Bike to Work 2: Where to Ride?

Bike to Work 2: Where to Ride?

Many cyclists wonder whether it is safer to ride to the very right of the road – out of the way of cars – or whether they should “take the lane” and ride in the middle of the lane as if they were a car.
The answer is: “It depends on your speed.” If you are going roughly as fast as the cars surrounding you, you should “take the lane.” (If there is no traffic at all, then you definitely should “take the lane”.)
Being in the middle of the street makes you more visible, especially for cars coming out of side streets. Cars also won’t pass you and then cut you off as they turn right. Since your speed is the same as that of the cars around you, you aren’t holding up traffic.
In the photo above, I am riding down a steep hill, and I am taking the lane. The city has painted “sharrows” on the road to encourage me to do so. The sharrows also legitimize my being in the lane, which is important as it affects how drivers react. Rather than being perceived as an “uppity cyclist,” I am simply following the rules.
If you are going much slower than other traffic, it is best to stay out of the way as much as safely possible. For the uphill side of this steep street, the city installed a bike lane. Cyclists travel slowly uphill and can stop quickly if a car cuts in front of them, or if traffic exiting a side street does not see them. Taking the lane in this situation would greatly inconvenience faster traffic and provide few advantages.
Kudos to the City of Seattle for this inspired piece of traffic design, even if it came about because there isn’t enough room for two bike lanes on this street.
The same reasoning applies to route selection. If you are riding slowly, you most likely will be safer and more comfortable on small neighborhood streets (above). Here, you can “take the lane” to be more visible, and you still can stop if this becomes necessary.
However, if you ride fast, you are probably safer on a main street that has the right-of-way at most intersections. Take the lane, and your trip will not just be more efficient, but also safer.
For me, this means that in hilly Seattle, I use different streets for the same routes, depending on my direction of travel:

  • For uphills, I prefer the quiet neighborhood streets.
  • When going downhill, I stay on the bigger “arterials” as much as possible.

How do you select the safest routes in your city?

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Comments (26)

  • Alexander

    Brilliant piece, Jan, which represents a very balanced position on a number of controversial issues. The solution found in Seattle is in fact quite smart, although I fear that re-entering the street at the end of the bike lane will be more dangerous than staying on the street in the first place, since on the lane you have disappeared from the drivers vision. Here in Germany for us Randonneurs the high number of newly built bike lanes/bike pathes along even quite small roads (as well as in the city) are in fact an annoyance, since they do not allow for efficient cycling and in fact create new dangerous spots, particularly (as you mention) on downhills. Here in Germany it is mandatory to use existing bike lanes/pathes. This results in car drivers going mad if you do not use the existing (so expensive!) bike infrastructure. I have witnessed a lot of situations close to fist-fights.
    I can see the point, as you mention, that slow cyclists, like elderly and kids want be apart from traffic. For them also we as fast cyclists are a menace on the bike lane. This (two very different kinds of bike riders) is a point that is largely ignored in the general discussion about “Copenhagenizing”. We urgently need your voice (and the voice of all Randonneurs) in this discussion.
    Austria has found a good compromise (§ 67 of their traffic code, as far as I remember): if you demonstrate your willingness to exercise (e.g. by wearing a jersey and riding a race bike ;-), no kidding) you don´t have to use the bike path.
    Back to your question: I bought a slower transportation bike for the city and try to discipline myself to go much slower than I could within the city in order to be able to stop also for grannies, kids and dogs. In the small streets, as shown in the picture, narrow with cars on both sides I definitely take the whole lane and go fast to not hold up cars traffic. Good intervall training. For European readers: join the campaign for a mandatory 30 km/h speed limit in cities!

    May 8, 2013 at 2:03 am
  • Daniel

    Kudos to you for recognizing when to take the lane when you can roughly match the general traffic speed. That’s my policy.
    I’d rather have bicycle lanes than sharrows but in a city designed long ago with no thoughts of bicycles I’d rather have those then nothing.
    I commute on the heaviest traveled bike routes in the Boston area. Yesterday I rode in a posse of up to 40 riders. The road has a mix of sharrows and bicycle lanes and I’m happy to not be stuck in the car traffic.

    May 8, 2013 at 3:59 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      On downhills, being in a bike lane actually is quite dangerous, since you are far to the side, and not easy to spot for traffic coming out of side streets.

      May 8, 2013 at 6:55 am
      • Daniel

        Agreed. That heavily traveled bike route does not traverse hilly country – most of it is rather flat. I’m personally aware of only one bike lane on a steep hill. That street is well traveled by cars with numerous side streets. I sometime climb that hill but rarely descend it but see your point. I always take the lane on steep hills but will be considerate to faster moving vehicles when safe.

        May 8, 2013 at 10:24 am
  • dvenable

    Everyone reading this, if they have not already, should open a car door and look at how far out they have to be to not be hit by it. There is now way a bike can go down that street without impeding car traffic.
    I live in a small city that does not allow parking on the arterial streets.

