You Lead the Dance

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

16 replies
  1. Jason
    Jason says:

    I recently moved to a new and relatively un-bicycle-friendly city. With the general lack of bike lanes, I experimented with a shoulder-style riding style. I kept finding new strange and dangerous situations: blocking cars in right turn only lanes because I was going straight, cars passing me on the right in my lane, and even a few (shudder) potential left-crosses.

    It didn’t take me long to wake up and embrace the riding style that you describe (and that I have, yes, professionally taught). If anything, the lack of bicycle facilities seems to make motorists more receptive to people “driving” their bicycle. Allow me to express what I found was most important:

    1. Motorists perform most of their driving on sheer habit. The more like a vehicle you position and place yourself, the less surprising you are to them–even if you are proceeding slowly.

    2. Many motorists are scared of cyclists, and with good reason, because they behave unpredictably and don’t signal. (See previous point.) When you assertively signal and negotiate your intentions, drivers are more likely to respect you and to make better decisions.

    3. As you point out beautifully in your articles, riding “far to right” should never be at the expense of safety–either yours or anyone else’s. “Practicable” does not mean “practical” or “compromising safety.”

    As a parting thought, assume that if you leave a vehicle’s width to either side of you in a lane that you think it’s safe for them to pass you without leaving the lane. The motorist doesn’t think he’s being rude, he just doesn’t…think. If he passes you too closely, don’t blame him; you failed to control your lane properly.

  2. Janet
    Janet says:

    I love these articles and especially the animation you have. It’s a great reminder of the advantages of biking assertively. I bike with the assertive style you practice as I’ve commuted extensively in Chicago, LA, Boston, Baltimore, and Jerusalem, — with a 15 mile round trip commute in both Chicago and LA — and by far the most important factor in how well cars treat me is whether there are other lanes for them to use and room to pass. In terms of traffic patterns, the easiest biking cities for me were LA and Chicago because streets have more lanes and the lanes are wider. I’m guessing Florida may be similar to LA/Chicago. When there’s no opportunity to pass such as with narrow lanes and busy streets or else winding roads, cars have no chance to cross the double yellow and the bike has few opportunities to pull to the side safely to allow passing (never mind how inconvenient that is), so cars are stuck behind the bike going 15-20 miles below the speed limit, or the bike has to ride relatively far on the right, inviting unsafe passing. That understandable frustration exists no matter how bike-friendly a city is, and it becomes frustrating for both the bicyclist and the car, and I’ve been in both roles. In many cities, roads just have to be wider, and that’s not a factor we have as much control over. Some of the “traffic calming” measures designed to decrease cars’ speed make things worse, even, because they narrow the lanes even further.

  3. Boniface
    Boniface says:

    I’m 54 years old now, but when I was ten I got a bike. Later, me and my brother would ride our bikes all over the city, which is a huge city with a lot of traffic. The one rule my dad taught us, and is now illegal, is to ride on the left side of the road, so as to face the oncoming traffic.

    Back then, everyone rode like this. Why? Because drivers aren’t always paying attention and if they swerve toward you, you can get out of the way quickly. Riding on the left doesn’t take up any more space than riding on the right and is really much safer. Unfortunately, now I think you can be ticketed for it. Too bad, a lot of bikers die nowadays, because of drivers NOT paying attention and bikers NOT seeing them coming toward them.

    • marc
      marc says:

      MOst of the reasons this is discourage have been said its easy for a vehicle to slow down to avoid hitting a slower moving vehicle then for both vehicles to stop if the shoulder is not wide enough for you and the motorized vehicle to be side by side which will be necessary if you ride against traffic. You then both will have to stop to avoid a collison. Another reason is right turning vehicles entering the roadway while a driver with his eyes fixed straight ahead might see you coming head on a car turning right will only be looking left and straight ahead if they intend to make a right hand turn. as they make the turn they are suddenly faced with you flying at them from the wrong side of the road. If both you and the driver fail to hit your brakes in less then a split second you will crash. Also where are you going to swerve to avoid the oncoming traffic. Are you going to bunny hop the curb and pray there are no pedestrians to strike on the sidewalk. Are you going to swerve into more oncoming traffic on other lanes. Its not wise to create situations where you have to swerve to avoid things there will be times for that natually like potholes shards of glass etc. Swerving is not fun and its not predictable. It’s a last ditch effort to avoid road hazards. and should only be done when its safe to do so. There are times I have road over small shards of glass cause I knew holding my line was better then swerving into traffic. Luckily each time I have done this I have managed to somehow miracoulsy thread the needle and have no glass in my tires. But I would rather pick glass out of my tires or get a new tire or tube than have an emt pick my body up off the road.

