Taking The Lane

Written by Boston Biker on Jan 04

The snow has come and gone, and the plows have come and gone, oh winter you are so lovely. You might notice that the streets have shrunk a bit. With giant piles of dirty ice blocking a foot or more of each side of the street everything has squeezed inwards towards the center. I thought now would be a great time to go over taking the lane.

Before I get into the how, when, why of taking the lane I want to explain what I mean. “Taking the lane” is the act of a cyclists riding in the middle of the lane (not the middle of the street). It is totally legal, and as we will see later is not only legal but sometimes a very good idea.

Taking the lane is an act of control. You are controlling what other vehicles do on the road. By taking the lane you allow vehicles to pass when you want them to pass. You can also prevent vehicles from turning until you are ready for them to turn. This might seem rude or impolite, but if you think about other vehicles on the road do this all the time. Motor vehicles do this by using the size of their vehicles, they are wide enough that they physically prevent people behind them from passing them in their lane, or from turning around them, thus they “take the lane” by default.

Taking the lane is not for everyone. Its kind of scary, can cause some motorists to get angry, and in general is a more advanced riding tactic. But once mastered it can dramatically increase your safety, and when done properly, calm motorists down. Its also a very important skill for the winter time when the available road surface for cyclists shrinks as the snow piles grow.

So lets get into some of the details about taking the lane.

How To Take The Lane:

Taking the lane is a physical act, you place yourself in the middle of the lane you are traveling in and thus you prevent vehicles from using that lane. Its also a mental one, if you don’t feel comfortable doing this you probably are not ready for this cycling tactic. How you take the lane safely is a lot like how you make a left hand turn.

These steps assume you are traveling on the right hand side of the right hand lane.

1. Look over your left shoulder to see if anyone is in your lane.
2. Once the lane is clear signal that you are moving left, you can do this by pointing with your left hand at the center of the lane (that’s what I do).
3. Move to the center of the lane.
4. Stay in the center of the lane until you are done taking the lane.
5. Be sure to look over your other shoulder before moving back onto the right, don’t want to cut off another cyclist.

If you want to control the left hand lane, repeat the above steps one more time to get into the middle of the left hand lane.

If you are taking the lane while making a right or left hand turn, stay in the center of the lane until you have completed your turn.

If you are taking the lane and passing through an intersection, control the lane until you make it all the way through the intersection.

Why To Take The Lane:

Taking the lane is not a complicated maneuver, you plonk yourself in the middle of the lane and use your body as a shield to keep people in cars from using your space. You might be asking yourself, “why in the world would I ever want to do something like that?” Here are just a couple of the many reasons why you might want to take the lane.

  • There is debris/cars/slower cyclists/snow/etc in the bike lane.
  • You are on a narrow road, and it would be unsafe for a car to pass you.
  • You are approaching a red light and don’t want to have to deal with cars squeezing you as they try to turn right on red.
  • You are making a left/right hand turn and don’t want cars squeezing you as you make the turn.
  • There is no shoulder to ride on.
  • You want to make sure you are seen by motorists.
  • You want to pass another cyclist.
  • There is a right turn lane that leads into a parking lot, and you are going straight.
  • There is a bunch of snow piles up on the side of the road making it too narrow to safely ride on the right hand side.
  • You are making your way through an intersection and don’t want anyone passing you until you make it all the way through

Things To Keep In Mind:

Just because taking the lane is both legal and useful doesn’t mean that everyone knows that. You will get honked at, its going to happen. Hell I get honked at when I am in a bike lane, people in Boston just love to honk, I suggest you just wave smile and keep on pedaling.

Also just because you can take the lane, doesn’t mean you should. If there is plenty of room on the right, and you are not making a turn, and no one is in danger of squeezing you, get over and let the cars fly by. Just because you can legally do something doesn’t mean that its always the best idea.

Can you think of other reasons to take the lane? Have questions about taking the lane? Hit the comments below.

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Posted in advocacy, education | 8 Comments »

8 Responses to “Taking The Lane”

  1. By cycler on Jan 4, 2011 | Reply

    A timely post. I think that riding through the winter is a real force in learning how to control traffic with your lane position.
    Something that cycling through the winter changed about my riding- I stopped “filtering” up on the right at lights, and I think that I have less drama from drivers because of it.
    If you’re out in the middle of the lane and people have to wait for a gap in traffic to pass safely, it’s only polite to then wait in queue when you arrive at the light. If someone has to wait to pass you on a narrow street, and then you zip past them at a light, it’s annoying and somewhat provocative to force them to have to pass you carefully again on narrow snowy streets.
    Also if you can’t keep up a decent pace ( 10 mph slower than traffic) it’s only polite to every couple of blocks pull out, if the road or traffic conditions are causing a backup of people who can’t pass you safely.
    Finally, the relevant statute is CMR Chapter 89, section 2:
    “If it is not possible to overtake a bicycle or other vehicle at a safe distance in the same lane, the overtaking vehicle shall use all or part of an adjacent lane if it is safe to do so or wait for a safe opportunity to overtake.”

