Bike Safety Tips for Urban Cycling: Navigate Changing Lanes

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Learn basic bike safety tips for effective cycling in urban areas and within traffic.
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“Effective Cycling” will help owners of bicycles dusty from disuse become active cyclists and veteran cyclists improve their techniques and achieve their cycling goals. Each section moves from basic to advanced topics; readers are encouraged to get on a bicycle and practice each activity after reading about it.

Effective Cycling is an essential handbook for cyclists from beginner to expert, whether daily commuters or weekend pleasure trippers. Effective Cycling (MIT Press, 2012) covers the bicycle itself, repairs and maintenance, basic and advanced cycling skills, and how traffic is organized. It describes cycling with friends, bicycle tours, increasing physical endurance, racing, and even finding a cyclist as a marriage partner. Throughout, author John Forester emphasizes that cyclists should consider themselves drivers of vehicles in traffic. The following is an excerpt in bike safety tips, teaching you safety for in-traffic cycling, especially negotiating a turn and changing lanes during urban cycling. 

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Basic Principles of Urban Cycling

There are five basic principles of cycling in traffic. If you obey these five principles, you can cycle in many places you want to go with a low probability of creating traffic conflicts. You won’t do everything in the best possible way, and you won’t yet know how to get yourself out of troubles that other drivers may cause, but you will still do much better than the average American bicyclist.

Five bike safety tips:

1. Drive on the right side of the roadway, never on the left and never on the sidewalk.

2. When you reach a more important or larger road than the one you are on, yield to crossing traffic. Here, yielding means looking to each side and waiting until no traffic is coming.

3. When you intend to change lanes or move laterally on the roadway, yield to traffic in the new lane or line of travel. Here, yielding means looking forward and backward until you see that no traffic is coming.

4. When approaching an intersection, position yourself with respect to your destination direction — on the right near the curb if you want to turn right, on the left near the centerline if you want to turn left, and between those positions if you want to go straight.

5. Between intersections, position yourself according to your speed relative to other traffic; slower traffic is nearer the curb and faster traffic is nearer the centerline.

Changing Lanes in Traffic: Fear or Confidence?

How do you work with motorists when you change lanes? Are you confident, or are you betrayed by uncertainty into a dangerous dash between hurtling cars? Changing lanes really highlights the difference in morale and technique between expert cyclists and those who feel inferior to cars. Morale? Yes. You’ll never do it right until you feel deep down inside that you are as important as motorists. But jumping into traffic with an “I’ll show ’em” attitude and no technique is simply setting the scene for an accident. It takes both; your technique improves when you develop confidence and timing, and your confidence improves as you discover that the technique really works.

Because motor vehicles are more dangerous, motorists have certain duties to safeguard others. Because bicycles are slower, cyclists have the duty of not impeding traffic flow unnecessarily. But nowhere in the normal rules of the road is the motorist given “status” over the cyclist, and the normal rules apply when changing lanes.

The vehicle code makes two requirements of drivers who are changing lanes. The driver who intends to change lanes must first determine whether the movement can be made in reasonable safety and whether another driver will be affected by the movement; the lane-changer must signal his intent to that driver. Provided that it is lawful to use the new lane (for example, it is lawful to use a left-turn-only lane only for approaching a left turn), that is all there is to it. Everybody should obey those requirements, and if you do so you are entitled to change lanes whatever your motive power.

What have I said that is new? Nothing. Cyclists and motorists have been following these principles for years because they work.

But look at how the cyclist inferiority complex turns the same principles upside down. The basic tenet of the cyclist inferiority complex is that cars are so dangerous that you must do everything possible to stay away from them. This means cringing along in the gutter and making left turns from the right curb! In less extreme form, it says that the only time you should leave the gutter is after making the signal and when there are no cars coming. You will never get home if you follow that notion.

