Riding the Streets

Since I started commuting by bike in March 2007, I've spent a lot of time reading blogs and articles (not to mention writing articles for this blog) in order to better understand how to ride safely and to better enjoy cycling. There are many different opinions on what is "the safest" way to ride in traffic; there are also many things that everyone agrees on. Recently, all of the info I had read and received, conflicting ideas all sort of...clicked. In that moment I knew what I believe to be the safest way for me to ride.

I'll be honest, this riding style requires lots of confidence in your riding and awareness for what is going on around you. Luckily those are two of the three things you need to never end up in an accident (the third, and maybe most important is luck).

I've written before about a riding style called "claim the lane." My new style is derived from claiming the lane, but goes a full step further by controlling the lane once it has been claimed. This style is specifically designed for riding on single lane streets (especially narrow ones) without bike lanes that allows street parking. (Most of my riding around my home is on this type of road.)

Before we get too far into this, I want to discuss the three sections of a lane you can ride in and when each is appropriate. The left side of the lane is where you go to make left turns. The only other time I can see getting that far over is to get around something blocking the lane (I often have to go around garbage trucks emptying dumpsters in the morning). The most logical section for riding in is the right side of the lane. This is where California law says that you should ride. There are, however, exceptions: you can leave the right side of the lane to turn left, get out of a right turn only lane or if the right side of the lane is "unsafe". This last one is not very clear on a definition so I, and many other riders take a pretty wide definition of unsafe. I only ride on the right side of the lane if the lane is wide, smooth, free of debris and there are no cars parked on the curb. If any of those are the case, I move to the middle of the lane.

CA law says that you can ride in the middle of the lane (with all the rights and responsibilities of motor vehicles) if it is unsafe to be on the right side of the lane. I ride in the middle of the lane if the lane is so narrow that I am not comfortable with cars passing me. Similarly, I choose the center of the lane if there is debris (tree branches, rocks, broken glass, etc.) or if the road is not in good condition (which is often the case near the gutter). More importantly, though, is that I move to the middle if there are cars parked on the side of the road. This is to avoid being "doored." Being "doored" means having someone open a driver-side door in front of you and can be really dangerous if you are traveling at even just a decent speed. (A significant number of bicycle collisions and injuries come from being "doored.")

Now that you are riding in the middle of the lane, this is where your confidence and awareness will come in (hopefully luck has been with you all along). Here, you have to be confident enough to control both the lane and traffic. This means being aware of where cars and traffic signals are. When I am in the middle of the lane I keep an eye on my rearview mirror to know when cars are coming up behind me. When they do, I signal that I am in the middle of the lane and that I am not comfortable with them passing me (arm extended diagonally toward the ground on the left, hand open, palm facing the car). When I am comfortable being passed (if the lane widens up or there is a section without parked cars), I pull to the right side of the lane and wave cars past me (arm extended out to the left, sweeping forward). This allows cars to know that it is safe to pass you and that you are aware of their presence and want both of your journeys to be as safe and as fast as possible. I've noticed that cars will often speed up to pass you quickly once you wave them past, which is good if you don't have a long window to let cars through. Also remember that if too many cars build up behind you it is polite to just pull over and stop and let them all by (I believe CA law requires you to pull over once five cars are behind you).

Whenever I approach a stoplight or stop sign I move to the center of the lane. This makes you more visible to vehicles that approach you from either direction and gets you out of the way of any vehicles that want to make a right turn (just because you have to sit at a light doesn't mean they should have to). When I approach a stop that has cars lined up I have to decide whether to move to the center and wait in line or ride past the line of cars up to the limit line at the intersection. Here is the criteria I use to make that decision. First, if I have waved any cars past me, I stay behind that car. If they were considerate enough to wait until I felt comfortable letting them past, I will be considerate and not make them pass me again. The only exception is when I don't think they will have a chance to keep up with me. There is a part of my commute that is through an area with a lot of traffic and I pass cars there because cycling through it is about five times faster than driving. Next I figure out if riding up to the front is likely to back up traffic. If road conditions mean that I am going to jump right back to the middle of the lane after the intersection and make cars wait to pass me, I'll just wait at my spot in the line. Finally, I take into account the speed limit on the street, if it is significantly higher than I can ride I just wait my turn. Otherwise, I generally move up to the front of the line (I consider it a 'perk' of bicycling).

When you are at or approaching a signal remember that CA law give you both the rights and responsibilities of motor vehicles. This includes stopping and waiting at stop signs and stop lights. There have been reports that California (or some cities in CA) might be considering a variation on a liberal set of cycling laws used in Idaho. In Idaho bicycles are only required to yield at stop signs and are allowed to treat stop lights as stop signs when safe to do so. I happen to think that this would a welcome change to the law that would encourage more people to commute by bicycle.

Finally, a reminder that this method is designed for single lane streets without a bike lane. If there is a bike lane, you should probably be there instead. And do whatever you can to stay off the sidewalks. They are dangerous for you and pedestrians.

-Matt the weatherman

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