It’s Too Soon To Give Up On “Vehicular Cycling” – And Here’s Why…


About a year or so ago Connie and I took the Traffic 101 course from the League of American Bicyclists. In fact the class was taught in our home town and even the instructor was a retired executive who once headed up the Coleman Company (maker of lanterns, etc.) I learned a lot that weekend and had hoped to eventually take the followup class for the League Certified Instructor classification.

One of the things that the class teaches you is just how little you really know about the conditions of the road as they pertain to bikes in the midst of car traffic. There is both a classroom and a field test portion of the class and the latter is really challenging. We used the parking lot outside the local Park District building and followed that session up with a ride on streets across town and back.

What amazes you at first is the suggestion that you take the lane. That seemed counter intuitive and frankly dangerous. But before long you get the hang of things and you learn to ride out into the lane far enough to avoid getting doored and then to use hand signals in situations where you had never thought to apply that skill.

All of these things came flooding back the other day when I was reading a thread on bicycle lane usage on the ChainLink. Will V had encountered the following situation:

While riding the North Shore Century, I came up to a red light with several other riders, and there were motor vehicles stopped at the intersection. Many of us passed the vehicles on the right, to get closer to the intersection, and as I was passing a minivan, the passenger started to talk to me. He claimed to be a cyclist, and admonished me that passing vehicles as I was doing is against the law. I didn’t know what to say, except that it probably wasn’t the worst or most dangerous offense in the world. To be clear, no one ran a red light or stop sign, we just passed the long line of stopped cars, and then stopped at the intersection.

So I’ve been thinking about it since, and I have no idea what he was talking about. I read over the Illinois bicycle rules of the road, and I couldn’t find anything I thought was relevant. Was he bullshitting me, or do cyclists break the law when they pass stopped cars at an intersection?

It’s an honest and straightforward glimpse into the experiential readiness that urban cyclists have regarding their environment. When you read the forum threads you get the feeling that these are people who have a good deal of opinions based on solid knowledge. But it appears that what they really possess are lots of opinions and many of them are “hand me downs”. And that makes sense. These are often folks with little or no real bicycle club experience as might be had in the suburban areas. Instead they are coming to cycling pretty much raw.

They learn from their peers who also might be raw having ridden as kids in their previous places of birth but having moved to Chicago and bought a bike are now plying their way along the mean streets armed only with the knowledge of which helmets (bern models) and shoulder bags (Chrome models) are popular and after that pretty much everything else is up for grabs.

You can almost count on your hands the number of riders who have a thorough working knowledge of their bikes sufficient to allow them to build their own wheels or do other than routine maintenance. They almost all rely on mechanics in the various bike shops to help them outfit their bikes. And in many of these situations the bikes they buy are used and while serviceable are lightyears behind the nifty carbon fiber models ridden by the suburban cousins who decked out in Lycra Spandex and Sidi footwear are pedaling along in clothing often worth five times as much as the bikes used by the average ChainLinker.

It almost reminds me of the kind of culture shock I had when leaving Chicago for college and finding out that many of the students in my freshman class had parents who were millionaires and quite famous ones at that. They had been to places like Europe before enrolling in college and had sometimes taken an entire year off just to bikes around the continent. While I was well-traveled within the borders of the United States, Canada was the only country I had ever visited or even imagined at the time I ever would.

But let’s get back to the “great unwashed” population of the ChainLink. These are newbies. They disdain Lycra and Spandex and prefer blue  jeans, t-shirts and seldom if ever wear anything cycling specific. They often ride bikes with a single fixed gear and no brakes. They are fearlessly given to blowing through very busy intersections and equally fearless about their right to ignore stop signs. All sorts of myths about why this is a moral thing to do (while not necessarily legal) have sprung up. People who are among the leadership in the urban cycling scene are reluctant to ever contradict this unruly bunch because it never pays.

Theirs is more a social scene than anything else. Bikes are like nose rings in this setting. They represent the evidence of a lifestyle chosen and those with the most “street credibility” do not own cars and use bicycles as their primary mode of transportation. It is indeed a Mad Max World this urban setting.

Of interest are several of the early responses to the original posters’s question:

Reply by Lisa Curcio on Thursday
625 ILCS 5/11-704. When overtaking on the right is permitted

Sec. 11-704. When overtaking on the right is permitted.
* * * * * *

(b) The driver of a 2 wheeled vehicle may not pass upon the right of
any other vehicle proceeding in the same direction unless the unobstructed
pavement to the right of the vehicle being passed is of a width of not less than
8 feet.

