Passing Gas

This morning's commute
10 Flares 10 Flares ×

Sorry to disappoint but this post is not about farts.  I’m a big fan of really bad puns, so the title actually refers to passing cars while on a bicycle.  But, who doesn’t like a good fart reference?

A guest post on getting by without gas from Laura Colbert from Loose Nuts Cycles in Atlanta, GA. 

Recently, my partner and I have made the decision to become a one-car household.  Because of that, I’m riding my bike to work a lot more often. My commute is about 9 miles each direction and I’m doing it about 3 days per week. I’ve been a city cyclist for several years now and am comfortable riding in traffic and familiar with traffic etiquette and the rules of the road, but my commute has given me a lot of inspiration and time to think about the intricacies of the relationship between bikes and cars.

One thing I’ve started thinking about a lot is whether it’s ok to pass cars.  If you’re a commuter or anyone else who rides on the road with cars, then you know that cars frequently pass bicycles.  This is a common occurrence and I’m very used to it.  But is it ok to pass them back?  Maybe they’re stopped for a traffic jam or just at a normal red light.  After thinking about this awhile, I realized that my question really consists of two parts: 1. Is passing cars legal (I’ve found it’s always best for cyclists to be well-versed in what’s legal on the road, because lord knows that most drivers—and some cops—don’t.)?  2.  Is it good form, meaning is it something that drivers are going to resent cyclists for and therefore damage an already rocky road-sharing relationship?  Before I go any farther, let me clarify that I’m not talking about splitting lanes:

·      Passing cars—passing on the right side of cars within a defined traffic lane, allowing a safe distance between the bicycle and cars

·      Splitting lanes—riding between two lines of cars, usually on the lane line or weaving between cars into any available space on the roadway

I’ve spent the better part of several commutes arguing with myself about the pros and cons of passing cars.   Since I’ve started this internal debate, my riding behavior varies quite a bit depending on which side I’m arguing that particular ride.  Some commutes I’ll sit at all the red lights behind rows of cars, while on other days I zip by so I can wait out the light at the front of the line.  Here are the arguments that I’ve come up with so far for both sides:Pro passing cars
  • Cars pass me, so why shouldn’t I get to pass them back?  We’re supposed to have equal rights to the road, so it makes sense that cyclists would be allowed, even expected, to pass cars when given the opportunity.
  • I don’t want to breathe car fumes at every red light.
  • I’m slower than cars are so this gives me a little head start.  (Not a strong argument, I know.)
  • It’s a lot harder for me to stop and get re-started than it is for the cars (This is a particularly convenient argument if there’s a red light at the top of a hill.  Atlanta is a hilly place.)
Anti passing cars
  • Cars on my commute are already unfriendly.  Passing traffic-weary, unfriendly drivers could instill (more) resentment in them towards me and other cyclists.
  • Every time I pass cars, I’m making a potentially poor impression on each car I pass about cyclists and our perceived entitlement to the road.  Oppositely, for every time that I sit and patiently wait in a line of cars, I’m being noticed only by the one driver who’s immediately behind me (and possibly the one immediately in front).  That means that the potential number of bad impressions far outweighs the potential for good impressions that are made by my waiting patiently at the lights.  (This is not an original argument.  I read it in the comments section of this article by Jim Hodgson, but it really resonated with me.  Thanks Rebecca Cerna for the insight.)
  • Not sure if it’s legal or not… (more on this in a minute).
  • Because of the width of traffic lanes and where cars tend to position themselves in the lane, I usually cannot give cars the 3 feet that I expect from them when they pass me.  I always leave what I consider a safe distance, but it seems unfair to expect 3 feet from them if I can’t reciprocate equally.

So after having this debate with myself for awhile, I finally decided to settle the legality argument.  After some light research, I found out that it is indeed legal in Georgia.  See page 14-15 of the GA Bicycle Law Enforcement Pocket Guide.  It basically says that vehicles (a term that includes bicycles) can pass other vehicles on the right if there is enough room in the roadway to safely pass.  I did a little celebration in my chair when I read that and felt extra empowered on my ride home that afternoon.

Unfortunately, the glow of my newfound knowledge dimmed after a couple commutes.  The legality of passing cars was only one of my arguments on my pro-con list.  I still have 3 other anti-passing points up there, which are not addressed by any law. Atlanta’s cycling and driving communities have a very tenuous and strained relationship.  I don’t want to contribute to damaging that relationship any further.  On the other hand, I think my pro-passing arguments are fairly strong.  Sigh, confused head shake…

Atlanta’s cycling community seems to be torn on this issue as well.  Some cyclists that I see patiently breathe car fumes while standing in the middle of a row of cars.  Others shoot right by and don’t seem to be bothered at all with the ethics of that action.  My commutes continue to vary depending on how I feel about the issue that day—fume-breathing and patient, or assertive and clear-lunged.

How do you ladies feel about it?  What do you do when you’re pedaling around town?  Do you feel differently when you’re driving and someone passes you on a bicycle?

