Position Your Position!

Shared lane markings or "sharrows" serve as a guide for good lane positioning.

Shared lane markings or “sharrows” serve as a guide for good lane positioning, here in the presence of parked cars and the accompanying danger of being “doored.”

Here in Richmond, it’s not hard to find cyclists doing all sorts of things – whether they be smart and safe, or dangerous and dumb. Rarely a week goes by that we don’t drive our bicycles around someone riding the wrong way on a one-way street (salmoning), riding on the sidewalk, or being a gutter-hugger and riding too far to the right.

One of the simplest and easiest ways to correctly drive your bicycle is to be aware of your lane positioning and adjust it as necessary. Don’t play Russian roulette by riding in the door zone. Running into an open door is bad enough, but even if you avoid the door, you could still swerve into the path of a moving car (or worse a bus, truck, or semi as has happened in various cities throughout the US, at times resulting in a fatality).

Positioning problems exist across all ages and levels of riders. Even professional cyclists often ride in the wrong portion of the lane. It’s like a lot of other bad habits: if it hasn’t caused you harm yet, what are the odds it will? If it’s not broken, why fix it? There are many reasons to change lane positioning habits, keep reading to learn more.

Sometimes this is a psychological and cultural issue. Sometimes people ride too close to parked cars because they feel the need to stay out of the way of moving cars. This is a psychological or cultural issue because it has to do with the persisting (and false) idea that bicycles are not real vehicles. The fact is, bicycles do have all the same rights (and responsibilities) on the road as any other motor vehicle in Virginia.

Sure, we as cyclists want to share the road. But let’s not forget no good deed goes unpunished. Though we want to ride as far to the right as possible, Virginia law is to ride as far to the right as safely practicable. This means ride far enough LEFT to avoid the door zone, road debris, and in a position where you are visible to drivers and pedestrians both in front of and behind you.

Riding too far to the right, even when there are no parked cars, actually puts the cyclist in more danger as it makes them distinctively less visible. This is especially true at intersections, where most accidents occur — such as the “right hook,” where another vehicle turning right attempts to pass a cyclist, but ends up turning right into the cyclist before they have completed their overtaking maneuver.

Believe it or not, drivers show more courtesy and caution when you ride in a manner that demonstrates you belong on the road. When you ride out of the door zone and take more of the lane, the amount of drivers honking and squeezing past you actually goes down. They pass you when it is safe. They respect you and treat you like you belong on the road, how you should be treated under Virginia law.

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, the cyclist’s job is not to get out of the way. The cyclist’s job is to be predictable, visible, and execute the same rights and responsibilities as the driver of a motor vehicle. This does not mean “take the lane” when you don’t need to, just to tick off drivers of other vehicles. A cyclist should take the lane when it is too narrow to safely share. For instance, if the lane is wide enough so that the cyclist may ride as far to the right as practicable, while also allowing a vehicle to pass the cyclist with at least three feet of space (as required by Virginia law) without forcing the vehicle to change lanes, then sharing the lane is often fine. Proper lane positioning is proper cycling, and proper cycling is safer cycling.

A very basic rule of thumb is to ride so that 2/3 of the lane is on your left, and 1/3 on your right. But this is a basic rule of thumb. In some situations, the lane is narrow enough that you should take it. In others, the lane is wide enough that you can safely share it (and should). You also want to ride in a predictible manner. That means maintain your position rather than riding in and out of unoccupied parking lanes.

Below are some common examples of lanes in Richmond with cyclists positioned where you might want to ride, and in some cases where you shouldn’t ride.

Many cyclists ride too close to parked cars, placing themselves in the “door zone,” where an opening car door can strike the cyclist, push him or her out into traffic, or both.

Now the cyclist is riding a safer distance from parked cars, but should ride about a foot further to the left (in line with the center of the sharrow marking) to remain clear of a fully open door. In this case, where the travel lane is narrow, this means that the cyclist effectively “takes the lane.” This also discourages cars from passing too close on the left while trying to avoid going over the yellow line.

Even when no parked cars are present, it is safer to ride 2-3 feet away from the curb to avoid debris that tends to remain along the roadside and avoid being squeezed by passing cars.

At an intersection with a right turn lane, a cyclist planning to proceed straight ahead should position her or himself in the middle of the through lane to avoid a “right hook” and remain visible to cars coming from behind. Remember to always look behind you before changing lanes or lane positions.

Not all road markings guarantee safety. This bicycle lane places the rider in the door zone. Riding 2-3 feet further to the left would be safest in this case.

Riding on a road with a wide right lane makes it tempting to hug the curb, but this is also not good positioning. Here too debris collects along the side of the road.

Better positioning in a wide right lane. Riding a bit further to the left of the curb still allows the lane to be shared with cars. The cyclist is more visible. This visibility also helps to avoid a “right hook” at the next intersection.

Remember: cyclists fare best when they act as, and are treated as, drivers of vehicles.