(c) The driver of a vehicle may overtake and
pass another vehicle upon the right only under conditions permitting such
movement in safety. Such movement shall not be made by driving off the

Will V. responds by asking:

Reply by Will V. on Thursday
Is there a cyclist here who never passes a line of cars on the right to get to the front of the intersection? I do it when I have room to safely do it, which is less than eight feet, for sure. If I don’t have room to safely do it on the right, sometimes I pass on the left, again, if I can safely. Otherwise, I just stay behind and wait my turn. But I doubt any cyclist just waits when there is less than required eight feet of room.

The lawyer in the bunch responds this way:

Reply by David Barish on Thursday
I have skipped the posts that document the law. As a lawyer that may seem silly. In these situations I will alwyas do what is safest regardless of the statutes. Here’s why. I mostly agree with the driver. When I come to an intersection where there will be a vehicle making a right turn I always want to line up on that vehicle’s left side. This way the car turns right, I go straight and everybody lives happily ever after. I often come to stop lights in the city and see bikes go to the right of the cars when we know that there will be right turners. If I see a signal I always go to their left. You have to use your common sense at each intersection to see what is the safest and most practical thing to do. Given the discussion on another thread of a cyclist being killed by someobdy who was turning right its a good time to warm riders that you can often be safere on the left when you know somebody is going to turn. If the vehicle was not signaling a right turn he had no reason to be upset that you were there. That’s his penalty for failing to signal.

So, depnending on whether the vehcile was signaling for a turn he may or may not have had something to say.

Also, when I am the first person at the light. I do not stop at the far right. I sit smack dab in the middle of the lane. I make room for a right on red. The person behind me isn’t going anywhere, he/she has a red light and cannot go straight. Once I was with a group of EBC riders at a stop light in Morton Grove. We lined up toward the middle of the lane to allow a driver who came up to the light to make a right turn. One of the local gendarmes drove up and gave us a hard time. We were mostly diplomatic but were insistant. He wanted us all the way to the right. We pointed out to him that we were being more responsive to the motor vehicles and allowing traffic to pass in a better way. We told him that he was wrong and should study the law. It got to a point where the argument almost went from the academic to worse. Fortunately, the light changed.

Even the owner of the forum expresses some ignorance of the issues:

Reply by Julie Hochstadter on Thursday
This is a really good question. I always do it, and am not sure how legal it is….

The OP (original poster) comes back over the top:

Reply by Will V. on Thursday
I think most urban cyclists do, Julie.

Heck, it’s one of the most frequently-cited benefits of cycling, we generally don’t *need* to sit in traffic jams like cars do. This law seems to indicate that we do need to sit in traffic, when there’s less than eight feet (EIGHT FEET!) to pass on the right.

What he is expressing here is important. Urban cyclists explain to one another why their mores might not fit the legal framework under which they are obliged to operate. And what you are seeing appears to be incredulity at the notion that cyclists are indeed an ordinary segment of the traffic structure. This is a revelation I would bet for most urban cyclists.

Bike Culture Depicting An Urban Cyclists “Wet Dream”

This cover of a Bike Culture (one of my favorite magazines) expresses what appeals about cycling as a mode of transportation in an urban setting, the ability to ride past the folks “stuck in traffic”. Remove that as a perk in what good is there being on a bicycle?

You will often note that urban cyclists are loathe to have to stop and restart their bikes, claiming as they do that this increases both the time they are in the saddle and the effort they have to expend. This is in contradistinction to what drives suburban cyclists. Not only do they not care about expending energy while on their bikes, they relish the idea of extending their rides by competing with one another for mileage awards (generally handed out at the end of each riding season).

Heck these suburban turtles win t-shirts and jerseys of all sorts for racking up mileage in the thousands each year. Urban cyclists on the other hand are rarely skilled at doing centuries. Virtually every year you read about one or more who are doing their first century ever. What they are proficient at is buzzing though traffic on bikes that few if any suburban riders would dare to operate (namely a fixed gear single speed bike called a “fixie”).

If you read the entire thread you will note that the OP admits that he uses a car but is “ashamed” to admit it. Strange that sort of feeling but this is part of the religion that urban cyclists practice. Cars and their owners are evil. It is precisely why car vs. bicycle accidents are always (according to this religion) the fault of the motorist doing the driving.

Reply by Joe Schmoe on Thursday
It’s 100% legal. If I can’t pass cars that are stopped on the left, why can they pass me when I’m in a lane on the right? The attitude comes from several states where “passing on the right” (by cars) is always illegal. I don’t think Illinois is one of them.