    May 8, 2013 at 4:29 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      You make a good point – it is imperative to stay out of the “door zone” when riding in a bike lane. This usually means staying far to the left (inside) of the bike lane. Many cyclists try to stay as far away from passing traffic as possible, without realizing that this is not safe.

      May 8, 2013 at 6:57 am
    • Andrew Squirrel

      Its also good to remember that even cyclists sometimes forget to check the mirror before throwing a door open. I’ve been doored twice in Seattle and both drivers, obviously horrified of their actions, claimed to avid cyclists. I know personally I’ve almost doored a cyclist early in the morning while I was still a bit groggy, I felt ashamed the entire day and vowed to use my right hand to open the door from now on.

      May 8, 2013 at 12:48 pm
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        I think the best practice is to stay out of the door zone if at all possible. Yes, drivers should look before opening the door, but it’s not that hard to give parked cars enough room for a door that swings open.

        May 8, 2013 at 2:48 pm
  • Jim Gustafson

    I commute daily and choose the route that makes sense based on the weather, time of day and how I feel. Normally, early morning to work (6 – 7am) the streets are more empty and I can be less bothered by heavy traffic. During the morning I can relax more and enjoy the ride more. Returning home after work (5 – 6pm) more drivers are jockeying for positions in traffic and don’t seem to see a bike rider as easily. I’ve got to be very defensive and watch out for drivers that will cut me off pulling out in front of me and diving in ahead of me. It may be easy for them to associate a bike with slow and I’m traveling faster than they expect. This week my wife and I almost witnessed a very bad car/motorcycle accident because the motorcycle went around us (to the left) to pass and a car waiting to turn left (from the right) pulled out. Fortunately, she stopped in time and the guy on the motorcycle swerved. He made it by inches.

    May 8, 2013 at 11:08 am
  • RickH

    I agree with all you have noted as this relates tot he most practical use of the roads, common sense.
    It is also pleasing to see that the road designers have implemented a common sense approach to cyclists use of the roads where it matters.

    May 8, 2013 at 3:24 pm
  • Mike Arciero

    Bike lanes are certainly problematic at best, and often dangerous- intersections, door zones, etc. The other thing is that the existence of bike lanes can have the effect of eroding cyclists rights and on the road, either directly through mandated use, or indirectly as motorists feel excused from extending consideration or right of way. Many municipalities have provisions in the law for leaving the bike lane when it is prudent to do so, but motorists often feel that cyclists dont belong anywhere else.

    May 8, 2013 at 6:17 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I feel that on-street bike lanes are fine, if they are wide enough. As a rider, I can leave them quickly when it is unsafe to ride so close to the side of the road.

      May 8, 2013 at 6:23 pm
  • marmotte27

    “If you are going much slower than other traffic, it is best to stay out of the way as much as safely possible”.
    I’m not really at ease with this part of your article: Staying out of the way when slower than cars is something that can be very detrimental to the cyclist as it encourages motorists to pass the cyclist even when it’s not safe to do so, like squeezing through between the cyclist and an oncoming vehicle at 80 km/h or squeezing by before another kind of tight spot on the road, before turning etc. etc.
    You add ‘as is safely possible’: I’d say, it is very often not safely possible, on the contrary, I find more and more that I should be quite assertive in claiming my place on the road, demanding the consideration that motorist are very rarely prepared to give voluntarily, to be able to really ride safely. By riding quite a bit further a out than I did in the past, I find I can quite often dissuade motorists from the kind of dangerous behaviour described above.
    To cite John Franklin “Good road positioning is not about keeping you out of the path of other traffic as much as possible.”I don’t mean to imply we should hamper traffic more than necessary, but that’s the frame of mind that’s really helpful in finding and claiming one’s place on the road.

    May 9, 2013 at 7:19 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I wholeheartedly agree with you.
      Note the “safely” before “possible.” When the lane is too narrow to share with a car, then staying on the right is not safe. But if the lane is wide enough, then there is no need to “take the lane” and force cars to stay behind you grinding up a hill at 6 mph.
      In general, I observe the same thing as you do: Too many cyclists “hug the curb” rather than think about where it is safest to ride.

      May 9, 2013 at 7:47 am
    • Doug Peterson

      I think it’s important to note that taking the lane reflexively and as a matter of course is probably not appropriate. If I am able to ride out of the main traffic lane safely, I try to do so. For example, if a rural highway has a shoulder, I almost always ride in it. Of course, it takes experience and skill to be able to make the right call in the right situation.

      May 9, 2013 at 10:52 am
  • Kathryn

    Thank you for your posts on bike safety. The bike lane you refer to in the picture functions as the safety zone for opening car doors, regardless its intended purpose.

    May 9, 2013 at 7:23 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The lane is wide enough that you can stay clear of opening doors. You are right, though, that the right half of the bike lane should not be considered safe for cyclists.

