Why cyclists can ride 2, 3 and 4 abreast: explaining things for indignant drivers.

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In cars, people travel on the road 2-abreast all the time. Nobody questions. In a Mitsubishi Canter 3 Sumo wrestlers can travel along 3-abreast. We haven’t even started on buses that transport their passengers all 4 abreast with an aisle down the middle, their corpulent masses forcing bus drivers to reach for first gear to get up the hills. I write so that next time some clod bores the rest of us with their online remarks about cyclists having no right to ride 2,3 or 4 abreast, you might send them a link to this page, for correction. If you are that clod, read on. Enlightenment awaits, I assure you.

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Most car and bus trips are technically unnecessary, transporting people for the purposes of socialisation or recreation. Bunch rides, the cause of most of the furore, are exactly the same. They are social and recreational. Nothing is transported, except for bananas. But if these unnecessary bike trips seem to interfere with the speed of unnecessary car trips, stop for a moment and consider the effect of car traffic, upon other car traffic.

Traffic

In fact bike traffic has been made to slow down in the city since the advent of traffic lights, an invention to address the congestion and road deaths that resulted when heavy machines appeared in the city, under the control of the fallible citizen. The average speed of car travel in cities, due to the start-stopping of traffic that cars cause with their mass, is typically less than 10kph. Most bunch rides average just over 30kph. In the past there have been cities where the only real traffic was bicycling traffic (Beijing in the 80s, Copenhagen in the 40s) and that bike traffic didn’t even have to slow down at intersections. Schools of riders just filtered and flowed. So enough talk about 2-abreast bunch rides slowing cars down, even if they do occupy a whole lane—as they aught to for everyones safety.

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Like a busload of grannies out for picnic, a bunch ride of cyclists has every right to fill a whole lane. But asserting rights is not an end in itself—at least not for the kinds of fit and intelligent people who choose to partake in this activity. We’re not banner wavers. If you see a bunch ride temporarily being 4 riders wide, it is for a technical and necessary reason, that I shall explain.

4-abreast riding generally doesn’t happen in races. One line of riders will be pushing into the wind, led by a sole rider busting his or her nuts. The parallel line of riders will in fact be filtering back, each recovering from their own brief time at the front of the fast line. It would be easier to make friends at a 2-second speed dating event than in a two-wide pace line where the order is constantly changing.

But bunch rides are not races. They are about relationship building. Their appeal is they let riders pair up and chat, like old ladies on bus seats. Everyone gets sucked along in the draft, pedalling fairly intensely, but not so hard they can’t talk—except, that is, for the two riders right at the front with no one ahead of them breaking the wind. Pretty soon this pair will be buggered and will have to drop to the rear. They’ll do so in unison, so that everyones conversations, and their own, are not interrupted and for a moment cause the bunch to be 4 abreast. Governmental and business decisions could be at stake. Conversations in bunch rides are of the kind that save marriages, or get kids off of drugs, or make sure the next Pope is the right one!

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If you’re not convinced, you may yet come around, after you have had time to think this through from another’s perspective. But if you’re still seeing red in a month, count yourself lucky you’re not a pilot. Have you seen how those birds take up half the sky!

(My next post looks at solutions.)

CanadianGeeseFlyingInVFormation

About Steven

I'm on a mission to put cycling on the agendas of architects, urban designers and fellow academics, who see the potential for bicycles to change cities and buildings. My PhD is in architectural history and my interdisciplinary research spans art theory, philosophy and cultural studies. I teach architectural history and theory and design studio at The University of Tasmania, Australia, and formerly worked as an architect designing large public housing projects in Singapore.
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12 Responses to Why cyclists can ride 2, 3 and 4 abreast: explaining things for indignant drivers.

  1. Matt says:

    You can’t compare. That’s a lame attempt to. The closing speed on a highway of a car to a cyclist is around 80 km/h. I ride pedal bikes, a fire blade & drive a car & can tell you I am more careful on my 200kg fire blade in full leathers with knee/back/shoulder/elbow protection, a helmet & boots than most cyclists I see in Lycra with an inadequate helmet on a 10kg bike. You might be well within your rights to ride abreast but what’s the point in being right when you’re the one in the ambulance.

    • Steven says:

      The closing speed would be more like 65 on a straight stretch. Far less among bends. Either way, cars have adequate time to slow down and fall in behind. I tried googling “fireblade”: http://www.toyworldusa.com/servlet/the-15208/2011-Hot-Wheels-%23157/Detail

    • 7homask says:

      Over summer I found myself driving early one morning down 13th beach road (80km/hr limit), that I also occasionally, when time and children permit, ride on in a bunch. Funnily enough (or not, as I timed it deliberately), I encountered that same bunch while in my car. This group’s numbers swell in summer, such that the 15-20 riders 2 abreast took up the whole lane, so I and some tradies in front of me had to wait a grand total of about 30 seconds for an opportunity on the windy and narrow road to overtake. 30 whole seconds! in summer! on MY holidays! the damned cheek. I resolved then and there never to ride with such a selfish bunch of cnuts again. The hide of them, upper middle class self funded early retirees keeping themselves fit and my health insurance premiums low(er) while keeping me from my lazy surf watching coffee meeting. Buggers.

  2. A great read Steven. One of your more amusing ones of late, yet a very telling one. Well worth a share or three.

    • Steven says:

      Thanks Andrew. A lot of people reading this one. I’m gathering reactions (mainly on facebook) into a follow-up post with some suggested ways out of this pickle. Meanwhile, all comments welcome!

  3. Antony Day says:

    Great post and well argued. I’d also add that ( and it occurred to me during my saturday morning group ride – riding at most 2 abreast in a lane) that often it is an illusion that cyclists ride more than 2 abreast – if 2 cyclists are behind two other cyclists in a group and there is a slight crosswind, what we tend to do is ride in echelon, or a staggered configuration to shelter from the wind. We are still 2 abreast, but to a car driver behind it may seem from their perspective that there are 4 cyclists across the road.
    so to illustrate :
    normally – 2 abreast, 4 riders , paceline
    | |
    | |

    2 abreast , 4 riders in staggered echelon

    | |
    | |

    ^
    |
    car sees 4 abreast

    • Antony Day says:

      dang, the last “diagram” was supposed to be staggered but the spacing was corrected… so it looks in line.. :(

      trying again with more spaces

      | |
      | |

      ^
      |
      car sees 4 abreast

  4. That is a good point Antony and often comes up. Not hard to challenge in my experience.

  5. Bruce G says:

    Re abreast riding, I and most guys I know when riding in bunches, don’t ride precisely behind the person in front. It’s dangerous in that you are more likely to hit their rear wheel, and you cannot see in front of them to react quicker when required. I never ride blind meaning I never rely on the guy in front calling obstacles. I always ride slightly (5-30cm) to left or right, hence motorists are more likely to perceive this as >2 abreast when in fact, it’s not.

  6. crank says:

    Highlights how massively over-engineered cars are for the purposes they are commonly engaged for.

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