Commuter Cycling 101: Taking the Lane

In the first installment of our 101 series, we're going to talk about one of the primary ways to remain safe as you ride the road, called "taking the lane." I've talked about it before but this is going to go into some depth as to why you should be taking the lane and what exactly it means.

The idea behind taking the line is simple. You, as a cyclist, decide upon your position in the lane - in other words, where in the lane you will ride. Thus, you will control how traffic behaves around you.

"Well, that's simple," you cry! "We're supposed to ride all the way to the right!" And it's that very type of thinking that might get you hit. See this article from Cycle Smart Dallas for evidence.

Here's the nitty-gritty: based on the width of the lane and even its condition, you judge whether a car can safely pass you without crossing over the lane lines. If you judge that you can safely share a lane with a car, then taking the lane is not necessary. Ride three to four feet from the curb (or, if the lane is extra wide - 14' or more - ride three to four feet from the right side of motorized traffic).

Leaving three to four feet between you and the curb will allow you room to move in case you need to go around an obstacle suddenly, or need some room to hop the curb in an emergency, or what have you. Getting too close to the curb is not particularly safe as you could need extra room, not have time to react, and throw yourself head over heels.

And if the lane is NOT wide enough that you feel comfortable allowing a car to ride next to you as it passes you (at least three feet of clearance is the most conservative recommendation by many, I prefer four)? Then ride right out in the middle of the lane. Seriously.

You're accomplishing two important things here:

  1. You're making yourself more visible to traffic and reducing the chance that your presence will be missed.

  2. You're removing what I like to call the "force field" of the lane line. Cell-phone babbling drivers notwithstanding, most traffic tries very hard to stay in one lane of traffic, between the two lane lines it's given. If a car thinks it can pass you without crossing over the lane line, it will - hugging that left lane line as closely as it can without going over it. If it doesn't think it can, it'll move into the next lane, and usually far enough that you're going to avoid being sideswiped.

So it's really as simple as that. You have the right to do this. It's in the law (at least in Ohio). The Ohio Department of Public Safety Digest of Ohio Motor Vehicle Laws (PDF) clearly states:

Bicyclists must keep to the right edge of the roadway, allowing faster traffic to safely pass. Cyclists can travel in the middle of the lane if they are proceeding at the same speed as the rest of the traffic or the lane is too narrow to share safely with a motor vehicle.

Also, don't be concerned that you're holding up traffic for any legal reason. The Ohio Bicycle Federation has helped to ensure that cyclists can't be prosecuted for impeding traffic as long as they're traveling at a proper speed for a bike. The case of Trotwood vs. Selz ensured that.

A point of courtesy: If you're on a two lane road (one lane of traffic in each direction), and you notice traffic backing up behind you, it's considerate to move over on occasion and let faster traffic pass you, especially if the road is busy. A little courtesy goes a long way sometimes.

There are a couple of other times that I like to take the lane even when the lane seems wide enough to be passed, and that has to do with the condition of the road. If the side of the road is in poor repair, has lots of parallel cracks that might grab your tire (particularly if you have narrow road bike tires), too much gravel, a preponderance of poorly smoothed pavement, or is too close to the "door zone," then I also take the lane. Your safety is number one here.

So be safe. Take the lane.

People, not speed.


  1. I've found that you WILL encounter a few more honking & yelling incidents with motorists when you take the lane. Be prepared for that. It's still safer, as they're honking and yelling, but not actually hitting you.

    I also take the lane even when the lane should be wide enough for drivers to pass safely, but for whatever reason, some don't. Basically, after a close pass, I move farther to the left, as motorists obviously aren't getting the message.

    Eastbound on the Detroit-Superior bridge up here in Cleveland is a prime example. Amazingly, some drivers get all bent out of shape over it, even though it's 90% likely that we'll all be stopped together at the next traffic light anyway.

