Friday, September 26, 2014

What Do You Do When . . . ?

You come to stop at an intersection and there's a line of cars already stopped for the light? Do you take your place in line and wait, or filter your way up on the curb side to get to front of the line?

The question brings up one of the many points of tension between drivers and cyclists -- and the response even divides the cyclists. At the risk of getting a firestorm of comments, I'm wading into the debate.

A lot of riders think nothing of moving to the front. After all, cars don't hesitate to pass us when they have the opportunity, or even when they really shouldn't, so what's wrong with passing them back when we're able? Not only that, but I know many cyclists will argue that they're safer at the front of the line when the light changes. Cars see them, and they're less likely to get "hooked" by cars turning in the intersection.

As for the safety aspect, it seems to me that it's a debatable point. I know there is much evidence that says intersections are some of the most dangerous places for cyclists, so I don't dispute that. On the other hand, I don't know of much (if any) evidence that shows a cyclist is any safer at the front of the line as compared to one who takes his place in the lineup and observes good lane placement. In addition, there are other problems (in terms of both safety and the law) with filtering up the curb side to the front of the line.

If reader's can't tell yet, let me just make it clear now that I don't advocate filtering to the front in normal traffic. When I get to an intersection, if the light is red I take my place in line, and I take the lane. There are a few reasons I do it this way.

In general, it seems to me that most of the time we as cyclists are safest when we observe the laws that are in place for cars and other traffic. What does the law say about passing slower or stopped traffic on the curb side? Well, it depends on the state, and the wording of the laws can sometimes be a little vague or confusing, but in many of them, passing on the curb side isn't permitted under most circumstances. So if the rider does end up in an accident and gets injured, he/she could be found to be at least partially at fault.

Beyond the legal ramifications, there are some safety concerns from passing on the right. For one thing, drivers don't expect to see cyclists passing them on the right, and the visibility is poor, so there's a good chance that the cyclist will be unseen. Then, if there are other intersections -- not just other side streets, but also parking lots and driveways -- there is a real danger of being hit by cars entering or exiting the main roadway. Not only that, but if there is on-street parking, riding up the right side of the traffic can put a rider into the "door zone." All of the above can lead to a dangerous situation.

Then, there's just the irritation factor. The way I see it, most drivers only grudgingly share the road with bicyclists as it is. Encountering us on the road is, for some motorists, a major pain in the ass, and for some it's a stress they'd rather not deal with. They don't like having to slow down to wait until it's safe to pass, which is why so many will try to squeeze by us even when it really isn't safe to do so. Their impatience and sense of entitlement to the road take over, and they think nothing of putting us at risk to avoid even a few seconds of delay. So, when I get to a red light and there are a bunch of cars stopped there, it's an awfully good chance that most of them already passed me once within the last mile or two. The last thing they want is to see me slip on by them to get to the front of the line, making it so they'll have to pass me again right after we get through the intersection. To my mind, that doesn't really help me, either. I'm just going to get passed again by the same cars that passed me a short time earlier, and this time they may be even less patient than they were the first time.

I figure that if the cars are ahead of me at the light, I'm just as well off to leave them there and take my place behind them. At the same time, I expect cars that arrive at the light after me to wait their turn behind me in the same way. I take the lane to discourage people from attempting to pass me as we approach the intersection -- thereby minimizing the possibility for a right hook. And I place myself in the lane for the maximum visibility to oncoming traffic to prevent the possibility of a left hook. It also helps to develop a good sense of anticipation for what other cars around me are doing, or what they might be intending to do. I don't know if cars have "body language" or if it's some kind of sixth sense, but an observant cyclist can often anticipate potential danger.

When I'm approaching an intersection, whether there's a stop sign or a traffic light, few things raise my ire more than cars trying to pass me just so they can come to a stop directly in front of me instead of behind me. In fact, I don't want people passing me through intersections at all. That is impatient, aggressive behavior that puts me at risk, and also puts at risk any oncoming traffic that may be coming through the intersection. Often, I will take the lane on the approach to the intersection to discourage that from happening. Some cars will try to pass anyhow, at which point I usually give them a piece of my mind. Now, it becomes difficult to convince a driver that they pose a danger to the cyclist by passing at the intersection when that driver sees cyclists passing to get to the front of the line. Of course there is a difference in risk -- the self-imposed risk of passing a line of stationary cars vs. the moving car trying to squeeze past the cyclist -- but try to explain that to a driver.

