Wheel Talk: Shoal, Enough!

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Wheel Talk for Wheel People is a monthly advice column written by Christopher White, our adult education program coordinator. Though bikes, biking and getting around SF are our areas of expertise, feel free to ask anything! To submit your questions, please click here.

Wheel Talk, when I’m stopped at a light on my bike, other riders who arrive at the intersection after me often pull around and get in front of me and other waiting bikes. What the heck? It’s a line — you don’t get to cut in front. How can we get folks to stop this behavior? —Waiting and Hoping.

Dear Waiting and Hoping: In 2009 an NYC bike-blogger coined the term “shoaling” to describe this behavior. The word vividly describes the way that people on bikes stopping in front of each other at a red light inevitably pile up and protrude into crosswalks and cross traffic, like silt piling up at a river delta. This behavior is rude and potentially dangerous; people who bike should avoid it.

“What’s the big deal?” some of you may ask. There are a few big deals here, as a matter of fact. Inevitably shoaling leads to bicycles densely blocking crosswalks. Invading designated space for people walking and making them walk around is bad, dangerous and illegal enough; this behavior can create even more danger and inconvenience to our disabled neighbors. If the shoal is particularly bad and juts into the cross street, those moving to the front of the shoal could create gridlock by blocking opposing traffic or put themselves in physical danger.

As I’m sure you’re aware, Waiting and Hoping, there is also harm to civility within our biking community. What does the behavior you describe communicate, after all? If someone safely passes a person in motion, fair enough — clearly one person is moving faster. But if someone passes a person on a bike who is NOT moving, they impart a message: “I assume that you will ride slower than me; I better get ahead of you now, so you know that my legs are fleshly pistons and my wheels are made of spinning fire.” Such behavior often, though not always, has an ugly gendered bent to it.

So please, if you recognize yourself in these words, stop this behavior. The brief second or two that you might save by wriggling to the front is certainly not worth the danger and erosion of civility that your actions cause.

Wheel Talk, as an everyday urban bike rider, I have a question about the focus on protected bike lanes as preferred bike facilities. What happens when a bike rider needs to leave such a bike lane, however well protected, to cross lanes of fast moving cars and trucks to make a left turn? I know from experience that segregating bicycles in their own lane makes it virtually impossible to safely cross over into the left-hand turn lane on a multi-lane street. —Protected Or Imperiled

Dear Protected Or Imperiled: You’re absolutely correct: protected bike lanes may prevent rogue delivery vehicles (for example) from swerving in front of you, but the trade-off is that they also prevent you from merging into the general traffic lane. If you are a skilled and experienced urban rider accustomed to mixing with car traffic, this might seem like an inconvenience. To make biking in our fast-changing city accessible to everyone, including those who are not yet so experienced, protected bike lanes create both the perception and reality of increased safety. The trade-off you describe is worth getting more people biking in our city.

Luckily, there is a maneuver that we on bicycles can perform to make a safe left turn, even when we’re sticking to a protected bike lane far to the right. The so-called “box turn” allows people on bikes to use traffic lights in either direction to make the left turn. To execute this move, enter the intersection where you want to turn left, but keep far to the right (allowing straight-traveling bicycles to continue unimpeded). At the opposite curb, turn your bike 90 degrees to the left and stop, either in front of or behind the crosswalk (not in it!). Wait for the light to change and cross the intersection in the direction you want to go.

More and more in SF, we’re seeing bike boxes (those green rectangles with white bike symbols painted in them) to assist with box turns. For example, heading northeast in the protected bike lane on Market Street, you may want to make a left turn into the contraflow bike lane heading north on Polk Street, towards City Hall. There is now a bike box painted at the northeast corner of this intersection to assist with making this turn. But even without a bike box to assist you, feel free to do this maneuver to get where you need to go.

Dear Readers: Last month’s column and its discussion of passing on the left generated a lot of discussion! Thank you to everyone who weighed in. We wanted to address a few of the thoughtful emails that we received.

First, a reader pointed out that I was mistaken when I said that bicycles must leave three feet of clearance when passing each other. While it’s usually true that a law that applies to cars applies equally to bicycles (following the California Vehicle Code’s “same rights, same responsibilities” doctrine), there is an exception here. The “Three Feet for Safety Act” specifically states that motor vehicles must allow three feet. This distinction seems to exclude bicycles.

Some readers wrote in to say that they pass on the right when “slow riders are hogging the far left side of the narrow bike lane,” in one person’s words. In the classes we teach, we tell all riders to hug the left edge of the bike lane whenever there are cars parallel parked at the right curb, because bike lanes are not painted outside of the “door zone,” where doors of parked cars might be dangerously flung into the path of someone riding. To properly pass someone in front of you in a bike lane, you should leave the bike lane and merge into the general traffic lane, only after checking over your shoulder for safety and then signaling your intention. The California Vehicle Code identifies passing another person on a bike as a specific time when it’s appropriate to leave the bicycle lane, and we should do so, allowing everyone to stay safely outside the door zone.

Finally, a bicycle instructor pointed out to me an additional danger of passing on the right: if the person passing on the wrong side is doored by a person in a parked car, the passing person will likely knock into the person being passed, potentially knocking that person into traffic. Please, for everyone’s safety, pass on the left!

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