A Teachable Moment for Traffic Flow and Courtesy

This is a video from Friday 5/6. The CyclingSavvy group was on its way to the Mayor’s ride.

The road design leading to the Princeton/I-4 interchange is perfect for demonstrating the importance of understanding traffic flow. I used it for the 2008 Smart Moves post about navigating a freeway on-ramp. Since it was morning rush hour, I was looking forward to getting a clip of the traffic pattern through this area to include in the CyclingSavvy Group Riding curriculum.

The two cyclists who passed us created a different dynamic. Had they joined our group, the video would have shown a perfect execution of what we teach in the CyclingSavvy course. Instead they gave us a teachable-moment video of how cyclists can screw up traffic flow by hugging the curb in the right lane and repeatedly squeezing past cars that have already passed them. It also demonstrates that there is no benefit to such behavior. The cyclists did not get through the interchange far ahead of us. Even though they continued passing the queue under I-4 (beyond the end of the above video) and rode faster than we did on the next 3/4 mile of road between I-4 and Edgewater Drive, they were stopped at the red light at Edgewater when we arrived there.

Our presence in the thru lane actually saved them from the worst potential consequences of their choices. Had we not been there, they would probably have been buzzed and cut off by the long line of cars getting onto I-4, as I’ll show in the diagrams below.

Understanding Traffic Flow

Traffic flow is dynamic. It often has different characteristics at different times of day. It is also influenced by road design as well as upstream and downstream interchanges. Once you understand these influences, you can predict and exploit these patterns for easy travel through complex situations.

“Puppy tracks” mark the division of the right lane into two lanes through this intersection.

Several blocks prior to its intersection with I-4, the configuration of Princeton changes from 2 westbound lanes to three. As you can see at 0:53 in the video, the right lane divides into 2 lanes. This is indicated by the “puppy tracks” — a dashed extension of the lane line which guides left lane traffic through the intersection at an angle, so it remains in the inside lane. This allows right lane traffic to move to the center lane while crossing the intersection.

The puppy tracks are a recent addition, they were not existing when Brian DeSousa shot video of me riding through there in 2008. In the absence of these marks it was difficult to recognize the formation of the new lane at that intersection, so we ended up staying in the right lane and negotiating with traffic to change lanes after crossing Orange Ave.

At this point, the majority of traffic remaining in the right-most lane will be heading for I-4 E, making a right turn on Orange Ave. or an intervening driveway or side street. Traffic heading past I-4, toward College Park will move to the center lane. During rush hour, the heaviest flow of traffic is onto I-4. Most of the cars in the queue had turned left with us from Mills a few minutes before. They were using Princeton to connect to I-4 E, so as the lane split, they remained in the outside lane.

The easiest strategy for bicycle drivers is to ride directly into the center lane as the outside lane splits. In the video, our group did this while there was no traffic behind us, so when the next platoon encountered us while we waited at the red light at Orange Ave, it split around us — right lane to get on I-4 E, left lane to go to College Park or I-4 W. We were where we needed to be and didn’t need to negotiate a lane change.

Had the 2 cyclists chosen to join our group, the traffic flow would have looked like the diagram above. Had it just been the two of them, without our group influencing traffic, the pattern would have looked like the diagram below. Because of the volume of traffic headed for I-4, it is likely they would have been cut off by a stream of passing cars and unable to negotiate off the curb when the lane became right-turn-only. They may also have experienced a lot of close passes.

As a result of our presence and the presence of a cautious pick-up truck driver (the red Chevy Avalanche), the traffic flow was as shown in the diagram below. Light traffic heading for College Park and I-4 W used the left lane. Traffic headed for I-4 E was lined up behind the two cyclists hugging the curb in the right lane. The center lane behind us was virtually empty, except for a few cars trying to work their way back into the slow-moving line headed for I-4. The motorists were very tolerant and well-behaved.

It’s reasonable that the two cyclists wouldn’t know that it’s better to get into the center lane early, even if they were familiar with the interchange. You’re not going to learn this from the prevailing culture. CyclingSavvy is the only education program in Orlando that teaches preemptive traffic flow positioning for stress-free cycling. What we teach deliberately counters the normative expectation that cyclists should always keep to the right. We also give our students a better understanding of the roadway than most motorists will ever have. It may seem unnatural to ride in a center lane for several blocks, until you’ve driven your bike this way and experienced how easy and sensible it is. That’s why the experiential learning of the CyclingSavvy program is so essential!

Inverted Defaults and Unexamined Behavior

If the lane is so narrow you have to unclip and scoot along the curb, there might be a message there.

The queue-jumping behavior, in that context, is less defensible. There are situations where queue-jumping is appropriate. This was not one of them. Even without understanding the traffic flow around that interchange, the fact they had to unclip and scoot along the curb should have told them it wasn’t a good idea.

Several years ago, I wrote a post about the Inferiority/Priority Paradox.

Cyclists who do not think of themselves as drivers of vehicles with the same rights and responsibilities as other drivers practice a paradoxical inferiority/priority style of riding. It’s an inconsistent combination of staying out of the way when it’s not necessary and getting in the way when it’s not appropriate. In other words, it’s bassackwards!

The defaults are inverted. In addition, much cyclist behavior is an unconscious adherence to these defaults (perceived norms of what cyclists do) rather than deliberate, mindful decisions based on observation of the environment.

There’s an appropriate time to ride to the right and share a lane, but the default should be control unless there is a compelling reason, and environmental factors which make lane-sharing practicable. There’s an appropriate time to pass a queue of stopped traffic, but the default should be to wait in line unless there is a compelling reason, and environmental factors which allow queue-jumping to be done safely without violating the right-of-way of other drivers.

If we could reverse the defaults and create a new norm, we’d improve cyclist behavior and safety significantly. We could also create a paradigm in which cyclists become true catalysts for livable streets, rather than symbolic decorations in “complete streets” propaganda. But that’s the topic of another post.

Affordance: Default Behavior in Context

I find the behavioral psychology of driving (as discussed in Tom Vanderbilt’s book, Traffic) fascinating. I agree with Andy Cline that such a book could be dedicated to the psychology of bicycling in traffic. Andy shared thoughts on bicyclist behavior in his Thursday post, Of Media, Culture, and (Street) Texts:

Just as the automobile is a vehicle that seems to encourage a particular psychology in our culture, the bicycle is also a vehicle that encourages a particular psychology in our culture.

…it occurs to me that just as cars and bicycles are modes of transportation they are also media, i.e. when we ride upon the street in the mode of bicycle we also write upon the street a text that is in large part influenced by the bicycle, and understood through the bicycle, as a particular kind of medium in our culture.

The bicycle has its own unique expression of a common motivation. The primary goal of transportation is to get from point A to point B. Regardless of vehicle type, most people are motivated to accomplish this as quickly as possible and will do whatever the vehicle affords them to get ahead, gain an advantage and reduce their delay. It seems that most people are not mindful enough to distinguish actual delay from perceived delay, they just impulsively practice the behavior associated with their vehicle: motorists accelerate and change lanes to pass slower vehicles, regardless of the traffic stopped at a red light 200ft ahead; bicyclists pass the queue, no matter how short it is or how narrow the lane. Both actions are typically done without consideration of consequences to self or other.

Similarly, most road users treat each other as objects in the road rather than vehicles driven by fellow road users. Andy Cline considers it a product of the car culture. Some bicycling history suggests it may pre-date the car culture. Regardless, it’s very much a default and it is up to each of us to consciously overcome it if we wish to be a part of a civil and livable community. Andy sums this up best:

I believe in acting “as if” until such time that the ethic becomes who we are. I’ve been a rotten, stupid, inconsiderate, selfish driver for all but the last few years (and I still fall from grace occasionally). But these days I act “as if” I’m not the only person on the road (which, BTW, is not at all easy to do). I act “as if” I’m sharing a public space with others who 1) have an equal right to use the space, and 2) are deserving of my care and attention.

I, too, was a rotten, stupid, inconsiderate, selfish driver and bicyclist for many years. I have a distinct memory from a decade or so ago that makes me cringe now. I was trying to pass a queue of rush hour traffic in a narrow lane and got indignant that someone wouldn’t leave enough room for me to squeeze past on the right. I yelled at her, just like asshole motorists yell at us to get out of their way, then huffily swerved around and passed on the left. I felt entitled to get an advantage because I was on a bicycle. At that time in my life, I drove my car with the same attitude. It wasn’t until I changed my own behavior and perspective that I recognized there was little real value in that perceived advantage.

Cycling (and driving a car) have become a lot less stressful for me since. My contribution to the traffic mix has become much more positive and community-building. My travels are punctuated by friendly waves and smiles rather than cursing, honking and flipping digits. This is despite my default position of lane control when driving the bicycle. I attribute that to being predictable, communicating clearly and understanding traffic flow so I can position myself to reduce or eliminate conflicting movements for myself and fellow road users. Funny how the very thing unenlightened cyclists think is rude is what actually reduces incivility.

Reverse the inversion. Free yourself. Take a CyclingSavvy course.

2 replies
  1. fred_dot_u
    fred_dot_u says:

    Keri, I’m embarrassed to admit that I was a miserably inconsiderate driver as a youth and most likely the same kind of cyclist. I do recall specifically blowing red lights and feeling that I had accomplished something by beating all those motorists stuck at the intersection.

    I’m hopeful that the bike bus youths are learning at the right age that there are other ways than that which I experienced. They certainly are on the right track, literally and figuratively.

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