Having said that, if I approach an intersection w/stopped traffic, I will look to see if the car that’s first in line is turning right, and then will shift over to his left. If I’m first at an intersection, and there isn’t much room on the right (ie there’s a parked car there), I’ll generally take the whole lane. This allows me to shift to the left if a car approaches and is turning right. If there is room for me (no parked car), then I’ll generally stay to the right, and either shift up almost onto the curb, and wave any right-turning traffic around me, or move out far enough ahead slightly into the intersection that I know the right-turning cars can see me.

Reply by Peenworm Grubologist yesterday
I think I’ll start caring about the letter of the law regarding this when I stop reading news stories of “Person kills someone with their car, gets a ticket”

Reply by kiltedcelt yesterday
I don’t ride in traffic much, but when I do I like to pass stopped cars on the right.

In all seriousness though, I do pass stopped cars on the right when there’s a long line of them. I never considered the legality of it before. I watch for any cars trying to make a right turn, but most of the time it’s a long line of cars waiting before an intersection where the only one making a turn is the car all the way at the front. I don’t blow red lights or stop signs, so I see moving to the front of a line of cars as just about one of the only perks I get as a bicyclist.


Here is a very interesting question asked by one of the participants:

Reply by Justin B Newman on Thursday
Do sharrows only exist on roads where there’s room for a car + 8 feet? I’ve always thought the existence of sharrows and statutes like this are themselves somewhat at odds.

A sharrow in Baltimore. Photo: Elly Blue

If you have visited any urban center of late you will have seen “sharrows”. These are quasi-lanes that are almost worthless in terms of safety for urban cyclists. What they offer is legal evidence that cyclists are indeed intended users of the roadway.

They reinforce for the motorists the notion that this street is likely a bike route for commuters and I should be alert to their presence. But these things are a disaster waiting to happen.

If they exist to the left of parked cars they place the cyclist in the awkward position of having to ride at least four or more feet to the left of the parked autos to avoid being doored which makes it impossible for the cars to pass them on the left with the minimum three feet of space mandated by law. So what results is that motorists who are impatient are always jockeying to ride around the biker and if the street has a double-yellow line that means waiting until they can pass just as they approach a left turn lane or even on the right! Yikes!

Novice cyclists and just about anyone wanting to venture out on the mean streets of the city are not prepared to handle this sort of high pressure situation because frankly they have little or no training. None of the years of League of American Bicyclists training is offered anywhere these young people are likely to go. Instead their training (such as it is) happens to be in scofflaw mode on Critical Mass Rides. This is a recipe for all sorts of mayhem.

One of the reason I am a proponent of licensing for cyclists is precisely because I believe that we need training to equip ourselves to ride streets with “sharrows”. I detest the simplistic notion that painting lanes green and adding plastic pipes to create “buffered lanes” is an adequate substitute for classroom and roadway training with a licensed instructor, it really isn’t. All that it does it give the rider the false sense of security that drivers will honor the dictates of the green lanes and all will be sweetness and light.

But people have died because they were in the green lanes (in bike boxes no less) waiting for the light to turn and got clobbered because the truck next to them cannot see them by virtue of where the bike box has been positioned. This is madness. And of course the uneducated cyclists leap to the conclusion that the remedy for this is yet another piece of onerous legislation to scare the motorists into being more careful. That is pure insanity as well.

We have the death penalty for killing people. But that does not stop stupid people from doing dumb things with guns. Besides in any society where there are either racial, ethnic or economic differences laws like these will never be applied uniformly, so all bets are off that everyone will be more careful.

We need Vehicular Cycling classes taught in place of the silliness of a Critical Mass Ride. In this one respect I think the Europeans have it right. Critical Mass is counterproductive. It takes up time that should be spent teaching valuable lessons to cyclists about how to dress for safety and warmth and efficiency. How to outfit their bikes for safety and efficiency and much, much more.

You are struck with the need for this sort of basic stuff when you suddenly are aware that the Four Star Bike Tour this year required that a person walk around before the “starting gun” feeling peoples tires to make certain that they had enough air in them. I laughed at the practice until I realized that this crowd probably does not as a rule even own a bike pump.

I from experience know that most are not able to patch a puncture or even change an inner tube. So surely the basics of bicycle use are a must for most of them. We need Vehicular Cycling for all the reasons that make it necessary to keep dealing with the tragic deaths that result from the inability of a rider to predict the outcomes of behaviors which they have learned from watching other scofflaw cyclists and adopted for themselves.

This way lies madness.