By Carlton Reid, Forbes Magazine, October 12, 2018
Photo: British cyclist "taking the lane", as advised in poster (inset) by UK Department for Transport-CARLTON REID
The simple answer to why cyclists ride in the middle of “traffic lanes” is because they are allowed and advised to take such actions.
Some motorists think roads were built for cars, and that people on bicycles are interlopers. Historically and legally, this is not the case: most global jurisdictions enshrine the right of bicyclists to enjoy the public highway – that is, to enjoy it in law if not always in reality. International traffic treatiesalso guarantee this basic right. Some bicycle advocates like to remind motorists that they and their motor vehicles are allowed on the road only under license while cyclists are allowed on the road by right.
As evidenced by the 2009 Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, U.S. bicyclists “may use [the] full lane,” but this doesn’t stop some motorists shouting that cyclists do not belong on roads.
The explicit “may use full lane” permission has a parallel across the Atlantic: the UK’s Department for Transport frequently tweets a graphic advising cyclists to “ride central on narrow roads.”
The simple answer to why cyclists ride in the middle of “traffic lanes” is because they are allowed and advised to take such actions. Here “traffic” means all traffic, not just motor traffic. British academic John Parkin’s new international design guide Designing for Cycle Traffic uses the phrase “cycle traffic” in the title and throughout, and he stresses that, in countries with high bicycle usage, similar terms are commonly used. So, for Danes, it’s cykeltrafik and Dutch people use the identical fietsverkeer.
But, given the antipathy that often results, why would cyclists want to ride in the center of the lane? It’s not to rile or delay motorists it’s simple self-preservation, says Professor Parkin.
“Riding prominently in the lane indicates to a driver approaching from behind that, for good reason, they should not overtake at that time. It could be that the cyclist is about to alter course to avoid something that the motorist cannot see.”
Additionally, he points out that gutter cycling can be problematic because of “rough surfaces, grates and debris.”
The gutter may also harbor potholes. These gouges may damage your car, but to bicyclists, they’re not just inconvenient, they’re potentially lethal. Cyclists are expert pothole-spotters – watch where they wiggle to take evasive action of your own, preventing costly damage to your car’s suspension.
What about bicyclists “blocking” the road even when the asphalt is butter-smooth? Take a look ahead. See any refuges placed smack bang in the middle of the road, and placed there to protect pedestrians? Every keen bicyclist knows that these islands can be death traps. Some motorists accelerate to overtake cyclists before these refuges, cutting in at the last second. To defend their space, some UK cyclists therefore take what’s known as the “primary position” in cyclist training parlance.
In the U.S. this lane-control manoeuver is known as “taking the lane.” It is cyclists’ semaphore for “don’t pass me; there’s an obstacle ahead.” Watch what cyclists do when they’ve passed the island: ninety-nine times out of a hundred they tuck back in, and the motorist can then safely overtake. When a cyclist “takes the lane” before such an upcoming obstacle it’s not a mark of arrogance, it’s a (risky) tactic to keep everyone safe.
Cyclists will also adopt the “primary position” to avoid being hit by motorists opening their car doors without looking, an affliction known as “dooring.”
“Cycle tracks will abound in Utopia,” wrote the War of the Worlds author H.G. Wells in 1905. Many Dutch cities and even some North American ones, such as Vancouver, are getting close to such pedaling perfection but most other places lag far behind and cyclists can’t yet ride to every desired location on protected cycleways. Instead, they often share roads with motorists who may feel that cyclists, if they are to be allowed on at all, should cling to the curb.
Bill Schultheiss, director of sustainable safety at Toole Design Group of Maryland, says the “vast majority of bicyclists do not want to ride in the lane with motor traffic, but by failing to provide safe, separated bikeways society has left them no choice.”
The co-author of the new Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, adds: “The reality is many roads are too narrow for a motorist to pass a bicyclist in the lane – motorists must partially or fully change lanes to pass bicyclists safely. Many cyclists are hit when motorists pass too close and most motorists have no understanding for how dangerous it is to pass a bicyclist closely or how aggressive and hostile that feels to the bicyclist, who is not protected by a steel cage.”
Despite a headline in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph of the UK, bicyclists do not “hog the road” – almost always, and quite sensibly, they allow drivers to pass when it is safe to do so because that’s the most courteous thing to do.
OK, so how about those cyclists who ride two abreast? That’s generally also perfectly legal. It’s allowed in the UK’s Highway Code, and there are similar statutes in state vehicle codes in the U.S.
Motorists – unless their automobiles concertina like Autobots from the Transformers movie – ride two abreast all of the time, even when driving solo.
“It is ironic that our road system is designed for the socialization of people in cars who sit side-by-side, yet our design manuals and codes try to force bicyclists to operate in single file,” argues Schultheiss. “This is against human socialization instincts. Of course, people will ride side-by-side – who would ever walk single file with their friend, spouse or child?”
Club cyclists, who often ride in groups, will ride two abreast to chat and will thin out when necessary, but two riders will often “take the lane” before road curves. It should be reasonably obvious why. Far too many motorists take bends, even blind ones, fast, and cyclists risk becoming roadkill when an overtaking driver realizes they’ve overcooked the corner and has to dive back in to avoid a head-on smash.
Cyclists often “take the lane” to save their lives, and possibly yours, too.
I am the Transport Journalist of the Year in the Press Gazette British Journalism Awards For Specialist Media 2018. I write about bicycles and research transport history books.
The original article can be found here.