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?
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.
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).
But recently, I had another revelation which I now suspect is really the primary cause. Look at this variation of the map:
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:
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:
Have fun, and ride safe!
Safe Joy Riding
Join the Savvy Cyclist community and get our free “Ten Tips for Successful Cycling,” with new content available only to subscribers. You'll also receive free info and inspiration in our Savvy Cyclist newsletter. Discover a new world of transportation freedom!