Right-turn lane as dual-destination lane?

I’ve had criticism from an unusual side about the video below. The complaint, from another cyclist, was essentially that I was not following the rules of the road, not operating as the driver of a vehicle, by riding straight through in a right-turn lane. Most criticism about my cycling, and my cycling advice, comes from people who would rather that cyclists not have to ride on roads at all!

Allston to Cambridge by Bicycle via River Street Bridge from John Allen on Vimeo.

To answer thsi criticism, let me first provide some background.

Anyone who uses the roads in the Boston area , whether as a cyclist, motorist or pedestrian, soon discovers that the street markings often contradict the requirements of normal traffic movement. Of course this is what knowledgeable cyclists complain about as it applies to bike lanes — emphatically so in the Boston urban core, where there is rarely room for bike lanes outside the door zone. Door-zone bike lanes have been installed anyway ever since the Cambridge bicycle coordinator introduced them in the mid-1990s. (Now she has moved on to X-merges, bicycle sidewalks, jughandle left turns and bowling-alley bus stops, and the City of Boston is working to play catch-up.)

We don’t only have bike lanes in the door zone here, we have bike lanes in the taillight zone — like this one on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge.

Bike lane in taillight zone, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Bike lane in taillight zone, Cambridge, Massachusetts

When I had the opportunity to ride in Albuquerque, New Mexico a couple of years ago, I had a real eye opener: I saw and rode on bike lanes which are mostly functional rather than dysfunctional. They are on streets without parking; motorists merge across them to turn right. I realized that bike lanes in the Boston area give others a bad name.

The Boston area has a terrible reputation for bad driving compared with other cities. In my opinion. strongly backed up by statistics, this reflects cultural differences rather than reality. There is somewhat of a chip-on-the-shoulder, butt-into-line attitude among many Boston drivers. It probably goes back as far as the Blueblood vs. Irish struggles for political power of a century and more ago. Some drivers feel a sense of entitlement and an emotional need for self-assertion. But the rudeness also at times reflects the practical need to get going. A Boston driver more often has blindly to inch out into the path of a vehicle which has the legal right of way, simply to get into the stream of traffic, than in most other American cities. A cyclist who doesn’t understand this will feel continually abused and endangered; a cyclist who understands the need to assert lane position and right of way finds Boston a very easy and safe place to ride. I describe how to be that cyclist, here.

There aren’t good statistics on bicycling, but Boston has the lowest rate of pedestrian fatalities of any of 52 major US cities. Boston drivers may be rude, but also they are clearly more attentive than elsewhere. They have to be. They know that they have to keep their eyes open, and that the street design and street markings have to be taken with a grain of salt.

The conflict between markings and traffic movements here in the Boston area didn’t begin with, and isn’t restricted to, bike lanes. It results in the first instance from an attempt to impose standard road markings and channelization on streets which are too narrow to accommodate them, or on multi-way intersections which are too complicated.

In order to accommodate parking, there are quite a few travel lanes too narrow even to fit a conventional dual-track motor vehicle. Here’s an example.

Narrow travel lane next to parking, Franklin Street, Framingham, Massachusetts.

Narrow travel lane next to parking, Franklin Street, Framingham, Massachusetts.

There are also multi-way signalized intersections where traffic engineers threw up their hands and let traffic enter from more than one leg at a time and merge inside the intersection.

And now, zeroing in on the topic of this post, there are numerous situations where an empty right-turn lane parallels a congested through lane, and neither lane is wide enough for side-by-side lane sharing. Often there is also a receiving lane or shoulder after the intersection — as in the example shown in the video.

I completely agree that it is foolish and hazardous for cyclists to ride near the right side of a right-turn lane when headed straight across the intersection. That is the “coffin corner” situation that we lament when it kills a naive cyclist. But, on the other hand, I consider treating an empty right turn lane with a receiving lane or shoulder after the intersection as a dual-destination lane, and riding in its center or toward its left side, only to be a variation on the decades-old advice to choose lane position according to the rules of motion, and ignore the bike-lane stripe. I’m not alone in this, not at all. Installations formalizing this treatment have been made in a number of places in the USA. It is accepted under the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices if shared-lane markings are used, though state laws generally still do not allow it. It is still in the experimental phase if a through bike lane is to be installed inside a right turn lane. That is documented on this page on the FHWA site.

