Sunday 24 August 2014

How close to the kerb you should ride and when to take the lane

Summary: In cities where cyclists share the roads with cars, many don't know the laws regarding whether they need to keep left, how far from the kerb they are allowed to ride, if they can take the entire lane and what constitutes obstruction. There's also differing advice on the safest road position in various circumstances. This post will summarise the laws, research and informed guidance for Australian cyclists on how close to the kerb (or far left) you should ride.

Flickr CC by 2.0 - Freaktography

Related Posts:
> See How to avoid getting doored
> See the "how to ride" category of this blog

Note: In Australia we drive and ride on the left. Reverse the advice if riding on the right.

1. Informal road rule guidance is often not accurate, so it's worthwhile knowing the relevant road rules precisely
- This post was triggered by this article trying to educate cyclists and motorists on Victoria's road rules for cyclists: The Age: Think you know your bike and road rules? Take the quiz

- I selected "Yes" but the quiz marked this as wrong. However, according to the Victorian Road Safety Road Rules 2009 the quiz is not quite accurate. Cyclists ("riders" in the road rules) are treated as drivers unless otherwise noted (rule 19) and the rule about keeping left does not apply to multi-lane roads - as other vehicles can use the other lane(s) to pass. Matt de Neef summarises the relevant road rules precisely:
Rule 129 says “A driver on a road (except a multi-lane road) must drive as near as practicable to the far left side of the road.” You could argue that riding close to the gutter isn’t “practicable” for a number of reasons. There’s often more debris and drain covers closer to the edge of the road and, perhaps more importantly, riding close to the curb gives you less bail-out room if a motorist does get too close. 
Rule 253 says that a driver or rider must not “cause a traffic hazard by moving into the path of a driver or pedestrian” and rule 125 prevents drivers (and therefore riders) from “unreasonably obstructing drivers or pedestrians”. It’s interesting to note that rule 125 also makes it clear that merely travelling slower than other traffic does not constitute a breach of the road rules … unless the driver is moving “abnormally slow” (follow the link above for a definition). 
As long as these conditions are met, and as long we aren’t riding more than two abreast (rule 151) – except while overtaking – it’s legal to use as much of the lane as necessary.
Cycling Tips: How far from the curb should you ride?
2. Common, sensible reasons for and against riding close to the kerb
- Sensible reasons to keep left (at least temporarily) include:
(a) Enabling other road users to more easily pass.
(b) Maximising the space between yourself and passing cars.
(c) Reducing the risk of being hit directly from behind by a motorist that didn't see you or was distracted.
(d) Eliminating unexpected passes on the wrong side. Cyclists may pass on the inside unexpectedly if you are riding too far out from the kerb.

- There are also potential issues with riding too close to the kerb:
(a) The gutter often has drains, pavers, bad surfaces and debris that make cycling more hazardous and may require you to suddenly swerve around them and too close to passing cars.
(b) If the lane is wide enough some motorists will use the space you provide to pass too close rather than using the other lanes, waiting or temporarily crossing over the median line.
(c) Where there are parked cars, staying out of the door zone is important. (See: How to avoid getting doored)
(d) Cyclists have less visibility (especially in reduced conditions like night time) to vehicles turning across their path, both from behind and in front.
(e) Pedestrians may unexpectedly step off the the footpath and into your way.

Bikewalk Lincoln Park: Found - Scores of potholes in the bike lanes

- While I take a far more pragmatic approach than vehicular cycling advocates, the potential dangers of riding too far left and not taking the lane are nicely outlined in this animation: CyclingSavvy: FAQ

CyclingSavvy: FAQ - Why riding too close to the kerb can be hazardous

3. Ignore simplistic advice and observe what experienced cyclists do in each particular circumstance
- The best road position depends on many factors including:
(a) Single lane or multi lane roads and the width of the lane
(b) Whether there is a bike lane or any bicycle road markings
(c) Whether there are parked cars and the extent of the door zone
(d) Your speed and the speed of other traffic (speed differentials)
(e) How busy the road is and whether you may be holding up other road users
(f) The quality of the road surface nearer the kerb

For example, the video - How to bike in the city (tips for the bicycle curious) - contains the simplistic suggestion that you should just "claim the lane" on many single lane roads. Unsurprisingly such simplistic videos are always free of vehicles and issues of motorist's using horns (or yelling), tailgating, passing too close or driving dangerously.

