Bike to Work 2: Where to Ride?

Posted by: Jan Heine Category: Cycling Safety, Rides

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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