You Lead the Dance

The epiphany which transforms us into confident cyclists is grasping the simple (albeit counter-intuitive) fact that we have control of our environment. That control comes from predictability, communication and (believe it or not) self-image.

Bicycling in traffic is a dance you must lead

It is your choice of roadway position which most influences the behavior of motorists. Want them to give you more clearance? Use enough lane to make them realize they need part of another to pass you (on a multi-lane road, use even more lane to strongly encourage them to change lanes to pass). Want them to wait to pass? Use a lane control position and, if necessary, a hand signal. Want them to plan ahead and make decisions early? Be visible and predictable. If you want them to yield or let you merge, look back at them and communicate your intentions.

Motorists often operate on auto pilot where cyclists are concerned. They’re motoring along a highway or residential street and come upon you. The fact that you’re a person doesn’t always register. You’re an obstacle that needs to be dealt with. “Must pass the cyclist, must pass the cyclist.”

If your lane position and mindset invite an unsafe pass, or leave the decision of whether or not to squeeze past in their hands, most motorists can’t resist the impulse.

The optimum lane position between intersections varies based on many factors, from road design to traffic conditions. I usually refer to the right half of the lane as a default (on a 2-lane road). Some instruction divides the lane in thirds, however, I recommend riding at least 1/3 of the way into the lane not “in the right 1/3″ as is often stated. On multi-lane roads, I often use the left half of the lane to ensure motorists change lanes. Lane position governs more than just overtaking behavior, it puts you in the sight-triangles of crossing and turning drivers—this is extra-critical for cyclists traveling at higher speeds.

I will sometimes move right, to a secondary position, to facilitate someone passing on a 2-lane road, but always ride farther left as my primary (default) position.

Simplifying complex moves

Major intersections can be a source of stress and conflict, or not. Cyclists who try to stay out of the way, riding straight on the edge of a thru lane, in a bike lane, or worse — using a right-turn lane or crosswalk — are inevitably at high risk for being hit by cars. The farther you ride from the thru travel lane, the more likely you are to experience conflict.

Lane position is not only critical riding through an intersection, but as you approach it, too. As you approach an intersection or a lane-split (where a right-turn lane develops), check for overtaking cars, then slide over, from the right half of the lane to the left half. Now the right-turning motorists will wait and move to the right turn lane behind you and the others will wait to pass you after the intersection. You can move back to the right half of the lane when you see it is safe for them to pass, and give them a friendly wave.

By being in this left-side position, you discourage unsafe passing, right-hook and left-cross crashes. In thick, slow traffic on a 2-way, 2-lane street, it is very important to be on the left side of the lane so that left-turning drivers don’t think the gap you’re creating is an opportunity to dart into a left turn. This is a motorcycle-safety skill which is 100% applicable to bicycles.

Also, if you end up stopping first at the red light, placing your narrow bicycle on the left side of the lane will allow motorists to turn right on red beside you. They appreciate that and will often wave a thank you.

This technique should be used regardless of lane width or the presence of a bike lane. It is obviously not necessary at every minor intersection you encounter. But as you gain familiarity with traffic dynamics, you’ll instinctively know when to use it. You’ll do it effortlessly and your dance partners will be impressed… or at least less likely to step on your toes.

The way you see yourself is what you project to others

Your self-image both governs your behavior and how others respond to you on the road. Does this sound like a smarmy self-help book? Sorry. It’s true! If you’ve ever taken a public speaking class, or operated in a sales environment, you know how this works. Go into an intimidating meeting with confidence, comfort and security in your knowledge and, most likely, you’ll succeed in persuading others. Go in feeling nervous and insecure and you may get eaten alive.

This is amazingly true on the road. But embracing our leadership of the dance requires overcoming our cultural brainwashing in the mythologies of danger and delay and envisioning ourselves as legitimate vehicle drivers.* Bicyclists have been beaten into submission, not by individual motorists, but by a culture of speed, convenience and hyper-selfishness. But the truth is, the majority of individual motorist attitudes range from ambivalent to respectful of a competent cyclist, when they see one. Deliberate lane positioning and communication advertise your competence.

