Saturday, 17 January 2015

Cycling in Traffic

The other day I was riding east on Coward street, Mascot (Sydney) and stopped at the red traffic light at the intersection with Bourke street. The light goes green so I proceed out into the intersection, only to have the van behind me with two young gentlemen inside aggressively overtake me. Cyclists will know what this means. You make a point of overtaking with unnecessary revving of your engine, at a higher speed than you really need, passing as close as you think you can get away with without actually causing an accident.

I caught up with these guys at the next traffic light and was able to to engage in some polite discourse. I suggested that they had passed a bit too close. Apparently the driver thought that I wasn't aware that there were two lanes rather than three, that the right lane was turning right and I should have been riding way over in the gutter instead of in the middle of the left hand lane. He apparently objected to having to wait a few seconds longer until I was through the intersection. Let's leave aside for a moment the question of whether or not that's reason enough to want to risk someone else's life – and the next light went green before I could think of anything further to say. Not that whatever I said would have had any effect at all, the guy's dismissive attitude was pretty clear.

I've been riding a bicycle more or less regularly, in different environments including heavy traffic, in all kinds of weather for most of the last 30 years. I would have clocked up a total of probably 50 to 100 thousand kilometers on four different bicycles during that time. I've had one serious accident when I was idiot teenager (weren't we all?) and quite a few near and not-so-near misses. I've learned an awful lot in that time and I've internalised it so deeply that I'm often not even consciously aware of what I've learned and why I ride the way that I do. This was the case that morning on Coward street. I would not have been able to explain why I was out in the middle of the lane instead of at the left hand side, even if we had time to continue the conversation and I was able to persuade him to lower his window again.

I thought about this for the rest of the day, and on and off for the next several days. There are actually two reasons why I ride in the middle of the lane instead of the left hand side when going through an intersection. The first is visibility. When you're at the side of the lane you are close to the footpath and it's very easy for a driver to mis-identify you as a pedestrian in that fraction of a second that their gaze passes over you, or even not to see you at all because their attention is mostly focussed on the other cars that occupy the middle of the lanes. I have had people try to turn left in front of me when I'm on their left hand side, traffic coming the other way not see me and attempt to turn right in front of me, even had someone almost collect me attempting to do a u-turn in front of me (without checking his mirror, his blind spot or indicating – thanks for that). The second reason is stability and clearance – as you'll be aware it's much harder to accurately control the sideways movement of a bicycle at the very low speeds during the first few seconds after taking off. The last thing you want is a driver pulling up next to you quite closely because you're stationary. Safe, right? Yes – until the light goes green, then you have a moving car and a very narrow space within which to ride a bicycle at very low speed. Not safe. I had learned these things over many years of experience without even being conscious of what the reasons were!

This got me thinking about the aggro that exists between a small minority of car drivers and a small minority of cyclists. Although various local newspapers seem to take great delight in publishing stories to whip up a good argument between “us” and “them”, in my experience at least 99% of car drivers are in fact very careful and courteous (sometimes to the extent of creating a safety hazard – thank you, but I really would prefer you don't stop to allow me to turn right across the oncoming traffic!). The kinds of comments that are made on these stories typically involve drivers complaining that cyclists don't always obey the road rules, that they create hazards etc. In light of my own recent experience of not being able to explain my riding style, I had an epiphany of sorts. Cyclists actually have a quite different set of priorities to car drivers when it comes to using the road, which come about because of their vulnerability, agility and small size – and it occurred to me that, at least for the way that I ride, obeying the road rules is perhaps only priority number three.

Riding a bicycle in traffic means constantly making decisions, usually unconsciously, to optimise sometimes conflicting priorities.