9 Comments

  • Tyler says:

    Well, not a lady here, but I wanted to weigh in…(Plus, I love good fart joke too!)
    I think it’s perfectly fine to pass a car on your bike, as long as it safe to do so. Splitting lanes in moving traffic might be the exception to this, however. There shouldn’t be any adverse or negative perception generated especially considering that motorists do it to each other all the time. It’s a generally accepted roadway practice. Just my $0.02. :)

  • Benitosbro says:

    If you shouldn’t pass cars at a stop light, they shouldn’t pass you while moving down the road. Since we all know this behavior won’t happen, stake your legal claim at the light.

  • Steph says:

    I think it’s a somewhat dangerous position to take to surrender your legal right so as to avoid pissing off a motorist. I’m a bike commuter, too, and am also highly sensitive to the fact that my actions affect perceptions of cyclists as a whole. I stop at stop lights and stop signs, even when other cyclists blow past me. But that’s because those things are legally required. Our battle isn’t just about perception, but education. Motorists are routinely bothered by cyclist behavior because we’re seen to flout traffic laws but they’re also annoyed by our mere presence. Should we avoid roadways altogether because drivers get annoyed that we’re even there in the first place? I think we’d all argue that would be a pretty bad policy. If anything, we need to continue to forge ahead, riding safely and responsibly so that more and more motorists understand how to drive with us around and to know what we as cyclists are and are not allowed to do. If cyclists are legally permitted to pass on the right – then pass on the right and teach motorists that this is behavior you as a driver need to be aware of (and accept even if it personally pisses you off). If passing on the right makes you uncomfortable, then no one’s saying you have to be a hero. But if some of us are going to commit to being ambassadors for our mode of transportation, then we need to safely but strongly claim our right to the roadway.

  • Katy says:

    Fellow commuter and lady. I go back and forth on this issue, too! The town where I live (in Connecticut) has no bike lanes, so when I pass cars on the right, it’s generally very close to them. One argument that I’ve used FOR passing cars is that it’s likely that more people in cars will be aware of me on the road. I feel that they’re more likely to note my presence. This doesn’t take into account good vs. bad impressions, but at least I’m being seen and can be anticipated. I’ve been commuting in this town (and passing cars on the right) for about four months now and have not been harassed, so in this particular climate it doesn’t seem to enrage people.

  • Louise says:

    I agree with passing on the right, not with splitting lanes, however. ALL of these cars just passed me. If I got to the front, that means they are all going to have to pass me again once the light turns green. I try to minimize being passed by cars _sort of a probability thing_ so if 10 less cars will pass me after the light turns green, that is 10 less chances to have an altercation with one of them.

    Also, often, cars aren’t expecting you to come up alongside them, sometimes they turn without using a blinker and certainly don’t check their right hand blind spot or mirror before they do so.

    Its a tough call. I pass on the right. But its case by case, if I am turning or there is a good open roadway beyond, i’ll do it, but if it narrows, it isn’t worth it.
    Stay safe on the road! Thanks for the gear reviews. not all that many women reviewers out there!

  • Kevin says:

    I am also not a lady, but it got me thinking of the rules in my country (Australia) and state. Our rules also allow for cyclists to pass stationary or slow moving vehicles.
    This will always be a judgement call based on the cyclist’s ability and the environment since the law is not black and white around what is slow moving. I too have the same anxiety, but I feel that the more ‘passes’ I do (safely and legally) the more motorists will be aware and be able accept this as the norm.

  • Ryan says:

    I’d like to echo Tyler, in thinking it’s perfectly fine to be passing cars. Spent a little while in the city as a courier, granted they have a different set of rules than say your average commuter, but you’re part of the traffic out there, as long as you use your head, keeping eyes on the rest of the traffic, try to stay out of blind spots you should be pretty safe.

  • ben says:

    in the uk, where i do my bicycle cycling we the bike boxes at the front of traffic lights, a marked off area where cars can get a ticket if they stop inside them. there is also a little slip way along the inside of the lane (left here, but your right, if you have them) this gives me the feeling passing cars is encouraged, and the logic for me is mentioned above, so the cars know i’m there, better to see me if i’m out front of them. my exception is if some car has really been nice to me, given me an extra wide berth, or moved over into entirely the other lane to pass ma, or some other nice thing, then i might wait behind them, so they don’t have to pass me again. i guess riding is as individual as driving a car, which should not be a big surprise i guess.

  • Harry says:

    It is rarely okay to pass cars on the right at the traffic light. To me, only if there is a bike lane on the other side of the intersection that will be for the cyclists’ is it okay to pass on the right. I pull in behind cars in the traffic lane. I don’t have the legal right, I think, to pass any cars on the right. I will do it if I can be out of their way at the intersection.

    If I pull in behind the last car at the traffic light, I’m where I am supposed to be and am allowed to be. Cars behind me are where they’re supposed to be, and can go around me as the road allows. And, by being part of the traffic, no one can complain about my position.

    I don’t trust my life to ticked off motorists who need to pass me or go around me again right at the intersection if there is no bike lane or berm.

    I ride my bike, generally the same way I drive my car. If I don’t do it in my car, I probably won’t do it on my bike.

Leave a Reply