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Take the Lane

March 24th, 2011 4 comments

Bikes Use Full LaneI thought it would be good to share about one of the most helpful things I have learned as a bicycle commuter. Hopefully this will inspire other new cyclists to try it, and keep everyone a little safer on the roads. The concept is called “taking the lane” and from a beginner’s perspective it is counterintuitive. Bikes are supposed to stay as far to the right as possible, correct? The answer is no, bikes should be as far to the right as is safe for the cyclist, however there are many instances when the safest place for a bike to be is occupying the entire lane. In the city of Denver the law is clear on how bicycles shall be operated on public roadways.

In particular, section 54-565:

Every person riding a bicycle or electrical assisted bicycle upon a roadway shall be granted all of the rights and shall be subjected to all of the duties applicable to the driver of a vehicle by the traffic rules and regulations of this city applicable to the driver of a vehicle,

and section 54-572 (a):

Every person operating a bicycle or electrical assisted bicycle upon a roadway shall ride as near to the right-hand side of the roadway as judged safe by the bicyclist to facilitate the movement of such overtaking vehicles unless other conditions make it unsafe to do so.

My take on the concept is that if, as a cyclist, you want to be regarded as a vehicle with rights to the road, then you should be acting as if you are a vehicle. If you ride your bike the way you would be expected to act as a car, motorists will be anticipating your actions and will respond in a predictable way. This way, not only are the motorists anticipating your actions, but you can also to some extent anticipate their actions. This means safer riding.

My favorite example of this is when approaching a stoplight. I always take my lane at a stoplight, regardless of whether there are cars there or not. First, if there are no cars there the sensors generally won’t see you if you aren’t in the middle of the lane. If you are too far to the right, cars will try to turn right in front of you, cutting you off or even knocking you over. If you are too far to the left in the lane cars will try to squeeze by you on the right to turn right, or even to pass you on the right in the intersection when the light turns green. In both these cases it is safer to be in the middle, as if you were a car occupying the full lane. When the light changes everyone is going slowly enough that you can easily move to the right of the lane as you cross the intersection, allowing traffic to pass.

If there are cars at the stop light I always take my lane, and my place in line. I am an outlier in this sense as most cyclists will pass along the right to the front of the line of cars. I think this practice is dangerous. It upsets drivers, because if they have had to pass you further back on the road they now have to think about passing you again. As a cyclist, passing on the right you also open yourself up to someone turning right in front of you and cutting you off. If you take your lane and place in line, suddenly the dynamic changes. Now you are behaving as a car would and the cars in line to cross the intersection understand that you will behave in a predictable way. Once traffic is moving through the intersection it is easy to move to the right when it is safe for cars to pass.

These are two good examples of how taking the lane as a cyclist can be safer, but there are many more cases as well. If I am attempting to turn left I will always change lanes and move into the turn lane to turn. Generally this makes sense as turning left from the right side of the road is never reasonable. If I can’t move over to the left to turn I will dismount my bike and cross at the crosswalk as a pedestrian. That brings up another issue which is to never, ever, ride on a sidewalk. Not only are you now not behaving as a vehicle would, but every single driveway/mall entrance/corner becomes a huge hazard. Cars don’t expect you, and they will absolutely not see you.

I do believe that there are certain ways that cyclists should not behave as cars. This is in the case of high-traffic, high-speed limit roads. Does a cyclist have the right to ride on such a road? Yes. Does that mean it is safe or reasonable for a cyclist to exercise that right? Absolutely not. My feeling is that the top speed of a bike is fairly limited, while an automobile’s speed is not. That means that a cyclist is going to travel just as quickly on a side street where the speed limit is 25 as they would on a road where the speed limit is 45. Most major thoroughfares run parallel to numerous side streets where the traffic is minimal, and the rate of travel for a bike on these roads is essentially the same. There may be more stop signs to deal with, but those really do not impact travel time significantly. A little bit of route planning before your ride can make things so much safer for everyone, so do your homework. Google maps now offers bike directions that generally avoid major streets and opt for bike routes and bike paths, so there are no excuses.

Not all of the situations you will encounter on the bike will be easy to evaluate, but generally if you are thinking and behaving as if you were a car this will be the safest option. What’s most amazing is that I’ve found drivers are fairly tolerant of this behavior as long as you are keeping to the right when the road is open. Just watch how many people give you a little extra space the next time you line up at a stoplight and don’t jump to the front! Now get out there and ride safe!

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