Nearly every day on my bicycle commute home, a driver swerves in front of my bicycle into the bike lane. Sometimes they see me, other times they’re not even looking. Usually I respond with explicit indignation. But sometimes I keep silent, because I’m actually not quite sure who’s in the right. We all know that cyclists thrive on the ability to self-righteously yell at inattentive drivers, so of course these moments of self-doubt would not stand. I decided to reach out to an expert to clarify some of the most confusing traffic I’ve encountered in the Mission.

Right Turns

The most common near-crash encounters on my daily route are usually the result of a driver’s poorly coordinated right turn across the path of a cyclist determined to keep going straight ahead at speed. Here’s how this should look:

Proper right turns, as illustrated by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition

I’m reasonably sure only a small fraction of cyclists and drivers know this is how it’s supposed to be done—and I’m ashamed to say I only recently joined that small group. But even armed with this knowledge, it’s difficult to navigate right-turning cars because they often move over toward the right but don’t commit to being in the bike lane, thus quite effectively blocking both lanes.

According to Kristin Smith of the SF Bicycle Coalition, in this case, it’s best to go around the left of the car since this common misunderstanding can cause a “right hook” type crash.

Slipping between the car and the curb is never recommended. If the driver moves over to turn when it’s already too late to abide by this rule, cyclists should slow down, ring their bell to alert the driver to their presence, but wait for the car to make the turn.

Passing 

Especially on narrower streets, things can start to feel a bit dicey in close quarters with cars. To prevent impatient drivers from clipping cyclists as they pass them, the “Three Feet for Safety Law” goes into effect today. This state law stipulates that drivers passing a cyclist must allow for a three-foot cushion between any part of the car and any part of the bike before overtaking the cyclist. If they can’t do that because the street is too  narrow, they have to wait until the road widens enough to pass safely or face a citation of up to $959 if a collision occurs.

Delivery Trucks 

When I ride along the commercial corridors, delivery trucks often park in the bike lane, making a tame morning ride more adventurous with the possibility of going flying over a dolly full of beer kegs. Irksome as this may be for us long-suffering cyclists, it’s perfectly legal. 

According to Smith, here it’s the cyclist’s responsibility to signal his or her turn to merge into the main traffic lane outside of the reach of any doors and away from unsuspecting personnel. Nonetheless, “drivers parking in the center divider is certainly better than blocking the full bike lane on a busy bike route like Valencia Street,” wrote Smith. SFBC is also working to get more yellow zones for loading so bike lanes are left unobstructed. 

Construction

On both commercial and residential streets, construction can also be very effective at squeezing cyclists and drivers into the same space. Often, I spot a sign saying, “Cyclists allowed full use of lane,” and proudly pedal into the middle of the driving lane and blissfully ignore the impatient drivers behind me. 

But do I have the right to take up the whole driving lane even if there’s no sign granting me driver-lane asylum? Absolutely, says Smith. 

“Sign or no sign, the law is that a person biking is allowed the full use of the lane,” she wrote. And anyone can report a construction zone without a safe bike route at sfbike.org/resources, and the Coalition will follow up to see that one is created.

Lanes

But not every street has a bike lane. While it’s not a great idea to go barreling down Mission on your two-wheeler, Smith confirmed that you don’t legally have to do anything if someone tells you to ride elsewhere. If you’re going somewhere on Mission, you have to ride on Mission. But on Mission and other transit thoroughfares, you also have to do what I like to call the Bus Dance: The cautious bursts of speed and sudden braking involved in trying to guess whether the bus is going to pull into traffic ahead of you or if you can overtake it. Smith recommended patience, in that cyclists should simply take a breather and wait for the bus to pull far enough ahead that they are unlikely to catch up to it. If you do feel like racing a biodiesel behemoth, bikes should always pass on the outside, not curb side, of any bus. 

Sightseeing and Alleys 

For more leisurely trips, Mission Local has been known to recommend checking out the local sights by bike. Smith recommends that mural-gawkers and other bike-bound tourists should walk their bikes across crosswalks if it feels unsafe to pull out of an alley. Otherwise check both directions for traffic and re-enter (in the direction of traffic!), signaling any turns. 

“Sightseeing by bike is the best, and we’re so happy to see more tourists on bikes visiting SF neighborhoods,” Smith wrote.

Finally, I was surprised to learn that a cyclist, upon dismounting his or her ride, by law becomes a pedestrian. Hoping to find some clever way to take advantage of this, I got a more philosophical response all of us who take to the streets would do well to remember: 

“One of the things we try to really get across is that there aren’t cyclists and drivers and pedestrians; there are people who are biking, who are driving, who are walking,” Smith wrote. “That person isn’t a cyclist; they’re a mom who happens to be on a bike, so we are really careful with that.”

Join the Conversation

18 Comments

  1. If a car is turning right appropriately, you should never encourage a cyclists to “Slip[sic] between the car and the curb”. The cyclists should wait for the car to finish turning then proceed.

    1. Hi there,

      You’re right, and that sentence came from a misunderstanding on my part. I’ve corrected it. Thanks for pointing this out.

      – Laura

  2. That graphic should be posted as a large sign on the southeast corner of Valencia at 16th. Drivers constantly cut off cyclists like that.

