Insight into Incivility on Portland’s Johnson Road

This is Johnson Road in South Portland, Maine. This stretch of it that runs past the end of the jetport runway is less than 1/2 mile long, yet I’ve noticed that it is by far the place I’m most like to encounter motorist incivility on my bike travels. What gives?

Johnson Road, South Portland, Maine

Johnson Road, South Portland, Maine

How I Ride It

As you can see from the map, this is a 4-lane road, with a large intersection and traffic lights at either end. The posted speed is 35 MPH, although of course most traffic travels faster than that. The CyclingSavvy approach to riding on any 4-lane road is to fully occupy a travel lane, usually the rightmost. This is because the lanes are almost always too narrow to share, and it’s generally easier for motorists to pass on these roads than on 2-lane roads, since there’s another lane in the same direction for them to use. There is a shoulder on this road, about 4 feet wide, which might be okay to ride in except there is also a curb. A curb means you can’t exit the roadway if you need to, and it holds debris because there is nowhere for it to go. If this were an official bike lane, the presence of the curb would be require it to be 5 feet wide. Finally, large intersections are better handled in the full lane than at the right-hand side of the road, unless you are turning right.

For all these reasons, I do practice lane control on this road, as I do on all the 4-lane roads around the Maine Mall and all the way into town on Outer Congress Street. Doing so gets me into far fewer close calls than trying to share a narrow space at the edge.

I frequently use this road after work when I’m not just going straight home, riding northbound on it from the intersection at the bottom of the picture. Because I’m controlling the lane approaching that signal, whether red or green, the traffic behind me has plenty of time to see me and change lanes, so I generally don’t have too much traffic behind me when I go through the intersection. Also, that lane also serves right turning traffic onto the Jetport Plaza road (including the Staples shopping plaza), so some of it turns off too. So it starts out okay.

Southbound, sometimes coming from Westbrook I’m turning right onto it from Skyway Drive at the top of the picture. In this situation, there is only one lane of traffic turning onto two lanes each way, so motorists behind me in the turn can just get immediately into the left lane afterwards, so again, no delay, no problem.

In either direction, however, I tend to get someone behind me about half-way between lights who just has to express his (or her!) displeasure with my presence in the lane. Not every single time, but probably one out of every 3 times I’m on this road. That’s way more frequently than practically anywhere else I ride.

What’s Their Problem?

I’m not doing anything differently on this road than on other 4-lane roads in the area, and I’m just riding in a straight line down the road. Yet I get more grief about it here. There must be something about this road, or the traffic patterns.

General Observations

A couple of basic observations may explain part of it. Skyway Drive leads to and from an I-295 interchange, and there are others in this area, so some of the traffic consists of drivers who have just exited, or are bound for, the Interstate. They are either still in freeway mode or anticipating it.

Secondly, about those shoulders. Many of the 4-lane roads in this area have little or no shoulder, so compared to those, these shoulders look like a place bicycles could be ridden, maybe even should be. I’m sure they look that way to most motorists. And I’m sure many bicyclists do use them. Truthfully, sometimes I do too. But as I said, there can be debris (there was a big pile of broken glass just a few weeks ago), and it can also be difficult to merge back into the lane at the intersection once you’ve given up your spot. But I certainly have more appearance of a choice here than in some other nearby roads. I frequently suspect that incivility can be higher the more motorists think you have a choice of where to ride (even if that is the sidewalk or a narrow shoulder).

Traffic Patterns

But recently, I had another revelation which I now suspect is really the primary cause. Look at this variation of the map:

Johnson Road Traffic, South Portland, Maine

Traffic patterns on Johnson Road. The thick red arrows indicate traffic lights which release two parallel lanes of traffic at once. Narrow green arrows are a single lane of traffic. Blue lines are short bicycle lanes.