With a bike lane such as this one, adjacent to the roadway
and moving in the direction of the traffic, a rider may be
permitted to pass on the right -- but caution is still advised.
Is there any time a cyclist can pass on the right? Again it depends on the state and local laws, but in many places, the cyclist can pass slower moving (or stopped) cars on the right if there is a designated bike lane (some bike lanes -- like those of the green-painted variety -- even include a "bike box" at the intersections where riders can move ahead of cars). Still, much caution is still advised. Visibility is still an issue, and a bicyclist can be hidden from view by the cars. One still needs to be well-aware of the other traffic, and keep an eye out for cars that may suddenly pull into the bike lane -- to make a quick right turn, or oncoming cars making a left turn across the lane. Then there are always those impatient drivers, stuck behind a long line of cars (such as, when someone ahead is waiting to make a left turn), who decide they don't want to wait anymore and suddenly pull out into a bike lane, or even out onto the shoulder, to get past the slowdown. Sure, that driver would likely be at fault if they hit a cyclist -- but that's little consolation to the cyclist who would be much better off not being hit at all.

Though I frequently see people ride up alongside cars to get that momentary advantage at an intersection, it just doesn't seem like a good plan to me. Legally questionable, possibly risky, and yet another argument to be thrown against us by drivers who feel the special sense of entitlement that comes with piloting a 3000+ pound machine. I'm all for being an assertive rider amongst the car traffic, but there are times I'm happy to just wait my turn.


  1. This comment will site local examples, so national readers may want to bow out now.

    Riding south from the Twinsburg line on St Rt 91, there is a "bike lane" through Hudson. Not much more than a marked 2 foot shoulder, but it's something. Conveniently or inconveniently depending on how you look at it, the lane ends at the Milddleton intersection and again in Hudson town center itself.

    Coming up to Middleton, I stay right as much as possible all the way to the light, regardless of traffic. Because the lane opens up again on the far side, I'm not in drivers' way very long.

    Riding into Hudson town center, the lane ends abruptly at the top of the small hill dropping into town. There's always traffic here, usually backed up and moving slowly. I take the lane at this point and remain in line until the bottom of the hill.

    At this point, since I'm turning left at the clock tower, I signal and ride LEFT of traffic on the centerline until the intersection. I continue to signal left until the light changes and I can make the turn safely. All the while traffic going straight moving by on my right.

    Again, these are very specific localized situations, but may be helpful to other cycling commuters.

    1. Funny -- I'm familiar with those bike lanes you're referring to. They have them on a number of the roads around Hudson -- and a lot of them, just as you describe, wind up ending in pretty inconvenient locations. Sounds like you've worked out a good system to get around though.

  2. If I am sitting at a stop light waiting to continue straight I will just wait where I am. Maybe if the shoulder is tight I will take the lane while I wait. If I'm going to make a left hand turn I may move to the front so all the cars can see me and know what my intention is. If I am a ways back and moving to the front is difficult I will take the lane and stay there until I make my turn.

    This brings up a point that I recently heard a non-cyclist make. They were noting that a street in DC had just installed a bike lane, and they were questioning the wisdom in doing so. They didn't know what the rules were in regards to driving with a bike lane. We all hoped that such information was now required before one could pass a driver's exam. But what about the rest of the drivers and cyclist on the road? How would they know what was the right way to cycle/ drive on the road together? We decided that PSA's would be the best way to make that happen. In my state they have PSA'a about wearing seat belts and I think everyone has seen, "The More You Know ", ads. Surely the message of how to share the road is equally as important?

    1. PSAs would be a good thing, wouldn't they? And I've been saying a lot that drivers' education courses NEED to include a thorough overview on how to share the road with cyclists. Heck, just some acknowledgement that we have the same rights to the road would be a good start. As a high school teacher, I occasionally ask my students (many of whom are either taking, or have recently taken their drivers' ed course) if their drivers' ed class had any info about bicycles -- and they tell me again and again that it's never even mentioned.

  3. That's really appalling, and it demonstrates just what a carcentric society we are! If you are going to install bike lanes wouldn't it make since to inform everyone as to their proper use? Of course it would. In the state of CT bike infrastructure is all but nonexistent, but we do now have the 3 ft passing law. The trouble is hardly anyone knows about it. Again the best way to get the message out would be PSA's. I guess I need to find some rich cyclist who can fund them.

