My rat-path routes from home to the office are familiar and tame. I live within the core where there are many options, speeds are lower and motorist expectations are reasonable. There are very few trouble spots (places where motorists can sometimes be pissy). I even have work-around routes for those, to use on days when I feel thin-skinned and don’t want to chance a pissy-motorist encounter. So it’s always interesting to ride someplace completely different… at rush hour.
Yesterday afternoon I crossed town from my office in College Park to Southeast Orlando, near the airport. I left my office about 4:15 PM and got to my destination about quarter after after 5.
I usually spend some time to plan a route before a new adventure, but I’ve ridden most of these roads for years, albeit mostly on weekends. I decided to just wing it. I had a vague notion that I would head down Orange to Livingston or Robinson, but I ended up turning right on Marks. On the fly, I decided to take a bunch of narrow 2-lane roads… just to study the interactions.
The 2-lane roads I used are parallel to larger roads so most of the traffic was local. Traffic was significant enough that most cars had to wait a few seconds to pass, but there were regular opportunities to pass. I had to stick my hand out 3 or 4 times to discourage someone from an ill-advised pass, and all but once when the oncoming traffic cleared that car was gone — turned off (yes, they were going to pass me into oncoming traffic and then turn off the road). One car passed me safely, but then turned left at the next intersection—and we all had to wait for oncoming traffic to clear so he could turn. Imagine the reaction if you passed a motorist on a 2-lane road and then stopped to turn left in front of him. I often wonder why there are no other factors in a motorist’s mind except, “I must pass that cyclist.”
So here’s the run-down of my ride (the route—which I do not recommend):
I take Marks to Highland on one of my routes home. It’s easy at rush hour because I almost always move at the speed of traffic (and not because I’m fast!). Marks between Highland and US 17-92, was not so pleasant. If the rough, poorly-laid bricks were not bad enough, the motorists were piggish — clearly using this road as a cut-through. Cut-through motorists rank somewhere below two-year-olds on the scale of appropriate social behavior.
Ferncreek wasn’t bad. The northboud lane is extremely wide and the southbound lane is very narrow. Motorists had no qualms about using part of the northbound lane to pass me, even when there was oncoming traffic. The oncoming traffic moved over to accommodate. I got plenty of space. I did have to stop one motorist from passing me 20 feet from the traffic stacked at the red light at Colonial. I hate it when they do that, cut back in and slam on their brakes in my face. I’ve learned to be very assertive when approaching stopped traffic.
I considered turning on Livingston, but I don’t enjoy riding in bike lanes, so I went down to Robinson. When I got to the left-turn pocket, I wondered if maybe I should have gone down to Central. There was a lot of traffic on Robinson. But by the miracle of gaps, I turned left on my green light and had Robinson to myself all the way to Bumby! I turned right on Bumby and had that to myself, as well, easily getting into the left turn pocket for Central.
I would normally take Crystal Lake to Jeffreys, but I decided to try Primrose. There were several times I thought, “this was a bad idea.” But on the whole, it really wasn’t. It was a case where being assertive was essential, though. I would not have wanted to ride close to the edge of the road because I would have experienced a lot of close passing. But managing my space in the lane, I didn’t experience any close passes. As I mentioned before, I had to wave off a few dumb moves. But no one honked or expressed ill-will toward me. I think it’s important to note that motorists often make dumb moves by default and they seldom react badly when forced back to an awareness of the whole situation.
From Primrose, I took Raeford over to Conway Gardens. Conway Gardens is usually pleasant until the Pershing traffic joins in and it makes the bend into Gatlin. Yesterday was no exception. I had to hold off a bad pass on Gatlin with a more assertive lane position. When the oncoming traffic cleared, I faded slightly to the right. The motorist directly behind me was very polite, the next one was fine, the third was driving full-size pickup which he used to express his dissatisfaction with my presence. Fortunately, I had 3 feet of useful pavement to my right (my self-created buffer).
At this point I made several bad decisions. There were a number of far better routes I could have chosen, but the one I took proved, um, instructive.
I turned right on S. Conway. I’ve ridden this road many times, but mostly on weekends. Lisa tried using this road for her commute and re-routed to avoid it. The road configuration is one I prefer for cycling — 4 lanes and mostly below capacity. That means I can occupy the right lane and occasionally a platoon of traffic will pass me. Everyone changes lanes, no one’s travel time is affected at all—they all arrive together at the next traffic light in exactly the same amount of time as they would have had I not been there.
