Why do cyclists ride right on the line instead of in the bike lane?

New question asked anonymously:

Why oh why do those who ride bicycles in Utah ride ON the line that separates the traffic lane from the bike lane? Do they WANT me to hit them?!

Great question!  The short answer is that they probably ride on the line because they don’t feel like it would be safe for them to actually ride in the middle of the bike lane.

Here’s the long answer:  Not all bike lanes are created equal.  There are a lot of bike lanes on roads that are simply unsafe for cyclists to use.  There are a few reasons why a bike lane might be perceived unsafe by cyclists:

  • Insufficient Width –  Most design standards specify that bike lanes should be at least 5′ wide, though some standards allow for 4′ width lanes in some cases.  Still in some cases, I’ve seen bike lanes as narrow as 3′.  If a bike lane is perceived to be too narrow by cyclists, they will not feel safe using it.  In some cases, even 5′ or 6′ lane widths aren’t enough to make a cyclist feel safe depending on other factors.
  • Gutter Seam / Storm Drains – The seam between the concrete gutter and the asphalt roadway usually poses a significant hazard to cyclists because this is a very common place for potholes to develop and because there is often an elevation difference of 0″-4″.  Unfortunately, this seam often falls right in the middle of the bike lane (2′ gutter pan with 4′ or 5′ bike lane…).  If there’s an unsafe seam down the middle of a bike lane, cyclists will often hug the outside edge of the bike lane, placing them right about on the line like you mention.  Also, storm drain grates pose significant safety to cyclists as well and will be avoided by cyclists.
  • Adjacent Parking – one of the biggest threats to cyclists on urban roadways is the threat of being doored by a parked car.  On a lot of streets, the bike lane is sandwiched between general purpose lanes and a parking lane.  This  configuration can make even very experienced cyclists nervous.  Doors open without warning, and this configuration often places cyclists right square in the “door zone.”  In this case, cyclists will often try to stay as far away from the parked cars as possible, pushing them closer to the line.
  • Not Actually a Bike Lane – Sometimes areas on the roadway are mistaken for bike lanes when it’s actually just a “clear zone” mandated by many design standards.  Sometimes, these clear zones turn out to be great places to ride a bike, so they are easily mistaken for bike lanes.  However, these clear zones tend to disappear and reappear without warning, or have other design aspects (like rumble strips) that make them an unsafe place for cyclists.

Anyway, those are a few reasons why cyclists will choose to hug one side of a bike lane.

Now, as you clearly point out, this is a poor place for a cyclist to be.  It’s not particularly safe for either you or the cyclist.  Obviously, the best solution is for engineers to design better bike lanes that cyclists will feel comfortable using.  In the mean time, though, it presents some special challenges for everyone.  As a cyclist, I really hate riding on roads like this because there’s no great option.  If I ride in the bike lane as it was designed, I feel like I’m placing myself at risk.  If I hug the edge of the bike lane, then I’m being really ambiguous about my intentions and I make drivers angry.  If I ignore the bike lane completely and ride right down the middle of the general purpose lane where I feel the most safe (which is my preferred option in this situation), then drivers stuck behind me are thinking, “Hey, There’s a bike lane right THERE!!!  Use it, Ass Hole!!!”  And that creates all sorts of bad feelings between drivers and cyclists.

So what should you do if you’re driving down the road and there’s a cyclist hugging the white line? Throw your empty McDonalds cup at the cyclist and give him/her the finger.  The same thing you’d do if there wasn’t a bike lane at all.  1. If possible, change lanes to pass.  2. Pass only when you can leave at least 3′ between your car and the cyclist.  3. Become a bicycle advocate in your neighborhood and encourage elected leaders to construct new and better bike lanes (hate cyclists?  This is the best way to get them the hell out of your way, btw…).

Thanks for the great question!!!

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9 comments to Why do cyclists ride right on the line instead of in the bike lane?

  • Great Q&A. I've been one of those bikers hugging the line before. I recently changed my commute from a road with a horrible and scary bike lane (with several of the problems you stated above) to a parallel wide residential street with no bike lane but very little traffic and few cars parked in the road. I feel so much safer!

  • @simplysarah – glad you found a route you like!

