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Posted by on Aug 22, 2009 in Smart Moves | 28 comments

Left Turns on Big Roads

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Updated: 3/21/12

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.

Plan B

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

The Jug-handle

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.

Unsignalized Intersections

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.

28 Comments

  1. Nice post. Great animations and video. Very well explained with very useful information, and I agree. Left turns on busy streets are not difficult… if you have a plan (and options) and you ride confidently, but safely. Thanks for the info.

  2. Nice roundup! I’ve used them all on occasion, but thanks to VCers like you I get into the left lane earlier, and can take the left turn lane with ease most times.

    It’s great that you’re learning new tech stuff too. Can I now refer to you as “Keri the flasher”?

  3. I always thought that when you make a pedestrian turn, you get OFF the bike when you get to that corner and WALK the bike across. Then start riding again on the new road when traffic permits.

    If you do that, you can, in fact, “jump out of the way,” if you have to, just like any other pedestrian. Certainly, one is no worse off with a walked bike than any other pedestrian with a bulky package. At least you have the option of throwing a water bottle at the scofflaw as he/she passes by.

    In your videos, there are more “bike-motorist” interactions in either the jug handle or box turns than in a true pedestrian turn (where the cyclist DOES turn pedestrian).

  4. Scott & Rantwick, Thanks!! Rantwick… um… suit yourself, I’ve been called worse ;-)

    Steve,

    Typically, the pedestrian turn involves dismounting and walking. However, if you tried to walk a bike across a 6-lane arterial here you might not make it before the light changed. The signal timing is set to “sprint.”

    When walking a bike you canNOT jump out of the way. Mighk does an excellent demonstration of this in class. But you can do it yourself. Go get a 35lb loaded bike, stand with it on your right side and then jump 2 feet to the right. Jump 2 feet to the left and try to bring it with you. Go backwards and see if the pedal doesn’t whack you in the leg and stop all motion.

    The car interactions are in the warning video. The warning symbol is a button.

    Several years ago a guy was killed in Longwood while walking his bike legally across an intersection. He could not jump out of the way. The car hit the bike, drove it into him, severed an artery and he bled out. That’s why we don’t recommend the crosswalk option.

  5. I guess you don’t do the demo with a 20 lb cyclocross bike slung across the pedestrian’s shoulder. ;-)

    Point well taken. My point about the interactions didn’t use the warning video case, though pedestrians are not REQUIRED to step out in front of turning motorists. I try to avoid doing so myself when I’m a pedestrian.

  6. Keri,
    Very nice illustration and really awesome animation.
    I had always used the normal turn. I never had to do the others as I usually do not commute during the rush hours. I do not commute on super busy streets either, given I do have a choice.

    So, this was a very useful post for me. I really appreciate the great descriptions and the sharing.

    Peace :)

  7. “My point about the interactions didn’t use the warning video case, though pedestrians are not REQUIRED to step out in front of turning motorists. I try to avoid doing so myself when I’m a pedestrian.”

    If you, as a pedestrian, politely stands on the corner, waiting for a driver to stop and wave you across, then you may be waiting for an awfully long time. And since the lights are set to “sprint”, unless you can get started right away, you won’t make it across before the light changes.

    A couple of years ago, I was watching an intersection one afternoon where a school crossing guard was getting a rough time from the drivers. She wasn’t trying to stop traffic, all she was doing was walking across with the kids when the pedestrian “walk” light was on. She and the kids were getting buzzed fore an aft.

  8. Good animations! I was thinking about doing something like this in Powerpoint with still shots but never got very far into the projects. You did a great job with it. (I linked to it over on my Commuting Blog.)

  9. I have used the pedestrian option in other cities where there is high-compliance with crosswalks. I’ve always dismounted and walk the bike when using a crosswalk. In some places, that is required. The option works fine and has a valid use where motorists respect crosswalks.

    Orlando and many cities in Florida suffer from “crosswalk abandonment.” I’ve taken casual polls of Florida motorists, 90% do not know State law requires them to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk. I guess they think they only have to do it at St Armand’s circle and other beach towns where there are big signs imploring them to yield and threatening $170 fine.

    This won’t change here until all cities and counties choose to enforce the law aggressively and relentlessly (as St Pete has done) until it gets embedded in the public consciousness.

  10. Excellent (minor suggestions but it keep at it)!

  11. Wow! Excellent animations for this topic. I was reaching for my Atari joystick to help little Frogger across the street, but he was no where to be found!

    I like the auxilliary features presented in the video of other traffic passing the straight-ahead cyclist by changing lanes in advance. Very nicely done.

