Riding Against the Tide

One Way Sign


Riding a bicycle facing traffic is never a great idea. Drivers don’t expect to see a bicycle coming down the side of a road, to their right. They also don’t expect to encounter bicycles in places other than those where they would normally see cars.

When cars enter a main road from a side street, they look to their left for oncoming traffic. A bicycle traveling down the main road, facing traffic, will be on their right, where they would never think to look for oncoming traffic. If the car makes a right turn into the road, it could crash head-on with an oncoming bicycle. The likelihood of serious injury to a cyclist is high under such circumstances.

Riding the wrong way transforms right-hand turns into tricky maneuvers. The bicycle will be required to cut across two lanes of traffic; cars in neither direction will be expecting it. Dismounting the bike and walking it across the street is the only safe option. Even making a left-hand turn becomes treacherous because the bicycle would have to turn directly into the path of any car entering the road from the street the cyclist is turning onto.

Riding against traffic leaves no room for a bicycle to steer around potholes or obstacles in the road, since it would be wedged between the curb and oncoming traffic. If a car door opened in front of a wrong-way cyclist, the cyclist would be trapped, with nowhere to go.  Choosing between slamming into a car door or crashing into an oncoming car is no treat.

Given the difficulty of navigating through traffic, and the high probability of having a head-on collision with a car, one would predict that cyclists would avoid such behavior. Unfortunately, they do not, for a variety of reasons.

For some cyclists, riding against the flow of traffic is done out of fear. The ability to watch oncoming cars makes these cyclists feel safer. To an inexperienced cyclist, the idea of being able to observe the path of a car, and having an opportunity to “get out of the way,” is appealing. But, it’s a false sense of security, borne out of ignorance. A case like this shows why it’s so important to educate cyclists, particularly when they begin riding in traffic.

Aside from novice cyclists, who don’t understand the problems and risks involved with riding against traffic, there are cyclists who may be aware of these problems, but who do it anyway. Sometimes they take unnecessary risks for the sake of convenience. They just don’t want to ride a little bit out of their way. It’s easier to cut out some distance, and reduce riding time, by riding on the wrong side of the road.

Behavior like this amounts to a calculated risk. However, given the degree of injury a cyclist can incur by taking such risks, it would probably be wiser to spend the extra time, and expend the extra energy to ride with the flow of traffic. Saving two minutes will hardly seem worth it if an accident puts a cyclist in a hospital bed for weeks or months, followed by an extended rehabilitation period — and that’s the best case scenario. For less fortunate cyclists, there may be no chance for rehabilitation because they could lose their lives for what amounts to laziness. Every cyclist should think long and hard before tempting fate with a stunt like this. There’s little to gain and everything to lose.

Most experienced cyclists, who ride in traffic on a regular basis, are familiar with the dangers of riding against traffic. The majority of them refrain from this practice out of wisdom and well founded fear. One would expect sharp demarcation between the choices and actions of novices and experts. Yet, this is not always the case.

Cycling, like everything in life, has gray areas; choices are not always black and white. And what’s right for a car isn’t always ideal for a bicycle, even when it’s mandated by law.

While riding against traffic is never a good idea, there are times when it’s necessary. This is where practicality, reality, and the law intersect. According to the law, bicycles are vehicles and are required to follow all of the traffic laws. But what happens when a cyclist is unable to do this?

For instance, what happens when a cyclist wants to go somewhere and the only road headed in that direction is off-limits to bicycles? The law doesn’t take into consideration that certain types of roads cannot be used by bicycles (e.g. highways). If the only other road which can be used to reach the same destination is one-way, headed in the opposite direction, should a cyclist have the right to use it to circumvent the bicycle prohibition? The practical answer is: yes. The legal answer is: no. And, this is where reality comes in. It’s unrealistic to expect cyclists to limit their scope of travel simply because society has not provided accommodations for them to reach a desired destination.

In reality, most cyclists will take the one-way street, and ride against traffic, in order to reach their destination. Society should make allowances for such cases; doing otherwise would restrict someone’s freedom based on their choice of transportation. This is especially true in cases where no other travel options, such as public transportation, are available.

Other gray area cases exist. For example, at times, the safest route for a cyclist may be one where a portion of the route goes against traffic. A cyclist can live or work on a major road where either there is no way to reach a rideable road by following the flow of traffic, or where the road is just too dangerous for bicycles. In such cases, riding against traffic on a one-way backroad, might be necessary.

Bicycles must obey the traffic laws: but at what cost? Is a cyclist required to risk life and limb to obey the law? Is a cyclist required to give up his freedom, and restrict his travel to certain areas where bicycle accommodations are available?

At some point, no matter how much we want to define bicycles as vehicles, we must also consider practicality and reality. Certain travel related problems only affect bicycles. Talk about bicycle accommodations usually refers to things like bike lanes or bicycle parking. These things are important. Still, they’re not the only type of accommodation bicycles need; they also need practical accommodations.

Riding against the tide, at certain times, is an example of a practical accommodation. It’s not exactly legal; it’s something cyclists need to travel by bicycle, so it must be considered in the larger scheme of things, to make unrestricted travel by bicycle a reality. In essence, riding the wrong way is sometimes the right thing to do.

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