Unfortunately, road capacity is only one part of the equation. There’s also motorist capacity—as in their capacity to be civil citizens on the road. As Lisa has pointed out, motorists on S. Conway are severely challenged in the willingness to act like decent human beings.
Anyway, my poor decision to take S. Conway caused me to be boxed into an even worse road – Hoffner. Unlike every other road I used, Hoffner is at capacity at rush hour. I had a vague notion that Hoffner had a wide shoulder which would be an escape route. What I had forgotten was that the wide shoulder only exists near 436. For most of the distance there is a worse-than-nothing piece of narrow, uneven pavement tacked onto the edge of the road. It’s just enough to make motorists think cyclists should go there to get out of the way, but doing that would cause a cyclist to be trapped in a narrow hazard zone by an endless line of speeding cars.
The first motorist to arrive on my butt was not in a good mood. He honked and then squeezed between me and oncoming traffic, forcing me to use the self-created buffer to my right. The next motorist was patient, honoring my request to “please don’t do what that jerk just did.” But the line of oncoming traffic was endless and there were no turn-outs. I was half way to 436 before there was a place to turn right. I decided to take it and relieve the pressure behind me. I pulled into a parking lot, caught my breath, turned around and waited… and waited… for the endless traffic to pass. I finally got a gap which took me all the way to the wide shoulder before the next wave arrived.
The shoulder quality falls apart about the time I reached the back of the stopped traffic, so I pulled into the line behind them. As I did that, two candidates-for-natural-selection rolled out of the convenience store, with their six-packs in tow, and proceeded to ride the wrong way down the shoulder toward me. If I’d stayed on the shoulder, I wonder which way they would have gone… into the ditch or into the oncoming lane?
After Hoffner, the bike lane on 436 was tolerable. It’s marked properly—striped to the left of the right turn pockets. And fortunately, there were no obstructions in it — it would be very difficult to merge around an obstruction into high-speed traffic. Lisa told me she had to come to a complete stop once because that bike lane was full of glass. Several times I was passed pretty close by large vehicles at high speeds—not unsafe, but not pleasant. It was certainly less comfortable than the 2-lane roads where people passed me with more clearance and at lower speeds. And way less comfortable than a 4-lane road where I have my own 11 ft lane.
I didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of making a vehicular left turn from 436 onto Hazeltine, so I made a jug-handle turn — a right on Hazeltine, and a U-turn at the first break in the median, then crossed 436 on a green light. Here’s what that looks like:
This is my preferred method for making a left when merging is out of the question.
The takeaways from my little adventure:
First of all, route planning is critical. It’s not something to blow off, even for an expert rider. If I had sat down with the map before heading out, I would have made different choices and had a much better ride. As Lisa has discovered, Michigan is a much more pleasant way to get to 436. I suspect Lake Margaret or Gatlin would have been better than Hoffner, also. And while the bike lane on 436 is not very pleasant, it is better than a full-to-capacity, narrow 2-lane road.
Second, if you do find yourself on such a hellish road, it is crucial to manage your space in the lane. It is probably the most difficult and intimidating thing a cyclist can do, but the alternative is far worse. Being passed at high speeds on the edge of that road would not only be miserable, it would be hazardous. Large trucks and utility trailers pose a great risk to edge-riding cyclists, as would hostile bullies, from whom the cyclist would have no protection but to dive into the ditch.
Most important, traveling these roads on a bike reinforces the necessity for accommodating cyclists riding into and out of town. The city of Orlando, and the urban core from Belle Isle to Casselberry, has a good grid and a lot of options to support cyclists of all levels (with some reasonable amount of skill that should be expected of any user of public roads). But as we ride away from that core, our options decrease. Other than those who live within reach of the Cady Way trail, most cyclists in the ‘burbs have to choose between one high-speed arterial and another to get into town—between the 2-lane road that’s at capacity and the 4- or 6- lane road where motorists speed and don’t expect or welcome cyclists. There are no low-volume options because the residential streets don’t connect to anything but cul-de-sacs.
Clearly, if we want to encourage people to ride, we need solutions beyond slapping bike lanes on high-speed 6-lane roads or creating wide sidewalks on commercial arteries.