Sharing the Road
I am a big fan of any method of educating drivers about how to interact with bikes on the road. Unfortunately, education is not only a two way street, it will never overcome the root of the problems that exist when cars and cyclists are sharing infrastructure that has become increasingly focused on moving cars through at the expense of every other legal road usage. Unlike many cyclists, I don’t really like this, but I understand it, and while I continue to lobby and advocate bike infrastructure, I am also in the camp that says to the cyclists, deal with it, respect the cars and get on with it. That is what this article is about, not about making the cars share the roads with us, but instead, it is how we as cyclists can responsibly share the road with the cars that surround us.
Keep in mind, what follows is purely opinion based upon years of cycling, not quite as many years driving and even fewer years motorcycling in and around the southeastern US. Take this with whatever amount of salt you need. That said, I have started and stopped this post probably a dozen times in the last two years, because I know just how contentious this subject can get. So, let’s get into this, and have some fun.
Playing with a Deck Stacked Against You
If you have been in the cycling community for any period of time, you have already seen the arguments amongst cyclists. There are the cyclists that believe that all cyclists should do everything in their power to make the cars comfortable and make it easy for the cars to deal with bikes on the roads. The polar opposite group lives by the rules that they have the right to the road and by god, they are going to take that right, possibly to their grave. There are various sub groups that sit in between these two extremes, but for the most part they gravitate towards an end of the spectrum, with not much in the middle.
At either end of the spectrum, and at the various points in between, there is a premise that how drivers react towards cyclists is in some way dictated by our actions towards them. That premise assumes that there is a rational and conscious thought about the behavior of a cyclist on the roads, and that may well be an invalid assumption. Consider a different assumption. Consider that the average driver will slow to a near stop and proceed with caution around a dog, deer, duck or turtle in the road, but when it comes to a cyclist, there is annoyance, and a different set of choices. Some drivers will slow to the bikes pace and wait for a safe pass, some will be terrified and refuse to pass, others will make a reckless pass, and still others will never even slow down, perhaps not even consciously registering the presence of the bike. This might lead you to think that many drivers view cyclists lives as having less value than a turtle. I do not think this is the case at all.
What might this behavior indicate? perhaps, it plays into the subconscious nature. Cyclists are seen as ‘intelligent creatures’ capable of making rational decisions. The choice to ride a bike on a road seems so stupid to many drivers that they rationalize away the value of that life because that cyclist is an idiot. Only at that point do our behaviors impact the thought process, with only the negative actions being retained in order to support the classification, and dehumanization of cyclists as ‘idiots’.
Looking at it objectively, for most drivers, a road is about a car or truck. Our culture reinforces this thought process. Suburban sprawl has simply dictated that for many people you cannot ‘go anywhere without a car’. It has reached such a deeply rooted idea that a car is now deemed a necessity for many people. They cannot fathom life without getting in the car to go anywhere. Our laws had been evolving towards that idea as well, but recent changes are supporting more alternative means of transportation.
That said, the deck remains stacked against alternative transportation options, and since cycling is still viewed as a primarily recreational activity, any cyclist on the roads wearing any type of cycling gear is automatically deemed to be doing for recreation. How stacked is that deck? Cyclists already know the answer, but it boils down to enforcement. Legally we have all sorts of rights on the roads, but without enforcement, those legal rights amount to nothing but lip service.
Being Right Does Not Trump Injured or Dead
I see a lot of cyclists out on the road, riding with a chip on the shoulder about what rights they have under the law. In most of the US, cyclists have a lot of rights on the roads. We have the right to the lane, we have the right to ride two abreast, we have the right to 3 feet of space from any vehicle passing us. As far as the law is concerned, we are vehicles and that confers every right of the road to us that a car has, in addition the ones above that are specifically granted to us as cyclists. There are some other rights that we specifically lose, like riding on the sidewalks (a bad idea anyways), but so be it. We have these rights, which is great, but in the spirit of sharing the road, sometimes we need to shelve our rights in favor of sharing. Just because you can ride two abreast doesn’t mean you should do it anytime it strikes your fancy. Just because you have the right to the lane doesn’t mean that you can’t share the road and let cars pass when there is space, and a safe. When cyclists fail to share the road, it is often argued that we escalate the issue. We expect the cars to share with us, we need to return the favor.
At least that is one version. You will hear it from both cyclists and drivers, and it resonates with both at a rational level. The question is, does it translate out on the road. The flip-side argument is that if you are NOT sharing the road, you make it far more difficult to be passed in a dangerous manner, far more difficult for most of the common bicycle/vehicle interactions to take place.
This is a very complex issue. One that warrants a deeper discussion, and presentation. It is easy to speak in generalities, but a graphic illustration of the issues may offer more insight.
In this image, you see an intersection that is a fairly common layout. We have travel lanes, two in each direction. We have turn lanes for both right and left turns in both directions. We have no bike specific infrastructure in place. Why are we looking at this intersection? because it provides us with an excellent opportunity to examine the realities of our rights, versus our safety and perhaps form a better understanding for what constitutes a best practice.
Where do you want to be?
In the picture, you see a yellow circle that represents the most commonly advocated position for a bicycle. It fits the “As Far Right As Possible” positioning. It is out of the flow of traffic, and is the epitome of sharing the road from the car perspective. In this position, you are out of the way, and pose the least immediate risk to the car. In the picture, you will also see a red circle that represents the opposition positioning. This positioning places you not only in the lane, but directly in the line of sight for a driver. Some refer to this as Vehicular Cycling, and believe it represents the safest place to be. Due some vague wording in bicycle law in most states, there is a case for this being within the letter of the law, however, not many law enforcement agencies will support this opinion. The orange circle in the picture represents the compromise location, as it sits to the right, but remains in the lane of travel. So, let us look at each individual position and understand the pro and con of each.
