Bike queuing Dutch style
Thijs van der Heijden suggests we could improve the way we use bike lanes and bike boxes.
Perhaps it’s because I’m Dutch, but the single-file bicycle queue has puzzled me ever since I moved to Australia about two years ago. It seems so far off from my riding experience anywhere in Europe. I figured that Australians are more used to driving a car than riding a bike, and cars just don’t line up that well in parallel. Needless to say, I am one of those riders that routinely rides to the front of the queue if I see there is empty space to stand, hoping that action will be copied by my fellow riders. To be clear, my behaviour is not about showing off or jumping the queue. Although I’m not slow, I’m no match for the really fast riders with my business attire and flat bar bike with mudguards and a pannier rack. Instead, my actions are motivated by road design features that enable multi-file queuing, efficiency, safety and health considerations. Let me focus on those that advocate parallel queuing.
Many larger intersections these days feature neatly painted bike boxes that can easily accommodate two or three riders. Why would road designers include these if they didn’t intend for riders to use them? In addition, any bike lane that can properly carry that name will be wide enough to hold two riders in parallel. I admit for some of us the risk of having to stand next to a complete stranger at arm’s length might be daunting. At the same time, who knows you might just end up in an easy morning flirt that could make your day before you even get to work?
It is much more visible to have two or three cyclists in the bike box at the lights. It forces the cars behind to take off at an easier pace when the lights turn green again. Result: smaller speed differences between cyclists and motorists and a smoother traffic flow. In peak-hour traffic, often motorists will only be able to cover a short distance before joining the next queue anyway, so their loss of time would be minimal (although I do admit they may not realise that). As for that bunch of bikes: if more than 20 years of daily riding in the Netherlands are anything to go by, that bunch will be fine; parallel waiting cyclists will figure out a way to get back in line pretty quickly, long before they reach the other end of the intersection.
Being in front of the queue of cars rather than next to it will also help motorists notice you, because you’re right in their main view rather than in their blind spot. With the plethora of things that compete for the attention of the driver already while waiting at traffic lights, it can’t hurt to just place yourself prominently in the centre of their view. An additional benefit is that by being visible as a compact group, we demonstrate our diversity. Perhaps this will help to get motorists to acknowledge that cycling as a means of transportation is not only limited to guys in lycra?
Then there’s efficiency. One can question whether the morning or evening rush hour is a desirable time to set a personal best, but the fact is that some riders are going to be faster than others, and will be very keen to leave the slower riders behind. Given that observation, queuing up in parallel at the lights rather than in single-file will enable the fast riders to leave all the slow riders behind with one blasting acceleration instead of a whole bunch of mini-sprints.
Even when space is too limited to have all riders line up next to one another, the parallel queue will be much shorter than the single-file, giving the fast riders the chance to pass the remaining slower riders much more quickly. The big ‘if’ here of course is whether the faster riders will have to sharpen their acceleration-from-stand-still skills. But hey, a bit of training variety won’t hurt, right?
Finally, being at the front of the car queue rather than being stuck between them is likely to reduce exposure to fine particles of motor vehicle exhaust. It makes it just a bit more pleasant to take that deep breath before taking off again when the lights turn green!
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