  2. By matt on Jan 4, 2011 | Reply

    great post, and great response cycler. I never used to want to take the lane, but especially with the plowed snow encroaching on what little space is usually left on the right, it’s only safe to do so.

  3. By IsolateCyclist on Jan 5, 2011 | Reply

    I agree with everything stated in this article. One other thing worth mentioning is awareness of various dangerous scenarios that can arise when taking a lane. For instance, no matter how careful a cyclist may be and how much of a right he/she has to take the lane, there will always be motorists who react badly to getting “stuck” behind a bicycle. Such motorists make rash judgments out of impatience.

    Several times, when taking a lane out of necessity (on a two lane road), I have had a car speed up behind me to the point of nearly hitting my rear wheel. At the last minute, they swerved into the lane of oncoming traffic and shot past me. On two of these occasions, there was a car coming in the opposite direction. That car blew the horn at the car passing me because there was nearly a head-on collision due to this reckless maneuver.

    As a result of this experience, I now listen to the car behind me to determine whether it’s following me politely or whether it’s speeding up out of impatience. If the car starts to pass me, I move slightly to the right and slow down. I do this in anticipation of an impending car crash. Theoretically, if I hang back, I should not get hit by either car at the point of impact. Anticipating such scenarios can make taking a lane less scary and safer.

  4. By jthandle on Jan 5, 2011 | Reply

    I took one of the two lanes on Hyde Park Ave this morning because it was only about 7 feet wide with the snowbank. An old white guy in an orange hatchback with an “I’m not a Republican” sticker on the back rode my tail and beeped a couple of times. Whatever. Then to my surprise, he pulled up next to me and rolled down his rear passenger side window and a freaken GIANT German Shepard stuck its head way out of the window and began to bark loudly from about 8 inches away. I only crapped my pants a little. Note to self: Be prepared to spray the puppy with a water bottle next time!

  5. By Sarah on Jan 5, 2011 | Reply

    Thanks for posting this!

    *Jthandle- That’s horrible!
    Something similar happened to me a couple weeks ago. I was riding through Kenmore Square- literally in the middle of the intersection heading up Beacon street and a car pulled up to me full of college kids…screaming “Happy Hanukkah” and proceeded to spray me with silly string.
    It was very scary as I was trying to ride through the intersection, in traffic.

    It’s amazing how people sometimes don’t think at all… about how dangerous doing something as stupid as, rolling their window down and trying to provoke you. The simple act of distracting you while you ride is dangerous enough.


  6. By Paul Schimek on Jan 7, 2011 | Reply

    To jthandle: Around 2001, Mayor Menino personally decreed that Hyde Park Avenue should have two (very narrow) lanes in each direction instead of one wide lane (and possibly left turn lanes). It is on his drive to work. So you can thank him for that particular situation. Actually the lanes are so narrow it’s impossible to leave room for someone to pass in the same lane even if you are completely in the door zone.
    When will the mayor start publicizing the law — bicyclists have the same right to the road, and to use a complete lane, as everyone else. Period.

  7. By jthandle on Jan 8, 2011 | Reply

    *Sarah- Sorry to hear that. Glad you’re ok.

    *Paul: Yup, the lanes are truly skinny. I’ve no idea when they’ll start publicizing bike rights, but I’d really like to see them start enforcing traffic laws. I think that if they started ticketing the miles of cars parked in bike lanes, while their parking spaces are full of snow, and enforcing the speed limit, then the general public might begin to notice that bikes belong in Boston.

  8. By DOUBLG on Sep 19, 2011 | Reply

    All great responses to ‘Taking The Lane’, BUT… How or why in the world ANYONE would do this without a mirror, is just suicidal to me.

    I’ve ridden my Specialized Rockhopper as my ‘road bike’ for the past 10 years with a ‘Mirrycle’ MTB mirror. Just bought a 2011 Specialized Tricross Comp as my new ‘road bike’. Then found out when the bike came in that the ‘Mirrycle’ road mirror would NOT fit on the bike !!!

    I was so adamant about the ‘mirror’ thing that I refused to take delivery (bike was already paid-in-full)of the bike because the 2011 STI shifters would not take the mirror mount. I spent $ 300.00 to change over the STI’s to 2010 shifters so I could have my mirror.

    Trust me, the level of confidence you will have, now knowing EXACTLY where, and what the nit-wits in the cars behind you are doing will make riding SO much safer, AND ENJOYABLE…

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