Figuring out how to Best Share the Road

Cycling is big on the street where I live. A bike shop recently opened nearby and cyclists frequently head out for Sunday afternoon group rides. Sometimes there’s a theme. A few months ago, the cyclists were all wearing tweed and tartan and many of the bikes were adorned with flowers. I find it both entertaining and uplifting to watch these folks ride.

I’m a bit less sanguine about the cyclists I encounter crossing Jordan Lake on Farrington Road at 5:30 p.m. on a weekday. That’s a busy, narrow road with no bike lane. During that time of day, when everyone is heading home from work, there often is little opportunity to pass a cyclist who isn’t traveling the speed limit.

And I’m downright hostile to cyclists who use the right hand edge of a single lane to pass a queue of motor vehicles stopped a stop light to claim a position in front.

My admittedly schizophrenic reaction to sharing the road with cyclists illustrates some of the difficulties faced by the working group charged with assisting the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) in formulating statutory changes to better ensure the safety of bicyclists and motorists on the state’s roadways. Perhaps, then, it was predictable that NCDOT’s recommendations would be a mixed bag, generating both cheers and jeers from the cycling community.

NCDOT’s report recommends several statutory changes, including the following:

Amendments to the no passing law in G.S. 20-150. NCDOT recommends that G.S. 20-150 be amended to permit motorists to pass cyclists who have not signaled for a left turn so long as the motorist provides a minimum of four feet of clearance between his motor vehicle and the bicycle or completely enters the left lane. The proposed amendment would allow motorists to pass cyclists even if the roadway was marked with a double-yellow line, indicating that the area was one in which it was unlawful to pass other motor vehicles. NCDOT’s report notes that it establishes no passing zones with the size and speed capabilities of motor vehicles in mind rather than in consideration of the smaller size and slower speeds of cyclists. This proposal appears to be relatively non-controversial. It was endorsed by both NCDOT and the working group convened to consider the issues, which included cycling enthusiasts, law enforcement officers, and representatives from the agriculture and trucking industries.

Enactment of a law permitting cyclists to ride no more than two abreast. Existing laws do not clearly authorize cyclists to ride two abreast, but, given that motorcycles are authorized to ride two abreast, this type of riding by cyclists is generally accepted. The practice of some cycling groups of spreading out to ride more than two abreast, however, is controversial in addition to lacking any statutory authorization. NCDOT (but not the working group) recommends that the legislature enact a statute approving the operation of bicycles no more than two abreast in a single marked travel lane, except when overtaking another bicyclist. A reporter explained yesterday on WUNC’s The State of Things that some cyclists think this change will unnecessarily impede cycling groups from expeditiously crossing intersections. If the cyclists can fan out across the lane and cross as a group, then the group can proceed through the intersection more quickly.

Enactment of a law requiring cyclists to ride in the right half of the right most travel lane. G.S. 20-146(b) requires any vehicle proceeding at less than the speed limit to be driven in the right-hand lane available for thru traffic, or as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the highway, except when overtaking and passing another vehicle proceeding in the same direction or when preparing for a left turn. The “or” seems to render the second clause inapplicable to cyclists riding in the right lane of a road divided into lanes, regardless of whether they are passing another vehicle or preparing for a left turn. NCDOT (but not the working group) recommends that cyclists riding single file or independently ride on the right half of the right-most travel lane. NCDOT advises that this recommendation could be “folded into education materials as a best practice” or “considered as a statutory amendment.” The agency recommends the following statutory language:

Where a cyclist is riding independently or single abreast, the cyclist shall ride in the right half of the right most travel lane with exceptions described in § 20-146 or except when the cyclist is travelling within 15 miles per hour of the posted speed limit.

Some cycling advocates object to this recommendation. They argue that riding on the right puts them out of view and out of mind of the motorist. It subjects them to a potential “right hook,” the cycling term for what occurs when a motorist turns to the right without regard for the cyclist traveling on her right.

NCDOT traffic engineer Kevin Lacy attempted to explain the rationale for the recommendation in an interview that in yesterday’s The State of Things, saying:

“[W]e drive for what we expect. . . . [I]f you never see a  . . . cyclist on the roadway . . . especially in these rural areas . . . driver expectation . . . is a tremendous benefit. So if I know that the cyclists are supposed to be over here in most cases if they’re going straight then that gives me a little more room as a motorist and . . . I shouldn’t be as surprised if they’re on that half of the road.”

Everyone agrees that more education is needed. The working group and NCDOT agree on several best practices for cyclists and motorists. They also agree that that the legislature should appropriate resources to allow NCDOT to incorporate these practices into education materials, training programs, and outreach to the cycling and motoring public. Granted I’m old (just ask my kids), but I didn’t learn much about cyclists when I went through driver’s education. And it was only in the process of studying up on these proposed legislative changes that I learned what a sharrow was, why my city has rectangular green pavement markings at certain intersections (to remind motorists to be on the lookout for cyclists who may move into the main travel lane) and why some roads may contain bike lanes only on uphill sections of the street.