At each end of the intersection, there is at least one direction in which two lanes of traffic are released in parallel by the traffic light, indicated by the thick red arrows. As I said above, if I’m already in the lane at that intersection, there’s generally not much traffic behind me, because they’ve seen me and changed lanes already. But here’s the revelation. Traffic from another direction that has two lanes released in parallel does not know I’m there when they line up at their light, so there is more likely to be an equal amount of traffic in both of those lanes. When their light changes to green, they surge forward side by side. By the time they catch up with me, about halfway along this section of road, they’ve already built up some speed when the unlucky ones in the right lane unexpectedly find a bicyclist in front of them that they hadn’t planned on. They cannot immediately change lanes to pass because there is still a line of cars next to them in the left lane, so they are forced to slow back down to my speed and wait until there’s a gap in the left lane. The way the long red light builds up traffic in both lanes practically guarantees that this will happen, especially during peak traffic periods.

Bike Lanes and Shoulders

But there’s even more. Remember those 4 foot shoulders? The blue lines in the above diagram indicate very limited sections of bike lanes that have been installed in the southbound direction. In both cases, they are meant to guide bicyclists out to the left of a right-turn only lane, which is fine as far as it goes. But there’s the rub: that’s as far as they go. In neither case do they continue on the other side of the intersection.

Here’s some close-ups, showing the typical path of a bicyclists using the bike lanes:

Bike Lane at Skyline Drive

Southbound bike lane at intersection with Skyline Drive.

Bike lane at Western

Southbound bike lane continuing to Western Avenue.

As you can see, in both these cases, there is no bike lane on the other side of the intersection. There is only the shoulder. The shoulder does not start like a bike lane, there is no bike icon, and it is not sufficiently wide enough to be a bike lane, according to published standards.

Yet, the bike lane design seems predicated on the assumption that bicyclists will use the shoulder. In fact, if I am using the bike lane, there is nowhere else for me to go once I reach the other side of the intersection with traffic in both lanes on my left. Is it any wonder motorists think a bicyclist’s place on this road is in the shoulder? Is it any wonder they pass me when I’m in the travel lane and yell “bike lane!” at me?

One last problem with these. After the first bike lane to shoulder transition past Skyline Drive, there is no “Bike Lane Ends” sign at all, compounding the motorist tendency to assume the shoulders that continue are where the bikes are supposed to be, maybe even that the shoulders are still “the bike lane”. After the second bike lane, there is such a sign, but it it posted on the other side of the intersection, between the crosswalk and the gas station driveway (see white rectangle in picture). So it’s after the bike lane has already ended, and the cyclist has been more or less forced into the shoulder (where there are also drain grates). Not helpful. “Lane ends” signs are supposed to warn drivers that a lane is going to end and that they’ll need to merge. What’s the point of posting them after the fact? Even if the sign is directed primarily at motorists, who unlike the cyclists may not have noticed that the bike lane ended, it’s a little late for anyone to take any action based on it at that point.

And oh yes, the driveway into the gas station? A prime right hook opportunity for the poor biker who followed the bike lane like a good cyclist and found herself forced to the edge at the other side, just in time to see the unhelpful “Bike Lane Ends” sign. Thank you very much.

I never use either of these bike lanes.

Lessening the Stress

It’s clear that in most scenarios on this road (5 out of the 6 ways the cyclist can enter this section), a cyclist is going to have a pack of cars released from a red light in both lanes behind him sometime after he has already established control of the lane, and these cars will catch up to him when he is about halfway through this stretch. They didn’t know he was there when they lined up at their light, so they had no chance to move to the left lane before the red light. Then when they started up, they had just enough time to build up some speed, but not enough for the traffic on their left to get past them. As a result, it is almost inevitable that they will have to slow down again and wait for a while.

The cyclist certainly has the legal right to use the lane here, due to the lanes being too narrow to share, and lane control is highly recommended at the intersections. The likelihood of debris in the shoulder makes shoulder use for the entire length of the road a less desirable option as well. What to do?

I must admit that I can sometimes be stubborn about exercising my rights on the road, because I think that’s important, and also that’s my personality. But sure, being honked and yelled at is never pleasant. While I would never presume to judge another bicyclist for exercising a legal option, I also do not want to minimize the psychological difficulty of being in this position, and take a hard stand that cyclists should just “suck it up” and do it just one way. I think there is some room here for compromise, and for me, knowing the reason why this keeps happening actually makes it easier for me to feel some empathy for the motorists and “cut them some slack” when I can.

