiction by Culley about bike messengers in Chicago, recommended), the author notes that experienced city cyclists develop an ability to essentially see about 30 seconds into the future.


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