Assembled below for quick reference is a compendium of the consensus view of all traffic safety subject-matter experts about where to ride — this generally applies when riding straight ahead, and between intersections or other conflict zones. For why this is not only safest, but legal, see take-the-lane.
What the Experts Say…
Arizona Dept of Transportation
Arizona Bicycling Street Smarts is a short book based on bicycling traffic expert John Allen’s Bicycling Street Smarts; augmented with references to specific Arizona statutes, and published by the State of Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT). The full title is Arizona Bicycling Street Smarts: Riding Confidently, Legally and Safely, and is available online in its entirety.
RIDING IN A NARROW LANE
On a multilane road with narrow lane, ride in the middle of the right lane.
Understand that the law is on your side. The law gives you the right to use the road, the same as a motorist, and to make other traffic slow down for you sometimes. The driver approaching from the rear is always required to slow and follow if it’s not possible to pass safely.
It may seem dangerous to make a motorist slow for you, but it’s not….
On a road with two or more narrow lanes in your direction – like many city streets – you should ride in the middle of the right lane at all times. You need to send the message to drivers to move to the passing lane to pass you. If you ride all the way to the right, two cars may pass you at the same time, side by side, and squeeze you off the road.
Many cyclists believe they are safer and more comfortable riding further to the right than this booklet recommends. They fear being passed uncomfortably close by a motorist, or feel intimidated by impatient drivers. Riding too far to the right is very dangerous for several reasons…
— retrieved from azbikeped.org Chapter 2.
American Automobile Association
The AAA is America’s oldest motorist’s organization:
When a road is too narrow for cars and bikes to ride safely side by side, bicycles should take the travel lane, which means riding in or near the center of the lane. — Share the Road & Save a Life, retrieved 4/4/2015 (local copy)
The IPMBA (International Police Mountain Biking Association) is the preeminent supplier of training to law enforcement and other public safety cyclists.
Cyclists do not have to ride only on the far-right side of the road. Most MVCs (Motor Vehicle Codes; including Arizona) allow them to leave the right side when … the width of the street makes it unsafe, especially in situations where riding too close to the roadway edge would encourage a driver to pass despite having insufficient room. In these situations, the cyclist should “take the lane,” that is, ride in the center of the traffic lane. — The Complete Guide to Public Safety Cycling, 2nd Edition; p. 76
The Summer 2005 issue of IPMBA newsletter was devoted to bicycle law enforcement and safety issues.
John Forester initially wrote Effective Cycling decades ago, not much changes over the years in bicycling traffic safety basics — from the latest edition:
Proper positioning in lanes of different widths. Cyclists should ride in the center of narrow lanes and just to the right of cars in wide lanes. — Effective Cycling, 6th Edition, page 294
League of American Bicyclists
The League is America’s pre-eminent nationwide bicyclist’s organization.
Lane Positioning — Ride just to the right of traffic. If the lane is too narrow for a vehicle and cyclist to share, the cyclist should ride in the center or right of center of the lane as passing in a narrow lane is unsafe.
Predictability: …proper lane positioning – decreases the likelihood of a crash — excerpted from (LAB) League Cycling Instructor (LCI) Training Manual dated 2/5/2010.
The basics are taught in LAB Smart Cycling: Traffic skills 101.
Lane Position Rule
Ride just to the right of the motorized traffic when the lane is wide enough to safely share. When lanes are too narrow to safely share, ride in the center of the lane or just to the right of the center in the right hand tire track
Be aware that when a road is too narrow for cars and bikes to ride safely side by side, bicyclists should take the travel lane, which means riding in or near the center of the lane…. and
Don’t blast your horn when approaching bicyclists.
— retrieved Aug 2011 from bikeed.org Chapter 3, page 4, and Chapter 4 page 7
Here’s a more recent brochure from LAB “Smart Cycling Manual”, “:
Where should I ride on the road?
If you don’t feel there is sufficient room for the lane to be shared (side-by-side) you should ride in the middle of traffic lane where other vehicle will have to wait until it’s safe to pass you rather than share the lane. This is called “taking the lane”…
On busier roads with just one lane in each direction, you may have to be more assertive and take the lane by riding in the center of the lane. By doing this you’re communicating that motorists will have to wait behind you until it’s safe for them to cross into the other side of the road… Remember that if motorists can tell from farther away that they can’t squeeze past you (when taking the lane), they’ll be able to plan their lane change earlier, causing less frustration and increasing safety for both parties — LAB Smart Cycling Manual, retrieved 2/12/2017
Law Officer Training: The Law Officer’s Guide to Bicycle Safety
Use of Lanes … But narrow lanes require a different approach. The bicyclist who rides in the far right of a lane
that is not wide enough to share with motor vehicles invites motorists to pass unsafely. Riding in the center of such a lane indicates clearly to faster drivers that a partial or complete lane change is necessary in order to pass”
There is also a companion youtube video illustrating the point “…merging to the middle of a narrow lane increases safety, motorists who wish to pass must use the next lane”
A presentation version of the material Curriculum_no_video.ppt is available. There is also an equivalent .pdf floating around out there somewhere. There is a good, concise explanation of impeding laws in the presentation, slide 57.
