The thought of making a left turn from a multi-lane road is one of the things that makes people think vehicular cycling requires speed and athletic prowess. It seems like it would be a really difficult thing to do. But most of the time it’s actually really easy, and you have options.
Making a standard left turn is easier than you think.
First of all, traffic is not constant. As I discussed in Getting the Road to Yourself, traffic travels in packs. With a little anticipation, you can usually make a multi-lane merge while you have the whole road to yourself between packs. That technique only requires overcoming the belief that you need to always be riding in the right lane. The video below shows Brian and I riding 4/10 of a mile in the left lane on University Blvd. It turns out the gap was almost that long as well. We could have gone over pretty much at any time, but we had no way to know that. The previous two packs had been long and only a few seconds apart. Had another pack overtaken us, they would have filed into the lanes to the right to pass us. There’s no penalty for planning ahead.
If traffic is very dense, or you miss your opportunity, you can sometimes negotiate a merge as traffic slows for a red light. However, motorists are difficult to negotiate with when they are driving faster than the speed of thought.
Having another option is a great stress-reliever—with left turns, you have more than one. I usually have the plan B option in mind when I’m anticipating a left turn on a busy road. I’ve decided by what point I want to have merged into the left lane (slightly ahead of where the left turn lane begins). If I check for traffic and it’s thick behind me, I stay to the right and make an alternate turn. Sometimes I use an alternate as my first choice and don’t even bother anticipating a merge.
Alternative Left Turns
This is my primary choice when merging isn’t possible (or I just don’t feel like it). The advantages to this turn are that it’s entirely vehicular—it doesn’t require unclipping both feet or dismounting—and it places me in the queue of traffic. If U-turns are not practical, or not allowed, option 2 might be useful — pass the intersection and turn right into a corner lot that can be used to connect back to the cross-street. Always be cautious in parking lots!
The Box Turn
I have done this turn a time or two. I’ll do it if there is no traffic queued at the intersection already or if there is a bike lane to the left of an RTOL. It works well at a minor intersection with no traffic, but a loop detector that allows you to activate the traffic signal. I won’t place myself in front of a car and do that. I also don’t feel comfortable sitting to the right of the traffic stream if cars can turn right from that lane. The problem with this turn is that if your timing is bad and the light changes in the middle of flopping around with your bike, you will be unpopular with any drivers who have queued up behind you, and you could miss the light.
This or the jughandle technique can be used for other maneuvers shown in the “options.” Stopping traffic on the arterial can give you a clear road to get set up for a standard left turn at an unsignalized street a block or two away. It can also give you a head start through a difficult diverge or other intimidating road feature. See: Getting the Road to Yourself.
The Pedestrian Turn
I’ll tell you right now, I hate this one. I never mention it without a warning. There are places in the U.S. where pedestrians are respected, making this is a viable option. Orlando is not one of them. It allows you to transition the intersection without plopping in front of a line of traffic, or having to ride to the back of a long queue. But it’s also a good way to get hit by a right-turning car. Remember, pedestrians can jump out of the way (backwards or sideways) bicyclists can only stop or go forward. You’re not very maneuverable when walking your bike, either.
The Big Box Turn
No, this doesn’t involve a WalMart parking lot. This could also be called the Grandma Turn. When elderly drivers become uncomfortable with merging, they adapt by driving around the block, making three rights to go left. It works for cyclists too, but not so much out in the burbs where the blocks are half a mile long. Just thought I’d mention it, it’s not in the Flash.
I plan my routes to avoid having to make a left from a multi-lane road at an unsignalized intersection. If you can’t make a standard turn, you can use one of the strategy options in the box turn animation, or travel to the next signalized intersection, execute your left turn of choice (or a U-turn), ride back to where you wanted to turn and make a right.