Frightened bicyclists justify their viewpoint by saying that cyclists are too light, fragile, and slow to compete against cars. This view of life on the road as a struggle for existence is wrong — if it were correct, the only vehicles left would be gravel trucks, armored cars, and Corvettes. In fact, most drivers obey the rules of the road because they know that otherwise they would be either dead or stuck in a vast traffic jam. Weight and acceleration don’t make right-of-way or right; in urban traffic, a car can’t go faster than the car ahead. Vulnerability does not imply inferiority; a cyclist is just as important a person as a motorist. The only inferiority the cyclist has is created by the restrictive bike-lane and bicycle laws that reduce cyclists’ right-of-way and right to use the roadway to less than those of motorists.

The basic premise of the cyclist inferiority complex is the motoring viewpoint, according to which the cyclist survives and is allowed to use the road only through the generosity of the motorists.

This frightened philosophy turns the cyclist who must change lanes in traffic into a road sneak, pretending he or she isn’t there while dodging through whatever gaps exist between cars. The vehicle code’s philosophy is exactly the reverse: The cyclist rides as one among equals, able to persuade other drivers to leave room to change lanes safely.

As a competent cyclist, you persuade motorists by negotiation; you ask, and you watch for the answer, be it yes or no. Generally it is yes, because motorists often find themselves in exactly your position, wanting to change lanes through crowded traffic. They agree because they know that if nobody allowed anyone else to change lanes, traffic would stop and nobody would get home. There are three ways to change lanes, depending on how fast you can ride relative to the traffic.

Changing Lanes: Low-Speed

Imagine yourself riding near the curb on a multilane highway in heavy traffic. You see ahead a lot of cars flashing for a right turn, and you suspect that it is a slow right turn that is holding up traffic.

Naturally, you want to move from near the curb into that line of traffic before you reach the point where they turn across your path. If possible, you would like to get into the next lane over, where traffic moves steadily instead of in starts and stops.

You can’t just move left — there is a solid line of cars backed up. So you must persuade some motorist to let you in. You ride about 2 feet from the line of cars at their speed and position yourself next to the gap between two of them. As you ride, you must watch the car ahead. If the car moves right, or moves right and slows down to park, you must avoid it.

Start alternating your glance from the back of the car ahead to the front of the car behind. Turn your head quickly and look to its driver, then back to the car ahead, then back to the driver behind you. That driver has seen you, all right — the distance between your faces is no more than 8 feet — and your position, speed, and questioning look have told him that you want to get in front.

You have now asked the question, “Will you let me in?” Notice that you have obeyed the spirit of the vehicle code while disregarding its specific requirement to make the left-arm signal. You have notified the only driver you affect by moving to the proper starting position and looking at him. There are two reasons why this way is better than using the arm signal. First, looking behind puts you in the position to receive an answer, whereas the arm signal makes looking harder. Getting the answer is what will save your life, not making the signal. Second, the traffic situation might suddenly require both hands on the handlebars and brakes, which makes you discontinue a hand signal even though you still want to move left. Even though you may resume the signal, you have conveyed the undesired message of irresolution and incompetence, when you wanted to convince the driver that you know what you want to do and how to do it, and that you will do it in an expert manner.

If the following driver falls back to make a space for you, you have received it. Perhaps the driver doesn’t answer too plainly — you think a gap is open, but you are not sure and it is not big enough. Escalate the question one notch by moving left about 6 inches — not enough to put you squarely in the car’s path, but a noticeable movement — and keep alternating your glance from the car ahead to the car behind. That says, “I really mean it, and I’m ready to move in.” If the driver then lets you in, move left, and give a thank-you wave or a smile because the driver has cooperated. The driver may not let you in — some drivers are too dense to understand and some are too selfish. Let such people pass and then try again. You are better off following than preceding such a driver. I don’t always follow this rule. If I haven’t much choice left in a traffic jam, and particularly if I feel a driver is obstinate, I’ll bluff — I’ll stick out my arm, glare, and move over as close as I dare. It sometimes works, but choosing a different driver is better. Yielding to traffic moving in the same direction. Black moves and white yields. Before changing lanes, look forward and backward to be sure that the new lane is empty.

