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Go with the Flow

Why We Bike in the Same Direction as Traffic––

Everybody knows that bikes ride in the same direction as traffic. (everybody knows that, right?) So I was surprised by a conversation I had with a softball buddy this summer. “I feel safer riding against traffic”, he said. “I like to see what’s coming at me”.

“Well” I told him, “the stats are not on your side. Plus, it infuriates everyone in your path, and you’ll get a ticket too” I said.

We agreed to disagree.

I went home and started visualizing all the things that can go wrong when you violate a traffic principle as fundamental as this. The list of hazards just kept coming. The conversation with my wrong-way friend, I’ll call him Wrong-Way Ray, lead to this next series. Ray! This one’s for you!

It was impossible to put ALL of the hazards of wrong-way-riding into one diagram, but here are 3 big ones that come to mind. Take a good look at the situations shown here and do the analysis . . . what do you predict will happen next?

Three riders on a one-way street - Why We Ride in the Same Direction as Traffic

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Three cyclists riding against the flow. Let’s look at each in the next frames.

Why We Ride in the Same Direction as Traffic

There’s a car pulling out of a driveway

The red car wants to pull out of the parking garage and enter the flow of traffic. His right-turn signal is on. It’s a one-way street so he knows where he has to look for traffic–he’s looking left!

I can make it if I NAIL it - Why We Ride in the Same Direction as Traffic

The driver prepares to make his move. . .

I’m no mind reader, but as the driver looks to his left at the approaching cars, it’s clear what he’s thinking . . .“If I NAIL it, I can cut in ahead of the taxi!” Our cyclist, approaching from the blind side, squeezed between traffic and parked cars is suddenly in a tight spot! Can you predict the next frame?

Officer, he came outta nowhere! - Why We Ride in the Same Direction as Traffic

“Officer, he came outta nowhere!”

Well, that was easy to predict. Easy for us, but not for the driver. Predictability and Visibility improve when you ride where drivers are looking for traffic. (OMG, you’re going to hear that a lot on this site)

Ok, next – Cyclist #2 . .

“That’s a big garbage truck”

It’s hard for Cyclist #2 to ignore the garbage truck coming directly at him in the center of the lane. The bike’s speed plus the speed of the truck are added together reducing the time they have to negotiate this situation. Cyclist #2’s motivation will be to hug the parked cars and hope there’s room to squeeze through.

Everyone is focused on the approaching garbage truck . . .

The cyclist is not the only one looking at the garbage truck. So is the occupant of the silver car who’s decided that now’s his chance to get out of his parked car. But he has to move quickly! He looks back one last time and makes his move!

The Door Zone? Even while they’re facing me??

Ouch! Yes, the Door Zone remains a problem even though you’re theoretically in the driver’s line of sight. Opening the door in the path of a cyclist is against NYC regs. But so is riding against traffic. Two mistakes add up to one collision. Your best defense against this situation is to not be in this situation!

By now, you should be starting to see a pattern in this Wrong-Way series. I have one more to show you . . .

Wrong-Way Ray, at it again.

You should be able to write your own narrative here, but let me call your attention to the purple car and his turn signal.

Mind reading? No – just thought bubble reading!

The drama builds . . .

Outcome inevitable.

I said earlier that there were endless hazards that came to mind; Pedestrians rushing across, strollers and hand-trucks being pushed out from blind spots, cars turning INTO driveways, or suddenly pulling to the side for any number of reasons. They all check for traffic coming from one way, but not from your way.

Riding WITH the flow is safer, legal, courteous and intelligent. It reduces the speed of cars relative to your bike, puts you where drivers are looking for traffic, and communicates that you are a roadworthy entity. This appearance of “roadworthy-ness” is an important part of the Virtuous Bicycle formula for reduced-stress riding. We’ll talk more about it as we go along.

About the author

Lance Jacobs

A native New Yorker, biking has been part of my life from my paper route in 5th grade, through my international tours on 4 continents. Now, as a League Certified Instructor (LCI #3507), my focus is on studying and teaching the best way to ride in NYC's unique street environment. I love cycling and I love my city. I believe riding our streets can be stress free when approached with some solid skills, some basic knowledge, and the right frame of mind.

2 comments

  1. Lance Jacobs

    I came across this YouTube showing a pedestrian being knocked down by a wrong-way biker. Though the video’s poster describes it as “Hilarious”, I’m not posting it for its comic value. (LOL). Rather, it’s a perfect example of what “Go with the Flow” illustrates; that the dynamics of riding against traffic make these crashes all but inevitable.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&feature=endscreen&v=PC3HHDtdIPw

    Here’s some things to note as you look at the video;

    The wrong-way cyclist has worked his way to the edge of the roadway (his right) in preparation for traffic that’s just in the distance. From this position he has poor visibility and low reaction time to the pedestrian.

    When we first see the pedestrian (around time: 16 sec) he’s casually crossing the street looking to his right. He’s got good sight-lines to traffic because the next parked car is some distance away.

    The pedestrian emerges from behind a large parked vehicle – the blue van – also contributing to reduced sight-lines and therefore reduced reaction time. Had the blue van been a regular car, the cyclist would have seen the pedestrian before he even left the curb.

    Interestingly, at the first sign of the pedestrian, the cyclist has not even reached the blue van, he’s maybe a van.5 length away. You can see the cyclist’s sunglasses in the shot and, looking at the video frame-by-frame (pause and use your arrow keys), he seems to be glancing off to his right as he approaches the blind spot. We don’t hear the cyclist call out “Woah!” until he’s nearing the van’s rear bumper. And here’s the point;

    The dynamics of wrong-way riding set up the potential for this crash, and the momentary glance away insured it. Wrong way riding reduced his margin for error to zero.

    Lance

  2. Lance

    related story
    How to stop ‘salmoning’, scourge of NYC’s bike lanes
    People riding the wrong way in New York’s bike lanes are a serious nuisance. But what to do about it?

    http://tinyurl.com/ag8crkg

    Note – I don’t support harassing wrong-way riders. I support riding the right way.

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