To “take the lane” means riding right smack in the middle of a travel lane in a single file line with cars. It can seem pretty scary, but there are times when it is THE safest place to be on the road. Once you understand why it can be safer, and how to do it, you can give it a go and see just why this bike riding tip will make you feel like the Boss of the Road.
Why you should take the lane
– To make a left hand turn –
Never make a left hand turn from the right hand side of the road. As a general rule, if you wouldn’t do it in a car, then you shouldn’t do it on a bike. In a car, you get into the left most lane to make a left hand turn. The same holds true when you’re on a bike. And once you’re in that left hand turn lane, queue up with the cars. If you turn left from the right side of the left hand turn lane, then you’re encouraging motorists to slide up beside you on both the right and left, which could put you in a bit of a pinch.
If you don’t feel comfortable crossing lanes to get into the left most lane, then you’ll want to do what’s called a Copenhagen turn, which means crossing straight, turning your bike, and crossing the intersection again.
– To avoid a right hook –
A right hook is when a bicyclist to the right is going straight, but the motorist to the left is turning right. When lines cross like this, it’s the bicyclist that’s going to get the short end of the stick.
You can prevent a right hook by staying to the left hand side of a right hand turn lane, allowing enough room to your right for right turning motorists to still make their turn. This is a legal solution, but not necessarily the safest. If the motorist swings out to the left a bit while making their turn, you could get hit. So the even safer thing to do is to get into the lane to the left of the right hand turn lane. If you’re traveling straight, then getting into that through lane makes sure that no one will be crossing in front of you.
– To make yourself visible –
Motorists learn to look for oncoming vehicles in travel lanes, because that’s where the cars and trucks are that they don’t want to hit. But they don’t always think to glance a little to the side of that for travelers in a bike lane. So by taking the lane, you put yourself where motorists are looking. Then it’s more likely they’ll see you. In fact, some people refuse to ride in bike lanes and always take the lane for this reason.
If you’re in a situation where you worry that people might not see you, then take the lane.
– To encourage safe passing –
You never want a motorist to think they can pass you safely when they can’t. In order to help them make a good decision, ride in the middle of the lane through areas where you know there’s no room to pass. Though the motorist may grumble, shout a few obscenities, or honk their horn, they’ll stay behind you until it’s safe to pass. Just tell yourself that their complaints are proof that they see you. It’s better to be seen and yelled at than to be run over.
If you are riding on a lane that cannot fit the width of a full sized vehicle, a 3 foot buffer (as required by law), and you (with enough cushion on your right hand side that you’re not hitting the curb or drain grates or other obstacles) then it is not safe for a motorist to try to pass you within that lane. Even if you’re hugging the right side, there’s not enough room for them to get around you without possibly knicking you with their mirror or another part of their vehicle. So don’t let them. The further to the left you are, the more they’ll realize that if they want to pass you, they’re going to have to change lanes to do it. (Remember, motorists are legally allowed to cross a double yellow line in order to pass a bicyclist.) So if the lane is too skinny, then help motorists do the right thing by making it plain as day that they’re going to have to change lanes to pass you.
– To avoid obstacles –
If there are sticks, gravel, potholes, road signs, parked cars, or other obstacles in the bike lane, then you are legally allowed to ride in the travel lane instead. While you’re in that travel lane, ride in the center to encourage safe passing until you’re able to safely get right again.
If there are a series of obstacles, then stay in the center of the travel lane until you have passed all obstacles. Weaving in and out around obstacles increases the likelihood of getting hit.
How you should take the lane
Always change lanes while on a bicycle in the same way that you would change lanes when driving a car: Signal your intention to change lanes. Look behind you to see if anyone is approaching in the lane you want to get into. Look beside you to make sure that the way is clear. If everything looks good, then change lanes.
Once you’re in the lane, ride in the center to encourage safe passing.
Once you’re ready to get back into the bike lane, follow the same process all over again. Signal. Look beside and behind. (This time you’re more likely going to be looking for debris or other obstacles, but you never know when a motorist or bicyclist might try to shoot up past you on the right.) Then change lanes.
Speak loudly with your whole body when you make these lane changes. It helps motorists have a sense of what you’re doing, and that you’re taking this “riding a bike on the road” thing seriously. (Just as we wish all motorists would take this “driving a car on the road” thing seriously.) So don’t make a teeny little signal with your hand to indicate a turn. Get your arm out there so your intention to turn can’t be missed.
Feel like a boss
Just last week I picked up takeout food from Bann Thai on College. From there I wanted to head west toward home. I decided that the fastest way to get to Mason would be to travel from College to Mulberry, just like I would if I were in a car. So I waited until traffic had cleared, entered northbound College, and signaled a lane change to get left until I was in the left hand turn lane. I took the lane to be sure everyone could see me.
The light at Mulberry was red, so I stood over my bike with my arm out, indicating my left hand turn. (It was self evident since I was in the rightmost left hand turn lane, but it helps motorists know that I’m taking this whole “using the lane” thing seriously. It’s a way to say loud and proud that I know what I’m doing and I have every legal right to be doing it.)
When the light changed, I made the turn, stayed in the middle of the lane until Mason, and then turned right.
And despite the fact that there were motorists all around me, they could tell that I knew what I was doing. I was making my intentions at every step of the way abundantly clear. And my whole attitude made clear that I knew I had a right to the road. I didn’t have a single motorist honk at me, or yell at me, or even rev their engine at me. They were polite and drove single file behind me. And as soon as I could get somewhere a bit safer, I did. So I took the shorter route to save time, but when there was an equally good route with a better comfort level for bicyclists, I took it.
And by golly, I felt like the boss of College Avenue out there on my bike, surrounded by motorists that were treating me with respect… like I belonged. Because I did.
Meg is the author of PedalFortCollins.com, a local transportation blog that’s part of the Scoop Blog Network. She’s an active member of Bike Fort Collins and the Fort Collins Coalition for Infrastructure and she is frequently involved in transportation and urban planning events hosted by the City of Fort Collins. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.