My number one priority is safety – my own and that of others (it usually amounts to the same thing anyway – a collision with a pedestrian is at least as likely to cause grave injury to the cyclist as it is to the other party). Again I know this from experience (as an idiot teenager). In my case the other party was a dog, so I'm told, and I spent a good three days in hospital with a concussion, a couple of hairline fractures and patches of missing skin, from which I still bear scars today. To this day I can't remember anything about the accident before waking up in the middle of the road surrounded by people. I'm told the dog was unharmed.

Safety means assuming that the car driver hasn't seen you even though you are wearing a high-vis vest and enough flashing lights to look like a Christmas tree, assuming that there's a person sitting in that parked car who's about to fling the door open without checking if there's a cyclist just about to ride past (this is why cyclists often don't ride in the marked cycleways next to parked cars – those doors have a long reach and if they open at the wrong time and you're within range, there's literally nothing you can do), and taking the whole lane when stopping at a traffic light or going though an intersection. So one of our problems is that drivers, who are mostly not also bicycle-riders-in-traffic, simply have no idea of the special and particular hazards that cyclists are riding to avoid.

On the contrary, most bicycle-riders-in-traffic are also car drivers and are very well aware of what it's like to be a car driver. So believe it or not my second priority when cycling is to not inconvenience traffic. For example, as long as it's safe, at a traffic light with a left turn arrow where I want to go straight, I'll usually move slightly ahead of the stop line and to the right hand side of the left lane, to allow the traffic behind me to turn left when the green left arrow appears. (As explained already, staying at the left hand side of the left lane is usually unsafe at a traffic light). I can do this because I'm small and agile and can move around much more easily than a larger and heavier motorcycle.

Only at third priority (usually - sometimes it's more important than inconveniencing traffic) is obeying the road rules. The best example of this is probably riding on the footpath, which is illegal. There are times when the traffic conditions are such that this is the safest thing for all concerned, recognising that I do not have a right to be there, riding slowly and giving way to pedestrians, of whom there are usually only a few. If there are a lot of pedestrians it's probably time to get off and push – and choose a different route next time. Another good example is indicating – you're supposed to indicate when turning corners (car drivers, you're supposed to do this too, yeah?). I usually do indicate as I'm approaching a corner (so as to not inconvenience traffic, and because it's a road rule), but usually don't as I'm rounding the corner itself. It's simply a matter of safety. It's not possible to safely and effectively steer, brake, and indicate all at the same time on a bicycle. Sometimes I don't indicate at all because I need to be able to brake in an instant, or I'm steering to safely negotiate the lumps and dips in the asphalt that car drivers don't even realise are there, but can make a cyclist lose control if they aren't seen in time.

What about bicycle infrastructure, I hear you ask? The easiest way to understand the problem with the bicycle infrastructure in Sydney is to go to google maps and click the cycling route overlay. There you have it. Lots of short little squiggly green lines that do not form a connected network. So if you're at point A and have a point B that you want to get to, you're going to have to ride in traffic for at least part of your route. Now, since my number one priority is safety I do use the cycling infrastructure that lines up reasonably with my route requirements. The quality of that infrastructure is... well, lets be kind and call it variable. The cycle way around the outside of Sydney airport is just fantastic. The lumpy and uneven, slightly-wider-than-gutter “cycle lane” marked out westbound on Marsh street, between a cyclone fence on one side and heavy trucks on the other, not so great. When dedicated cycle infrastructure isn't available I use quiet back streets, but sometimes the only way though for miles around is a fairly busy road like Coward street.

So, sorry, van-driver dude, but I have evaluated the alternatives and I need to be on Coward street. I do generally keep to the left so as not to inconvenience traffic, but especially when stopping at lights or going through roundabouts, my safety takes priority. You'll just have to wait a few extra seconds.


  1. There's not enough bicycle tracks around Graeme. Car drivers mostly are aware of cyclists but not always understand the pace and the logics that cyclists bear. Hence the outcomes are not always synchronised.

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  3. You're right Fay, but change is happening slowly as more infrastructure is built, and drivers are becoming more aware because of the increasing numbers of cyclists.