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Why Don’t Cyclists Ride IN the Bike Lane?

From the Mailbag:

Why oh why do cyclists ride ON the line that separates the traffic lane from the bike lane? Do they WANT me to hit them?!

Great question!  The short answer is that they probably ride on the line because they don’t feel like it would be safe for them to actually ride in the middle of the bike lane.

Here’s the long answer:  Not all bike lanes are created equal.  Unfortunately, there are a lot of bike lanes on roads that are simply unsafe for cyclists to use.  There are a few reasons why a bike lane might be perceived unsafe by cyclists:

  • Insufficient Width –  Most design standards specify that bike lanes should be at least 5′ wide, though some standards allow for 4′ width lanes in some cases.  Still in some cases, I’ve seen bike lanes as narrow as 3′.  If a bike lane is perceived to be too narrow by cyclists, they will not feel safe using it.  In some cases, even 5′ or 6′ lane widths aren’t enough to make a cyclist feel safe depending on other factors.
  • Gutter Seam / Storm Drains – The seam between the concrete gutter and the asphalt roadway usually poses a significant hazard to cyclists because this is a very common place for potholes to develop and because there is often an elevation difference of 0″-4″.  Unfortunately, this seam often falls right in the middle of the bike lane (2′ gutter pan with 4′ or 5′ bike lane…).  If there’s an unsafe seam down the middle of a bike lane, cyclists will often hug the outside edge of the bike lane, placing them right about on the line like you mention.  Also, storm drain grates pose significant safety to cyclists as well and will be avoided by cyclists.
  • Adjacent Parking – one of the biggest threats to cyclists on urban roadways is the threat of being doored by a parked car.  On a lot of streets, the bike lane is sandwiched between general purpose lanes and a parking lane.  This  configuration can make even very experienced cyclists nervous.  Doors open without warning, and this configuration often places cyclists in the “door zone.”  In this case, cyclists will often try to stay as far away from the parked cars as possible, pushing them closer to the line.
  • Not Actually a Bike Lane – Sometimes areas on the roadway are mistaken for bike lanes when it’s actually just a “clear zone” mandated by many design standards or even simply shoulder space.  Sometimes, these clear zones turn out to be great places to ride a bike, so they are easily mistaken for bike lanes.  However, these clear zones tend to disappear and reappear without warning, or have other design aspects (like rumble strips) that make them an unsafe place for cyclists.

Anyway, those are a few reasons why cyclists will choose to hug one side of a bike lane.

Now, as you clearly point out, this is a poor place for a cyclist to be.  It’s not particularly safe for either you or the cyclist.  Obviously, the best solution is for engineers to design better bike lanes that cyclists will feel comfortable using.  In the mean time, however, it presents some special challenges for everyone.  As a cyclist, I dislike riding on roads like this because there’s no great option.  If I ride in the bike lane as it was designed, I feel like I’m placing myself at risk.  If I hug the edge of the bike lane, then I’m being really ambiguous about my intentions and I make drivers angry.  If I ignore the bike lane completely and ride right down the middle of the general purpose lane where I feel the most safe (which is my preferred option in this situation), then drivers stuck behind me are thinking, “Hey, There’s a bike lane right THERE!!!  Use it, Jerk!!!

So what should you do if you’re driving down the road and there’s a cyclist hugging the white line?

The same thing you’d do if there wasn’t a bike lane at all.  1. If possible, change lanes to pass.  2. Pass only when you can leave at least 3′ between your car and the cyclist.  3. Encourage elected leaders to construct new and better bike lanes.

Thanks for the great question!!!

Readers, what did I miss?  Any other reasons why cyclists might hug one edge of a bike lane?

3 comments to Why Don’t Cyclists Ride IN the Bike Lane?

  • Because they are self-possessed narcissists. In the future, I plan on riding ON the line because the vehicle lane isn’t wide enough to make me and my vehicle occupants feel safe. Bicycle riders should safely monitor oncoming traffic with their mirrors and adjust their movement to leave at least 3′ between their bicycle and vehicles.

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