There’s some extensive background on how the program was developed in the Summer 2005 issue of IPMBA newsletter.
NHTSA / Enhancing Bicycle Safety: Law Enforcement’s Role
nhtsa.gov: Resource Guide on Laws Related to Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety
See this comment for NHTSA/FHWA materials “Enhancing Bicycle Safety: Law Enforcement’s Role”, a 2 hour computer-based class that is unfortunately no longer available (even though as of this writing in May 2016 the web page claims it is) (also, there is a 7-minute youtube available from NHTSA). The 2-hour content does appear to be available in its entirety at bicycledriving.org/law/enforcement
Bicycling and the Traffic Law : Narrow Lanes : There are other reasons that it may be unsafe for bicyclists to keep to the far right of the lane. One of these is when a lane is narrow… — slide 13.
AZGOHS (Arizona Governor’s Office of Highway Safety)
You (bicyclists) may ride far enough from the road edge to stay clear of surface debris, potholes, rough pavement, drain grates, and pavement joints, as well as to avoid pedestrians, dogs, parked vehicles, and other objects. You (bicyclists) may occupy any part of a lane when your safety warrants it. Never compromise your safety for the convenience of a motorist behind you. — see azgohs-supports-cyclists-rights
MetroPlan Orlando: Enforcement for Bicyclist Safety
Metroplan Orlando is the regional transportation planning agency for the Orlando Florida metropolitan area; analogous to our MAG (Maricopa county Association of Governments) for the Phoenix metro area. Metroplan has published the guide Enforcement for Bicyclist Safety which was distributed to all law enforcement agencies in their area. [since those links are broken, as of 2023, the same concepts for law enforcement are here at Understanding Cyclists’ Position on the Roadway: for our friends in Law Enforcement.]
Most traffic lanes are too narrow to safely accommodate a motor vehicle and cyclist side by side. Cyclists who keep right so motorists can pass them without changing lanes actually encourage close passes and sideswipes…It may shock many to learn that a 12-foot-wide lane is considered a “substandard width” for the purpose of this (the “as far to the right as practicable”) statute… Lane control is the most effective strategy for bicyclists to defend themselves against common motorist mistakes (see diagram).
— diagram and text excerpted from MetroPlan’s Enforcement for Bicyclist Safety
American Bicycling Education Association
From the American Bicycling Education Association’s Cycling Savvy program, 10 tips for successful cycling:
Ride Big: Most roads have lanes that are not wide enough to be safely shared by cars and bikes operated side-by-side. You are allowed the full use of a lane that is not wide enough to share. Ride far enough to the left in the lane to communicate to motorists that the lane is not wide enough to share. Motorists may squeeze past you within the lane if you don’t.
Riding big makes you visible and encourages motorists to give generous passing clearance. It also gives you someplace to go if a motorist does come too close.
Also see this (free!) video lecture from Cycling Savvy: Traffic Law: Bicyclist Position on the Roadway. It’s free, and part of a series of video lectures on bicycle traffic safety available for a modest price.
Ohio DOT / YayBikes!
YayBikes! has an article with same name: Where to Ride on the Road, accompanying it is an excellent video funded by Ohio DOT illustrating narrow vs. wide lane positioning, door zones around parked cars, as well as special hazards of sidewalk cycling.
The video is primarily aimed at youth bicyclists, but the lessons apply to all ages: “Teach kids to ride visibly and predictably on the roads; and not to be too far to the right”… On dooring: “to her, it just seems that the safest place to be is as far to the right as possible… but a car door could open at any time”.
Separated Sidepaths / Sidewalks
With regard to sidewalks — In a nutshell “riding on the sidewalk is dangerous, often illegal and not recommended for adults” (p. 13, Smart Cycling Quick Guide, LAB, retreived 2/15/2016).
Strictly speaking, this wouldn’t be riding “on the road” but because many propose that cyclists can avoid collision danger by using a sidewalk or separated sidepath, it’s included here.
