Taking the lane

Lane markings at the intersection of Sage Road and Cosgrove Avenue create potential for conflicts between cyclists proceeding straight and motorists turning right. By moving left and taking the travel lane, cyclists can avoid getting right-hooked. Photo by Michael Schwalbe.


By Michael Schwalbe

The largest group of would-be bike riders consists of the “interested but concerned.” These are people who like the idea of riding a bike for fun and utility but hesitate because they don’t feel safe sharing roads with cars, trucks, and buses. Cycling advocates tend to fall into two camps when it comes to the question of how to get these folks on bikes.

One camp believes that if you build it they will come. Build the infrastructure that makes cycling safer and easier, the argument goes, and people’s fears will abate. We just need more bike lanes, bike paths, neighborhood connectors, bike-friendly signals at intersections, wayfinding signs, and bike parking. Create all that and more people will ride, like they do in Norway, Denmark, and Sweden.

The other camp doesn’t oppose infrastructure improvements, but says that the real key is teaching people how to ride confidently and safely on roads as they now exist.

At one time, this view was associated with the “vehicular cycling” philosophy of John Forester, a staunch opponent of bike lanes, who died in 2020. The more militant of Forester’s views have fallen out of favor with many cycling advocates, as research has found that properly built, physically separated bike lanes are indeed safer for cyclists.

Forester’s central argument is that cyclists fare best when they act like vehicle operators. This means assuming the same rights and responsibilities as motorized road users. Forester made allowances for the slower speeds and greater vulnerability of cyclists, but generally held that cyclists are safest when they behave predictably, following the same rules as other drivers on the road.

Today, both the CyclingSavvy program of the American Bicycling Education Association and the Smart Cycling program of the League of American Bicyclists incorporate one of the proven elements of vehicular cycling: lane control or, as it is also called, taking the lane. This refers to a cyclist shifting from the right edge of the road into the middle of the travel lane. 

Although most cycling safety instructors and experienced cyclists advise taking the lane as a best practice under certain circumstances, it is still often misunderstood by motorists, police, and traffic engineers.

In brief: cyclists properly take the lane when a lane is too narrow for cars to pass safely; when it’s necessary to stay out of the “dooring” zone along a string of parked cars; when it’s necessary to avoid potholes, road debris, and illegally parked vehicles; when preparing to make a left turn; and when it makes a cyclist more visible to cars at an intersection. Cyclists riding two abreast may also take the lane. 

Entry and exit chutes for the new roundabout on Ephesus Church Road are too narrow for motor vehicles to pass cyclists safely. Cyclists prevent unsafe passing by riding in the middle of the lane. Signs indicating that bicycles may use full lane would enhance driver understanding.

Unfortunately, when cyclists take the lane in these cases, some motorists think cyclists are unfairly hogging the road; some police officers think cyclists are breaking the law; and some transportation bureaucrats think cyclists are using the road in an inappropriate way. All are wrong. Cyclists are simply doing what they are legally entitled to do, as a matter of judgment, for their own safety and the safety of others.

How does all this matter for getting more people on bikes? Here’s how: if the fears that keep people off bikes are misplaced—if the worst threats aren’t the ones people fear most—then perhaps the best bet for getting more people riding bikes is to teach them how to safely and confidently cope with today’s roads, and not wait for the ideal infrastructure of the future.

For instance, many would-be cyclists fear being hit from behind or side-swiped by a car. Although this can happen, as we were recently tragically reminded, these kinds of crashes are statistically rare. The pie chart below, created by Steven Goodridge, a bicycling education and safety advocate in Cary who is a board member of BikeWalkNC, shows Chapel Hill motorist/bicycle crash data for the period 2000 to 2019.

Pie chart showing motor vehicle/bicycle crash types for the period 2000 to 2019. Chart created by Steven Goodridge using data compiled by UNC Highway Safety Research Center.

Seventy-four percent of the 260 motor vehicle/bicycle collisions that occurred during this period were at junctions. Only 6% involved a motorist overtaking a cyclist. This suggests that many crashes could be prevented if drivers and cyclists knew better how to deal with each other where their paths intersect. Taking the lane is one of the practices that, if employed skillfully by cyclists and understood by motorists, could eliminate many of these crashes.

This is not to deny the importance of better infrastructure, especially on higher-speed roads where crashes are more likely to be deadly. But to reduce crashes on lower-speed roads in the center of town—where junction conflicts are common—we need to teach people how to safely use the roads we’re stuck with for now. Law enforcement must also compel motorists to respect cyclists’ rights to the road.

Goodridge, whose stepson plans to attend UNC-Chapel Hill, said the university should offer safe cycling instruction as part of its orientation program for new students. I asked Jennifer Mallen, director of new student and family programs at UNC, if first-year orientation included any such instruction. She responded by routing my inquiry to media relations, from whom I received no reply by press time. The university’s public safety department does, however, have a cycling tips web page.

In the same scheme that identifies would-be cyclists as “interested but concerned,” I fall into the “strong and fearless” category. That doesn’t mean I fancy myself an invulnerable road warrior. Hardly. It just means that I’m confident enough of my ability to ride in traffic that I’ll use any road that’s legal to use and not insane to use. Despite this, I’m always happy to ride on low-stress roads when I can. 

But if I waited for the Town of Chapel Hill or the North Carolina Department of Transportation to build physically separated bike lanes that I could use to get in and out of town, I might never ride my bike again. The only alternative, here and in most places in the U.S., is to acquire the skills needed to share the road with motorists. These skills can be learned by anyone. After that, taking the lane, when judgment calls for it, will seem like the natural thing to do.

Michael Schwalbe is a retired professor of sociology and an unretired cyclist. He has lived in Chapel Hill since 1990.

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