Honking and other territorial noises

“But they’ll get mad at me!” is the the cry I often hear when explaining lane position. Cyclists are used to being honked at and told to “get off the road” or “ride on the sidewalk.” Most are sure that if they moved farther into the lane, that harassment would increase exponentially. The amazing thing is, it doesn’t. In fact, my experience is that moving into an assertive and confident lane position silences the geese.

Cyclists who cower on the edge are not only dismissed as irrelevant in a motorist’s decision-making, they are also more apt to be targets of harassment.

P.M. Summer explains this very well:

There’s an amazing bonus to this action: reduced tensions. Invariably, cyclists whom I have taught to ride like this, will discover that horn honks, finger wagging (and waving), and shouting all decrease or disappear. By taking an action many cyclists fear is discourteous (taking their lane), they discover that exercising the laws of right-of-way actually increase motorists courtesy. Why? Because they are no longer afraid that they are going to hit you. You have stood up for your rights as a vehicle operator, and 999 times out of a 1,000, the motorists recognize and appreciate the fact that you have successfully negotiated right-of-way with them.

I will add that self-respect commands respect from others. Lack of it encourages the wrath of bullies (remember: nothing turns a bully on like capitulation).

Of course, the occasional run-in with a selfish human is unavoidable. But you’ll be amazed at how infrequent it really is—especially once you learn to virtually eliminate the mindless close-passing. (I used to think that was deliberate ugliness, but it was only acceptance of an invitation I was unconsciously offering.)

Confidence in your skills and legitimacy also neutralize the effect of the infrequent harassment you experience. It just won’t push your buttons. OTOH, there’s no bigger insult than being harassed when you’ve already squeezed yourself into a compromised, miserable, subordinate position.

Motivation to leave the edge and take control

Sometimes it takes a close-call to move us to a new mindset. In my case, frequent and repeated conflicts with inattentive motorists was the motivation. The final near-miss was on Lakemont Ave. as I was approaching Aloma (heading south). The right lane splits into a thru lane and an RTOL. I was riding in my usual position of ~2 feet from the gutter seam, approaching the spot where the lane begins to widen, a truck pulling a large utility trailer passed me on the left and then swung into the RTOL. The trailer would have hit me if I had not had that 2 feet to swerve into. Of course, the light was red, too, so it gained this driver nothing.

That was the catalyzing moment for me. I realized this nonsense of subordination to the right side of the road was of no benefit to me at all. By not claiming my space in the lane or controlling my approaches to intersections, I was subjecting myself to unnecessary stress and potential injury. In the interest of appearing unobtrusive, I was handing all the decision-making to strangers whose judgment was completely unknown to me. Like a mouse on the dance floor.

Fortunately, I recognized that abandoning far-right thinking was the key to controlling the movements of traffic around me for both my comfort and safety. Amazingly, the entire character of the roadway environment changed for me. Gone were the dangerous idiots trying to kill me at every intersection. My rides became a cooperative dance, often punctuated by friendly interactions and very rarely disturbed by unfriendly ones.

*Repeat after me: I’m a legitimate vehicle driver with the right to manage my space on the road as I see fit. It is safer to ride in the lane than the gutter. Bicyclists do not cause delay.

30 replies
  1. pmsummer
    pmsummer says:

    “The Power of Positive Cycling”!

    Excellent post. I look forward to the rest of the Smart Moves series. I think I can retire now, and just forward all inquiries to this site.

    I really like how you describe the “cooperative dance” of cycling on public streets, while I refer to the “negotiated right-of-way treaty”. Venus/Mars thing, I guess. 😉

    • Lance Jacobs
      Lance Jacobs says:

      Keri – I use and teach many of the VC concepts you discuss, particularly, the image projection issue, the power of which is underestimated by many.

      Here’s a post on my blog on a related, lane position, active cycling related dynamic; Avoiding the Right Hook.