Most importantly though, treating a right-turn lane as a dual-destination lane when it is empty, or lightly-used, or carrying slow traffic while the through lane is blocked, and riding at its center or left side does not violate the rule of destination positioning and does not lead the cyclist into a conflict. I yield when entering the lane (if there is any vehicle to yield to) and I never place myself to the right of right-turning traffic. I have never gotten into a hazardous situation by doing this. I must anticipate that a driver waiting in line in the through lane to the left may decide instead to turn right and enter the right-turn lane late. This is the same concern as when overtaking any line of stopped traffic, and the countermeasure is the same; stay far enough away from the stopped traffic to be able to avoid a merging vehicle.

In my opinion, the assertion that a cyclist should never ride centered or left in a right-turn lane when preceding straight across an intersection is rigid, legalistic, and impractical. But on the other hand, it doesn’t make sense everywhere, either as an informal practice or a standard treatment. That is why, in my opinion, a standard is needed to establish where it may be formalized, and education is needed, as always, so cyclists will be able to judge when it is advisable or inadvisable.

Further information: I’ve had the same issue raised about my advice on riding the 9th Avenue sidepath in Manhattan, and you may read about it in the documents, photo captions and video linked under the 9th Avenue heading here.

5 Responses to Right-turn lane as dual-destination lane?

  1. Hi, John

    We institutionalized a dual use lane (right turn for motorists, sharrowed thru lane for cyclists at the Diamond Drive/Canyon Road intersection, with the sharrow positioned on the left side of the turn lane. If you go to this post, and scroll down to the last photo you can see it. Click on the photo for a full size version.

    http://www.labikes.blogspot.com/2011/11/los-alamos-gets-sharrows-and-other.html

    In this location, due to political decisions, the county did not provide a bike lane between the thru lanes and the right turn lane. This was a good solution except when there is a lot of right turning traffic. In those situations, rather than bottle up the right turn lane when I am going straight, I merge safely out of the turn lane and occupy the right hand thru lane.

  2. Seattle has marked quite a few intersections with “Right Lane Must Turn Right Except Transit and Bicycles” — see

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/jputnam/8387555090/in/set-72157617566291636

    The statement that using sharrows is MUTCD compliant is a bit of a stretch.

    MUTCD allows sharrows in RTO lanes, but the *meaning* of a sharrow is not defined to allow through traffic from a RTO lane. It’s MUTCD compliant, but it means that cyclists in the RTO lane should ride with traffic and control the lane while making the right turn required of all lane users.

    The sharrow alone, as currently defined in the MUTCD, does not grant cyclists an exception from the RTO restriction. Thus the regulatory sign excepting bicycles from the RTO requirement.

  3. ” a cyclist who understands the need to assert lane position and right of way finds Boston a very easy and safe place to ride.”

    Not from Boston but I agree with the above statement for most any place. So I have to disagree with much of the advice in your video. It shows improper lane positioning, lane splitting, (likely) illegal use of a RTOL, and riding in gore striping all when there is a perfectly good travel lane to ride in with another for faster vehicles to pass. This is not acting like a vehicle and much of it violates the rules of movement for traffic. Why would you not just take the right travel lane and ride centered? I understand not riding two-abreast if it’s for videoing purposes.

    Also, you stop as the gore striping ends but if a cyclist were continuing straight, he’d have to merge back in after only a block and possibly making other traffic pass him twice by passing on the right in the RTOL.

  4. Perhaps this will prompt a blog entry. This last week there was a good deal of noise in the Boston press about the increased number of bike fatalities and plenty of uninformed opinion on how to make things safer. On Thursday (the day before poor Ms Miura was killed) I rode downtown and checked out the bombing “memorial” in Copley Square and then proceeded to ride back toward Arlington via Comm Ave. I was astonished to find the bike lane on the LEFT side of the road. I thought I’d give it a try regardless. The Mass Ave underpass was pretty exciting; I couldn’t see the “Masshole” with my left-side mirror who screamed at me as he passed and then I had to cross two fast moving lanes to get off the damn street. I wondered if all the “facilities” that have been installed have contributed to the fatalities. The drivers are no worse than they’ve been and there aren’t that many more cyclists than there have been, so what’s going on? Just a coincidence?

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