City biking 101: Taking the lane


2012-07-17-BC-091-sktIt was a bright, sunny, warm day last Tuesday as I rode my bike home from work. Unusual for this year, with its never-ending cold and drizzle, and it was a quite enjoyable ride. I was coming down the Off-Broadway bike route, just past Trimble Park when the ride became much less enjoyable. A driver decided to pass me and then cut back in front of me with literally inches to spare.

There was no reason for him to pass me: I was going above the speed limit as it was. There was no need to cut me off: there was no oncoming traffic. There was no prior “history”: I didn’t have any interaction, or knowledge of this car and driver until nearly being knocked off my bike.

Fortunately I had my helmet-cam on at the time and recorded the incident. And the driver running the stop sign at the bottom of the hill. And the driver trying to pass another cyclist on the inside of a traffic roundabout. A real winner, this one.

When I got home, I took the video and posted it to YouTube with some commentary. I tweeted the video out and it got circulated around a bit. But some of the feedback I got surprised me: Two acquaintances asked what I was doing riding so far in the middle of the lane. I admit to being a bit shocked: I expected some commentary on the fact I was exceeding the 30 kph speed limit, but not about where I was riding.

Where I was riding (when the car passed me) was about 2/3rds of the way from the curb. Why I was riding there is pretty simple:

•  I had just passed a parked car (3 seconds before the car nearly clipped me). I always pass parked cars with at least a door’s-width space between it and me to avoid being doored.
•  The road typically has lots of parked cars on that side, and rather than weave my way in and out of them, I stay in one place. As it turns out, there were fewer that day, but you don’t know that until you go over the crest of the hill.
•  The lane has a significant “seam” running down the middle of it, which will cause havoc with bike tires if you catch it wrong. You can see this seem 3 seconds after the car passes me, the black squiggle almost right in the middle of the right lane.
•  When riding down the hill, out of reach of the parked cars, the lane is too narrow for a car to pass you, so I “take the lane” to try to prevent the sort of behaviour that just nearly sent me flying.

In short, I was riding where I felt safest. Watch the whole video (0:37) to judge for yourself.

The BC Motor Vehicle Act is a bit vague on the subject:

183.2(c) “must, subject to paragraph (a), ride as near as practicable to the right side of the highway,”

The City of Vancouver Street and Traffic By-Law No. 2849 effectively says the same thing:

“59. The driver of every slow moving vehicle shall drive such vehicle as close as possible to the right hand edge or curb of any street unless it is impracticable to travel on such side. For the purpose of this section a bicycle shall be regarded at all times as a slow moving vehicle.”

The problem is the word “practicable”. It’s defined as:

Capable of being effected, done, or put into practice; feasible.

The “problem” is that it’s a very subjective word. In my mind, it’s the wrong word too. I think it should be “safe”, but that too is very subjective.

The City of Vancouver’s Riding Safely guidelines seem to agree:

“Lane position: If a lane is narrow or has no shoulder, ride near the middle of the lane for improved visibility and safety.”

All cycling advocacy and safety organizations talk about “taking the lane”. This is when a cyclist rides in the middle of the lane, asserting their presence and becoming more visible. In fact, BikeSense The British Columbia Bicycle Operator’s Manual (an excellent guide funded by many agencies including the provincial government and ICBC, published by the Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition) says:

“If there is no shoulder or bike lane and the curb lane is narrow (i.e. when the right wheel track of most traffic is less than a metre from the curb), cyclists may choose to take the whole lane by riding in the centre of it. This can be safer than riding near the curb, which may encourage motorist to squeeze by where there isn’t sufficient room. You should also consider taking the lane when you are travelling at the same speed as other traffic. This will keep you out of motorists’ blind spots and reduce conflicts with right-turning traffic.”

(emphasis mine)

Of course the very next line is:

“Be prepared for the occasional frustrated driver who is not familiar with the safe and legal operation of a bicycle.”