  12. Based on reader input, I just made a small edit to the Flash. I simplified the warning video text so it can be read more easily and removed the reference to Orlando. (~50% of our audience is outside the state of Florida)

  13. Nice animation! I’ll highlight this on Carbon Trace tomorrow.

  14. Keri,
    You wrote: “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.”

    And such a maneuver is often considered illegal by the police (in my home city and many others), since the cyclist is acting as an errant driver by waiting for the light to change in front of the stop line for drivers (would it be OK for motorists or motorcyclists to use the crosswalk in this way). In a similar way, the Cyclist’s Eye Video shows the same bad maneuver. Had I known Chris Quint was going to show this funky chicken left turn, I’d have asked that my name be removed from the video. A cyclist who makes this type of turn is violating traffic laws. Either make a vehicular left, or do a cross + single ped maneuver, or a dual ped maneuver.

    Sorry if this sounds harsh, but we should not be teaching cyclists to violate traffic laws to make changes of direction. Jim Baross, a CA LCI summed it up best when he tells students: “Either clearly act as a driver, or dismount and clearly act as a pedestrian”.

  15. Dan,
    The jug handle is the third clearly acceptable turn. I do them on occasion when driving. A variant is to go PAST the intersection, move left to the lane from which I can make a U turn. When it’s clear, I make the U turn and then make a right when I get back to the intersection. It has the advantage that it’s usually easly to see ahead to pick a safe place to execute the U. I also do this variant when driving. Both are perfectly safe and legal.

  16. One advantage y’all have down there in Florida is that it’s so flat. Maine is not exactly Colorado, but we do have some hills. I can think of two places around here off the top of my head, one that’s on my commute if I take a certain route, where a left turn that a cyclist may need to take is at the top of a hill, both of these with a traffic light. The one not on my regular commute, thankfully, is a 4-lane road that during rush hour seems to present few “intra-pack” opportunities to move over, especially when you’re going uphill at 7 MPH. However, the options are essentially the same: Move over early (and risk beeps from motorists who don’t understand what you’re doing), do a pedestrian turn at the top of the hill (there is a crosswalk), or do a box or jug handle turn using the medical center parking lot that is at the top of the hill on the right. (If other Portlanders are reading, I’m talking about inbound on Outer Congress Street to turn left on Frost.) That same stretch going the other way has an uphill right-turn only bay to avoid. And to top it all off, right in the middle of all this it goes over a small river, so widening the road (because it’s currently two narrow lanes with a too-small-to-ride-in-though-many-people-try shoulder and a curb) is a very expensive proposition that the city has not yet even considered.

  17. To Steve A,
    I don’t consider the Jug Handle to be a left turn at the intersection in question. It is a right turn followed by a u-turn, and is a vehicular two-part maneuver, as is making three right turns to substitute for a left turn.

    Sadly I observe many cyclists run red lights by turning just enough to leave the crosswalk on a side street without a center median, and then cross the centerline and then re-enter the crosswalk. I consider such turns to be little more than opportunism.

  18. Agree with Dan’s concern about the box turn, but otherwise excellent work!

  19. Dan G. wrote: “And such a maneuver is often considered illegal by the police … we should not be teaching cyclists to violate traffic laws to make changes of direction.”

    It is explicitly permitted in Florida Statutes:

    “316.151 Required position and method of turning at intersections.–

    “(c) Left turn by bicycle.–In addition to the method of making a left turn described in paragraph (b), a person riding a bicycle and intending to turn left has the option of following the course described hereafter: The rider shall approach the turn as close as practicable to the right curb or edge of the roadway; after proceeding across the intersecting roadway, the turn shall be made as close as practicable to the curb or edge of the roadway on the far side of the intersection; and, before proceeding, the bicyclist shall comply with any official traffic control device or police officer regulating traffic on the highway along which the bicyclist intends to proceed.”

    As with lane control and impeding motorists, cyclists should consider courtesy as well as safety when utilizing this maneuver. (How wide is the lane of the intersecting street? How wide is the corner radius? Is there a bike lane? How many cars are stacked up at the intersection? Will the signal be changing while you’re rotating your bike? etc) It’s hard to write judgment into statutes.

  20. Yeah, it’s supposed to be done at the edge, but there is an RTOL there. Probably wasn’t the best road base to illustrate it on.

    As I said in the text, I would not do this if there were already cars in the queue. I wouldn’t do it on a cross street that was going to end up with a bunch of queued traffic either, because I don’t like being the first in line. The pedestrian turn is better for that… in cities/states where the laws are enforced to protect ped right-of-way.