  4. Same as you I take the lane and wait behind the car in front of me. I think it sends a positive message to the motorists. The other thing I notice is the procession of autos gets started so slowly I can easily keep up with the flow through the intersection and can then merge back over to the right once past the cross road.

    I used to fly right up to the front along the right when I was young and dumb. I still will if I am turning right at the intersection but I proceed up slowly and stop or do an Idaho pause if it's clear before turning.

  5. For me, it depends on the width of the road/shoulder. If the width is sufficient that cars can pass me without swerving (i.e. 3 foot buffer), then I'll proceed to the right of the cars when stopped. Otherwise, I'm taking the lane and waiting with traffic. When riding to the right of cars I slow down and watch diligently for cars pulling into my path. Here in Massachusetts bicycles are explicitly allowed to pass motor vehicles on the right.

    At a red light when riding up the right, I'll pull far enough forward to be seen by the lead car, unless the lead car is too far forward, in which case I'll pull adjacent to the gap between the lead and second cars and wait for the lead car to clear the intersection. On a green, I check for turn signals (though I don't count on them) and proceed cautiously, wary of right hooks. If I'm turning left, I'll either take the lane and wait with traffic, or when keeping right wait for a break and do a Copenhagen left, most often in situations where I can't keep up with traffic. I completely stop at stop signs (no Idaho stops allowed here), and wait my turn just as I would when driving. I use hand signals always when traffic is present.

    1. That all sounds pretty reasonable. Interesting that bikes are explicitly allowed to pass on the right in MA. Like I said, though -- laws are different all over. Thanks for the comments!

  6. I quite agree with your point. Cars are quite capable of and have hit me before when the only error I made was being on the road . So I'm darned if I'm going to break the law place and my self in a riskier position ..rarely do people driving large metal boxes drive any better when annoyed.

  7. On my commute there is one light that I always hit red. I know how the light is timed and slow down early so I don't have to put a foot down when i get to it. Here's where my caffeine addled grumpy morning mind makes things complicated. If a car passes me only to to wait in line behind the other cars stopped at said red light, i have no problem passing them (because their passing me was stupid and unnecessary) but will wait patiently behind the last car that passed as the light was turning yellow. I also have no problem passing cars on the right if I'm making a right hand turn at the coming intersection (like accyclist I live in CT where right on red is usually legal). Also in responce to accyclist's post, anecdotally, the worst violators of the three feet law are city and school bus drivers. This is perhaps because they are jaded but more likely because they are under trained. Most drivers, in my part of Connecticut at least (greater New Haven area), are very courteous.

  8. Here in NYC, the only sensible thing to do is to wait behind the car in front of me. Most streets have only one lane in each direction and, bike lane or not, there's little room for anyone--cyclists or motorists--to pass.

    Plus, as others have pointed out, drivers usually don't expect to see us to their right. (No political commentary is intended.)

    My practice is essentially what John Forester recommends in "Effective Cycling".

    1. I can't believe I didn't mention Forester's book. Thanks! His advice again and again is to follow the same rules that we follow in a car. Except that given how often I see drivers ignore the law, my alteration would be to follow the laws that cars are supposed to follow.

  9. Well.... it depends. On many things. The priority is to be safe, and don't be a problem. By that, I mean don't do dangerous things and especially don't do them because you have "the right of way".

    I ride in a variety of locations, rural US, rural UK, London, NYC, the French countryside.. all have their charms and dangers (not too many combine harvesters on 2nd Ave.)

    I've also ridden a motorcycle quite a bit, and while my hours on motorcycles is probably less than hours on bicycles, I won't live long enough to approach the miles. You see a lot of stupid stuff on a motorcycle. Stuff you might never notice in a car, or maybe even on a bicycle. It heightens your awareness of the idiots around you.

    I'd very rarely ride a motorbike up the inside of traffic - even where it's legal. Too risky. Maybe verrrrry slowly in certain situations, but rarely.

    For me, it's the same on a bicycle. I stay to the curb (I'm avoiding left/right as I often ride in countries that drive on the "other" side) and allow faster traffic to pass as easily as possible. When traffic slows for a light, I will either wait, or if space permits, ride to the outside of the lane and then to the front of the line, where I will cut back to the inside. That way, I'm closer to the drivers. Obviously, if the light is about to change ("stale") I just stay toward the curb and let the "slug" of cars go. If you are on a route where you keep leapfrogging cars - get another route.

