Claim the Lane

“Claim the Lane” is a term given to the action of cycling in the center of a traffic lane rather than on the right shoulder. This makes is so that motor vehicles cannot pass you. It is considered, by this author, to be the hardest thing to learn about bicycle commuting because it is counter-intuitive.

Your natural reaction to cars passing you too closely is to move further out of their way. This will often move you too close to parked cars or into rough roads or debris, all of which are hazardous. When you feel that cars a squeezing you as they pass, move your line to the left into the lane. What will likely happen is that drivers, because they are more likely to notice you will slow down and change lanes to pass you. If there is not room to pass you, they will just wait until you get out of their way. This will sometimes upset drivers, but if you have the opportunity to chat with them at a stop light, they often will understand and will then be less aggressive towards other cyclists in the future.

Legally, most states allow cyclists to “claim the lane” in specific circumstances. Luckily, the language is generally vague enough that you should feel comfortable riding in the center of the lane when you feel it is prudent. In California the law states:

21208. (a) Whenever a bicycle lane has been established on a roadway
pursuant to Section 21207, any person operating a bicycle upon the roadway at a
speed less than the normal speed of traffic moving in the same direction at that
time shall ride within the bicycle lane, except that the person may move out of
the lane under any of the following situations:

(1) When
overtaking and passing another bicycle, vehicle, or pedestrian within the lane
or about to enter the lane if the overtaking and passing cannot be done safely
within the lane.

(2) When preparing for a left turn at an
intersection or into a private road or driveway.

(3) When
reasonably necessary to leave the bicycle lane to avoid debris or other
hazardous conditions.

(4) When approaching a place where a right
turn is authorized.

(b) No person operating a bicycle shall leave
a bicycle lane until the movement can be made with reasonable safety and then
only after giving an appropriate signal in the manner provided in Chapter 6
(commencing with Section 22100) in the event that any vehicle may be affected by
the movement.

The key language here is “When reasonably necessary to leave the bicycle lane to avoid debris or other hazardous conditions.” I consider cars buzzing by me at high speeds and parked cars that might open doors in front of me (a major cause of accidents) to be “hazardous conditions.” So I am reasonably comfortable with my legal position when I take the lane. I suggest you research the laws in your state and make your own determination of their legality.

Many cyclists don’t like term “claim the lane” because the word ‘claim’ implies that the road does not already belong to the cyclist. The term “Controlling the Lane” has been bandied about but, frankly, it doesn’t rhyme, which seems to be an important part of slogans. I believe that slogan does a lot toward empowering cyclist to be aware of the law and what makes them safe on the roadways.