How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Big Roads

Where Do Cyclists Like to Ride?

Riding on a quiet street

Riding on a quiet street

Not all routes are the same, and that is especially true for cycling. We all like to have relaxing, lightly-travelled routes that do not require constant vigilance and decision-making.

Unfortunately, not all roads are like that. For those of us who ride for transportation, there is sometimes no avoiding the occasional stretch of big car-centric roads, or if you’re unlucky, more than occasional.

Sometimes planners and engineers don’t appreciate the need for cyclists to use busy roads. I remember one time during a debate about removing parking in order to install bike lanes, someone suggested maybe cyclists could just cut through a local park instead, as if we were all just looking for a nice leisurely ride, not actually going somewhere.

Another instance of this assumption about where bicyclists want or do not want to ride came up in relation to what I consider one of my proudest advocacy achievements to date, getting Bikes May Use Full Lane signs installed along a four-lane arterial, William Clarke Drive, in my small town of Westbrook. During the conversations leading up to their installation, I heard through the grapevine of one official questioning wouldn’t bicyclists rather use Main Street, which parallels William Clarke. Presumably, he thought this because the posted speed there is slower, and in many places, the lanes wider. But the flip side of that comment is questioning why would bicyclists want to use William Clarke, maybe further implying the question of why any accommodation for bicyclists on William Clarke was needed at all.

What About “Big Roads”?

While there’s no question that roads with slower and less frequent traffic are nicer for everyone (even motorists), over the past several years I have been learning to appreciate “big roads” as well, by which I mean roads with more than one lane in each direction. Why? Because of CyclingSavvy’s teaching about how to ride on such roads. Because the lanes are almost always too narrow to share, and there’s at least one other same-direction lane provided for passing, we advise cyclists to just control the lane all the time, and stop worrying so much about the traffic behind you. There will always be occasional jerks, but on the whole, most people simply change lanes calmly and pass without incident.

(Yes, if it’s very busy and people are having trouble passing you, it’s okay to move off the road temporarily to let the pack pass, “relieve the pressure” as we say. But the point is, if you’re in the lane at all, don’t worry about varying your position in the lane to allow in-lane passing or not, because it’s almost never a good idea. Just set your position near the center and don’t think much more about it.)

William Clarke Drive vs. Main Street, Westbrook

Because it’s really so easy, once you get it through your head that you are an equal road user with as much right to the center of narrow lanes as motorists, using these big roads is more and more becoming my choice over two-lane roads with moderate traffic, such as Main Street that parallels William Clarke in Westbrook. Consider the following comparisons of these two streets:

Main Street William Clarke Drive
Lane count Two, one each direction, plus some turn lanes Four, two each direction, plus some left turn lanes
Lane width Varies widely, sometimes shareable, sometimes not, requiring frequent adjustment of lane position. Constant narrow width, but passing lane is available, so can just take a constant lane control position.
Passing Safe passing by overtaking motorist requires shareable lane or no oncoming traffic, risks head-on. Passing lane available for faster traffic.
Lane changes required for through travel Three right turn lanes to be avoided; Cumberland traffic circle at east end. Zero right turn only lanes; no need to ever change lanes unless turning left.
Parallel parking Frequent, creating door zones that must be avoided. None.
Driveways Many, accessing local businesses. Very few, most businesses and residences are accessed from side streets.
Surface Conditions Lots of pavement patches over the years, bumpy in spots. In winter, edges are icy and sandy most of the time. Much smoother, especially since rebuild a few years ago. In winter, faster and frequent car traffic sweeps the road clean and dry sooner after any storms than on Main Street, and is usually WAY cleaner and smoother than any neighborhood street!
Grade Some gradual hills, including two that coincide with the need to move left to avoid a right turn only lane. Built on old railroad right of way, has been built-up and graded flatter than Main Street.
Sightlines Some intersections are dangerous to edge riders due to buildings, parking, and “street furniture” near to the corner. Some curves and uphill grades create blind spots. Good sightlines are created by straight road and further setback of buildings. An overtaking motorist has plenty of time to see and respond to a bicyclist in front of him.

 

On every one of these criteria, William Clarke is actually easier. Simply put, Main Street presents many more challenges, and requires more thought, than does William Clarke Drive. Once you accept that you are a regular driver in control of your lane like any other driver, William Clarke and similar roads are practically worry-free in terms of having to think about what you’re doing. Yes, stay alert, but there are so many fewer decisions to make! It’s almost boring. But when it comes to cycling around traffic, boring is good, n’est çe pas?

I-295 Exit 3, South Portland

Here’s another example. Sometimes I go to downtown Portland after work, often via Broadway in South Portland. From my office, this involves getting through the Exit 3 interchange of I-295. This interchange is dreaded by most cyclists I talk to about it, and it is certainly a scary prospect for beginners. It’s confusing enough even when you’re driving a car, the first time or ten that you do it!

