A cyclist and a motorist talk

For about 20 years I’ve commuted by bike from my home in Ocean Park to my office in downtown Santa Monica. My route takes me north on Fourth Street, which means crossing the freeway on Fourth, which in turn means cycling past the freeway on-ramp that was added about 25 years ago. It’s not an easy route for a cyclist because there’s a dedicated right turn lane at the intersection that during the morning rush is usually backed up with motorists anxious to get on the freeway.

Right turn lanes are one of many banes of a cyclist’s existence traffic engineers have designed. Right turn lanes put cyclists who are traveling through in conflict with two rules of the road: (i) that slower traffic should stick to the right, and (ii) that cyclists should follow traffic rules like any other vehicle. As I ride my bike north on Fourth, if I stay in the right lane, close to the curb, I interfere with drivers turning right, but if I move over to the thru-lane, I confuse motorists who think I should be over by the curb because I’m a slow-moving vehicle.

If you’re wondering which choice I make, the answer is that once I pass Pico I start looking for a chance to move safely into the thru-lane, which usually I can do. I make this choice because the overriding rule of bicycle safety is to make yourself visible to motorists. The worst thing for a cyclist is to be in a place where motorists don’t expect to or can’t see you—for example, coming off a sidewalk into an intersection. For a cyclist, the problem with a right-turn lane is that if you’re riding on the right, along the curb, it’s difficult for a motorist making the turn to see you, and since it’s a dedicated right-turn lane, motorists don’t expect to see you.

Let me say that in 20 years I’ve seldom had anything close to a close call. I’m living proof that most motorists are not homicidal jerks, and I hope I’m proof that most cyclists are not suicidal jerks. Once I signal and carefully move into the thru-lane, 99.44% of motorists give me a wide berth as they drive north. Of course I have to be careful about drivers who are in the right-turn lane changing their minds and shifting into the thru-lane, but that’s a matter of not going too fast and making “eye-contact” with side-mirrors. I have no complaints.

But the other day I had an interesting experience. After I’d safely shifted left into the thru-lane and was approaching the intersection at the on-ramp (which is at Olympic Drive, where there’s a light, which was at that moment green for northbound traffic), a car passed me on the right. The car was not going too fast because the driver was slowing for the turn, and as he passed the driver scolded me. He leaned out the window and said, “you’re a dangerous biker.” I caught his eye, and with his left hand he wagged his finger at me. Now when I say “scolded,” I hope you know what I mean. This was not some tattooed hot-rodder shouting an expletive at a slow-moving 63-year-old cyclist. This was someone of my own demographic, who wanted me to know that in the infinite wisdom of a middle-aged Westsider I was a dangerous biker and (perhaps even more important) that he knew better.

I immediately looked up to see if the light was going to change, because if it did turn red, I would have had the opportunity to pull up beside the driver’s window and politely explain my reasons for using the thru-line and not delaying motorists like him who were making right turns to get on the freeway. Alas, the light was green and he was pulling away from me toward the turn. He was already about ten feet ahead of me and I only had seconds to explain to him why right-turn lanes were inherently dangerous for cyclists.

Desperate to sum up the whole situation, I did what I could. I shouted out, “Fuck off!”

The motorist thrust this arm out the window, middle finger extended.

Thus concluded another dialogue between cyclist and motorist.

Thanks for reading.

9 thoughts on “A cyclist and a motorist talk

  1. I get around SM mainly on foot if my destination is roughly a mile or less, and by bike if under 3 or 4 miles. I’m 44 and been biking since first grade in all sorts of traffic. Generally I try to take the designated routes with bike lanes, but if the aren’t exactly where I’m heading, I just vehicular cycle, taking a full lane as needed. For instance, when I head down to speak at Council meetings, I take 4th to Colorado taking the full lane south of Wilshire and controlling the lane for the 1 block on Colorado. I haven’t really ever had any issues, and I’ve taken a lane on Lincoln of all places. The only time someone tried to complain it was some Haus Frau moaning about me being in the way on 5th one day in downtown. Also, I agree with George above, I use my lights during the daytime. It helps a lot and run two tail lights at night, one flashing, one static on.

  2. Frank: I had to give up cycling in my 80’s after more than 60 years of steady bike riding in all kinds of weather. That included one year of depending on my bike entirely while living in Tennessee without a car. In Santa Monica, when faced with a traffic situation such as you described, I would get off the bike, and walk it through the intersection. I know that cycling purists would consider that a disgraceful concession to the un-reconstructed and undeserving softies sitting in their cars, but that seems sensible to me.

  3. Frank: I ride about 4000 miles per year here in Michigan. I don’t have to ride in heavy traffic very often, but I’ve noticed that, in the situation that you’ve described, the urban bike lanes are painted to go to the left of the right turn lane and to the right of the through lane. So there is no question where the biker going through the intersection is supposed to go. Also, I’ve found that, even in broad daylight, I get more room from motorists if I have my tail light flashing. I think that it’s because they see me sooner and somehow respect the fact that I’m safety conscious because of the light. Safe riding.

  4. Ah, the joys of cycling amonst clueless motorists. Educating drivers so they come to respect cycists’ safety and right to use our roads remains one of the biggest challenges to improving the cyclig environment.

  5. Pingback: A Cyclist and a Motorist Talk | Santa Monica Next

  6. Sometimes you don’t need a lot of words to express opinions. However, the problem you describe is a significant one. I used to ride my bike on the weekends from my then home in Santa Monica Canyon to my office in Century City (such was the plight of young lawyers– weekends were just two more working days untill Monday) and I recall the right turn lane dilemma and similar verbally and gesticulated exchanges. In most cases traffic in Santa Monica moves slowly enough to allow for both visibility and time/space for lane changes, but it take a brave bicyclist to take fourth street from Pico through the freeway overpass on the way to downtown.

    • Maryanne — thanks. Believe me, southbound is much worse. I always took 2nd and Main through the Civic Center until construction started on the Esplanade. I hope I’ll be able to make that connection again once construction is finished. For some reason cars going south on 4th south of the freeway go much faster than cars going north.

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