Grist: How to bike in the city (tips for the bicycle curious)

- I would argue that when such roads have cars travelling much faster than the cyclist and the door zone risk can be reduced (e.g. good visibility, safe speeds) most experienced cyclists would ride closer to the parked cars (at least temporarily) to enable cars to pass without having to cross over the median line. See: How to avoid getting doored

- If in doubt about the safest and most practical way to position yourself in particular circumstances, observe closely how experienced cyclists ride. You'll see that they often adjust their road position to suit the road, traffic, speeds, risks and to accommodate other road users.

4. If you can keep up with traffic and conditions and visibility is good, take the lane fully like any other vehicle. Prevent passes in your lane if and when they are unsafe
- If there is no better route (e.g. one with good bike lanes), taking the lane on roads where you can keep up with the speed of traffic is perfectly legal and sensible if:
(a) Visibility is good
(b) Road conditions are good (not wet, slippery or rough)
(c) Your riding skills, bike equipment (e.g. brakes) and confidence are sufficient
(d) Taking the lane is the norm for experienced, safe cyclists
(e) Traffic conditions do not result in major acceleration and then braking by cars

The Guardian: Is it a cyclist's right to 'take the lane'?

- In such conditions, where there is little or no inconvenience to others, properly taking the lane and preventing unsafe passes within your lane is preferable to riding as far left as feasible. Even on single lane roads in countries like Australia, where you are legally supposed to "drive as near as practicable to the far left side of the road" you should consider unacceptable safety risks to be impracticable.

- Taking the lane when few cars will be overtaking you is much safer than taking the lane with cars constantly overtaking. So too is it significantly safer if cars are approaching from behind at smaller speed differentials and lower speeds overall. Your visibility is a third key factor affecting safety when occupying the lane. These considerations should determine your willingness to take the lane.

- It is also worth educating yourself as to the actual safety risks in the city and circumstances you ride than relying just on what feels safe. For example, in intersection-dense, urban environments where motorists generally have to pay attention, it is typically rare for cyclists to be hit from behind. Yet, to most cyclists, it feels like a much more significant safety risk than losing control of your bike (e.g. due to the road surface) or being left/right hooked at an intersection - both of which are actually far bigger risks.

5. Wherever safe you can temporarily create room for other vehicles passing by moving left and slowing down if necessary
- Much of the debate about riding position ignores pragmatic, flexible ways of optimising your safety and other roads users convenience. For example, in residential streets around Melbourne I typically ride well away from the door zone or gutter and this leaves less room for cars to safely pass me. However, when a car comes up behind me and I consider it safe for it to pass (e.g. not approaching a roundabout), I will slow down and move left, including temporarily into the door zone.

- Below you can see on a typical residential street used for cycling that there isn't sufficient space for two cars and two bikes to safely pass each other. Consequently, common sense and courtesy applies. Cyclists should conscientiously be aware of passing traffic and, where safe, move left and slow down to facilitate safe passing. The red line below shows the flexible road position a cyclist can take based on the circumstances. I typically use all of this width pragmatically rather than simply sticking to the same distance from the left.

Napier St cycling route where cyclists flexibly vary how far left they ride based on traffic

6. On roads with much faster moving vehicles, when holding up traffic significantly, move over or stop to let traffic pass safely
- On single lane roads it is discourteous to hold up faster road users unnecessarily when you can temporarily move left or aside to let them pass. This creates frustration which can lead to unsafe passes and driving later for you or other cyclists. When an opportunity presents itself to safely move aside and let cars pass it is generally safer and less stressful for your trip to do so. Because bikes are so easy to manoeuvre, they can also easily be moved aside, including over the kerb if necessary. In the video below you can see how an experienced cyclist stops to safely let a number of cars pass which will then result in a safer, lower-stress ride.

YouTube: CycleGaz - Letting cars pass

7. Use your discretion about riding in the door zone or further left than you'd prefer based on your safety and minimising unnecessary inconvenience
- Strict vehicular cyclists might argue that it is always unsafe to ride in the door zone or closer to the kerb than is desirable and that if cars are held up that is fair enough and can be handled. However, the extent to which motorists are willing to wait to pass safely varies greatly based on typical behaviour norms for that road, the speed they could otherwise be travelling and how many other cars are also held up behind them. Consequently, you should use your discretion as to when it's safe enough to ride further left and let cars pass. By temporarily slowing down and being extra attentive you can minimise inconvenience to other road users and ride safely enough in many door zones. The video at the link below shows quite common riding in Australian door zone bike lanes - experienced cyclists often keep further left than they would if there were no cars trying to get past them.