    Apparently, Lyft and Uber drivers are free to merge in and out of the bike lanes on Valencia without checking for bikes. Has any cyclist been killed there yet?

  3. all the more reason cyclists should pass driving tests and receive a license to drive a bike. why aren’t cyclists held to the same standards as automobile drivers?

    1. Ah yes, the “extremely difficult” driving test that Americans take once in their lives in order to know how to forever perfectly operate a 3,000-lb piece of deadly machinery: http://www.streetsblog.org/2014/09/15/new-york-drivers-ed-is-a-joke/

      Look, I honestly agree with your sentiment. Most people don’t know how to bike safely and they should take at least one class on it. But making it a requirement to get on a bike (which is pretty intuitive once you’re older than 5) would discourage people from riding. It would be better if bike safety was something taught in schools to all children, like in the Netherlands, Denmark, and other places with lots of bike riders.

  4. Thanks for the clarification! As a person who bikes, drives, and walks, I could write a long list of all the “bad behavior” all three groups demonstrate and the disregard for their own and others’ safety. It’s more important and useful to focus on what we can all do to improve safety.

    Any advice about the turning left as a cyclist at a stoplight on streets without left turn lanes? (For example, Folsom.)

    1. That’s an easy one :). Quoting from the author,

      “I was surprised to learn that a cyclist, upon dismounting his or her ride, by law becomes a pedestrian. Hoping to find some clever way to take advantage of this”

      At the red light, dismount your bike, walk across the cross walk, then wait for the light to change. When it changes, walk your bike across the remaining crosswalk (you again have the right of way before any turning cars) and then mount your bike and continue in the bike lane. Easy as pie.

    1. What do they mean by “impede”? I doubt the cops would ever cite a bike rider for this because the bike coalition is so strong, they’d cause a huge stink.
      I once date a girl who wanted to ride side by side and I felt like it was a crappy thing to do to drivers, it took away a lane and while it was perfectly legal, I felt like it was akin to a car driving in a lane at 5 mpg (or whatever speed we were riding at). He point was that it was much safer to ride like that (which could be try), but I felt like it was an uncool thing to do given that I don’t ride much and if someone did that to me as a driver, I’d be kind of annoyed.

  5. We don’t need more loading zones for trucks, we need trucks to use the freaking loading zones they already have. I’m sick of seeing trucks double parked when there is an empty loading zone 50 yards down the road. The drivers are either too lazy to haul their goods an extra 50 feet or they are trying to avoid paying for the meter (or both).
    There is a law that allows drivers to double park and I’m okay with them doing it if there’s no alternative but they are all too often causing traffic snarls and creating a huge danger for bike riders when they double park because bikes are forced to go around them.
    Police and Parking Enforcement should be ticketing truck drivers who double park when there’s a loading zone available within a block. Either that or give the loading zones back to the public so they can park in them and the city can get some revenue from the spaces.
    But as usual local governments won’t be proactive and do something about this practice until someone important is hurt and that’s pretty disgusting.

    1. Yes it is legal but only for trucks and taxi’s (maybe buses but not sure). Trucks are allowed to double park and I believe are also allowed to park in the bike lane.
      I once read an article where Scott Weiner was trying to get the city to write more tickets for double parking by cars. At first I thought “what a knob” but as I read the article I realized how dangerous double parking is, particularly for bike riders. I don’t ride a bike very often and can honestly say I’m in that camp that thinks bike riders have a sense of entitlement on the roads. E.G. I’ve had bike riders blow through stop signs and then yell at me when I’m obeying the law.
      BUT… after reading the article, I NEVER double park in a bike lane! (man I listened to a politician, what was I thinking?)
      I think the best way to drive is to EXPECT that a bike rider might do something stupid. If I have a merge into a bike lane to turn I make it REALLY obvious that I’m going to do it, never make a sudden move, indicate etc. Bike riders… I’m not a fan of, but the last thing I ever want to do is hurt someone and making some minor changes to the way I drive, could save someone’s life!

  6. Please cite the law that supports your claim:

    “If they can’t do that because the street is too narrow, they have to wait until the road widens enough to pass safely or face a citation of up to $959 if a collision occurs.”

    According to California VC 21760(e), the fine is a measly $35, and an additional $220 if the violation results in a collision that causes bodily injury:

    https://www.dmv.ca.gov/pubs/vctop/d11/vc21760.htm

    1. I agree this is confusing, since the SF Bicycle Coalition site indicates a $959 fine and the text of the law says $220.

      The California Bicycle Coalition does a great job of explaining this:
      “For a violation that does not result in an injury, the base fine is $35, which becomes a $233 fine for the offender once court and administrative fees are added. For a violation that involves a collision injuring a bicyclist, the base fine is $220, which becomes $959 with fees.”

      Link to some FAQ’s here: https://calbike.org/advocacy/giveme3/give-me-3-faq/

      Hope that clarifies.

  7. Could you help me clear up the Bus and Taxi green lane conundrum? For example, Third Street has green lanes marked for bus and taxi. No bike lanes. Legally, are bike riders expected to ride on the green lanes? Or on regular traffic lanes? Thank you so much, very helpful article!

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