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My commute takes me along a fairly busy road, with 4 lanes of traffic and parked cars along most of it. There are no bike lanes, but in some places, it's wide enough that I can easily pass traffic on the right (which is legal in my state, as far as I can tell), and in some places, there's actually a whole extra lane on the right for a block or two. However, the conditions change from block to block. On some of the blocks, there is not enough room to pass safely on the right of cars, and there are some places where the extra lane on the right no longer exists across the intersection or is filled with parked cars.

There are several times when I've passed cars on the right, either in a full lane or in the room between a lane of stopped cars and parked cars, and then realized after crossing through the next intersection that I need to merge back into the next lane. What is the etiquette of merging back into the next lane in such circumstances?

There are a few possibilities that I've tried, and all of them seem unsatisfying in certain ways.

  1. Continue to travel in the lane that will run out until it actually does, then stop and wait for a gap in the traffic before merging in. That can sometimes require stopping and waiting for quite a while, due to busy traffic.
  2. Signal to the left in advance of running out of the lane, check for a reasonable gap in the cars while still moving, and merge into that gap once I've determined it's safe, or fall back to the first option if that doesn't work. The problem is, this requires a good deal of judgement to tell when there's a good enough gap in traffic to merge back in, I can only glance back quickly and not make good eye contact with drivers in the lane I'm merging into since I need to be paying attention to what's ahead of me as well, and I'm not sure if I'm cutting people off too closely.
  3. Pass the cars on the right, then pull up in front of them at a stop light so I can take the lane when it turns green. This makes me feel like a jerk, like I'm cutting in line.
  4. Simply stay in, and take, the lane that doesn't keep disappearing. This is what I would do if I were driving a car. The problems are that I get stuck in stop-and-go traffic which slows me down, I have to breathe in the smog of trucks and busses in front of me as I wait, and I hold up somewhat more traffic as I don't take several of the block-long opportunities to make it easy for cars to pass me.
  5. Run red lights. This way, I can actually get into the lane I need to before I have to contend with cars. The disadvantage is, of course, that I'm running red lights.
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2 Answers 2

up vote 17 down vote accepted

Seems to me that your best option is choice 2: Signal to the left in advance of running out of the lane, check for a reasonable gap in the cars while still moving, and merge into that gap once you've determined that it's safe.

In that option you are essentially behaving like exactly what you are - a slow moving vehicle. Your behavior is like what you would expect if you were operating a tractor, or a horse-drawn carriage. You operate in the lane when neccessary, move over to the right to allow others to pass when safe and convenient, and carefully merge back into the traffic lane when the shoulder is no longer safe.

While doing this you want to avoid weaving in and out of traffic every few feet.

This is also similar and predictable behavior much like what you need to do when the shoulder runs out as a right-turn only lane blocks your path.

Option 1 is unsatisfactory because you lose momentum and will have a difficult time merging.

Option 3 is a poor choice, not from the issue of passing cars on the right (which while legal in many areas, is dangerous), but because it's rude and then forces cars to pass you later - playing leapfrog.

Option 4 is a possibility, but then again, think about operating a 'slow moving vehicle.' If you are consistently the same speed as motorists, you may stay in the lane, particularly if the shoulder is unsafe, otherwise, move over and let them pass.

Option 5 is the poorest choice. You may be able to cross against the light safely, but not only is it risky, it makes you a poor ambassador of cycling, causing motorists to be angry at other cyclist, and frequently puts you back in the leapfrog situation. Plus, you could get a ticket, at least in my town.

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I agree, option 2 is the least-bad choice. I would also be extremely hesitant to ride on a road like this regularly; I would consider a mirror mandatory equipment in this kind of traffic. –  Neil Fein Oct 18 '10 at 22:05
@neilfein Absolutely. I use one of the mirrors that mounts on my glasses, I find I prefer it to handlebar mounted mirrors. I keep tabs on traffic with the mirror, once I see a gap I signal, and then I physically turn to check to make sure the gap is really there. This is pretty much the only way to get to work; I need to cross a river, and there aren't that many bridges to choose from. This is the least-bad route of all. I tend to lean towards option 2 as well, but I've been experimenting with the other options to see if any of them work any better. –  Brian Campbell Oct 18 '10 at 22:18
I agree, basically 2. I also use 3 all the time (usual and expected in the Netherlands due to the bicycle-adjusted road layout). It gives you a few seconds to get up to speed and stability before moving over to let the cars pass you, since speed differences are probably the major safety issue in being overtaken. I don't think it's rude at all, since you're not staying in front. 4 is the really rude option, holding up everyone. 5 is nice if you're suicidal ... ;) –  Joren Oct 20 '10 at 2:54

I used to pass on the right but have started to see the benefits of using option 4 (stay in the lane) whenever possible. It can be a bit slower, but by keeping your lane position you stay highly visible to drivers around you, don't have to worry about merging or losing your place, and run less risk of getting "right hooked" by someone turning right.

I'll only move over to the right if it's a proper lane (i.e. no parked cars and not a right turning lane) or to let cars pass me if I know I can get back in easily. If the lane you're riding in ends, then option 2 (signal then merge when safe) is the way to go.

Of course if you're on a busy road or highway and there's a decent shoulder, then by all means use it instead of the lane.

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