A Line in the Sand

One of the main thoroughfares on my commute was repaved a couple of weeks ago, but they just got around to re-striping the bike lane the other day. It’s been interesting, observing how motorists behaved after the removal of the bike lane, and how they position themselves now that the lane is back in place.

The road is unusual in that it’s nearly wide enough for two full lanes going either direction, but it’s only ever been one extra wide traffic lane and a narrow bike lane in either direction. Traffic on this road averages 40-50 mph.

Prior to the repaving, motorists never seemed to know quite where to drive in the overly wide traffic lane. Some would hug the center line, while others drifted clear over to the right, brushing up against the bike lane. Some even treated the main traffic lane as if it was two lanes; this probably explains the centerline and bike lane huggers.

After the repaving and subsequent lack of lane striping, things got even hairier, with cars spread all over the road. Since the speeds were too high to take the lane, I often found myself hugging the road’s edge, keeping one eye on my rearview mirror in case I needed to make a quick evasive maneuver.

The new, re-striped bike lane is now double to triple wide and the main traffic lane is closer to what is normal for a 40 mph road. The difference in how motorists position themselves on the road is dramatically better. The traffic lane is now clearly a single lane, so there’s no incentive to push toward either edge as if it’s a double lane. The bike lane doesn’t need to be as wide as it is, but the decision to clearly define the main traffic lane as a single lane was a good decision.

The point of all of this is to illustrate the power of a white line on the ground to affect road users’ behavior. Obviously, a white line will not protect a bicyclist from an out of control vehicle, but it will communicate to responsible, coherent drivers where they should be on the road, and what portion of the road should be allocated strictly to bicyclists.

9 Responses to “A Line in the Sand”

  • Tom says:

    Yes this is true. Visual cues are important. BTW a curb won’t protect anyone from an out of control vehicle either.

  • bongobike says:

    I agree with Tom. Road stripes are essential to keep traffic “straight”. However, I see some really odd driving behavior here in Austin almost every day, stripes or no stripes. Many drivers here give you a ridiculously wide berth, even going so far as crossing double yellow lines into oncoming traffic to give cyclists that unnecessarily wide space! What’s with these people? I mean, as a cyclist I appreciate the consideration, but if you’re going to cause an accident by trying to give me room I don’t need…

  • Aaron says:

    I agree with what you have to say Alan, but I believe that road stripping is only one part of the equation. While on tour last summer, I wrote the following:

    “Something I’ve noticed about motorists as a whole is the ‘jump on the band wagon’ affect. If the first car in a line of cars passes me on the other side of the yellow line, then 9 out 10 motorists who see that behavior will mimic it. Monkey see monkey do in other words. If the first car passes within inches of me in the same situation than every motorist who saw that will too. Of course there is the occasional idiot with a license who bucks the trend, but that’s another story.”

    On roads without lines, motorists don’t know what to do. The new stripping adds some guidance, but motorists still rely on mimicking the cars they follow. I believe that imitating others helps us to feel a little more in control in situations like driving when control can be lost at any moment.


  • ksteinhoff says:

    We had a stretch of road here where I always rode 18 to 24 inches from the fog line. Any less than that and cars would try to pass you without crossing the center line, even if nothing was coming.

    If I saw oncoming traffic and the car behind me had slowed down, then I’d move to the right and let them get around me. The distance might have been a little closer than the (now) legal 3 feet, but I don’t have a problem with that as long as I know the car sees me and has slowed down.

    Like Aaron said, if one car passed you fine, then all of the closely following ones would do the same. The problem would occur, though, if I didn’t reposition myself before the next batch of cars came up behind me. I’d get squeezed by cars running at speed.

    Interestingly enough, there was one stretch about a quarter mile long that had been trenched for some reason and the blacktop was a slightly different color about two feet from the edge. Motorists treated that like a a bike lane.

    When the whole road was repaved a year or so ago, they didn’t make an official bike lane and they didn’t make the road wider, but they DID paint stripes for a three-foot shoulder. It made the road much more pleasant to ride. That layer of paint won’t protect me from a careless driver, but it sure has lessened the conflicts since drivers seem to believe that that part of the road belongs to me.

  • lyle says:

    “When the whole road was repaved a year or so ago, they didn’t make an official bike lane and they didn’t make the road wider, but they DID paint stripes for a three-foot shoulder. It made the road much more pleasant to ride. That layer of paint won’t protect me from a careless driver, but it sure has lessened the conflicts since drivers seem to believe that that part of the road belongs to me.”

    I always feel safer on streets with painted bike lanes or wide painted shoulders. I was recently in a neighboring town with no shoulder striping on their major thoroughfares and cars were all over the place.

    Like you say, it won’t help against careless drivers, but I think all drivers whether two or four wheeled, appreciate having lines to guide us.

  • Neil says:

    but cars should leave as much space as if they were overtaking a car. So if they would need to go over the centre line to overtake a car, they should also do so for a cyclist. But agreed they shouldn’t cause or nearly cause accidents in doing so.

  • Neil says:

    And the normal riding position is about 3 feet out from the curb isn’t it? 18 inches sounds like only just out of the gutter.

  • ksteinhoff says:


    18″ is far enough out that a car either has to (a) Hit me, (b) slow down and wait to pass, (c) cross the center line to pass.

    Works for me on this particular road.

    On a more rural road with higher speeds, I agree that 3 feet would be better.

    The key is to be far enough out that you are perceived to be ON the road. If you don’t do that, then you WILL get buzzed because drivers don’t see you as a threat to their paint job.

    This weekend I was riding in our downtown area when a truck with “WPB PD Sucks” scrawled on the bumper did a close pass. I caught up to him a block later at a stop light and saw that his window was down, so I pulled up on his left side and said in a not unfriendly manner, “Yeah, the cops suck, but I’m not a cop and you almost brushed my elbow back there.”

    The scruffy driver looked like he was going to cop an attitude at first. “I missed you didn’t I?”

    “But not by much.”

    Then, much to my surprise, he said, “I know I’m supposed to give you three feet. Sorry, dude, I’ll try to do better next time.”

  • Dave says:

    A major part of my commute just got repainted with a bike lane. The street has been there for over 30 years as is, a road with really wide lanes. The new lines clearly define a bike lane, and announcements were made in the local papers about the new lanes being installed around town. I consider this a major improvement, as was mentioned, lines drawn provide visual cues that make sharing the road easier for everyone.

    Here’s the thing. I work close to home, so I ride home to have lunch with the kids. I was riding home and here was this big semi going very slowly down the street. There were about 20 cars already behind him that couldn’t pass because of oncomming traffic. I’m in my lane, so I just stay in my lane and mind my own business, passing pretty much everyone. I get about halfway past the semi, and the driver sees me in his mirror and lays on the horn, gesturing wildly, and yelling. He did not have any turn signals on, he was in his lane, I was in mine. I wasn’t even close to his rig, there was easily about 5ft between me and him. If I’m in my own lane, do I have the right to pass people? That is, if I’m following all the other rules of the road and and riding in a vehicular manner (signaling turns, proper lane changes, stopping at all stop signs, etc.)

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