Not long ago, I wrote a post about Anticipating Traffic Patterns Based on Vehicle Type. The post discussed a number of observations I had made while driving. A reader asked if I could elaborate on how to use this information when riding a bicycle.
The best way to start is by observing traffic patterns while driving. This is the most accurate method for gauging how traffic flows because, as a driver, your life is not dependent upon acute observation of the road conditions in front of you.
As a second choice, it is possible to make observations while riding a bike, but the odds of hitting something in the road when looking around — such as a pothole or debris — increase. So, if you don’t drive, a better alternative would be to make traffic observations as a passenger in someone else’s car.
It’s also a good idea to choose a familiar route, and drive that route multiple times, ideally at the same time of day. This provides data to use for comparison. It also allows you to average out travel time and lane speeds, which will vary from day to day.
Things to look for are how fast each lane moves on a four lane road, how cars position themselves at lights, and which intersections seem to slow traffic due to high pedestrian volume or many cars turning onto a popular road. After observing the same stretch on a number of occasions, it will become obvious that drivers who are familiar with the road tend to drive in specific patterns.
For instance, they will begin to move left to go into the left turn lane at a particular point in the road. If the left turn is onto a main road, two types of traffic patterns will occur. Most of the regular drivers will begin to establish their position well before the left turn lane begins, and drivers unfamiliar with the road will make a mad, last minute dash to get into the left lane because they didn’t realize that they had reached the street they were looking for. This mix can cause considerable chaos, and jockeying for position, during times of heavy traffic.
After establishing the presence of common traffic patterns, different types of vehicles should be watched, to see how they navigate the road. Although there will be patterns of behavior among similar vehicle types, there will also be exceptions — so any rules based on observed patterns will simply serve as a guideline for antipating traffic movement.
With this information in mind, anticipating traffic patterns and driver behavior should be easier for most cyclists. The information is particularly useful when approaching intersections or when taking the lane.
Intersections are dangerous places for cyclists. They must contend with cars turning right into the area where they are riding. Cars may be driving directly at them when attempting to cut into traffic to make a left-hand turn. Pedestrians may step into the road, either with or against the light.
Understanding traffic patterns will allow a cyclist to know where to position his/her bike for efficiency and safety. In areas where opposing cars frequently turn left, it is important for a cyclist to take the lane when crossing the intersection. Riding directly behind a car or directly in front of a car makes it harder for the opposing left-turning car to cut in between moving traffic. To some degree, this position will protect the cyclist.
Similar positioning techniques can be used for other frequent traffic patterns. But, the application of vehicle type behavior knowledge, to anticipate traffic patterns, fine tunes the system.
When approaching an intersection, for example, where many cars queue up in the left turn lane, vehicle type will provide a clue as to where and when a car will move to position itself to enter the lane. Sports cars exemplify a car type which rarely plans ahead; many sports car drivers want to use their car to its full potential. This means beating out other traffic and accelerating as quickly as the car will allow. Such vehicles often wait until the last minute and try to cut into the line of left turning cars to get ahead of the traffic.
More cumbersome, and less agile vehicles, such as SUVs, luxury sedans and minivans are less likely to make sudden maneuvers. They are more likely to move left well in advance of an intersection. They are also more likely to slow down and use turn signals. These are all valuable hints for a cyclist.
At times when a cyclist must take the middle lane between a travel lane and a left turn lane, and a car alongside him wants to cross over into the left turn lane, the vehicle type will give the cyclist an indication of how the car might go about making its move. It’s not necessary to know the driver’s intention to move across the road. What’s important is how abruptly the car is likely to act.
In the case of cars which tend to have aggressive drivers, it may make sense to hang back and let the car go in front of the bike. This gives the cyclist more time to watch the traffic patterns unfold and to make an emergency stop if the aggressive car runs into a problem with another car, bike or pedestrian.
Car types which often have distracted drivers, such as minivans driven by harrowed parents, are unpredictable. It is safe to assume that the driver will be unaware of a cyclist riding nearby. In such cases, the cyclist should attempt to move away from the vehicle, either by passing it, or hanging back until the vehicle is well out of sight.
Blocking strategies can also be employed to control moderately aggressive cars, such as sport sedans. Sport sedan drivers usually want a sporty car, but do not want to give up luxury. Therefore, the cars, which are a mixture of sport and luxury, don’t handle quite as well as true sports cars, making the drivers less likely to maneuver wildly on the road. Nonetheless, it’s often better to keep a semi-sport driver behind the bicycle — by taking the lane — where the driver won’t be tempted to cut off the bike or buzz it trying to pass.
Essentially, this type of system gives cyclists a way to avoid unpredictable driver behavior. Cyclists should always be watching the cars around them and trying to get a sense of drivers’ intentions. By making educated guesses about the driving style of someone who chooses to drive a certain type of vehicle, cyclists can add an extra layer of protection around themselves when traveling on highly-trafficked roads.