For this 5-part series, the author crowdsourced drivers' questions about bicyclists' mindsets, beliefs and safety practices, then posted the top 10 in several bicycle enthusiasts’ and advocacy groups. Here are the bicyclists' replies.

Top 10 Questions for Bicyclists, Part 4: Sharing the Roadway

Author’s note: For this series, I crowdsourced driver questions on social media and posted the top 10 in several bicycle enthusiasts’ and advocacy groups for their replies. (For more background, see the series’ introduction here; read Part 2 on bicyclists’ mindsets; and read Part 3, on intersections.) Let’s build empathy for all the ways we get around!

In our fourth installment of “Why Do Bicyclists Do That?,” let’s talk about what it’s like for automobile drivers and bicyclists to share the roadway. Then we’ll talk about all the ways that can lead to misunderstandings and risky behaviors: 

  • Why don’t cyclists ride as close to the edge of the road as possible?
  • Why don’t groups of bicyclists always ride in single or dual file to narrow their use of the lane? 
  • Why do some bicyclists choose to disregard rights-of-way, riding against traffic or on the sidewalk?

Sharing road infrastructure isn’t always easy. With so little room to maneuver on some roadways, drivers and riders can feel like they’re competing for space. Avid bicyclist Michele Molstead offered an empathetic way to think about the tensions that can arise when sharing roadways. “A friend of mine once said, ‘When I’m riding, I want my riding to be great. When I’m in a car… I want driving to be great,’” she shared. We switch roles when we switch modes of travel.

For each question in the series, we’ve started by describing a typical situation around that question. Then, we’ve explored how a driver might interpret it, based on my own driving experience, as well as comments from drivers who proposed questions via social media. Finally, we’ve shared a few bicyclists’ perspectives about what’s going on for them in that same situation.

Now, about sharing the roadway!

An illustration of the importance of bicyclists increasing their visibility by taking more space, featuring a driver's improved point of view when a bicyclist takes the lane at dusk, from BikeMN's People Friendly Driver Program.
An illustration of the importance of bicyclists increasing their visibility by taking more space, from BikeMN’s People Friendly Driver Program’s slide deck. Image courtesy of BikeMN.

Why don’t cyclists ride as close to the edge of the road as possible?

The Situation

A car driver pulls up behind a bicyclist riding in the driving lane. The driver must slow down and wait for the oncoming lane to clear to safely pass the bicyclist.

The Driver’s Narrative

There was plenty of space for the cyclist to ride close to the gutter. My parents taught to ride in the gutter for safety. But these cyclists feel like they can take up the whole driving lane for no reason!

The Bicyclist’s Perspective

This one is most often about safety, and sometimes about preparing to turn left.

When it comes to sharing the road, many of us were taught that it’s safer to bike on the sidewalk or in the gutter. But the opposite is often true. Jenny Kedward, a self-described “lazy bicyclist” does short rides to commute. She shared a story about learning how to ride more safely. “When I first started riding, I was scared of being in the way of passing cars. I rode close to the right edge — including a line of parked cars. This freaked out my more experienced biking friend. She had to explain that if anyone in one of those parked cars opened their doors, I’d be hit.” This warning changed Kedward’s biking. “Now I give a wide berth to parked cars and trust that moving cars on my left will curve around me if needed.”

Passing Behaviors

In Minnesota law, drivers are allowed to pass bicyclists even if they need to cross a double line. However, they must provide 3 feet of clearance. Riding very close to the side of the road can encourage drivers to pass while staying in their lane. Ilse Griffin shared their experience around this dynamic. “Drivers may ‘squeeze’ the cyclist by not switching lanes when they pass them, but rather staying in the same lane, which is dangerously close to the cyclist.” Instead, they advise riding in the lane as a defensive strategy. “If a cyclist occupies the lane, they are more visible, and drivers will have no choice but to switch lanes to pass them safely,” they explained.

Jessica Schoner, Ph.D., co-owner and data science lead of Safe Streets Research & Consulting, LLC, shed more light on why she chooses to take more of the lane. “Drivers don’t always understand how wide they are. I got sideswiped by the wheel well of a wide bed pickup once.” This incident encouraged her to take up more space. “If I’m in the middle of the lane, I know you can see me. You might be pissed off, but you aren’t going to accidentally hit me or try to squeeze past when there isn’t enough space,” Schoner explained. 

Gutter Hazards

Taking the middle of a lane not only provides more visibility and encourages better passing behaviors, it also allows bicyclists to avoid gutter hazards. “The seam between the asphalt and the gutter pan can throw me off balance,” Schoner said, “as can storm drains, manhole covers, leaves, debris and more.”

Ben Zvan bikes for fun and fitness and applied this principle to rural roads, where the shoulder of the road can be unpaved and quite treacherous. “Minnesota law allows a cyclist to take the full lane if that is the safest way to bike. When I was biking along the North Shore, the side of the road was so littered with pieces of metal, broken glass and sand that I never would have made it to my destination due to flat tires if I had stayed on the shoulder,” he said.

Increasing Visibility

Angela Olson, director of education at BikeMN, coaches riders to increase their visibility. Bicyclists should position themselves to avoid road hazards and ensure the best view of all modes and directions of traffic. Often, that means riding in the driving lane. In the organization’s trainings for K-8 educators around the state, Olson said, “We take them on a bike ride that’s purposefully a little bit challenging so that they can learn how to navigate some of the types of situations that they might encounter. Every single time somebody walks away saying, ‘I never knew that it was safer to use the center of the lane!’”

Finally, a common reason a bicyclist takes the full lane — even the leftmost position — is to prepare for a left turn. When a bicyclist feels safely able to do so, they should signal their left turn. According to Minnesota law, a vehicle driver can only pass on the right if they have a full passing lane — no using the shoulder or a turn lane. 