  • On my commute the "bike lane" somehow legally doubles as a parking lane. So it's wide and nice to ride on, but half full of cars. Every time there's a car parked in the lane I have to jag over into the general lane to pass it (and even then I'm in danger of being doored). So I forego the so-called bike lane completely and ride on the white line, because I want drivers to be very aware of me and know I'm there before I have to jag into their lane to pass a parked car. It seems like the most dangerous thing I could do would be to ride in the "bike lane," allowing drivers to effectively ignore my presence, and then surprise them by moving into their lane to pass a parked car. Ugh.

  • @thegastronomic – a lane that legally doubles as a bike lane and parking lane sounds like a really bad idea!!! You've brought up a good point, though – Parking lanes than just happen to be empty are usually a great place to ride a bike – it's the swinging out unexpectedly into traffic that makes it extremely unsafe. I'm glad to hear you're asserting yourself on the road. Don't be afraid to ride right down the middle of the general purpose lane if you feel that would be an even more safe location.

  • @Katie, I suggest you head down to the Midtown Greenway. You've got MILES of trails that will get you pretty close to most parts of Minneapolis without seeing streets at all. If you haven't seen a map of the trails, you'd be surprised just how well connected the off-street trails in MPLS are. Virtually all of the trails connect to each other somehow. If you aren't sure exactly how the Midtown Greenway connects to downtown, the lakes, West River Parkway, Minnehaha Parkway, light rail trail, etc, check out the Google Maps Biking directions.

    But if you prefer streets: For traveling east/west, Franklin, 26th, 28th, and Lake can all be a little hairy when kinds are involved. 24th is better (but it doesn't cross I-35W…). 31st is a better alternative to Lake St. 32nd, 33rd, & 34th are all low-traffic side streets (though they also don't cross I-35W) 35th & 36th are pretty good, and they DO cross I-35W. For north/south routes around your house, Bryant is on all the bike maps as a "bike boulevard", although I don't see much about it that makes it any more attractive than other north/south routes. Otherwise, virtually all of the other north/south routes (that aren't Lyndale) are pretty equally matched.

  • Thanks for this post Reuben. We're down to one car this week, and once the kids aren't sick anymore we're going to be biking a whole lot more. Can you recommend any city streets that we could all bike down and be relatively safe? It'll either be Owen behind me on the trailer bike and Ian riding behind us on his bike, or Ian on the trailer bike and Owen in the burley behind him. (yes, we look like a train and have to go slowly and we take forever to brake because we do it so slowly.)

  • Thanks! We know we can get to Aldi on the Greenway, and wanted to get to Lyndale Farmstead park (between 38th and 40th and Bryant and Dupont), but we need to be at the park for baseball at 5:30 and Bryant is always so busy that time of day.

  • This is a hot topic for me right now. My commute to work includes 7 miles on a 55 mph road with a huge and clearly marked bike lane (Redwood Road from Saratoga Springs to Bluffdale in Utah). I ride my bike to work quite a bit in the warmer weather and drive the rest of the time. The bike lane is fantastic for riding on, free of obstructions for 99% of it, and still, every day I see dozens of cyclists riding on or near the white line, when they literally have 8 feet of open lane to their right. I DON’T GET IT!

    I’m not suggesting that they should hug the right edge – there’s no need for that, but don’t hug the left edge! I ride it myself so I see both sides and I can’t see how cyclists justify not using a perfectly good bike lane.

    On the other hand, as an occasional cyclists, I can’t stand seeing the lack of courtesy that drivers pay to cyclists. We’ve all seen cars and trucks pass right by a cyclist without even attempting to move over. I treat cyclists like bombs – I steer clear and give them as much clearance as possible. If I see I can give them 4+ feet by not changing lanes, I’ll just hug the left side of the lane. If not, I’ll change lanes or do what I need to do to give them clearance. It gives me the heebyjeebies coming anywhere close to a cyclists in my car.

    In short, I understand the reasons for avoiding obstacles and dangers in the bike lane and, as a result, possibly staying closer to the car lanes. If, however, there is a good bike lane present, USE IT! I just don’t get why a cyclist would choose to drive so close to cars when there’s no need to.

    Rant over.

    • Warren

      Nils,

      Coincidentally, this exact stretch of road is what prompted me to look up an answer to this question, which in turn, lead me to this thread. It amazes me. Every time I drive this road there are cyclists hugging the line here and as you said, there are none of the hazards you tend to see in bike lanes for miles and miles. It’s very strange, and a bit frustrating.