The inherent design-flaws in a path which is parallel to, but separated from and adjacent to a roadway are so well known that their use by competent adult cyclists is universally and strongly discouraged. The main problem as it relates to bicyclist-MV collision risk is that every intersection is more dangerous (to the cyclist) compared to using the parallel roadway. Additional serious problems include increased bike-bike, and bike-ped, bike-other (skaters, etc) collision risks on the paths themselves.
Some states actually compel bicyclists to use parallel paths, with what are referred to as “mandatory sidepath” laws. Many states, including AZ, once had such laws and have since repealed them — see bicycledriving.org section called mandatory sidepath use.
Nowadays we know that cycling on urban sidepaths is much more dangerous than cycling on urban road… the urban sidepath is the one type of bikeway that the federal government specifically warns against. Because of the extreme dangers of sidepaths, the Effective Cyling Program recommends that you never ride on them, regardless of the laws of your state except where the path parallels a controlled-access freeway or is completely seperated in other ways from the street system, as along a riverfront”
— Effective Cycling p. 262-263
AASHTO Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities
The Guide points out the troubles with sidepath facilities:
When two-way shared use paths are located immediately adjacent to a roadway, some operational problems are likely to occur… they require one direction of bicycle traffic to ride against motor vehicle traffic, contrary to normal rules of the road…
When the path ends, bicyclists going against traffic will tend to continue to travel on the wrong side of the street. Likewise, bicyclists approaching a shared use path often travel on the wrong side of the street in getting to the path. Wrong-way travel by bicyclists is a major cause of bicycle/automobile crashes and should be discouraged at every opportunity.
At intersections, motorists entering or crossing the roadway often will not notice bicyclists approaching from their right, as they are not expecting contra-flow vehicles. Motorists turning to exit the roadway may likewise fail to notice the bicyclist. Even bicyclists coming from the left often go unnoticed, especially when sight distances are limited”
Arizona Dept of Transportation
ADOT Traffic Engineering Policies, Guides and Procedures (PGP), emphasis added:
…Moreover, signs and markings placed along shared-use paths are sometimes interpreted as implying that bicyclists are expected to use the path instead of the adjacent roadway. This can lead to harassment of bicyclists who are otherwise safely and legally using the roadway. — retrieved from Section 1031 SIGNING AND MARKING OF SHARED-USE PATHS, ADOT PGP.
From Arizona Bicycling Street Smarts (emphasis added):
SIDEWALK AND PATH RIDING
Many people consider sidewalks a safe place to ride because cars don’t travel on them. Unfortunately, sidewalks aren’t safe. Stay off them, except where you have no choice.
Trees, hedges, parked cars, buildings and doorways create blindspots along a sidewalk, which is too narrow to allow you to swerve out of the way if someone appears. A pedestrian on the sidewalk can sidestep suddenly, or a small child can run out from behind an adult. Never pass a pedestrian until you have his or her attention.
And cars do use sidewalks – at every driveway and cross street. Since there are no clear rules for travel on a sidewalk, your only choice is to ride very slowly and look in all directions before crossing a driveway or street.
A shared use path can sometimes provide a useful shortcut, and it can be pleasant and scenic. Use it with caution. Even if you are supposed to have the right of way, the path may be too narrow for safe maneuvering. Pedestrians are unpredictable, and intersections are often hazardous. A path can get crowded with inline skaters, dog walkers and careless, inexperienced bicyclists. Most shared use paths are no place for a fast ride or high-speed commuting trip.
— retrieved from azbikeped.org Chapter 9.
Encouragement to use sidewalks is pervasive, whether offered by the well-meaning but mis-informed or the self-serving; though the risks are well understood by traffic engineering and safety experts, as noted above. Statistics are hard to come by because traffic crash stats generally exclude injuries arising from crashes (whether they be falls, single “vehicle” bike crashes, bike-bike or bike-ped) that do not involved a motor vehicle. This leaves examinations of hospital records coupled with surveys to try to establish relative risks e.g. (emphasis added):
Accid Anal Prev. 1999 Nov;31(6):675-86. Toronto bicycle commuter safety rates. “The relative rates for falls and injuries suggest these events are least common on-road followed by off-road paths, and finally most common on sidewalks. The rate of major injuries, an injury that required medical attention, was greatest on sidewalks…”
Accid Anal Prev. 1998 Jan;30(1):29-43.
Ottawa-Carleton commuter cyclist on- and off-road incident rates.
“The relative rates for falls and injuries suggest it is safest to cycle on-road followed by off-road paths and trails, and finally least safe on sidewalks. While there were no major injuries reported on sidewalks, the relative rate for these events on paths was greater than the rate for roads… Results suggest a need to discourage sidewalk cycling…”