Courier Mail: New law trial: One-metre rule for avoiding cyclists to begin in April

8. Ride in a position to prevent dangerous passes at roundabouts, intersections and danger areas
- Wherever passing would be particularly dangerous you should deliberately "take the lane" and ride far enough from the kerb earlier enough so that drivers aren't tempted to pass and end up getting dangerously close as there isn't enough room. While not as dangerous if turning left, it's a good habit to always claim the lane in such circumstances as it leads to predictable and safer behaviour (e.g. motorists should never pass in single lane roundabouts rather than try to guess from the cyclist's road position whether they are going straight or not).

Newry and St Georges Rd South intersection

9. Avoid or escape roads with fast moving cars where you feel pressured to let them pass in your lane
- If there is insufficient space for bikes on a road (no usable bike lane/shoulder and traffic lanes not wide enough) with traffic moving at 60km/hr or more then you generally shouldn't be cycling on it. Cyclists will rarely be on that road, motorists aren't used to having to safely pass them, the lanes are too narrow to pass safely within a lane and the car speeds cause cyclists to worry about being hit from behind.

- Given these circumstances, cyclists who do ride on such roads often tend not to claim an entire lane for significant stretches as they don't feel comfortable with the risk of being hit from behind or holding up cars or forcing them to change lanes. This ultimately leads to close passes that either are objectively unsafe or feel unsafe due to the speed of the cars.

I made a mistake getting onto Pascoe Vale Rd which is a typical car-only road

- Rather than claim an entire lane for a lengthy stretch, I felt like it was preferable to ride right next to the kerb on Pascoe Vale Rd (see below) and had a couple of cars pass within my lane at 60-70km/hr which felt very unsafe due to their speed (it wouldn't have at 40km/hr). After 300m I escaped to the footpath (which is rarely used by pedestrians along roads like this) until I could exit this road and get back to roads with lower speeds, more space for bikes and where cycling would not be considered unacceptable.

Escaping to the footpath on fast roads which cars dominate

- Experienced cyclists can advise of better routes where you don't feel pressured into riding close to the kerb and enabling passes within your lane. For example, this video of a dangerously close pass prompted most other cyclists to advise that this section of Punt Rd is not suitable for cycling. See: Cycling Tips: How far from the curb should you ride?

10. If relying on vehicular cycling techniques, educate yourself as to what works best
- Riding according to vehicular cycling principles on high speed roads where cyclists don't have their own space isn't desirable by most urban residents. I'm a confident and experienced cyclist and avoid sharing road space with vehicles doing more than 60km/hr. However, to the extent that you do apply vehicular cycling principles on high speed roads, you should educate yourself as to the various techniques, rationales and hand signals so that you can apply them as safely as possible.

- For example, if you are an experienced cyclist riding in suitable conditions (e.g. good visibility) and have no option but to use a road where you are sharing lanes with cars travelling at much faster speeds, you may choose to apply vehicular cycling techniques in terms of your lane position. If so, it is worthwhile exploring how these choices play out in the real world. E.g. The below blog post and video advocate for riding near the centre of your lane rather than nearer the kerb as they argue it results in safer overtaking behaviour by motorists.

CommuteOrlando: Helping Motorists With Lane Positioning

- For vehicular cycling, communicating assertively with motorists, primarily via hand signals, is very important. This video provides some common examples of hand signal use for a single lane road requiring overtaking cooperation: YouTube: Mandeville Canyon - Motorist/Cyclist Cooperation

Further Info:
Cycling Tips: How far from the curb should you ride?

A View From The Cycle Path: Perfect driving will never happen (Campaign for Sustainable Safety, not Strict Liability - part 2)

YouTube: CycleGaz - Letting cars pass

Courier Mail: New law trial: One-metre rule for avoiding cyclists to begin in April

League of American Bicyclists: Passing Thoughts - Bikes and Cars Sharing the Road

CyclingSavvy: FAQ

> Lane Control
> Sharing the road