Commuter Cycling 101: Courtesy to All

This post is less about rules and safety, and more about trying to be courteous to everyone else on the road. We've been talking quite a bit about cyclist perception on the road recently, with posts on obeying the law and the like. This post is a more "best practices" idea that came up in response to that post and some questions I've been asked on Twitter.

One of the things I tell people when they start bike commuting or ask me questions about it is that we, as cyclists, need to stop worrying about whether we're holding up traffic. It's simple: if we ride safely and as we're allowed to within the law, we are going to do just that. And that's the basis for a lot of the enmity we face - we don't go as fast as everyone else and the perception is that we're roadblocks. And let's face it - the dehumanizing aspect of cars makes many drivers feel as though everyone else out there is just a drone out to piss them off. Well, that's obviously not true, and there are some things that we can do to help to keep the peace with drivers.

First, one thing that you see a lot of on the road, and that isn't technically illegal but is a big no-no in my book, is cyclists who come to a line of cars at a red light or stop sign and ride up the side of the line to the front of it in order to get out in front of everyone else. If this was Portland, and we had bike lanes and bike boxes, then not only would that be kosher, it'd be legally allowed. Now I'm not going to say it's illegal in Columbus because, to the best of my knowledge, there's nothing on the books about it.

But if you were in a car, and you passed a cyclist on the road, trying hard to give him enough room as you moved past him, only to come to a stop and have him pass you and every other car in the line to zoom up the front, wouldn't that tick you off?

For that reason, I suggest that cyclists take their place in line with all the cars - and do so right in the center of the lane behind the car in front of you. That will set your place in the line, show the cars around you that you're a part of traffic just like them, and also give you the advantage of not allowing cars to pass you in the middle of the intersection (which is REALLY not safe). Get over to the middle of the lane as soon as you see cars lined up at the light or stop sign and take that lane position as soon as possible. Sure, it's a bit slower, but it's more courteous and you'll do more to show that you are PART of traffic that way, not a hazard to traffic.

Second, you frequently see cyclists who need to come to a stop as a light changes from yellow to red. I mean, let's face it - the lights aren't timed for us. It happens a lot. Now obviously, I'm not going to tell you to blow through it, that's illegal and dangerous. And I'm not going to tell you to position yourself in the lane all the way to the right, unless you're turning right. In that case, signal your right turn as you come to the stop and then (if signage allows it) turn right when the way is clear, like any vehicle in traffic.

But what if you're going straight through, and the option for turning right on red is there? What I like to do, then, is position myself on the left side of the lane, and allow cars that wish to turn right past you to do so. Wave them through if they seem hesitant. I do this a lot.

"But what if they try to blow straight past me when the light turns green?" you ask. Good question. Keep an eye on the approaching cars behind you, the ones who might potentially be turning right on red. If a car is coming up that isn't turning, then angle your bike slightly so that they can't get by you, and then pull straight out into the lane in front of that car when the light turns green again. No car is going to be getting past them to turn right anyway, so you're not really holding anyone up. Again, you're part of traffic, you're just taking advantage of your smaller size to be courteous to a few people.

If you're not comfortable with this second option, and I can certainly understand if you're not, then don't do it. Safety comes first every time. I don't do it if the car behind me is a Hummer, bus, or truck, for example. I don't want a wide car like that trying to inch past me - even on the wider streets. But if it's a small car, then give it a try. You'll soon figure out what you're comfortable with.

Now let's say you're riding down a narrow two lane road (one lane of travel in each direction). You're taking the lane for safety, but you've got a long line of cars behind you. There's nothing wrong with letting longer lines of cars get past you when the opportunity presents itself (a side street or a driveway, for example). In fact, many cycling manuals will suggest you do just that. It's not required - in fact, Ohio bike law states that cyclists can't be charged with "going too slow" as long as they're travelling at an appropriate speed for a bicycle. But it is a nice gesture. And give a friendly wave as you let people pass you.

So those are a few options for being courteous to your fellow vehicles on the road. What courteous things do you try to do on the road when you're riding?

People, not speed.


  1. Rolling past stopped traffic on the right is practical, legal and spelled out in our state (Georgia) bicycle handbook. If I stopped in line as you suggest I would not be able to accelerate to keep up with cars after the light turned green. I would roll up to a red light with a whole bunch of pissed off drivers behind me. Some drivers hate cyclists period. Damned if I do, damned if I don't. I opt to move ahead next to the line and very very rarely do drivers get a chance to catch up to pass again!

  2. I don't understand - you're fast enough to keep them from passing you after you roll up, but not fast enough to get up to speed after the light changes?

  3. I pass long lines of cars on the right because if I don't, I will probably get stuck at the red on the next light cycle - I won't be able to get to light soon enuff to make the green. Also, I don't think I should have to breathe their exhaust. If I sit back far enuff in the lane to avoid it, cars behind me get pissed off because they want to be right up on the bumper of the next car. If I stay to the right behind the end car, the next car will pull up next to me, and there I am breathing their stink again.

    People in cars seem to think it's all a big race and if I pass them on the right, suddenly they're losing? They're always gonna win no matter what! What is the big deal that they have to pass me again? I just don't get it. I suppose I will be ruining their day or even their life every time they pass me. 2 more seconds of their precious lives lost, as they speed to get to the drug store to buy a bag of chips and a soda.

    Saw your link on cyclicious - I lived in Columbus for 20 years, so it caught my eye. Living in Cleveland now.


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