The whole topic of how to ride a bike in traffic is a bit of a loaded and polarizing question, much like topics like helmets and brakes on fixies. While there are wildly divergent opinions on whether or how differently cyclists should follow current traffic laws, i’m mostly going to look at one piece that most experienced cyclists (especially bike commuters) almost unanimously agree on: taking the lane. What follows will either be preaching to the choir or maybe a little insight on the psychology of cycling.
This little video is one of the best explanations i’ve seen to promote good riding techniques in traffic. It’s produced by Cycling Savvy, a program with the Florida Bicycle Association. They have collected a lot of great information on that website, good job.
The video shows clearly one of the biggest hurdles for many new commuters, and one of the biggest sources of stress while riding in traffic: finding a place to be on the road. Bicycle riders have full legal access to the roads, and yet many drivers (knowingly or not) intimidate cyclists who are trying to ride those roads. Fear of being “in the way” of motorized traffic makes the cyclist constantly compromise their road position and although the compromise position can feel the least stressful, it’s often also the least safe.
(Don’t bother with the sidewalk argument, bikes (at least for able riders over about 12) don’t really belong there. It’s patently unsafe for the cyclist, drivers and pedestrians alike. So, we’re riding in the street. A quick link to the Minnesota Traffic Laws as they pertain to bicycles is in order. I’m also talking about the vast majority of roads that don’t have a proper bike lane and where there’s no viable independent bike path.)
Once you’re in the street, you’re dealing with widely varying road conditions (cracks, potholes, broken bits that fell off of cars) and traffic. Riding a bicycle with cars going past faster than you can ride is a very uncomfortable situation, and one you can’t fully appreciate unless you’ve done it. I firmly believe that we’d be better off requiring all drivers to spend a week cycling everywhere for their transportation, but i digress. You naturally don’t want to be near cars, so you ride on the edge of the road, or the gutter, which adds the stress of reduced lateral margin plus the accumulation of all the dirt and garbage that collects in that space of the road.
Riding on the shoulder is fine as long as there’s enough shoulder for cars to pass safely. A safe pass is legally defined as a 3-foot margin around the overtaken vehicle (the bicycle in our case being the vehicle). As clearly shown in the animation above, when there isn’t at least three feet of space around the cyclist, a car will try to ’sneak by’ with minimal passing space while staying in their own lane. Countless times i’ve had this happen to me when riding too far to the right. It’s like drivers forget how to change lanes, or fear to do it.
The solution is to ride fully in the lane. This way the driver has to choose a lane; they have to either pass or slow down. They may honk, at which you wave and smile and continue on your way. It feels presumptuous to do this as a cyclist, but it’s truly the safest thing to do. You’re removing the bad compromise option of letting the car get by without a lane change and making the lane decision a binary one, as it is for all motorized road users. This lane or that one, period.
Don’t be a dick about it, of course – if there’s a widening in the road and a couple of cars behind, try to let ‘em by. Do unto others, and all that. But especially if you’re on a 4-lane road and there’s no shoulder, that right lane should be all yours. Plant those tires in the right car tire track and ride on, friend. In Minnesota, where i live, using a full lane also gives you the very necessary ability to wind around potholes and other road hazards without weaving in and out of traffic.
The nutshell for all of this to remove ambiguity in traffic. Ambiguity is one of the biggest problems with cycling safety in traffic. When drivers complain that cyclists are breaking the rules of the road (because they all run red lights and stop signs!), it’s often the entirely realistic fear of a collision. When a cyclist and one or more drivers both approach a 4-way stop, say, the legal and rational expectation is that both parties will at least slow toward a stop to see who will get clear priority to proceed, just as you’d expect if it were all cars. When the cyclist doesn’t stop, or at least slow enough to make their place in line obvious, the likelihood of a crash and stress for everyone increases greatly. It’s worth saying that likewise when the driver tries to be nice and wave the cyclist through, they’re contributing to the problem.