Empowering women in cycling

This morning's commute

Passing Gas

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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?

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