Changing Lanes: Medium-Speed

When both you and the cars are moving steadily, you still negotiate, but you do it twice for each lane change. This approach works well at all speeds at which you can negotiate with drivers. Generally, there is enough time to negotiate at the distance at which negotiation is possible, as long as the motorist is going no more than 15 mph faster than you are.

These negotiations take place at greater distance, without much eye contact. You ask by steering a careful course on the roadway as far left in your present lane as possible and by alternating your head position between looking ahead and looking at the following car in the new lane. The answer you receive may also be less definite. The driver may slow to your speed or may move left to give himself room to overtake you if you move. Because of this ambiguity, you should make your first move a very small one.

Cross the line and ride at the right edge of the new lane, which gives the following driver room to pass you safely if necessary. Then look back to see who is behind you, and negotiate again for permission to move to the left side of the lane. Never ride in the center of the lane on a high-speed multilane road unless you are going at the speed of traffic; always ride at one edge or the other, to give cars room to pass you. Think of the shift from one side of a lane to the other as a full lane change, making sure that you negotiate with any overtaking driver.

Changing Lanes in High-Speed Traffic

When the traffic is moving more than 15 miles per hour faster than you, negotiation by looking is impossible because the motorists cannot detect your intention at the required distance, though your position on the road relative to the lane lines is a pretty clear signal.

Changing Lanes in Traffic

Extending your left arm makes a signal that is obvious at a greater distance, and doing so may persuade a motorist to make a gap for you. If that does not work, they you should wait for a naturally occurring gap between platoons of traffic, so you can make your lane change without affecting any vehicles before you become settled in your new lane or line of travel.

Many two-lane, rural roads carry high-speed traffic. If you intend to turn left from one of these roads, look behind and choose a time when no traffic is near before moving from the side of the road to near the centerline.

In urban areas, most roads that carry high-speed traffic have more than two lanes and, except when avoiding right-turn-only lanes, you often wish to move across all of the lanes. Start looking back while you still have plenty of time and distance. Cross all lanes to the centerline and ride just to the right of the centerline until you come to the left-turn lane.

If you find that you have miscalculated and cars are catching up to you, get on a lane line and ride it straight. The cars will whiz by you on each side. Ride it until another gap comes along for you to finish the move, or until a motorist slows to make a gap for you.

In the old days, when main highways had just four (or three) lanes without a center divider, riding on the centerline was frightening and probably hazardous, but nowadays even suburban boulevards have a centerline dividing strip several feet wide. It is reasonably safe to ride next to the strip at the left side of the center lane. Overtaking motorists have a good view of you and plenty of room to pass on your right.

Last Resorts to Change Lanes

There is only one situation in which it is impossible to change lanes to the left: in continuous, high-speed, heavy traffic, such as on freeways.

One last resort is to slow down at the right side of the road and wait for a gap in traffic. The closer you get to the intersection, the slower you go. Give yourself plenty of time. If no gap shows, go to the corner and use the crosswalk. (You can also do this anywhere left turns are prohibited.)

Another last resort — particularly if you have made one lane change and are blocked from making the next into the left-turn lane — is to continue riding to the next intersection. This gives you another block to make the change.

Bike Safety Tips: Allow Time and Distance

Negotiating for a lane change takes time. Always start early, and never hurry or let yourself get flustered. Wait until you are reasonably sure that your move is safe. The mad dash to get between cars is a hallmark of the partially competent cyclist. Remember that the objective of traffic-safe cycling is not to ride in the gutter as long as possible, but to leave it early enough to minimize your risk in making necessary lane changes.

Things to Remember

• If you are going to change lanes, it is up to you to do it safely.

• Negotiate a turn with the driver behind you in the new lane. Make sure the driver agrees to let you in by giving you room, slowing down, or taking some other positive action.

• Always make two moves per lane: one just into the lane, the second across the lane to its other side. This method avoids an accident if there is a mistake in negotiations.

• Always start early — allow yourself plenty of time and distance.

Reprinted with permission from Effective Cycling by John Forester and published by the MIT Press, 2012. Buy this book from our store: Effective Cycling.