      Would love your feedback!

      Lance Jacobs
      LCI #3507

  2. Mighk
    Mighk says:

    Many years ago I participated in an event involving stage combat (the “Human Chess match” at the Ringling Medieval Fair in Sarasota). One of the principles of stage combat is that whenever feasible, the more vulnerable party controls the action.
    While stage combat of course involves people who know and work with each other and traffic usually involves strangers, I think the principle still works.

  3. Mighk
    Mighk says:

    I’d change the last line — “bicyclists do not cause delay” — to “bicyclists do not cause any more delay than any other vehicle driver.”
    All street users cause delay.

  4. Keri
    Keri says:

    “bicyclists do not cause any more delay than any other vehicle driver.”

    That is more technically correct. However, we rarely cause more than split-time delay to the next fire hydrant. Otherwise, we redistribute traffic between delays caused by other traffic and traffic signals. The cars that wait behind me on a narrow road are almost always reunited with the cars in front of me when we all get to the next red light. And that’s on the rare occasions that they can’t pass almost immediately.

  5. Eric
    Eric says:

    >>Also, if you end up stopping first at the red light, placing your narrow bicycle on the left side of the lane will allow motorists to turn right on red beside you. They appreciate that and will often wave a thank you.<<

    Not happening for me. I’ve been trying this for the last six weeks or so since I have been corrected. I don’t often get to be at the head of the line, so I think it has only happened six or seven times that I’ve had a chance to try it.

    Most of the time the street is 30 feet wide and curbed. Ten feet for the right turn/straight ahead lane and ten for the left turn lane.

    Lessee, I am 2.5 feet wide, so six inches on each side means I take up 3 feet. On a ten foot wide lane, with me on one side, and a curb on the other, the “little women” (the name I call the ones that can’t see over the steering wheel) navigating a monster SUV chicken out and stay back. They are afraid that they will brush me or the curb (and perhaps have someone scold them for scraping the tire), so they just wait.

    If I go further left, so I am closer to the separating line, then I stop both lanes from approaching the white stop line. Turning around and inviting hasn’t worked. They just pass on that invitation. Too polite.

    I think only one time a car passed me on the right to make a right turn it was a little car which is quite unusual around here. The SUV/Truck behind it stopped and wouldn’t squeeze through.

  6. José
    José says:

    Amazing post! This post was the catalyst that made me ride farther into the lane. I’ve been commuting (in Jacksonville) by bike for a year and I couldn’t take much space in the lane. I thought that it would be a big inconvenience for the cars behind me; I just couldn’t get myself to do it.

    After reading this post I have been riding in the center of the right half of the lane. It’s been three days now and I had one driver behind me blowing the horn intensively until he/she was able to pass me. I also had one driver behind me that couldn’t pass me for about 20 seconds and when he passed me, he pressed the gas pedal pretty hard and passed about 18 inches away from me. He was obviously very upset.

    The rest of the drivers have been quite corteous and patient. This new experience has been a big leap of faith on my part, and I have seen the light (I got my own epiphany). If I am to continue commuting for the rest of my life, there is no other way to do it.

    I love your videos: you ride is impecable and gracious. Thank you for sharing your expertise.

  7. Keri
    Keri says:


    Thank you so much for leaving this comment! It made my day!

    It is a leap of faith to try riding farther left. Congratulations for taking it!

    I have an occasional run-in with the type of behavior you described. I’m pretty fortunate that I only encounter those once or twice a month. And it’s easier to take when I know I’m doing what’s right for my safety.


  8. José
    José says:

    You are very welcome. You are doing a wonderful service.

    “I have an occasional run-in with the type of behavior you described. I’m pretty fortunate that I only encounter those once or twice a month”

    Today was absolutely fine. It is nice to see how the drivers go along with my lead on the road; I am truly impressed to see the results.
    I don’t forsee having much negative encounters. We (my route drivers and I) have to go through a period of adjustment.

    Thanks again!