  4. Mighk Wilson
    Mighk Wilson says:

    Boniface: it has always been illegal to bike on the left side of the road, and for very good reasons. 90% of crashes involve turning and crossing movements, not overtaking movements. Cycling against traffic increases the risk for those turning and crossing crashes. That’s why every study that’s studied cycling crash risks has found the risk for riding against traffic to be at least four times greater than going with the flow.

    The overtaking motorist is rarely a problem. I’ve had over a million motorists pass me in my lifetime, and all have managed to avoid hitting me.

  5. beth h
    beth h says:

    There is another reason not to ride against traffic: Car drivers are not expecting you to be there.

    If you are operating a wheeled vehicle, you are expected to BEHAVE as though you are operating a wheeled vehicle. Riding a bike against the traffic flow would be like driving the wrong way down a one-way street. Psychologically, drivers — and other bicyclists — just aren’t prepared for it, and as a result it’s a LOT easier to get in a collision riding against traffic.

  6. Don Burrell
    Don Burrell says:

    Another reason for not riding opposing traffic I recently learned is that there is little chance to choose a safe passing spot when the car and bike are approaching one another. Riding with traffic allows the motorist to choose a safe opportunity to pass.

    Most states also stipulate that opposing traffic must pass to their right (left side of vehicle next to left side.)

  7. marc
    marc says:

    I found a link to this article from a cyclingsavvy link on the facebook page cyclists against reckless drivers I watched the video and read the article twice. Last night. Then I went to bed woke up in the morning and decided it was too beautiful to drive to work. at around 540 am I decided that would take my bike instead and apply these principles. It worked like a charm of course there wasn’t too much traffic on the road at this time for the short 2 mile commute. Getting off at work I applied the principles again this time right at about rush hour on 3 major multilane roads. I wasn’t sure how drivers would react. But I must say it was a much more pleasant ride to and from work. With only two minor glitches about 300 yards from a red with two lanes one a rtol and left lane to go straight the car behind me decided it wanted to use it brakes rather then soft pedal in hopes the light would change. so it took the right lane passed me got back in my lane and then hit its brakes which meant I too had to stop. I just stopped and shook my head in disbelief. But overall it was a good ride and I guess a cruiser must have decided I was impeding traffic even though there were two lanes for going straight and a right turn lane. on the way home. I heard the sound you hear before you get pulled over so I moved to the side of the road and pulled over. I smiled as the cruiser passed me. The cop did not stop or say anything and continued on his way.

    • Keri Caffrey
      Keri Caffrey says:

      Thanks Marc! I love to read stories like this. There will always be one or two uninformed or impatient people around (and occasionally they will be in a police cruiser), but it does make for a much more pleasant experience overall. Tailwinds!

  8. Ken Ralston
    Ken Ralston says:

    Love the video and the riding in it is exactly what I want to do but isn’t it illegal in all but 2 states because of FTR laws? I live in WA state.

    • Keri Caffrey
      Keri Caffrey says:

      No. It’s not illegal. FTR laws, as egregious as they are, have explicit exceptions for everything shown in this video. Specifically: preparing for a left turn, avoiding a hazard or potentially unsafe condition and controlling a lane that is not wide enough to share. The exceptions to the FTR law invalidate the primary paragraph of the statute on most roads and under most conditions.

      The problem with the FTR law isn’t that it makes successful behavior illegal, it’s that it appears to and thus requires the bicyclist to justify defensive driving in a biased system. No other driver has to do that.

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  1. […] than CyclingSavvy.  I say that because I know it works.  I’ve seen first-hand how it creates confident cyclists and nurtures a healthy cycling culture. This past April, I traveled to Orlando to become a […]

  2. […] The first article Andy posted – CYCLINGSAVVY: FIRST REPORT – included a vimeo of Keri Caffrey, one of the two creators of CyclingSavvy, titled Bicycling in traffic is a dance you must lead. […]

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