Why is there a cyclist in the middle of the road? Aren't they supposed to ride to the right?
There are a number of reasons that a cyclist or group of cyclists may do what is commonly referred to as "taking the lane". Taking the lane is legal under certain circumstances which can make riding to the right hazardous and it is at the cyclists discretion what constituents a hazardous riding condition. Preparing to make a left turn is also a legally protected reason for a cyclist to take a lane. For the official legal language concerning riding to the right and taking the lane see C.V.C. 21202.
Common reasons for taking the lane include but are not limited to the following:
- The right shoulder of the road is often in the worst condition. Although cyclists are generally expected to ride there, often times when roads are repaved the right shoulder is skipped over. Large potholes, deep cracks, broken glass, and storm grates with openings wide enough to swallow bike tires are some of the things that can force cyclists further to the center of the lane. Bike tires are much thinner and at higher pressure than car tires so more care must be taken to avoid such obstacles when cycling. In a nutshell, when the road gets rough, cyclists need more clearance than usual to avoid hazards.
- When parallel parking is adjacent to the road, the region that a car door extends, known as the door zone, is an unpredictable and extremely hazardous area for cyclists to ride. Due to the prevalent nature of door related cycling injuries, which can even cause death if the fallen cyclist is pushed into oncoming traffic, most experienced cyclists will ride far enough left to be clear of the "door zone." This hazard is almost always the case when parallel parking lines the street, which is common throughout Los Angeles. Sometimes bike lanes are entirely within the door zone, an example of traffic engineering that encourages accidents. A fully open door can extend the hazard of a parked car by four feet into the roadway and often an exiting motorist opens without looking at all, or only a passing glance.
- Safety Lesson For Motorists: Please, please, for the love of God, look for oncoming traffic before opening your car door, and remember that cyclists are smaller and further to the right than oncoming cars, so look carefully. I've lost count of how many people who have nearly hit me, who were looking for something in the passenger seat with their right hand hand while they slammed their door open with the left. A door may seem like such a mundane object that you open without thinking about it, but carelessness can render it a potentially fatal weapon. Mindfulness is key here, wait until you have left your car for multitasking.
- Safety Lesson For Cyclists: Remaining clear of the door zone is a common reason that I will ride in the center of the lane, or to the far left of a bike lane when present, and doing so has prevented me from harm in numerous near miss door encounters. Never ride directly next to car doors, stay as far left as is comfortable. Motorists may be annoyed that they will have to go around you, but trust me, you do not want a door to launch you into oncoming traffic like a pin ball machine. I find it best to to find a good middle ground, being far enough right to not be too annoying to car traffic, potentially still within door range, but enough left that I give my self room for reaction time and to swerve if necessary. Here are some additional tips:
- Keep an eye out for the presence of a driver or passengers by looking through the rear windows of cars as you pass them, as this is an obvious clue that the door could open any moment.
- Use your ears. Listen for the click that always precedes the door coming open. Also helpful is being conscious of traffic behind you, so that if you need to suddenly move left to avoid a door, you are not placing your self into the path of an oncoming car.
- While we are talking about parked cars, also hazardous is a parallel parked car that pulls out suddenly. A subtle clue that this is about to happen is the wheel alignment of the car. If you see the wheels move or are angled toward the street, the car may exit the space at any moment.
- When a cyclist is moving at the speed of traffic they are no longer a slower moving vehicle and are no longer obligated to move to the right, regardless of road conditions. In this situation most cyclists will move to take the center of the lane so that they are more visible to other traffic. Most commonly this situation is when peak traffic congestion has slowed car movement to bicycle speeds or slower, or on downhills of sufficiently steep grade that a cyclist can move at the speed limit.
- When trying to make a left turn a cyclist is allowed to change lanes in order to move over to a left turning lane. To the inexperienced cyclist, this can be intimidating, so some cyclists use the cross walk to make turns. However, bikes are legally allowed to make left turns with other vehicles, regardless of what the gentleman harassing fellow cycling blogger Bike Girl, had to say on the matter.
- Safety Lesson For Cyclists: When making a turn, use proper hand signals to indicate to motorists your intention to turn. It's also best to learn the quick glance over the shoulder while holding a straight line, so that you can see cars behind you. Besides seeing the cars, this also communicates through body language a desire to move over in addition to the hand signal.
- Safety Lesson For Motorists: If you see a cyclist trying to get over to make a left, be patient and allow the cyclist some space. Keep in mind that cyclists are expected to ride to the far right until it is time to turn, unlike a car which can enter the left lane long before a turn is made in anticipation. If you are close behind the cyclist it may make more sense to pass, but try to be sure the cyclist is aware of your intention before accelerating. Be aware of the hand signals above, it is required knowledge for a drivers license, and should your turn signals break, you are required to hand signal until the problem is fixed.
- When the lane is too narrow for a car to safely pass a cyclist, known as a substandard lane width, this is another instance where a cyclist is allowed to take the lane. In such a case, a motorist is expected to wait until it is safe to merge to the next lane and pass. Typically this is more the case with smaller side streets than main through ways. Cyclists often plan routes incorporating side streets to avoid heavy car traffic. However as the main through ways of the city crowd beyond capacity more motorists are taking side streets and expecting to drive at through way speeds in spite of the road not being designed for such a use. I see this a lot on certain very narrow stretches of Franklin with street parking, just North of often packed streets like Hollywood Blvd & Sunset. This is an inevitable problem as outdated roads are repurposed for new uses and population growth continues pushing more traffic. It may be easy to blame the cyclist for delay in such a case, but it's a complex issue that is not going to be easily solved, especially with dwindling budgets for infrastructure improvements.
Keep in mind, that although these are quite a number of valid reasons for a cyclist to take the lane, it generally constitutes a small proportion of a cyclists miles. We're just trying to get where we're going in one piece, and most cyclists will gladly give ample passing room as soon as it is safe to do so.
I've often confronted confusion about bicycles in the road, and I hope these points have answered some questions or given some helpful advice, wether you are a cyclist, a motorist, or both. This information comes both from reading safety literature, and my thousands of miles of experience cycling the streets of Los Angeles, with an occasional car trip in there too. Ride safe, drive safe, and keep the good times rolling.
(Click for the first post in the Bicycle & Automobile Coexistence series.)