So what I’ve been experimenting with recently is to move into the shoulder, temporarily, when I see that there is a lot of traffic coming up behind me in both lanes. Yes, I’m yielding my right of way to overtakers, which is in no way a rule of the road, and I’m probably also reinforcing the motorist expectation that I should do that. (Now that I’ve figured out why it happens, maybe I’ll move over earlier so it’s not so apparent I’m doing it “just for them”.) But, knowing the likelihood of getting grief if I don’t, I think all of us can be excused for compromising principle for comfort sometimes, can’t we?

As long as we don’t compromise safety. In this location, even though the shoulder is a bit narrow according to standards, if there is no debris then chances are that it’s safe to use temporarily, if you slow down a bit. Stopping in the shoulder to let the pack pass is always an option, as a last resort, such as the pile of glass. I do feel it’s still important to move back out into the lane as soon as the pack has passed, to prepare for the next intersection, and usually the pack has passed before I get too close to the intersection. As always, look back to make sure it’s clear first.

I’m not saying this has to be done every time, and I still don’t do it every time. For example, I decided not to use the shoulder recently when it was dark and rainy, because I didn’t feel confident that I would be able to see any debris far enough ahead of time to be safe. I figured I would get grief for it, and sure enough, I did, but I knew what I was getting into and I was prepared to handle it courteously. I was never actually endangered.

I still don’t use the bike lanes, but that doesn’t seem to get me as much grief as the two lanes of overtakers coming up from behind does.

If you’re looking for ideas on how the infrastructure could be changed to make it a little nicer for cyclists, that’s another entire post. The only idea I’ll mention in that regard for now is this:

Bikes May Use Full Lane Sign

Bikes May Use Full Lane (Sign R4-11, FHWA Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices)

Have fun, and ride safe!

9 replies
  1. Eli Damon
    Eli Damon says:

    I don’t really understand your point about the traffic pattern. You’ve focused your attention on a very short stretch of road, so maybe you get to the end before the second wave of traffic comes. But on a longer stretch of 4-lane road, even if no one queues up behind you when you enter, subsequent waves will always come in two lines.
    On a multi-lane road, isn’t traffic always released into two lanes at once?

    • John Brooking
      John Brooking says:

      Actually, the problem is that I DON’T get to the end before the second wave of traffic comes up. I only get halfway through. If I’ve entered this section from a set of two lanes (marked with the red arrows), I don’t have much traffic behind me because they already know I’m there. But 5 of the 6 ways I can enter this section, there’s another wave of two-lane traffic waiting to enter from another direction, who didn’t see me when they stopped at the red, so they had no opportunity to avoid the right lane. They catch up with me half-way through, and only then do they find out I’m there. The distance is long enough for them to have built up some speed, so they have to slow down again, but not long enough for the traffic to have gotten strung out enough to have ready gaps in the left lane to allow them to move over.

      The only scenario in which I don’t have a “second wave” catch up to me is southbound when I’m already on Johnson Road (the single red arrow at the top).

      Does that help? Let me know if there’s any editing I can do to the text to make it clearer.

  2. TonyGuy
    TonyGuy says:

    John, I think you have it right. Even if the lanes marked are 11 feet wide and the shoulder only four feet, there is adequate space for you to ride, avoid small obstacles, and still enjoy at least a 3 foot buffer between yourself and passing vehicles. Without the shoulder marking you would be riding on a 15 ft shared lane roadway and would probably be better off without the shoulder marking because debris would be swept from the road surface by vehicles using more of the roadway. The accumulation of debris on the shoulder is an unintended consequence of the shoulder line, the same unintended consequence applies to lined bike lanes. Nice job on the photos and notations!

  3. Lance Jacobs
    Lance Jacobs says:

    Hi John,

    I feel you bro’!

    You’re post hints at a few concepts I’ve been thinking about and would like to highlight.

    The first is the concept of “establishing” yourself on the road. Establishment (with a capital “E”) is easy to acquire at Red lights, or whenever you can negotiate to secure your position on the road. It’s harder to maintain Establishment against fast approaching traffic with whom no negotiation has occurred.

    You allude to this concept when you mention giving up your right-of-way if you move to the shoulder. Establishment can be thought of as tangible, you work to gain it, try to hold on to it, and must be aware when you’ve lost it.