Southbound, there are two right turn only lanes in a row, first for the interstate onramp, then for Broadway, with a traffic light in between. Just before Broadway, the left lane branches out to another lane, providing a left turn only lane nearest the center, then a combined left/through lane (map). I need to turn left to go downtown.

I-295 Exit 3 Bad

I-295 Exit 3, South Portland, Maine, edge path

In the simplified drawing to the left, the pink and red line shows how most inexperienced cyclists would navigate this exchange southbound (bottom to top of drawing), always sticking to the edge as long as possible. The darker red indicates the potential conflict points between the edge cyclist and motor traffic looking to move to the right. (Too often in these situations, elsewhere in the country, bike lanes have been striped using this exact same approach, institutionalizing all that  conflict. I’m actually thankful that has not been done here, because it just reinforces the least recommended practice.) First, one has to watch for right hooks past the entrance and exit for the Irving gas station (indicated by the circled letter I), then at the onramp, and again at the Broadway right turn lane. If one is turning left on Broadway, as I do, an edge cyclist would then have to cross any through traffic as well.

I may have done this a time or two myself in my early days of cycling, through I really don’t remember. The first I really remember using this route is after taking Traffic Skills 101. What I would do then, is start out in the right half or right tire track of the right lane, then change lanes as needed, first at the interstate ramp, and again to avoid the right turn onto Broadway. That was a little better than complete edge behavior, since I was at least a little more in control of my lane, but it still involved a lot of sometimes awkward negotiation with traffic that had inevitably stacked up at the traffic lights.

I-295 Exit 3 Good

I-295 Exit 3, South Portland, Maine, preferred path

Possibly the best single thing CyclingSavvy did for me was inspire me to how I ride through this intersection now (right, green line). Once I got beyond the belief that my place was on the right for as long as possible, including even the LAB admonition of “rightmost through lane” most of the time, I realized that if I got into the left through lane before the interstate onramp even started developing, at the red light in front of the Irving station, or sometimes even the red light before that (off the bottom of the picture), I could just sail right through in that left lane the whole time, never having to change lanes again to take my left onto Broadway. It’s SO EASY! I don’t have to ever worry about all the traffic getting onto I-295 and turning right on Broadway; all that craziness is happening a whole lane away from me, on my right, where it doesn’t concern me. Furthermore, the left lane contains less traffic to begin with, so I have fewer motorists to contend with, and fewer of them have to contend with me! This strategy has reduced this scary-looking interchange to almost the Sunday-ride-in-the-park level. (And about 80% of the time, it happens without a single honk or yell, even at rush hour!)

“But John,” you may say, “In Maine, the law is that we have to ride as far right as practicable. Is this legal?”

My reply is that this action conforms with the following 4 exceptions to that law, excusing me of having to put myself in danger by following the edge path shown in red:

  1. The lanes are too narrow to share. (And Maine law says nothing about slower traffic being required to use the rightmost lane.)
  2. I’m preparing to make a left turn at Broadway.
  3. I’m avoiding potential right-turning traffic entering I-295 or turning right at Broadway.
  4. Even without those 3, the phrase that was added in 2013, “except when it is unsafe to do so as determined by the bicyclist”, gives me an out by pointing out the danger of the edge behavior, and my right to not put myself in that danger.

Takeaway

Now I frequently find myself looking forward to being able to ride on a 4-lane road, if the choice is between that and a moderately busy (or busier!) 2-lane road. Because you know what? I’m lazy! I know how to do control-and-release on two lane roads, and I do it when I have to, but I’d really rather not. It’s just so much thinking! I do enough thinking in my I.T. job. It’s nice to be able to relax a little more on my travels. While small lightly-traveled streets will always be the nicest, big roads that create fewer conflicts and require fewer decisions of me than two busy two-lane roads can be almost as nice, when you know you’re an equal user of them.

JohnB Congress Street Lane Control

The author outbound on Congress Street past I-295.

 
 
 

About the author

I've been riding my bike for transportation since 2002, commuting year-round between Westbrook and South Portland, and riding everywhere around the Portland area. My mission is to empower cyclists to confidently use all roads as equal drivers, enabling them to use their bikes for any and all local transportation. In addition to being a Cycling Savvy instructor, I am also a League Cycling Instructor and serve on the Board of Directors of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine.

More posts by | Visit the site of John Brooking

 

1 Comment

  • Right on John. I’ve been riding on the busiest road in our community for over 20 years for transportation and find it quite peaceful much to the amazement of my fellow cyclists. I always add that us ‘vehicular cyclists’ need to make sure we’re using very powerful lights all the time, front and rear (preferably on strobe during the daylight hours), and dress in high-vis clothing to make sure all of my fellow road users see me wherever I need to be in the lanes while I commute. Keep up the good writing! I’m looking fwd to learning more about Cycling Savvy’s program.