  9. Scott
    Scott says:

    I don’t know the law in Florida, but here in California the law says that bicyclists must ride “as far to the right as is practicable.” This is obviously open to interpretation, but I know people who have gotten tickets for riding in the center of a lane instead of far to the right. I try to give myself enough room to not have to worry about car doors thrown open without warning, but further than that would be hard to justify to a police officer.

  10. MikeOnBike
    MikeOnBike says:

    @Scott, that’s the opening paragraph of the law. The bulk of section 21202 lists all the exceptions to the “practicable” rule.

    There’s also the question of exactly what the unusual word “practicable” means.

    I have heard of some cyclists getting tickets for violating 21202. I know of some advocates who are working behind the scenes to address how 21202 is interpreted.

    Still, I judge the risk of an unjustified ticket to be small, and the consequences relatively minor (some money, some time, no physical harm). By comparison, the risk of NOT controlling the lane when justified is a lot higher, and the consequences more severe.

  11. Scott
    Scott says:

    Thanks MikeOnBike & ChipSeal for the info. Unfortunately, unless one likes spending time in court, the letter of the law does not matter so much as the local law enforcement interpretation of the law. I’m in Sacramento, where the local PD is somewhat unfriendly towards bicyclists. Our Critical Masses are almost laughably absurd & solemn – the police follow constantly, and immediately ticket whenever two bicyclists ride abreast, let alone take the lane.
    I choose to ride however I feel safest, but am very low-income & cannot afford being ticketed. It does seem that the spandex crowd can get away with more than the everyday clothes crowd, but I’m not a spandex guy.
    OT, but does anyone know the law when there is a bike lane, but it’s too narrow & basically in the gutter? We’ve got some of those, and they are more unsafe than no bike lanes at all. But taking the lane in those cases is guaranteed to upset drivers.

  12. Keri
    Keri says:

    Scott, are the substandard lanes you refer to designated as such with a bike lane stencil or sign? If not, they are shoulders, not bike lanes, and you are not required to ride in them.

    If they are marked but do not meet AASHTO minimums, that’s another issue which needs to be taken up with the DOT responsible.

    If you have a law enforcement problem (California), I recommend you notify CABO.

  13. Kevin Love
    Kevin Love says:

    The link that Mike posted includes the statement:

    “For purposes of this section, a “substandard width lane” is a lane that is too narrow for a bicycle and a vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane.”

    How wide is that? Well…

    A bicycle and rider occupies a width of about 1 M. Your handlebars may vary. To avoid potholes, debris and other road hazards, it is necessary to allow another 1/2 M “swerve distance” on either side. This is why the recommended width for bike lanes is 2 M.

    Don’t know about California, but here in Ontario the maximum legal width of motor vehicles is 2.6 M. I’m guessing California is about the same. Motor vehicles also require 1/2 M “swerve” room on either side for safety.

    Add it all up and the minimum lane width for a bicycle and a motor vehicle to travel safely side by side within a lane is 5.6 M.

    I’ve been in California (I was born in California) and there are very few (if any) lanes that wide.

    Conclusion: It is legal in California to exercise proper lane control. And that’s a good thing too, because otherwise it would be unsafe to bicycle in many places in California.

  14. Eric
    Eric says:

    “If you have a law enforcement problem (California), I recommend you notify CABO.”

    Seen the CABO home page lately (as in today?) Not very encouraging.

  15. Keri
    Keri says:

    Not pretty now, but check back in a day or two… I sent Brian a new theme for it this morning 🙂

    It seems like the law enforcement problem in CA is worse than here. FBA has done a lot of work (and continues to do more) with the Law Enforcement community to promote equitable enforcement. FBA’s Law Enforcement Guide is a good resource for cyclists to carry, perhaps CABO can do something similar.

  16. Eric
    Eric says:

    “It seems like the law enforcement problem in CA is worse than here.”

    They don’t think so. In fact, Florida has a rep for being backwards while CA sets the trends. That’s one trend we don’t want crossing coasts!

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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