About the authors: Jason James is a passionate cyclist and advocate who runs the blog bikeablerichmond.comMichael Gilbert is the co-founder and executive director of RideRichmond, a 501(c)3 organization. He is also a League Certified Instructor (LCI). 

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11 comments… add one
  • I would suggest this as required reading for the drivers’ license exam, but we all know that most people ignore even the most basic rule that stop lights become a 4-way stop when the power is out!

    Thanks for sharing this. It needs more attention.

  • I would eliminate the mention of using Richmond’s sharrows for positioning. The ones on Leigh, for example, “position” riders right into a collision with the back of parked cars, “position” riders right in the door zone, etc. The ones on Meadow were poorly installed (all the southbound ones were completely in the door zone) and had to be re-done. There’s a real lack of communication between city departments on them, and installation has been haphazard (and hazardous to cyclists). Otherwise, very good article.

  • Nice article and the rider is hot. New screensaver….

  • Kirk,

    Thanks for your feedback. Sharrows were originally designed to simply be a “friendly reminder” to drivers that a given route/artery had a high volume of cyclists and to be aware that you may see one. They originally had no intent to guide lane positioning.

    However, after time, designers and planners realized that cyclists had a STRONG tendency to ride through the tip of the arrow. Therefore, the updated design is to place them with the tip being where you want riders to ride.

    Richmond’s sharrows, if installed incorrectly, are a result of a failure at Traffic Engineering / Public Works and I strongly encourage you to voice your concerns to them. The standard is to use sharrows in that regard, and Richmond should correct them to be with the norm – not the other way around.


  • Mike, thanks for the reply. I’m well aware sharrows are advisory markings, and every time I bring up installation problems with them, someone brings this up. It does not excuse poor placement. The problem is when they’re advising people to ride in the wrong place. Motorists generally do not know that the markings are advisory, and will insist cyclists ride in the sharrow track. Cyclists will make the same assumption (and do, as you note). In fact, when the Meadow ones were being installed originally (in the door zone), I spoke to the installation crew. They thought the sharrows meant cars could not pass bikes. Obviously, there’s a mass of ignorance on them, and we need to look at how people perceive them, not how they’re supposed to be perceived.

    The city has a long history of dangerous bicycle infrastructure, and very little history of doing it right. In fact, the lane marking you decry as bad (and you are right) was originally part of a longer, planned bike lane down Hermitage. One section of this lane, by the ABC HQ, consisted entirely of broken concrete shoulder. For some reason, some key members of the VBF thought this was acceptable as a bike lane. Ask AG if you don’t believe me.

    One of the reasons it is not marked as lane is several of us who actually ride this stretch complained. Yes, I’ve contacted the DPW about poor installation of bicycle infrastructure on several occasions. I’ve found them singularly obtuse. Thanks for the suggestion, but I’ve long since done what you suggest.

    One more comment– you should probably get rid of the paragraph about riding in this manner making motorists respect riders more. I’m not sure where this started, but I think it was with Forester, and there’s really nothing to back it up. It’s one of the great unexamined myths of cycling, like the scofflaw cyclist or the efficacy of mandatory helmet laws. This is a better method of riding, yes, but it does not reduce motorist hostility. I ride in the manner described above, and have recieved fairly regular abuse from the motoring public despite that, and on occasion because of it. Memorable was the Richmond City Police Officer who pulled me over and told me I was to ride to as far right as possible and I needed to ride on the sidewalk “for my safety.” (This was after he had blown a stop while playing with his computer and nearly hit me). I’d agree that this style of riding is more effective and safer for the rider, but I’ve seen nothing to suggest it increases motorist respect for cyclists in the slightest. In fact, it might even annoy them more.

  • Hi Kirk,

    All great points. The only note I will make is that I noticed a significant, substantial, and dramatic DECREASE in the number of times I was honked at and passed too closely when I rode further LEFT, and actually maintained the proper lane positioning. It was so counter-intuitive for me, and really was the wake up call to write this article. At least in my experience, I have found that cyclists fare best when they act as, and are treated as, drivers of vehicles.

    Keep the rubber side down, and thanks again for your thoughts,


  • Really? I had a car blaring his horn at me today as I waited in a line at a red light. There wasn’t even anywhere I was preventing him from going, except a few feet forward. On the other hand, I’ve used this method so long I might misremember how it used to be. Riders who don’t use it must get a lot of abuse.

    BTW, you guys should write another article on handling intersections. It’s where most accidents occur, and while this positioning article handles it a bit, it could bear more thorough coverage.

  • My experience is halfway between the two of you. Drivers who see me behaving exactly like a car, including stopping at a traffic light in the middle of the lane and maintaining rather than advancing my place in line, virtually never honk at me later when the light turns green. But otherwise people do honk at me for riding in the center of the lane about 5% of the time

  • Hi! My friend showed me this post, and I watned to share this awesome video about lane position!

  • This is great article, the pictures are very helpful in understanding the precautions and rules. This is exactly what I wanted to know as the beginner.

    Thank you so much.

  • Please update paragraph 8 to the correct distance of THREE FEET, not 2 feet, effective since July 1 of 2014.

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