The epiphany which transforms us into confident cyclists is grasping the simple (albeit counter-intuitive) fact that we have control of our environment. That control comes from predictability, communication and (believe it or not) self-image.

Bicycling in traffic is a dance you must lead

It is your choice of roadway position which most influences the behavior of motorists. Want them to give you more clearance? Use enough lane to make them realize they need part of another to pass you (on a multi-lane road, use even more lane to strongly encourage them to change lanes to pass). Want them to wait to pass? Use a lane control position and, if necessary, a hand signal. Want them to plan ahead and make decisions early? Be visible and predictable. If you want them to yield or let you merge, look back at them and communicate your intentions.

Motorists often operate on auto pilot where cyclists are concerned. They’re motoring along a highway or residential street and come upon you. The fact that you’re a person doesn’t always register. You’re an obstacle that needs to be dealt with. “Must pass the cyclist, must pass the cyclist.”

If your lane position and mindset invite an unsafe pass, or leave the decision of whether or not to squeeze past in their hands, most motorists can’t resist the impulse.

The optimum lane position between intersections varies based on many factors, from road design to traffic conditions. I usually refer to the right half of the lane, as a default (on a 2-lane road). Some divide the lane in thirds, however, I recommend riding at least 1/3 of the way into the lane not “in the right 1/3″ as is often stated. On multi-lane roads, I often use the left half of the lane to ensure motorists change lanes. Lane position governs more than just overtaking behavior, it puts you in the sight-triangles of crossing and turning drivers—this is extra-critical for cyclists traveling at higher speeds.

I will sometimes move right, to a secondary position, to facilitate someone passing on a 2-lane road, but always ride farther left as my primary (default) position.

Simplifying complex moves

Major intersections can be a source of stress and conflict, or not. Cyclists who try to stay out of the way, riding straight on the edge of a thru lane, in a bike lane, or worse — using a right-turn lane or crosswalk — are inevitably at high risk for being hit by cars. The farther you ride from the thru travel lane, the more likely you are to experience conflict.

Lane position is not only critical riding through an intersection, but as you approach it, too. As you approach an intersection or a lane-split (where a right-turn lane develops), check for overtaking cars, then slide over, from the right half of the lane to the left half. Now the right-turning motorists will wait and move to the right turn lane behind you and the others will wait to pass you after the intersection. You can move back to the right half of the lane when you see it is safe for them to pass, and give them a friendly wave.

By being in this left-side position, you discourage unsafe passing, right-hook and left-cross crashes. In thick, slow traffic on a 2-way, 2-lane street, it is very important to be on the left side of the lane so that left-turning drivers don’t think the gap you’re creating is an opportunity to dart into a left turn. This is a motorcycle-safety skill which is 100% applicable to bicycles.

Also, if you end up stopping first at the red light, placing your narrow bicycle on the left side of the lane will allow motorists to turn right on red beside you. They appreciate that and will often wave a thank you.

This technique should be used regardless of lane width or the presence of a bike lane. It is obviously not necessary at every minor intersection you encounter. But as you gain familiarity with traffic dynamics, you’ll instinctively know when to use it. You’ll do it effortlessly and your dance partners will be impressed… or at least less likely to step on your toes.

The way you see yourself is what you project to others

Your self-image both governs your behavior and how others respond to you on the road. Does this sound like a smarmy self-help book? Sorry. It’s true! If you’ve ever taken a public speaking class, or operated in a sales environment, you know how this works. Go into an intimidating meeting with confidence, comfort and security in your knowledge and, most likely, you’ll succeed in persuading others. Go in feeling nervous and insecure and you may get eaten alive.

This is amazingly true on the road. But embracing our leadership of the dance requires overcoming our cultural brainwashing in the mythologies of danger and delay and envisioning ourselves as legitimate vehicle drivers.* Bicyclists have been beaten into submission, not by individual motorists, but by a culture of speed, convenience and hyper-selfishness. But the truth is, the majority of individual motorist attitudes range from ambivalent to respectful of a competent cyclist, when they see one. Deliberate lane positioning and communication advertise your competence.

Honking and other territorial noises

“But they’ll get mad at me!” is the the cry I often hear when explaining lane position. Cyclists are used to being honked at and told to “get off the road” or “ride on the sidewalk.” Most are sure that if they moved farther into the lane, that harassment would increase exponentially. The amazing thing is, it doesn’t. In fact, my experience is that moving into an assertive and confident lane position silences the geese.

Cyclists who cower on the edge are not only dismissed as irrelevant in a motorist’s decision-making, they are also more apt to be targets of harassment.

P.M. Summer explains this very well:

There’s an amazing bonus to this action: reduced tensions. Invariably, cyclists whom I have taught to ride like this, will discover that horn honks, finger wagging (and waving), and shouting all decrease or disappear. By taking an action many cyclists fear is discourteous (taking their lane), they discover that exercising the laws of right-of-way actually increase motorists courtesy. Why? Because they are no longer afraid that they are going to hit you. You have stood up for your rights as a vehicle operator, and 999 times out of a 1,000, the motorists recognize and appreciate the fact that you have successfully negotiated right-of-way with them.

I will add that self-respect commands respect from others. Lack of it encourages the wrath of bullies (remember: nothing turns a bully on like capitulation).

Of course, the occasional run-in with a selfish human is unavoidable. But you’ll be amazed at how infrequent it really is—especially once you learn to virtually eliminate the mindless close-passing. (I used to think that was deliberate ugliness, but it was only acceptance of an invitation I was unconsciously offering.)

Confidence in your skills and legitimacy also neutralize the effect of the infrequent harassment you experience. It just won’t push your buttons. OTOH, there’s no bigger insult than being harassed when you’ve already squeezed yourself into a compromised, miserable subordinate position.

Motivation to leave the edge and take control

Sometimes it takes a close-call to move us to a new mindset. In my case, frequent and repeated conflicts with inattentive motorists was the motivation. The final near-miss was on Lakemont Ave. as I was approaching Aloma (heading south). The right lane splits into a thru lane and an RTOL. I was riding in my usual position of ~2 feet from the gutter seam, approaching the spot where the lane begins to widen, a truck pulling a large utility trailer passed me on the left and then swung into the RTOL. The trailer would have hit me if I had not had that 2 feet to swerve into. Of course, the light was red, too, so it gained this driver nothing.

That was the catalyzing moment for me. I realized this nonsense of subordination to the right side of the road was of no benefit to me at all. By not claiming my space in the lane or controlling my approaches to intersections, I was subjecting myself to unnecessary stress and potential injury. In the interest of appearing unobtrusive, I was handing all the decision-making to strangers whose judgment was completely unknown to me. Like a mouse on the dance floor.

Fortunately, I recognized that abandoning far-right thinking was the key to controlling the movements of traffic around me for both my comfort and safety. Amazingly, the entire character of the roadway environment changed for me. Gone were the dangerous idiots trying to kill me at every intersection. My rides became a cooperative dance, often punctuated by friendly interactions and very rarely disturbed by unfriendly ones.

*Repeat after me: I’m a legitimate vehicle driver with the right to manage my space on the road as I see fit. It is safer to ride in the lane than the gutter. Bicyclists do not cause delay.

You can watch video segments of the dance in the following posts:

Originally published September 15, 2008 on CommuteOrlando