Vehicular Cycling Position ( Red Circle )
The obvious pro is visibility. The other big benefit of this location is that it discourages another vehicle from passing the cyclist in the same lane. The biggest drawback is that it places the rider truly in traffic and of all the places to be on the road, it is the one that irritates drivers the most, and is best practiced on roads where there is an additional lane for passing as is shown here.
FRAP Cycling Position ( Yellow Circle )
Well out of the way, this is most often presented as the safest place to be. Clearly out of the flow of traffic, and out of the lane itself, this positioning creates a sense of safety. The unfortunate con here is that the sense of safety for both driver and cyclist is probably a false sense of safety. There are a couple of reasons. The cyclist is now in a section of pavement that is usually littered with hazards. Gravel, glass, nails, sand, and any other bit of detritus that finds its way onto the road surface and then blown to the edge by the passage of the cars. Then there is the out of sight, out of mind phenonmena.
Compromise Position ( Orange Circle )
While still in the lane, the cyclist is far enough right that a driver can pass with prudence, while still having room to escape left or right. Visisbility is not as good as the Vehicular Cycling placement, the overall location provides many benefits.
Look again at the picture, and consider what happens in the coming 100 feet of road. Presume that the cyclist is travelling straight through the intersection. A car is approaching the intersection in conjunction with the cyclist, and consider how the two vehicles will interact.
The Right Hook
One of the most common interactions between bike and car is the dreaded right hook. If you aren’t familiar with the term, it is when a car passes a cyclist on the left, only to immediately turn right in front of the cyclist. It is a lethal combination, because the driver typically underestimates the velocity of the bicycle, overestimates the speed they will take the turn, and because they are now blind to the impact, all to often the cyclist ends up under the rear wheels. In the yellow FRAP position, this is an impossible to avoid likelyhood. Drivers simply aren’t conditioned to check the right side of the vehicle when turning right, and by not being in the travel lane, the driver did not have to move out to go around, further reducing the awareness of that cyclist being there in the blind spot. In the red Vehicular Cycling position the driver has had to go around the cyclist on the left, and because of the need to fully change lanes, most drivers will avoid that. The danger here is the undertake on the right, which is probably safer than the alternative. The orange Compromise position still allows for the right hook, but forces the driver to move around the cyclist increasing awareness, and reducing the likelihood. It still happens, but less often.
The Left Cross
The other common interaction here is the Left Cross. When an oncoming vehicle makes a left turn in front of a cyclist at a cross road. In this instance, at the signal. If a cyclists maintains the aforementioned road positions, the yellow FRAP position is quite simply not in the area of the road that driver expects to see a traffic threat, and is easily overlooked. At least with the other two positions, the cyclists is in an expected lane of travel and has a reasonable expectation of being seen. People may still misjudge speed, or fail to actually see what they look at, but that is the same threat these drivers present to other cars too.
This one happens when cars pass from behind, and I think the lane positions speak for themselves as to the pros and cons of each in this interaction.
What about the other cases though? When a cyclist need to turn left at the light, how do lane positions impact that? What is the safest manner to procceed? These are a deeper discussion still. One that can be discussed in another post.
What is the best lane position?
So this is the big crux and question, where should you ride on the road. The answer is, where you feel the most comfortable and safest, because in the end, where you are positioned is a distant second in terms of safety on the roads. The most important aspect of riding safely on the roads has every thing to do with How you ride on the roads. The key is to ride predictably, and your choice of positioning may be dictated by that. It is hard to be predictable when riding in the edges of the road where shoulders and debris make a consistant line impossible, so that may dictate road placement. Moving in and out of the lane can have some of the same impact.
Let me go on a tangent. Predictability is about communication. Since we cannot talk or shout our intentions, we have to telegraph our intent through body and hand signals. While hand signals are common, they are also not understood very well by those who don’t use them. Perhaps when we are making a move we want a car to see, we exaggerate it. I will commonly sit up, and flip the bike dramatically out of the lane to signal to a driver that I want them to pass me, so that I can the safely reenter the lane when it is safe to do so.
Is there a consensus best practice? no. Cyclists have been, and will continue to argue this forever. Legally, there is not a clear answer, so it is on us to choose a position. My argument, is that the safest place to be is in the compromise position, and to ride predictably there. Popping in and out of the lane often may give the drivers the illusion that you are giving them safe spaces to pass, but all you are doing is making them hope they can predict your movements. Vehicular cycling puts you too far away from your escape vectors when someone just can’t figure it out. That means, in order to meet the goals of being visible, predictable and escapable, we have to find a predictable line in the right hand third of the lane without hugging the shoulder and fighting with the hazards that exist there, so in the above picture, where would I ride? Orange circle every single time.
Being aware of the traffic around you is to your benefit, and mirrors may help you. I don’t use them, I prefer to turn my head as it is more obvious to a driver that I am looking and aware of them. That also means headphones and on the road cycling are a serious non starter. Our ears are our second best tools for road awareness. Plugging them with music dramatically reduces our ability to hear what is coming from behind us. That presumes we are listening though. Cameras, however are great items, less for times during the ride, but all about the close calls. You can use that video evidence to report them, or you can simply publicly shame them on Youtube. Your choice. I generally choose to do neither unless it is a case of exceptional stupidity.