So, I give you the following rules-of-thumb for cyclists to practice and motorists to be aware of:

•  Ride at least 1 metre from the curb to avoid debris, storm grates, and the gutter lip.
•  Ride at least 1 metre from parked cars to avoid being doored, and do not weave in and out of intermittent parked cars.
•  If your safe riding position puts you so far into the lane that it is impractical for vehicles to safely pass you, “take the lane” to discourage vehicles from dangerously squeezing by.

Where do you ride? Do you “take the lane”?

Last modified: July 23, 2012

7 Responses to " City biking 101: Taking the lane "

  1. Chris says:

    Totally agree with this post.

    I was harassed by a bunch of Harley drivers for doing the same thing on the downhill sections of Marine Drive coming back from Horseshoe Bay.

    I dont want anyone over taking me at those speeds (i was doing the speed limit) so i took the lane.

    There are asshole bikers and asshole drivers. I dont know how we educate both better

  2. Debra says:

    Thanks for the information. I was not aware of this, as I’m sure lots of others are not, drivers and cyclists alike.
    I quit cycling years ago after having too many close calls from drivers on Burrard bridge. I was thinking of coming out of retirement but I see that little has changed.
    As a cyclist, you may be right but wouldn’t you rather move over and be alive and uninjured? I would. Same with runners, you may have the right of way but if you don’t watch for idiots like this, you will get hit. I’m always amazed how vigilant I have to be when I’m running on the sidewalk and crossing the street.

  3. Ruth says:

    I “take the lane” when it’s the safest thing to do, definitely. And I stay as far right as is safe the rest of the time. And when I’m taking the lane in order to be safe, I refuse to feel pressured into riding faster than is comfortable because there’s a car behind me. I feel more confident in doing all of these things because I only ride on designated bike routes, where frankly, if other vehicle users don’t like the way people ride their bikes *safely*, they can suck it up.

  4. Anthony says:

    @debra Thanks for the comment. You said “As a cyclist, you might be right but wouldn’t you rather move over and be alive and uninjured.”

    Part of the point I was trying to make was that it’s actually *safer* to take the lane than not. By taking the lane, you put yourself into the view of motorists _and_ you limit their opportunities to pass you in situations where it’s simply not safe (in your mind) to be passed. In most circumstances, “moving over” puts you at more risk, not less.

    You also said “I was thinking of coming out of retirement but I see that little has changed.” I hope you reconsider. I ride daily to and from work, 10 km each way. I complain about bad driving, sure, but most of the time my rides are without incident. Most of the bike routes have been improved significantly in the past few years, and the separated (and not) bike lanes downtown are great.

  5. Anthony says:

    @ruth Yeah, motorists who get impatient with cyclists on bike routes need to re-evaluate their route. I often wonder if more signs, “sharrows”, and maybe some of that spiffy green paint would make motorists realize they’re on a bike route.

  6. Traci Penner says:

    I completely agree with your post.

    My husband is considering becoming a bike commuter once the new Port Mann bridge is complete, he and our 3 adult children are avid bike riders. Due to my type of work I am a recreational cyclist and am lucky to only need a motor vehicle about once a week. In my travels I have seen both responsible bike commuters and the odd cyclist who gives the others a bad reputation!

    In my humble opinion there isn’t enough education for vehicle drivers on how to safely drive behind or around bike communters, not to mention the use of traffic circles! I personally think that ICBC should have infomercials to teach the public (both cyclists & vehilce drivers) how to responsibly and safely share the road and use traffic circles. If you have any suggestions on how this can be encouraged please share.

    On a site note, my youngest daughter just got home from her first ever interview and starts her first job tomorrow. She will be bike commuting to and from work 🙂

  7. Bonnie says:

    I don’t mind accommodating the bikes in our city — good for them! But I do take issue with the lack of regard many seem to have for the ‘rules of the road’, ie stopping fully at stop signs, etc. Yes, drivers are equally guilty, but that doesn’t help me understand their lack of regard. I wonder, as well, if they are really concerned about they’re safety (and they no doubt are), why they don’t move one block over OFF of Cornwall and onto the designated bike route. Very difficult to support those who choose the more obstructive, less safe route. Seems to be an ‘in-your-face’ attitude. Not trying to irritate everyone, but just an interesting observation in our City’s ongoing bike debate.