      May 9, 2013 at 7:48 am
  • GuitarSlinger

    The answer to the question depends on the city/town you’re riding in . Here in Denver with miles of bike lanes , an extensive bike path system all over the city/suburbs as well as a much higher than average bicycle awareness amongst motorists … one can ride almost anywhere one wants … within reason of course . Whereas having lived in KCMO where bike lanes/paths are almost nowhere to be found and the only genuine bicycle awareness the majority of motorists seem have is to aim their vehicles straight at you ( they do the same to M/C riders … even those on Harley’s despite the factory just north of town … so Two Wheels Bad in KCMO ) riding almost anywhere was a risk barely worth taking

    May 9, 2013 at 11:06 am
  • John Duval

    For most of us flatlanders, we are mostly going too fast to hang at the right, and too slow to not have some conflicts taking the lane. On my commute, traffic lights tend to gang most cars in bunches, so I go slow and to the right until they clear, then hammer to the next light. Giving a wave to let cars pass when you get a safe spot builds a good karma too.
    It is better to get honked than to get doored or squeezed, so being assertive is essential.

    May 9, 2013 at 11:14 pm
  • Jon Webb

    I disagree. The decision to take the lane does not depend on traffic speed. Taking the lane is a strategy for reducing your chance of getting side-swiped. It is not a matter of how much you might inconvenience drivers.
    I take the lane in situations where it is likely that I may be buzzed by drivers trying to get around traffic in the other driving lane (on roads where there are two lanes in my direction). Otherwise, I’ve found that drivers will frequently pull from the fast lane and accelerate in my lane, sometimes giving me only inches as they go by. If I take the lane this simply does not happen.
    I’ll take it less frequently when there is only one driving lane in my direction, usually only in situations where I’ve been buzzed in the past by drivers trying to ease by me when there’s traffic in the opposite direction — especially if I recognize a driver who’s done this in the past (I did this this morning with a school bus driver who previously passed me with a foot to spare on an uphill — this morning, with me taking the lane, he crossed the double yellow line, as he should, and gave me lots of space.)
    I would never take the lane indiscriminately, as I recognize the trade-off with slowing down traffic. But is is not right to base your decision solely on whether you can keep up with however fast drivers want to go. Taking the lane is a defensive technique that you should use to try to increase your safety, in situations where giving drivers the chance to ease past you is dangerous.

    May 10, 2013 at 5:58 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I totally agree with your technique – take the lane when it’s not safe to ride to the side of the road. Obviously, this depends on the width of the road – if it very wide, you can share the lane with cars. But even then, once I approach the speed of traffic, I find it safer to take the lane.

      May 10, 2013 at 6:36 am
  • InvisibleHand

    The precise threshold of when to take the lane versus laterally share is difficult to describe since it is dependent on several things. For what it’s worth, I’ve seen people argue over “differences” but virtually ride in an identical manner. So I agree with Jan’s language of “safely” before “possible” since it’s all predicated on actively thinking about what is safe. In large, I find that if a rider is familiar with the literature and actively thinks about safe positioning, then conditions on the environment and their own speed, they typically pick a very similar location.

    May 10, 2013 at 8:47 am
  • Robert Cooper

    Three things to consider: Safety (yours), civility and legality. In New York State, where I live, we have an MBL (mandatory bike lane) law.
    However, your safety trumps the other two values, and many of our bike lanes are painted entirely within the Door Zone.
    My favorite place to ride in an urban setting is on a four-lane boulevard with narrow lanes, without a bike lane and without a shoulder. Those factors make my presence in the lane easier for others to understand, thus solving the civility issue. There being no bike lane solves the legality issue. I just ride down the middle of the lane that serves my destination and other traffic flows around. Like this:
    The day may come when painting bike lanes on the street will encourage smart cyclists to use another street. Ironic.

    May 13, 2013 at 3:26 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      When I lived in Germany, where the bike paths are mandatory, and part of the sidewalk, I had a mental map of the city, so I could avoid streets with bike paths.
      Fortunately, in Washington State, the bike lanes are not mandatory, which encourages the municipalities to design them in a way that riders will actually want to use them. Overall, the bike facilities in Seattle really are well-designed.

      May 13, 2013 at 9:01 pm
  • Wayne Pein

    “Take the lane” implies stealing. “Control the lane” is more descriptive.
    Rather than painting a Door Zone Bike Lane, the space should have been left unstriped. The city dupes bicyclists into believing that the bike lane is safe. Without striping, motorists would also display more caution in passing bicyclists due to the ambiguity of shared space.

    May 17, 2013 at 12:49 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I am not sure. The bike lane provides a “no-go/no park” space. About 2/3 of that is the door zone, which I avoid. That leaves 1/3 of the bike lane for me to cycle.
      Unfortunately, most cyclists prefer to ride in the door zone, thinking it safer because it is further away from “dangerous” cars.

      May 17, 2013 at 1:08 pm

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