To take the lane, or not take the lane?
Like most things, this topic has an abundance of strong supporters for both sides. This is an excellent article from the Guardian. This is quite a thorough discussion of the issue, and here is another perspective.
And then we have this bit of “research”:
Lately, I’ve been giving it (more of) a go, in measured doses. I don’t make a point of it like it’s my right – even though it is, but so is free speech, and just because you can say anything you want doesn’t mean that it’s always helpful. Similarly, I don’t use the full lane each and every time I’m on my bike. Sharing the road is a two-way street, but when sharing comes at the cost of my safety, that’s when I change how I ride.
There are certain types of situations that call for taking the lane. Most generally, when there isn’t room for both a vehicle and a bicycle in the same space, then you need to make sure that only one of you can occupy that space. This is done by making it clear that there is no opportunity to squeeze by you by riding far enough from the kerb that either a full lane change is required, or the vehicle has to wait for a safer opportunity if there is only one lane. If you are not totally in the way, you will almost certainly get squeezed. This get’s quite dangerous as the speeds increase, so whereas I would not generally recommend taking the lane on a road of ~80kph+, I realize that there are situations where you could, however I will leave that up to your discretion. Exercise caution.
The key elements to success here are doing it confidently and doing it early. By confidently, I mean really taking the lane. Not riding a little further out, making it a bit more challenging for cars to pass, but making it impossible to pass. Far enough from the kerb pretty much means right in the middle of the lane. Many drivers will want to get around you because of some strange compulsion to pass you regardless of whether they are in a hurry or if it will actually prevent them from being held up or not, so if there is even a hint of there being enough space for a car, they will usually try to fill it with theirs. They might honk or yell at you, but at least you can take solace in the fact that they see you. You can count on this not making you any new friends, but do you want to not be honked at or not get knocked off your bike? As soon as it is safe to move over (ie. space for both of you), move over to let the cars you may or may not have been holding up through.
There is a tricky grey area here, which is when you have space to move over and let cars through but there is another pinch point a little further up again (parked cars, usually). If it is quite close, moving aside when there are more than one or two cars waiting to get by will introduce a bad situation where you have to merge back into the lane with traffic in it. If you know that there is a large enough gap to allow the waiting cars to pass and for you to then move back into the lane to get through the next obstruction, then by all means, move over and let them pass. Being courteous while maintaining safety is clearly the best result. Whether this is possible is not always obvious, though, which is why it can be a difficult situation to judge. If the gap to the next obstruction is visible but close and you have a line of vehicles banked up behind you, what do you do?
In my perspective, there is no answer for this that will always apply. Your speed, the traffic speed, and the size of the gap will never be constant and allow a fixed rule to be applied, and everyone will feel differently about it in any case. If you aren’t bothered that you are holding up traffic and believe that your safety will be compromised, then you will probably err on staying in the lane until the next obstruction is cleared. This situation is more acceptable the slower the traffic is moving relative to yourself. I don’t get all that bothered taking the lane for longer periods of time when I’m doing 35-40kph in a 50kph zone, but if you are doing 20kph in a 60kph then you might be more inclined to move aside when safe to let some vehicles through, and then re-merge in advance of the next obstacle. Speed differential between road users is a significant cause of accidents. Use your best judgement, but unless you feel your safety would be at risk to do otherwise, don’t be a dick about it.
Now, taking the “priority position” early is important too. Many cyclists, regardless of the situation (commuting, road racing, mountain biking), don’t look far enough ahead. Spot where you will need to move into the lane and check over your shoulder well in advance so you can catch a convenient gap in the traffic to slip into. Signal your intentions. This is something I don’t always do, but predictability is paramount to safety. Signaling includes looking before you move. When people stick their arm out and then throw themselves into traffic without looking, that seems either very trusting in the ability of others to see you and react in time, or very stupid. I’m inclined to say stupid.
Be seen. Again, this is something that I wish I didn’t feel the need to mention, but somehow there are still people out there who don’t make the connection between not getting hit and being seen. Lights during the day are a good idea. Lights and/or something reflective at night are not only the law, but crucial to your ability to prevent an accident. I won’t say you deserve to be hit if you don’t, but if you are that person who rides at night with no lights, you most certain had it coming. You can signal all you want, but if you’re not seen, you’re not seen.
Overall, I have found the results of me taking control of my situation have been positive. When I am more assertive in taking the space I need to be safe, when I ride a bit further from the curb than I normally would have, I have found with some consistency that cars give me more room to pass. I feel that there is definitely something to the idea that if you are hugging the kerb, then cars will take that as an invitation to pass you in-lane. Most of us (cyclists) drive at least some of the time, and I can honestly put my hand up and say that I have passed cyclists too close. Many drivers aren’t doing it with any intent, it’s just that they aren’t aware enough that it matters. When there isn’t room, and it’s obvious, motorists will see you well in advance and move to the next lane to pass, and often enough, without any drama.
Make no mistake – it is exceptionally hard to fight that natural urge to protect yourself. Cars are big and fast and unyielding if hit, whereas we are flesh and bone and quite breakable if hit. It is of no surprise that we instinctively want to move from danger, and so we hug the gutter. That this is one of the worst things we can do is quite a paradox, but is true, nonetheless. It’s like driving a F1 car – because the insane limits of traction are highly dependant on downforce, the faster you drive it, the more grip it has, and the more heat you get into the tyres and brakes, the better it behaves. What seems more dangerous on the surface, is actually the better option. You have to suspend your natural judgement, just as you have to trust that the limits that your normal car has simply don’t apply in a proper race-car. Hugging the gutter on the bike is the natural thing to do, but in many situations it’s one of the worst thing you could do.
This largely boils down to a trust issue. “If a driver doesn’t see me, then at least I might be just enough out-of-the-way when s/he passes if I am as far to the edge as possible”, you reason. It’s impossible to know how many near misses are because the driver didn’t notice you or because the driver didn’t think it mattered. Either way, ask yourself this: unless you are riding into a glaring sun, is a driver more likely to see you in front of him or to the side of the lane? It may also be true that the driver doesn’t see you because s/he has no need to. “You’re off to the side, I’m in my lane, and I think I’ll just carry on without having to adjust my speed or direction.” Nevertheless, the worst case scenario looms large in most people’s minds – the driver who is checking their phone or is otherwise occupied and isn’t looking at the road at all. We could go around in circles with reasons for and against all day long.
Look, there are going to be situations when cyclists are hit in the gutter, and cyclists are hit in the middle of the lane. I tend to think that the danger of being hit while in the middle of the lane is far less than at the edge of it, as you are removing the possibility of a) getting doored b) cars pulling into the road from a side street, and c) getting hit from behind because the driver misjudged how much room to give you or simply wasn’t paying attention to the thing in the gutter.
Traffic will always bring with it an element of danger. It is your job to minimize the associated risks as much as you can, and hope that others do to.
Try taking the lane a bit more and see how you feel. Start simple, and be nice about it. I think you will find that it’s better than you feared.
Header image: source