A breakdown of Minnesota law allowing bicyclists to ride two abreast from BikeMN's People Friendly Driver Program. Motorists may cross a double line to pass bicyclists riding two abreast, a legal and safe practice that prevents squeeze passes.
A breakdown of Minnesota law allowing bicyclists to ride two abreast from BikeMN’s People Friendly Driver Program’s slide deck. Image courtesy of BikeMN.

Why don’t groups of bicyclists always ride in single or dual file to narrow their use of the lane?

The Situation

A car driver pulls up behind a group of bicyclists riding in the driving lane, sometimes taking up the whole lane. The driver must slow down and wait for the oncoming lane to clear to pass the group.

The Driver’s Narrative

Who the heck do these bicyclists think they are, Tour de France athletes? Don’t they have somewhere else they can train? At the very least, why don’t they ride in single file?

The Bicyclist’s Perspective

This one is about safety and socializing.

It’s common in the bicycling community to enjoy a group ride, particularly during times of low car traffic. While socializing is at the heart of such rides, the road must also be able to accommodate the group’s efforts to stick together over long distances, sometimes on narrow roads. “At some point, if you have a larger group of cyclists, it’s impossible to pass them with the required 3 feet of space,” co-founder Bill Lindeke shared. “It’s legal for cyclists to travel in the roadway two abreast, according to state law. If this happens, drivers should just slow down and/or take a different route.”

Andy Singer, co-founder and former co-chair of the Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition, challenged the question. “Why aren’t all automobiles only one person wide instead of two people wide?” he asked. “Cars take up a minimum of 11 feet in lane width. Drivers and their passengers are able to have a conversation as they sit side by side. Why shouldn’t cyclists have the same privilege?” Singer added.

Finally, parents who venture out with young riders also like to widen their family’s use of the lane to slow traffic. They use a strong lane position to protect their children. Schoner explained, “When I’m biking with my kid, I like to ride a little behind him and out to the left of him to force drivers to pass him with more space.”

An explanation of sidewalk riding behaviors, from BikeMN's People Friendly Driver Program. It's often illegal to sidewalk ride but some do because it feels safer or they have a child with them, so drivers should watch for bicylists at intersections.
An explanation of sidewalk riding behaviors, from BikeMN’s People Friendly Driver Program’s slide deck. Image courtesy of BikeMN.

Why do some bicyclists choose to disregard rights-of-way — such as riding against traffic or on the sidewalk?

The Situation

It’s common to see bicyclists riding against the flow of vehicle traffic and riding on sidewalks, ignoring or choosing to break right-of-way rules about direction of travel.

The Driver’s Narrative

These bicyclists are a menace to themselves and pedestrians. Riding the wrong way down one-way streets or toward oncoming traffic scares me as a driver! And what about those pedestrians who don’t want to worry about getting hit by bikes on their walk? Why can’t bicyclists just use the street like they’re supposed to?

The Bicyclist’s Perspective

Many bicylists know it’s often against the law to ride on sidewalks or against traffic, but many still do – often due to route safety, access to bike racks or saving time.

A bicyclist’s commute or errand can present multiple routing challenges. Industrial parks, rivers or interstates, multiple one-way streets, high-speed roads or construction can significantly increase time in transit — or worse, present significant barriers to safety. Adrianna Jereb said that “salmoning” on one-ways sometimes helps her create routes that work for her. “I occasionally ride against traffic if it’s a one-way street. That helps me avoid busier streets or another route where the speed limit is higher. It’s a combination timesaver and safety measure,” she said.

The Particulars of Sidewalk Riding

Sometimes, safe bicycling means taking an occasional sidewalk. Jereb continued, “I don’t ride on the sidewalk often, but sometimes if the car traffic is bad and there’s no pedestrians. Also, when I’ve biked with kids, we would bike on the sidewalk. Cars are just really unpredictable, and biking on the sidewalk is safer than being on the road.”

Gage Read, who rides mostly on separated paths and in residential areas, confirmed his reasons for using sidewalks: “Safety, safety, safety. I only do this when the road I’m attempting to go down has no alternative and is an unsafe speed or has an unsafe shoulder,” Read said. “I’d really rather not, but oftentimes the lack of infrastructure leaves me no choice.”

BikeMN explains in their Minnesota Bike Law FAQ that it’s best for adults to avoid riding on the sidewalk, except where it’s allowed. In business districts, busier parking lanes and sidewalk-mounted bike racks make sidewalks the safest and most practical choice. In this situation, however, a bicyclist must behave more like a pedestrian. “While riding on a sidewalk a bicyclist should move at pedestrian speeds and must also continue to give an audible signal when passing other pedestrians and yield to other pedestrians on the sidewalk,” according to the FAQ.

Weighing the Value of Sidewalk Riding

While they’re often not appropriate for adults, sidewalks are a great place for kids to learn to ride. BikeMN’s FAQ also recommends that “children 10 and under ride on the sidewalk and under the leadership of an adult as they may not yet have developed the physical skills and cognitive ability to navigate roadways.” 

Angela Olson of BikeMN addressed the assumptions behind these behaviors, but urged bicyclists to remember safe practices. “Especially folks who did not grow up in the city think riding against traffic or riding on the sidewalk is safer. But predictable and visible cyclists fare best. Riding with traffic in a visible position is important,” she said.

About Sherry Johnson

Pronouns: she/her/hers

Sherry Johnson gets feisty about sustainability and localism. A complexity coach, adaptive strategist, and amplifier of counter-narratives, Sherry supports civic and nonprofit leaders as Principal Guide at Cultivate Strategy.