Where to Ride When There’s No Infrastructure

The bike lane is a truly magical thing. Dedicated space carved out of roadways reserved entirely for bicyclists (and scooters and wheelchairs as well)?! It seems too good to be true. In a world where most roads, heck, most cities are designed around cars, riding in a bike lane, especially a protected bike lane, can feel like a mini victory. 

But what happens when the bike lane ends? 

Although WABA dreams of a region with a connected, protected and equitable network of bike lanes and trails, the reality is that bike lanes end, trails putter off, and the bicyclist is left wondering “where to next?” The truth is, there is no definitive answer. It depends on a number of factors: road design, speed limit, your experience, and comfort level.

Your Skills and Experience

Anyone can learn to ride in traffic and develop the confidence and skills to do so safely, but knowing yourself and your limits is just as important. Being honest with yourself about your experience level is very important! No one is going to judge you for never having ridden in traffic before. Learning a new skill takes time and practice. Our Confident City Cycling classes are a great way to learn about how to ride with no or limited bicycling infrastructure. The class covers many of the topics below while on-bike and our instructors can answer any questions you have.

So What’s Next? 

Ready to ride in the road? First of all, know that you are allowed to be there! Bicycling is an important part of our region’s transportation system and bicyclists have just as much right to using our roadways as motorists do. When you ride, it is your responsibility to obey the law and keep yourself and the people around you safe. It is not your job to stay out of the way. When riding in traffic, be sure to do the following:

Follow the rules of the road

Bicycles are vehicles and should act as so when riding in the road. This means following all posted signs and signals and yielding to pedestrians. Do you know traffic law and the rules of the road? 

Be visible

Depending on the time of day, you may need to use additional equipment such as lights or high-visibility reflective clothing to help motorists see you. Check out these helpful tips on bike lights and how to stay visible.

Be predictable

Being predictable is the number one most important tip when riding in traffic. Sticking to a lane, riding in a controlled manner and signaling to communicate where you intend to move are ways to ride predictably and help motorists anticipate what you plan to do next. Check out this helpful video on how to scan and signal to communicate with motorists.

Taking the lane 

Bike lanes offer a clearly defined space for bicyclists to ride. When there is no bike lane or other bicycle infrastructure, it is up to the bicyclist to determine the safest part of the lane to ride. In this instance, “safest” means most visible to motorists while still allowing you to get where you need to go. 

In narrow lanes where there is not enough space for a bicycle and a vehicle to ride side by side, the safest course of action is to ride in the center, otherwise known as “taking the lane”. Taking the lane prevents motorists from trying to squeeze around you. It keeps you from riding in the gutter and also places you outside of the door zone. 

Sharing the lane

Sharing the lane is safest only when there is three feet of passing space on either side of you. Depending on how wide the lane is, you may be able to ride in the rightmost third of the lane while still keeping three feet of space between cars on your left and the door zone on your right. Typically, this requires that lanes be 14 feet wide or larger. Not enough space? Take the lane!

Right most lane that serves your destination

The safest place to ride in moving traffic is the rightmost lane serving your destination. Remember that most traffic laws state that slower moving traffic should stay to the right. This is the same for bicycles. Riding straight through an intersection? Stick to the right most lane. Need to make a left turn? In this case the left lane is the rightmost lane serving your destination. It all depends on where you’re going and how lanes are laid out. 

Assess Your Comfort Level 

Comfort level differs for each individual person and can even change depending on the day. Things that you feel comfortable doing largely depend on your experience, but can also be influenced by your location, weather, time of day, or how you are feeling at any particular moment. Ask yourself beforehand if you feel prepared or are in the mindset to ride in traffic. If you ever change your mind or feel uncomfortable riding in the road, you can always hop off of your bike and become a pedestrian or use transit. We can’t stress this enough! The beauty of bicycling is that you can stop whenever you want to.

We cover all of this and more in our Confident City Cycling classes!

Other considerations

Map out your route 

Mapping out your route is a great way to identify gaps ahead of time. It also allows you to find an alternative route that matches your comfort level. Google Maps is a great resource. To turn on the Bicycling view by accessing the options menu. Also check out our maps page.

Speed Limit

Not all roadways allow bicycles. High speed roads such as highways and major throughways often include signs that prohibit bicyclists or pedestrians from entering. Bicycles are typically allowed on roads with speed limits of 45 mph or less. But, even 45 mph can be fast for someone on a bike. Ask yourself if you are comfortable riding without infrastructure on a 45 mph road. What about 35 mph? 25? 

Width of Lanes 

The width of a traffic lane will often determine how fast vehicles are able to go. Wide lanes allow for higher speeds, while narrow lanes tend to slow traffic down quite a bit. The width of a traffic lane also helps bicyclists determine the safest position to ride in. 

Alternative Options 

If you feel uncomfortable riding in traffic or prefer to slow things down a bit, you can always hop on to a sidewalk! Depending on local bike laws, you may be able to ride your bike on the sidewalk as long as long as you go slow and give pedestrians the right of way. If you are not allowed to ride on the sidewalk, you can always walk your bike and act as a pedestrian!

Bicyclists have just as much right to the roads as drivers do. Protected bicycle lanes improve the safety and experience of riding in the road, but until we have a protected, connected and equitable network, it’s up to us to take riding safely into our own hands. WABA’s bicycle education classes teach you the skills you need to ride safely and confidently, even when there is no infrastructure. Donate today to help us reach our 20×20 goals and bring more bicycle infrastructure to a street near you!