    I also really appreciate your effort to deconstruct the dynamics of this section of road that creates the same patterns and psychology day after day. It’s not (just) that they’re [!#$@#] aggressive drivers. They are as much a victim of the roads design failings and its mixed signals as you are. You tend to want to cut them some slack. I have to agree! Doesn’t everybody’s blood pressure go down when we TRY to see things from the other guy’s perspective?

    I think every cyclist should be capable of at least some of the thought process you’ve demonstrated here. Why do different roads have different personalities? How can I best navigate these changing configurations? When can I give up my right of way and how will I re-establish it? And what subtle signals are car drivers responding to and what are drivers thinking? (yeah, that’s always a good question! HA!)

    You’ve done a great job of identifying the road features that lead to the raceway-like dynamics you encounter. I’d add that it’s an unbroken stretch of road, unblemished by driveways or intersections, just made for goin’ fast. And fast I bet they go! Here are two ideas that I think would be helpful.

    The first is use of Hi-Vis accessories. I know, I know! No one wants to look like a traffic cone, right? That’s the argument? Well, here’s mine; On a daily basis, we dress and equip ourselves differently for different activities. You don’t wear a Tuxdeo to the beach, nor a bathing suit to Parent Teacher conference. But for some reason, I get resistance when I suggest to cyclists that they throw on a traffic vest to ride in traffic!

    By wearing a hi-vis vest, at least one aspect of the Johnson Road dynamic is addressed; that new traffic in the Right lane is surprised by your presence. A vest would get their attention that much earlier, and would broadcast in no uncertain terms that “there’s something or someone on the road”. In my thinking, Hi-Vis is a gesture of courtesy and cooperation.

    The second technique I’d probably use would be to ride deep into the lane as the new wave came into view, maybe doing a little wiggle-waggle to get their attention. As they come up on me, and have reduced their speed somewhat, I would slide onto the shoulder; but only so far. Again, I want to work with them; the guys in the right lane are boxed in, I’d like to let them pass. But not at 65mph. A more genteel 45 would seem like a working compromise.

    Thanks for a great post John!

    Lance Jacobs, NYC

    • John Brooking
      John Brooking says:

      Thanks for the comments, Lance. I really like your “Establishment” concept. As you say, it’s familiar to me to talk about exiting and re-entering the traffic stream, but it’s very helpful to give the concept a name, and make it into a noun that you either have or don’t have, and can talk about how easy or difficult it is to regain once you’ve given it up.

      A core part of the CyclingSavvy curriculum is to teach traffic dynamics. Even as an instructor, it’s taken me this long to explore the dynamics of this particular stretch of road to this degree, but we start with simpler traffic flow concepts that nonetheless may not have occurred to many cyclists.

      Hi-Vis accessories are certainly useful. I always wear a hi-vis jacket myself on my commute, and even for small trips near my house I’ve put a few strips of reflective tape on the back of some of the other non-cyling jackets I may want to wear. The CyclingSavvy program does not want to put as much emphasis on these things as on the legal lighting requirements, because we don’t want things that aren’t legal requirements to nonetheless become an expectation that lawyers and insurance companies can use against cyclists for not using them. However, we do teach that if you do wear these things, they work even better if you are more centered in front of overtaking motorists rather than off to the side, so their use is enhanced by good lane position, not necessarily replacing the need for it.

      I don’t get the feeling that motorists are “surprised” by my presence to the point of having to brake suddenly. I haven’t noticed that happening. What I mean by “unexpected” is that I wasn’t in front of them when they were at their red light, so they didn’t expect to see me after they got their green. But when they do, I think they have plenty of time to react to me.

      BTW, I should have mentioned, the posted speed here is 35 MPH, although I’m sure most get up to 40-45. I just added mention of that to the article.

  4. John Brooking
    John Brooking says:

    Update: I had forgotten I had a photo album on Facebook about this road, and I just updated it with a few pictures of snowy conditions post-Blizzard of February 2013, taken this morning. The bike lane disappears into the unplowed snow next to the pedestrian island, the shoulders are 80% snow, and the Bike Lane Ends sign is in the middle of a snowbank. Travel lanes, however, are fine.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] written before about one section of this road. I sometimes get guff here from motorists because the paved shoulder […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply