Making Your Way on Narrow Roads

Narrow 2-lane roads can be more difficult than multi-lane arterial roads. No one likes making people wait behind them. It helps to be conscious of your actual impact on traffic. Sometimes 20 seconds feels like a lifetime, but does making motorists wait 20 seconds warrant pulling off the road or sacrificing your safety to let them squeeze by? Probably not.

The following video shows segments shot by Brian DeSousa of Cyclistview when he was here last October. I’ve edited together three of the narrow, 2-lane roads we filmed. These three roads come up in conversation fairly often as roads people find intimidating. In dense traffic times, I might be inclined to find an alternative route, but at most times of the day these roads are easy to use as long as you assert yourself. Even in peak traffic, cars come in platoons and there’s typically 3/4 of a minute between them. You can use that to your advantage, too.

This was shot around 3:30 PM on a weekday.

Some notes about the video:

It starts with a turn from Colonial to Bumby. There is no turn on red at that intersection, so we waited for green. The advantage to turning right on green is that the traffic on Bumby will be held by a red light—for a minute or so, we’ll have no one behind us.

In Smart Moves: Getting the Road to Yourself I described how I do this for Virginia Dr.

I learned, by accident, that if I took Nebraska (mile 6) to 17-92, turned left, then right on Virginia Dr., I could get 2-lane Virginia to myself for almost its entire length. I discovered this because I got fed up with the crappy washboard pavement on the 4-lane section of Virginia. But the 2-lane section used to be a point of frustration, too, as impatient motorists would occasionally pass me into oncoming traffic, scaring the bejesus out of all of us.

This technique is shown in the video. We didn’t have a car come up behind us until we reached the RR tracks. The light at Virginia and Mills is pretty long and the speed limit is low enough that traffic released from the light won’t catch a cyclist going ~15mph. (It’s also slightly down hill there.)

The following illustration appears in the video. Most of these lanes are probably less than 12 feet wide. A 12ft lane looks fairly wide to a cyclist who is used to riding on the edge. You might get away with sharing a 12ft lane with a small car, but larger vehicles will pass uncomfortably (or even dangerously) close.

The right two feet of pavement should generally be avoided. This is where debris collects and pavement cracks. Sand, sticks, rocks and other debris can cause a cyclist to crash. Curbs, the edge of pavement, or the seam between asphalt and the gutter can also cause a crash.

Leaving nine feet or so of space between your body and the centerline is enough to encourage motorists to squeeze through. Small cars are about six feet wide, SUVs can be over 7 feet wide, trucks and utility trailers are 8.5 feet wide and extended mirrors on trucks can increase that width even more. This is why a 12ft lane is considered substandard and the law specifically allows a cyclist the full use of it.

Every road has a slightly different character, but generally-speaking, you want to use enough lane that passing motorists can see (from a distance) they must change lanes to pass. On a 2-lane road I stay a little right of center. I want to facilitate visibility and the ability to pass efficiently while discouraging unsafe passing.

I remember once reading a listserve where people talked about riding this far into a lane and wondered what planet they lived on. “Yeah, maybe you can do that in your town,” I thought, “but Orlando motorists will never tolerate it.” But, having had my fill of close passes, being trapped between potholes and overtaking cars, having my right-of-way frequently violated by turning and crossing cars (and utility trailers), I decided to give it a try.

It felt weird at first, being so far into the lane. It just feels like such a provocative thing to do. At first. But the difference in motorist behavior was instantly recognized. Everyone got so smart and courteous all of a sudden. They changed lanes to pass. They didn’t cut me off anymore. It didn’t take long for me to become so accustomed to being there that I am uncomfortable riding father right.

Amazingly, there was no increase in harassment. They didn’t honk or yell, they just waited, moved over and went on their way. Sure, there are still neanderthals out there, but they honk and yell no matter where you ride. The overwhelming majority of motorists pass courteously, just like in the video. (BTW, the video has no sound because the chatter and wind noise is kinda annoying… and one of us 😉 was using a spare bike with screechy brakes. But there was no honking that day.)

Narrow, 2-lane roads are a fact of life around town. It is unlikely that many of them in the urban core will be made any wider. The good news is, the more you learn to be assertive in narrow lanes, the more you’ll come to like them… especially narrow lanes on 4-lane roads.

We cover this topic a lot on the site, in the blog and in our discussions, but looking around at where cyclists are riding, I think we can’t cover it enough. I’m trying to infuse it into the collective unconscious! The more of us who ride assertively, the sooner we’ll establish it as a norm. That’s how we create a community where bicycle drivers are an accepted, expected and respected part of traffic.

10 replies
  1. Andrewp
    Andrewp says:

    Two issues that I would bring up ….

    First is that I bet many motorists are not aware that it is OK (and legal!) to pass you on a double-yellow lined road. I noticed one pass took the car past an intersecting street on the left. Hopefully they were able to look ahead and see that there was no car approaching or sitting at that intersecting street about to turn right …. Do you use hand signals to encourage people to pass you (when it is clear) or do you let them make that decision themselves?

    Second, from the video you can’t tell how many cars might be stacking up behind you at times … I’m pretty sure in this case it was only one or two. Question: Do you do anything different when you notice more cars backing up behind you? I’m talking about being on a 2-lane road — obviously on a 4-lane they can (and should) go around. I think one timid driver (scared to cross dowble yellow and go around) could back up many cars unnecessarily. I also think that if one car sees someone pass you successfully, they may be more inclined to pass as well — your thoughts? Again, might you encourage a pass with a hand signal?

    Very nice instructional video — no need for sound as you placed text in all the appropriate places to make your points ….

  2. Keri
    Keri says:

    Good comments/questions, Andrew.

    It’s true that many motorists are not aware that it is legal to pass on a double yellow. However, that doesn’t stop them. Rarely, I’ll get someone behind me who seems hesitant to pass even though it’s clear. Sometimes it seems like someone is hesitating, but then it turns out they are planning to turn right.

    Our original plan for the video was to shoot the same route twice — with the camera facing forward first, then backward. Unfortunately, we got caught in a monsoon on the second pass. We went back to my office and discovered that the camera worked OK in the rain, but we didn’t have time to go back to the whole route again. We did get some great footage on Orange Ave, Mills and Princeton when we went back out in the rain, but the second pass of Bumby would have been great since it was closer to rush hour. Brian may be coming back this spring, so hopefully we’ll get another shot at it.

    Regarding waving people to pass… there is much debate about that. Some people say you should never do that. I think it’s OK as long as you can be certain they can pass safely. You have to be cognizant of the potential conflicts (cross streets where cars might turn into the oncoming lane are the most common). If I’ve stuck my hand out and asked someone not to pass, I feel like I should let them know when I’m OK with them passing. But if I’m not sure they can pass safely, I don’t do it.

    I rarely have traffic stack up behind me, but it does happen. When I see that motorists are not going to be able to pass, I pull off the road (usually make a right turn onto a side street or into a parking lot). That’s the safest way to handle that. I have made the mistake of trying to move right a few times and regretted it. If it’s one car, that works. But if there are several, it gets ugly. Especially if one of them is a large vehicle. That always seems to be how it works out, too… you move over for a Honda Civic and the next thing you know, there’s a full-size van six inches from your left elbow.

    The need to pull off the road happens to me as a solo rider maybe 2 or 3 times in a year. I try not to pick routes that will put me on 2-lane thru roads at peak traffic times. I go for multi-lane roads or residential routes.

  3. rodney
    rodney says:

    My route takes me on some narrow two lane roads. Conway Rd. to Hoffner Ave. is one example. The construction has made the ride much nicer. However, the time I commute in the morning doesn’t allow for controlling the lane for this stretch.

    Motorist traffic is generally backed up and doesn’t allow for ample passing of a cyclist.I end up taking the sidewalk for this mile or so and rejoin Conway Rd. and continue my route home.

    The narrow road strikes again when I reach Dixie Belle Rd. and Michigan St.

    The remainder of my commute is spent smack dead center of the lane because it is barely wide enough to fit a car, much less a car and cyclist.

    I make a left turn in about 100 yards or so of Dixie Belle/Michigan. I have been known to take a side street or simply pull off when motorists stack up, are hesitant to pass, or the traffic levels dictate taking another route.

    Yes, I have a right to be in the lane/road, but I think these gestures exhibit goodwill and not fear. I’ve even had a motorist wave a “thank you” for doing such. Now this motorist waves at me each time our paths cross on my commute home. 🙂

  4. ChipSeal
    ChipSeal says:

    “Second, from the video you can’t tell how many cars might be stacking up behind you at times … I’m pretty sure in this case it was only one or two. Question: Do you do anything different when you notice more cars backing up behind you? I’m talking about being on a 2-lane road — obviously on a 4-lane they can (and should) go around. I think one timid driver (scared to cross double yellow and go around) could back up many cars unnecessarily. I also think that if one car sees someone pass you successfully, they may be more inclined to pass as well — your thoughts? Again, might you encourage a pass with a hand signal?”

    Andrewp, If a motorist refuses to pass me, I ignore him. It is his responsibility to pass me in a safe manner, and I am not going to encourage him to do something he seems reluctant to do.

    Most often, it turns out that he will turn off into a driveway or something and was being courteous to wait behind me.

    On the video it appears Keri and Co. were moving rather briskly. I would wish everyone to understand that “high speed” cycling is not required for riding properly in the lane. Motorists couldn’t tell the difference between an eight MPH cyclist and one traveling at 20 MPH.

    Thanks, Keri, for demonstrating! For most of us, seeing it done helps!


  5. Keri
    Keri says:

    ChipSeal said: On the video it appears Keri and Co. were moving rather briskly.

    That’s distorted by the wide angle lens. We’re going about 15. Next time I’d like to use a comfort bike, because I think the drop bars also create an image of “fast cyclist.” I wanted to wear street cloths, too, but it was a hot, humid day with rain likely. I would have been miserable in cotton.

    Rodney mentioned good-will gestures. I think they are a good idea, too. Whenever I’ve pulled off the road because traffic couldn’t pass, I’ve waved “thank you” to acknowledge their patience. Same when someone has waited behind me for a little while than passed… I’ve also offered a friendly wave to someone who has waited then made a right turn behind me. People like that little confirmation that they did a good thing and it was appreciated. It makes them feel good about themselves. That goes a long way.

  6. Steve A
    Steve A says:

    It’s not only drivers that are confused by the double yellow. See link taken straight from the Florida Driver’s Handbook.

    ALSO, many places, it’s NOT legal to cross those lines to pass. For example, Texas Transportaion Code, 545.055, says “…(b) An operator may not drive on the left side of the roadway in a no-passing zone or on the left side of any pavement striping designed to mark a no-passing zone.” Even per Florida 316.0875, you’d have to consider a bicycle an “obstruction” to be absolutely in the clear.

    That being said, this is a law that is routinely violated so that people aren’t unduly held up – like by tractors that don’t really have an option to pull over on narrow country roads.

    On a more pragmatic note, if it’s narrow enough that a passing vehicle has even its left wheels over the double yellow, its as much in violation as if it completely crosses, so the cyclist has nothing to lose and everything to gain by making things clear to the following motorist that moving over is necessary to pass.

  7. Keri
    Keri says:

    Ohio Bike Federation actually got their vehicle code changed to specify that motorists can cross the double yellow to pass bicycles. I hope FBA will do that, too, in the future. I find it unpalatable to be considered an “obstruction” for any purpose 🙂

    Here’s an article about the double yellow.

  8. acline
    acline says:

    I prefer to ride/drive on narrow roads. The lack of space means we all have to get along. It forces the issue. Five years into using my bicycle as basic transportation and I have yet to be honked at on a narrow road. Nice graphics, BTW 🙂

  9. danc
    danc says:

    Keri, Brian Excellent work! I particularly like the video notes and comments which expand upon the video. By the way how would someone who trips on the youtube site get back to this page and get the full story?

    — Dan C
    I tried posting this comment on youtube twice!

  10. Keri
    Keri says:

    Thanks Dan. That’s a good point, too. I need to link the videos back to the posts they were designed for. I tend to just stash them up on YouTube and focus on the posts here.

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