Share the road
Bicyclists, motorists try to strike balance
Recorder/Paul Franz Chris Ethier shares Federal Street in Greenfield with vehicular traffic. Purchase photo reprints »
You’re a bicyclist pedaling down the road with cars occasionally coming up behind you.
But what’s almost constant are changing road conditions that motorists hardly notice: potholes, glass, debris and gravel in the roadway, and maybe shoulders that disappear and reappear before your eyes.
What do you do?
If you’re like many bicyclists, you stay as far to the right as possible, to make it easy for other traffic to pass by — and then risk getting hit when you swerve into the lane to avoid the hazard.
Or, as many bicycle advocates suggest, you take up an entire lane to avoid weaving in and out of traffic. That’s the right granted under state law. Yet it’s also what got one cyclist arrested in 2010, for failure to keep to the right as he rode along in a four-lane stretch of Route 9 in Hadley.
As a growing number of cyclists take to the road, fostered in part by federal and state-funded efforts to encourage alternatives to motor vehicle traffic, more potential conflicts would seemingly loom with motorists. Yet, recent interviews suggest a tolerance that may even be helped, for now, by having more cyclists.
State law says bicyclists have the right to use all public roads except for limited-access highways, following all traffic laws and using hand signals. Most bicycling advocates construe that to mean that bicyclists have the same rights as motorists — including the right to take an entire lane for travel, since they are not impeding traffic by pedaling at a speed appropriate for their bicycle.
But, as Gill cycling enthusiast Alden Booth, a board member of the Pioneer Valley Chapter of Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition (Mass Bike), says, “The law allows it, to a certain degree, but the obvious understanding is if a bike can be safely ridden on the side of the road and allow cars to pass, that’s the thing to do, as a matter of courtesy.”
He says, “If you’re taking the whole lane, you’re just perpetuating this anger thing. If you can show you’re only taking the lane because at that moment, it’s dangerous to pass you, that’s fine.”
But he emphasizes, “You need to be clear. A lot of motorists complain, that bikes are unpredictable. A cyclist needs to use his or her hands if he or she moves into the road, and if there’s a series of potholes, he should stay out in the road.”
There’s no accurate measure of how many more cyclists are pedaling their way down Franklin County roads these days, commuting to work and touring the byways as a recreational exercise, although Maureen Mullaney, transportation planning manager for the Franklin Regional County of Governments, said that when the COG celebrated bike-to-work day earlier this month, it was well attended.
But if there are more cyclists on the road, that hasn’t led to more confrontations with motorists, agree Mullaney as well as Booth and other cyclists.
“I feel like the more people are out riding their bicycles, the more people in cars are courteous — including me, when I’m behind the wheel,” says Susan Conger of Montague Center, who commutes by bike regularly to work in Greenfield in a conscious effort to eliminate at least 1,000 miles of driving a year. “They’re also more aware and considerate that there can be bicyclists on the road.”
Even though she knows that by law she can take the entire driving lane as she rolls along Greenfield Road in Montague, over the General Pierce Bridge and along Montague County Road in Greenfield, Conger says, “I don’t generally take up the lane if there’s traffic behind me. If there’s a decent shoulder, I ride on shoulder. But if the shoulder’s terrible, I’ll seek the best pavement I can, as close to shoulder as I can. I’ll get as far off to the side as safely as I can if there’s car traffic.”
And if she needs to move into the road, she will use hand signals to warn motorists.
Because the roadway in Montague is generally bumpy and riddled with holes, Conger says she will find a smooth surface in the middle of the road if there’s no traffic behind her.
“The bridge is tricky. There are some significant potholes,” says Conger, who uses the sidewalk when she’s headed back home into Montague, but she tries to ride as far to the right side of the bridge in the other direction, because there is no sidewalk on that side — even though “oftentimes, there’s a lot of gravel, scrap metal and glass, so I’m pretty close to being in the travel lane.”
Bicycling enthusiast Chris Ethier, who owns Bicycle World in Greenfield, says he encourages cyclists to keep about 18 inches from the right side of the road to avoid slipping off the shoulder or having to veer into traffic. And if possible, a cyclist can also remain within the shoulder’s white marked line — assuming there is one and “it’s not all packed with dirt and glass.”
Andrew Fischer, the Boston attorney representing an Easthampton bicyclist in the U.S. District Court case involving his Hadley arrest, says that in many cases, it’s safer for a cyclist to assert his right to the full lane.
“It’s been constantly established within the safe cycling community that often, particularly in a highway situation, it’s safer to assert the right to the lane than to try and ride in a shoulder that appears and disappears, where you’re forced to weave in and out from the shoulder,” said Fischer.
Ethier, too, calls for using common sense, like taking the entire lane while crossing the bridge near the paper mills in Turners Falls, since there’s no room for a car to pass him anyway.
“The speed limit is 20 mph, so kick it up (on pedaling) a bit, so you’re going 20, or maybe 16 or 17.”
Ethier, who leads weekly evening rides to encourage newer riders, says he believes that with more cyclists on the roads, “More people are willing to give you a little bit of road.”
But still there’s a need for motorists and cyclists alike to learn how to share the road.
“There’s an education that needs to happen, but where does it happen?” he asks.
Conger and others say they occasionally see cyclists do dumb things, like darting across heavy traffic in downtown Greenfield. But that’s a small minority, she insists.
“That’s not good for them, or bicyclists in general,” she says.
And Mullaney agrees:
“It really bothers me when ‘share the road’ is such a one-sided argument,” she says. “I don’t agree with someone taking up the entire roadway just to make a point. I don’t think that bodes well for the bicycling community. It just makes motorists angry and pushes people into antagonistic situations. That’s not what anybody wants.”
She said that many communities are “very supportive” of increased bicycling, and many — including Greenfield — are working with planners to create “complete street” strategies such as better signage to ensure safer use of the roads by cyclists and pedestrians.
On the Web: www.massbike.org
You can reach Richie Davis at
or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269