  21. Legal text: “The rider shall approach the turn as close as practicable to the right curb or edge of the roadway; after proceeding across the intersecting roadway, the turn shall be made as close as practicable to the curb or edge of the roadway on the far side of the intersection; and, before proceeding, the bicyclist shall comply with any official traffic control device or police officer regulating traffic on the highway along which the bicyclist intends to proceed.”
    .
    How is a cyclist who is in front of the stop line complying “with any official traffic control device … regulating traffic on the highway”? A driver is required to stop behind the stop line (not in front of it) to and wait for the green light to “comply with a traffic control devices” (stop line + signal), yet the animation shows a different behavior. Here’s the FL law for signals:

    316.075 Traffic control signal devices.–
    …(c) Steady red indication.–
    1. Vehicular traffic facing a steady red signal shall stop before entering the crosswalk on the near side of the intersection or,…
    a. The driver of a vehicle which is stopped at a clearly marked stop line, but if none, before entering the crosswalk on the near side of the intersection,

    Here’s the same rule for stop sign controlled intersections:
    316.123 Vehicle entering stop or yield intersection.–
    …(2)(a) Except when directed to proceed by a police officer or traffic control signal, every driver of a vehicle approaching a stop intersection indicated by a stop sign shall stop at a clearly marked stop line, but if none, before entering the crosswalk on the near side of the intersection…

    Thus a bicyclist in FRONT of the stop line or otherwise in the CROSSWALK, is violating official traffic controls per their governing laws. So to comply with 316.151 AND 316.075 and 316.123 as specified in 316.151, a bicyclist must stop behing the stop line, and not in the crosswalk!

    If the FL legislature intended for cyclists to wait in front of the stop line or otherwise in the crosswalk, they should have written 316.151 differently.

  22. I regularly use a maneuver similar to the box turn as a means of getting across four lanes of inbound morning rush hour traffic (so that I can make a standard left turn on the next block that is only a three-way).

    I go through the intersection and stop flush with the curb if no cars are waiting, or up ON the curb if they are. I wait for the light to turn red, and quickly cut across to the median lane and proceed.

    In case that’s unclear, if you assume that the traffic in your animations is traveling east (and you are setting up variations by which to turn north), I’m just pausing on the east side of the intersection, then I continue to proceed east in the left lane rather than the right.

  23. Ever heard of “Ditch the bike and run!”? If you use a crosswalk, use common sense. If a car is coming at you and you gotta get out of the way, screw the bike, it isn’t worth your life. Make the driver pay for it with his insurance or something.

  24. “If a car is coming at you and you gotta get out of the way”

    People on bicycles can’t move out of the way very quickly. It takes several seconds just to get off if riding and if walking a bike across the street, at least one avenue of escape is cut off by dropping the bike.

  25. It’s all about getting comfortable with looking behind you, judging the speed and distance of other traffic, and negotiating. It’s hard at first, but it gets easy quickly. By the way, the situation you show in your animation, with a burst of traffic, followed by no traffic, I don’t encounter that very often. So negotiation is usually necessary for me. It would be great if you had an animation showing negotiation.

    A few little points about my experience. Don’t wait till the last second to change lanes. Leave yourself plenty of time. If you hit a red light shortly before the intersection where you want to turn, that is a great place to change lanes. If a lane widens or splits into two shortly before the intersection where you want to turn, move to the left side of the lane before that so you do as little crossing as possible.

    The jughandle turn is also useful at those stupid no-left-turn intersections. I didn’t the maneuver had a name, by the way.

    • It’s actually more like a ‘Michigan left’ (http://www.flickr.com/photos/larrysphatpage/2517709021/) than a jughandle. A jughandle would be making three rights to make a left (Keri’s ‘big box turn’), or one right and two easier lefts (similar to the Michigan left but at different streets rather than the two directions of a divided road). In the Northeast, especially New Jersey, jughandles are actual ramps where you have to exit right to turn left, though some do make use of local streets: http://wiki.openstreetmap.org/wiki/Jughandle

  26. The “jughandle” mentioned on this page is not a true jughandle if it requires making a left/U-turn on a crossroad — you are just trading one left-lane left turn for another. A jughandle is a purpose-designed traffic device that requires left-turning vehicles to move to the rightmost lane, either exiting short of the intersection into a counter-clockwise arc/ramp that leaves them at a controlled intersection, oriented in the desired direction of travel, or after the intersection into a clockwise arc/ramp which leaves them at a controlled intersection, oriented in the desired direction of travel.

    Some areas — such as large sections of New Jersey — use jughandles, cloverleafs, and overpasses for all turns onto or off from heavily-trafficked, non-limited-access roads.

    There are also parts of New Jersey where, in the absence of purpose-built jughandles and cloverleafs, all vehicles are required to use the “Big Box Turn” technique to turn left.

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