    Bike lanes are great, many but car drivers are unaware of them and will turn without even a glance. You know that, so you anticipate it. Never overtake a vehicle at an intersection. They might, but not you.

    Rural drivers are another matter. Many are even older than me :-) They may not get out much, or have a very good grasp of the rules of the road. Bikes are an an annoyance and passing distance can be minimal. I see many older drivers whose vision is so poor they are afraid to give adequate space to a bicycle because they have no idea where their vehicle is within the lane. In rural roads, there's often not room for two cars to pass, or if there is, it's tight. These timid drivers will just come to a dead stop for another car (out of fear) but for a bicycle they just carry on down the middle of the road, having decided that we'll make enough space somehow. Often they don't even slow down very much. Ignorance can be deadly. My technique now is to also ride right down the middle of a lane (on a one-lane road) until the car gets quite close and I can tell they are slowing down. Then I move over to make space. Of course, I'm also ready to head for the hedge if they don't slow down, but in reality they are not homicidal - just ignorant.

    Be aware the greatest danger is often from the rear. Stopping in the lane behind a car can render you “invisible” to a driver behind who only sees the vehicle in front of you - especially at night (this has happened to me). But stopping by the curb can put you far enough out of the line of vision that a driver will pull up without leaving space and crowd or hit you. I think you need to be moving around, ideally wearing high-viz and with a flashing rear light. Wobble if you can - drivers are more careful around “bad” (wobbling) riders.

    I really don’t think you can have rules for this - you have to be safe as possible in each situation. That can change with the angle of the sun, the weather, the time of day, etc.

    1. I particularly like what you said at the end there -- to be as safe as possible in each situation. It's really important to be aware of the surroundings, and "read" the threats and react accordingly.

  10. I live in a southeastern college town with a lot of old-road bottlenecks. Generally I will wait in line with traffic, with one exception: a four-way stop with more than 4 cars waiting and room on the right. In that case, I will match speed with the second or third car and proceed just ahead of their front fender, in their vision, in case they are turning and forgot to signal. If I behave like the rest of the cars, I am generally waved through with exaggerated grandeur, which shouldn't bug me but does, in part because it confuses the other drivers in a way that makes me seem the cause. In my piggy-back version, though, nobody seems to notice, and everyone stays in their rhythm. Despite my best efforts, however, I have had other riders blow past me and the cars and through the four-way stop, which is just plain stupid and makes us all look bad. Ideally, one is in sync with a consistent group of daily commuters, but there's a new crop every year returning to bikes after last cruising the sidewalks of suburbia.

    1. Oddly enough (or maybe not so odd) I also get bugged about people trying to wave me through intersections. If someone else has the right of way, I want them to take it. The same as I expect to be given the right of way when it's mine.

      I see nothing wrong with "playing piggyback" by staying close to a car through an intersection, as long as you're aware and ready for them to make an unexpected stop or turn. On one hand, you may be invisible to other drivers -- but if you can stay close enough, it almost doesn't matter. They kind of run interference for you -- like a blocker. People might not see you, but they see the car you're tailing, and they're very unlikely to hit you. There are times/places where I take a similar approach. I'm reminded of Han Solo in Empire Strikes Back -- flying into that asteroid field, trying to avoid getting smashed by staying close to one of the big ones.

  11. Ha! Han Solo is a perfect model of that kind of defensive pragmatism. That's it, I'm using a car as a blocker. If I match their front tire, I have a good sense of their intentions, and they can see me, so far anyway.

    Come to think of it, Han Solo is a good model for the transportation cyclist overall, a kind of patron saint: alternately pouty, smug and grandiose; good reflexes; and constantly needing to tinker with his machine!

  12. It depends on the road, traffic conditions, etc. I ride in DC where most traffic lights now have leading intervals for the crosswalks (fancy transit term for saying they get the white walking signal a few seconds before the light goes green). Where they have cycletracks, riders are instructed to follow the crosswalk signs and not traffic signals. Anyway, the traffic is usually bumper-to-bumper and I'm almost always much faster than it so I will move up to the front. Sometimes I'll wait if I think it's safer.

    As for stop signs, totally agree on trying to parallel a car going straight. They become like an offensive tackle in football. I've even had some drivers seemingly wait for me at stop signs to let me do this. Those people rock because on more than one occasion I've seen people just drive through stop signs as if they didn't exist.