  2. Great informative post. Thanks!

  3. Gazer - if they honk at you, they see you. Half your problem is solved right there! :)

  4. Overall a good intro with a few items to add or clarify.

    Ohio Department Public Safety (ODPS) Digest of Ohio Motor Vehicle Laws (DMVL) has some rough spots, like practically the whole page on Bicycling. Try Ohio Bicycling Street Smarts: ORC 4511.55: (a) Every person operating a bicycle upon a roadway shall ride as near to the right side of the roadway as practicable obeying all traffic rules applicable to vehicles and exercising due care when passing a standing vehicle or one proceeding in the same direction. A slower vehicle (bicycle) is to be driven on the right side of the roadway expect... Notice “RIGHT SIDE” of the roadway (travel lane) NOT edge.

    4511.55(C) partially contradicts ODPS DMVL: This section does not require a person operating a bicycle to ride at the edge of the roadway when it is unreasonable or unsafe to do so. Conditions that may require riding away from the edge of the roadway include when necessary to avoid fixed or moving objects, parked or moving vehicles, surface hazards, or if it otherwise is unsafe or impracticable to do so, including if the lane is too narrow for the bicycle and an overtaking vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane.

    Hugging the road edge, gutter, or riding the shoulder won’t necessarily get a cyclist hit but it does make riding the road unpleasant, uncomfortable with close calls, buzzing and other problems like flats or losing control and falling.

    What is the travel lane? On a two lane road it's the area between the white lanes divided by a center line (white, yellow, dashed or solid). A travel lane DOES NOT include shoulders! Cyclist MAY use shoulder but are NOT REQUIRED.

    By the way, 14’ is not an extra wide lane but a standard used by California, Florida and Texas as the sufficient width for motor vehicle and cyclist to safely share the road, side by side. ORC 4511.25 “Lanes of travel upon roadways of sufficient width” states: Nothing in division (B)(1) of this section requires a driver of a slower vehicle to compromise the driver’s safety to allow overtaking by a faster vehicle.

    Don't trade safety for someone else minor delay, inconvenience. Any road is full of delays, other cars, stop signs, curves, potholes, etc. Why motorists get so steamed about cyclists is other story.

    May I propose “Controlling the Lane” (aka taking the lane) as a better description? Once a cyclist is between the white lines, they are occupying space in a travel lane, space has been taken? John Franklin of Cyclecraft refers to the concept of “line of traffic” away from intersections as two standard positions: primary, “controlling the lane” or secondary “sharing the road”. A cyclist at any moment moving on a road decides which riding position maintains safety without compromise.

  5. Taking the lane is an absolute must in alot of situations. With the winter weather in Columbus Ohio you need to take the lane but be safe. I ride up Cleveland Ave. every night at about 11pm. I got stuck at work with my bike and had to ride home on a BLIZZARD night. I took the right lane from Srock to Polaris Prk Wy. My bike was lit up like a Christmas tree but I felt safe. Snow plow drivers lifted the blade as they passed me and the few cars that were out gave me room as they passed. Just thought I'd share that.

  6. What does one do when turning left? Is it proper to use the turn lane, or, if there is none, to use the left lane?

  7. bbinkovitz - it is absolutely proper to use the turn lane or left lane. Here's what to keep in mind.

    1. Before changing lanes, check the destination lane and signal before entering it. So, in other words, look behind you and stick out your arm to let other road users know you're getting over. Don't be shy about this - big movements catch drivers' attention.

    2. Make sure you're leaving yourself enough TIME to get all the way over to your turn lane.

    3. You want to position yourself in the right-most left turn lane. In other words, if there are two lanes for turning left, stay in the one furthest to the right. This will allow you to be on the right when you complete your turn.

    4. ALWAYS signal BEFORE your turn, but use both hands on the handlebar DURING the turn!

    So to answer your question specifically - you are correct. And if you're turning left on a two lane road (one lane in either direction) then get to the left side of that only lane to make your turn. No sense in letting cars try to push by you on the left when you want to turn.


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