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(United States road configuration and customs here. Sorry, those of you who drive on the left!)

On my trip home, I use a bike lane near the right side of a very busy one-way arterial street; there is a bus/right-turn lane between the bike lane and the curb. I need to turn left, crossing three lanes of traffic, at a T-intersection (no street to the right). My options are:

  1. Turn left directly from the bike lane.
  2. Keeping a weather eye on traffic, move into the left-hand lane and turn from there.
  3. Veer right onto the sidewalk (avoiding buses, obviously); wait for the pedestrian light to cross.

Which of these is the canonically correct way to manage, assuming heavy car traffic?

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up vote 11 down vote accepted

By heavy I suppose you mean heavier than you'd like it to be, or heavier than you can live with comfortably.

It's probably possible, sometimes, to change lanes beforehand, going to the left one to do the left turn, if the traffic is not so heavy, but that would, I think, violate your pre-condition that the traffic IS heavy.

Then, the canonical way to do it would be getting to the margin of the flow (in this case, the sidewalk), and waiting for a comfortable opportunity (in this case, the pedestrian light).

Turn left directly is a very bad behaviour, as it adds a lot of unpredictability and leaves a small time window and a small margin of safety for you and for any other user of the public way. Besides, as it seems, it is illegal.

Hope this helps

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Thank you. This is pretty much how I behave, but the other day I got yelled at by some yahoo in a pickup for being in the left lane at all (I was stopped at the light, waiting to turn, as far over to the left as I could be). This shook my confidence, so I thought I'd ask here! – D.Salo Jun 7 '12 at 1:35
You're right, some drivers' behaviours are awful. But bikers have a lot of rights, and also a lot of ways to interact with any kind of drivers. From any resource on that I've read so far, this link is by far the best (the html formatting is crappy, but the content is perfect): . Hope you enjoy the (very adviseable) reading! – heltonbiker Jun 7 '12 at 1:55
@dsalo You said you were "as far over to the left as I could be". I find its usually safer to be in the middle of the left most lane, particularly when waiting at a red light. That way, cars don't try to pass me in the intersection. Also, when you opt for #2, start signaling for the lane change well in advance of the turn, even if you don't see an opening in traffic yet. Often, one amongst the many drivers passing you will be courteous enough to slow down and to let you into the lane. – Big General Jun 7 '12 at 14:59
Thanks, good ideas both. – D.Salo Jun 7 '12 at 16:25
@BigGeneral -- Yep, when making a left turn it's especially important to "claim your lane". You have to assess the situation and decide when to let other traffic pass and when to assert your "ownership" of the lane, but you want to be "owning" the lane when you're in the process of actually making the turn. – Daniel R Hicks Jun 7 '12 at 18:12

The Oregon Bicyclists Manual explains this very well, and with good diagrams, so I'm going to pretty much copy them verbatim here:

There are several ways to make a left turn on a bicycle:

As a Vehicle

As you approach the intersection, look over your left shoulder for traffic and, when clear, signal your turn, move over to the left side of the lane on a two-lane road (1), or into the left lane or the center turn lane when available. You should be positioned so cars going straight through can’t pass you on the left. Yield to oncoming cars before turning. if you are riding in a bike lane, or on a road with several lanes, you need to look and signal each time you change lanes. Never make a left turn from the right side of the road, even if you’re in a bike lane.


Proceed straight through the intersection on the right. Then stop, and either cross as a pedestrian in the crosswalk (2), or make a 90 degree left turn and proceed as if you were coming from the right (3). If there is a signal, wait for the green or walk signal before crossing. Yield to pedestrians in crosswalk.

How to turn from the bike lane

In your particular case, I would suggest method 2. Cross the intersection, then pull off to the side and orient yourself to cross with the crosswalk. Then wait until there's a break in traffic, and head across that way. If you eventually become more comfortable biking in traffic, you may choose to use method 1. I find that cars almost always slow down and let me in if I clearly signal that I'm making a left turn, but it depends on how fast traffic is, how confident of a cyclist you are, and what the road conditions are like.

