On Williams Ave, a bike maneuver that ruffles feathers

On Williams Ave, a bike maneuver that ruffles feathers

Conditions on Williams-3-2

Passing other people on bikes can be a risky
proposition on Williams Ave.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

If you’re one of the thousands of Portlanders who has spent time in the bike lane on North Williams Avenue, you have almost certainly seen this happen: When the bike lane is crowded, some riders will move to the left — out of the bike lane and in front of people driving in the adjacent lane — to zoom past slower riders.

This maneuver happens all the time, especially during the evening rush hour when the bike lane bursts at the seams with people on bikes. I’ve seen it first-hand on many occasions and I cringe when people do it without even looking over their shoulder and with seemingly no care at all about people driving cars behind them.

And it turns out I’m not the only one who has noticed this behavior: On May 1st, reader Laura Holloway emailed me her feelings about it:

“I want to share a concern with you. I bike up N Williams from Broadway to Ainsworth nearly every weekday, and lately I’ve been noticing a lot of cyclists cutting off car drivers. Obviously there is a lot of bike traffic, and faster riders are trying to maneuver around slower riders while motorized traffic whips by just a few feet to the left. So often that it has become a pattern, I’ll notice someone in the pack ahead of me jump into the car lane to pass other cyclists, seeming to not notice the car coming up quick behind them. Seriously — veering right into the path of a car moving twice as fast! Thankfully all the drivers have been very alert. Just hoping I could raise some awareness on this freakish behaviour. Hopefully we’ll have more bike-only road width soon.”

And then this morning, a friend of mine posted the following story on his Facebook page:

“Just had an elderly couple lay on the horn at me as I was using 1 of their 2 lanes to pass some bike congestion on N Williams. We exchanged birds [middle fingers] and when I (naturally) caught up with them at the next light, they rolled down the window and said “My car is bigger than your bike!” F****** a**holes.”

Reading these two accounts about the same issue in just one week makes it clear to me that this is something worth talking about.

For various reasons, many people ride very quickly up North Williams Avenue. I think it’s the same phenomenon that plagues all “Cat 6 commuters” (slang for people who treat commutes like races) or stressed out road users in general — a combination of impatience mixed with stress brought on by sharing a limited amount of space. In some ways, people on bikes are not immune to the irrational and inconsiderate behaviors people exhibit while driving cars (or, as stand-up comedian Louis CK masterfully pointed out in a recent bit, people have a “different set of values” when behind the wheel).

While this maneuver can be seen as rude by slower riders, and it’s definitely risky from a traffic safety standpoint, it is not illegal if it is done safely (which in the case of Laura’s experience it clearly wasn’t). ORS 814.420 (3) (a) clearly states that, “A person is not in violation of the offense under this section [Failure to use bicycle lane or path] if the person is able to safely move out of the bicycle lane or path for the purpose of: (a) Overtaking and passing another bicycle, a vehicle or a pedestrian that is in the bicycle lane or path and passage cannot safely be made in the lane or path.”

If you decide to leave the bike lane to pass, first make sure there’s ample room between you and the other people in the lanes around you. Then, check over your left shoulder before entering the adjacent lane. If possible, use your arm to signal your intentions and consider ringing your bell for the courtesy of other riders around you.

Changing the way humans act when faced with stressful conditions is all but impossible. “It seems the best solution,” wrote Laura Holloway in a follow-up email, “will be to just give bikes more room on the road.”

Thankfully, that’s exactly what’s planned. But remember, PBOT won’t break ground on the Williams Ave redesign until next spring, so watch yourselves out there in the meantime.

Do you do this passing maneuver? Have you noticed it? Share your experiences below.

Comments are closed.