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In Melbourne, Australia those (2) are called "hook turns" and cars do them because we have trams in the middle of the road a lot. They're apparently always legal for cyclists, but to be safe you do need motorists to be aware that you're doing them. Otherwise you need to cross as a pedestrian. The more-legal way to stay on your bike is #3. – Kohi Jun 14 '12 at 4:44
Amazing answer. The diagram explains it very clearly. I liked the (2) & (3) approach. This was the only doubt I had. I am going to start my first bike ride in the US tomorrow. :) – deppfx Apr 2 '15 at 20:56

Definitely not 1, unless there is a special signal to permit this. Either 2 or 3, depending on traffic and your confidence level. I've done both.

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To me it would depend on the speed of traffic. If the traffic is moving slow enough such that you can ride at about the same speed, then it should be possible to take option 2, and make your way over to the left lane. Try to move over to the left lane ahead of time, so you aren't cutting across the road too quickly, because this will slow your forward speed. If the traffic is moving much faster than you are, it's most likely safer to just take option 3 and cross as a pedestrian. This may include dismounting and actually walk your bike across the pedestrian walk. Technically it is probably illegal to use the pedestrian light to cross while riding, although I do this all the time, and I've never heard of anybody in my area getting a fine for doing this. Option 1 is probably something that you should never do. It's dangerous and illegal to make a left hand from a bike lane when you have to cross over a lane that goes straight though.

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I think (hope) you've got your left and right confused or some such. 1 is the option you should never do, 2 is reasonable to do if the traffic is light enough, 3 is the option to take if traffic is too heavy. – Daniel R Hicks Jun 7 '12 at 0:41
Fixed that. Sorry, somehow I got options mixed up. Did the option numbers change at some point? Maybe I'm just going crazy. Anyway, I've corrected the option numbers in my answer. – Kibbee Jun 7 '12 at 0:50
I think some demon comes in and switches things around after you read a post. I know it's happened to me. – Daniel R Hicks Jun 7 '12 at 11:24
There's a 5 minute (I think 5 minutes anyhow) window, in which you can edit your question, but it won't record in the edit history. So it's definitely possible that the question could have changed. – Kibbee Jun 7 '12 at 12:21
I think the window closes if someone else comments on your post. Though I've never experimented with it, or read anything about it. – Daniel R Hicks Jun 7 '12 at 12:46

I usually prefer to get in the left lane when possible. One thing to consider though, is turning left onto a multi-lane street. You have to turn into the left-most lane when opposing traffic is turning right (pretend you're the blue car and the white car is turning right.

left turn illustration

If there's a steady stream of cars turning right, it can be hard to get over to the far right after you've made your left turn.

In this case I'll usually opt for the crosswalk.

Also, as others have pointed out, option 1 isn't a good idea.

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  • If you want to take the safest option, wait for the pedestrian light.
  • If you feel confident that you can switch through all 3 lanes of traffic safely, do that early and take the left lane.
  • Dont turn directly from the bike lane if you value your life.

It sounds like you should be waiting for the pedestrian light most, if not all of the time, but use your own best judgment.

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I adopt one of two approaches, depending on how anxious I am, in similar situations in the UK (typically when I am cycling in London).

1) Be a car (as Dean suggests above). Well in advance of the junction signal and join the traffic, signal again and join the turning lane, and then turn. This one's faster and scarier than (2).

2) Be a pedestrian. Slow down in advance of the junction and dismount. Stand with the bike and wait for the crossing light. Walk the bike to the other side of the one or two streets and then mount it again and cycle off. There's no shame in walking: Ecclesiastes 9:4

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I agree with your observation of step #3, from the bike lane, move across to the other side of the street and wait for the green traffic signal to proceed across the stopped traffic to get to your intended lane of travel. If the traffic is light and you can safely move to the left hand turn lane, that is the "normal" way a vehicle would execute the left turn. Either way is fine, it just depends on your "gut feelings" and the amount of traffic at the time. You just have to watch for those turning right on a red traffic signal if that's permitted at this intersection, when using step #3.

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