Thursday, April 29, 2010

Bike Commuting Tip #2: Dexter and Sinister

As previously posted, making a left turn can be the trickiest part of cycling in the City of New York. This is because there is more than one way to do it. Each way depends on traffic and perhaps the configuration of the road. It's not as hard as it seems. Making a right turn is usually ridiculously easy, even at red lights and "Stop" signs. This is because a bicycle is so slim that even if cars are coming a bike can make a right turn (at slow speeds) and never enter the danger zone or affect moving traffic at all--I'm not suggesting it, but it can be done. On the other end of the spectrum, a left turn requires great care at all times.

The complication arises from the fact that a bicycle is a relatively slow-moving vehicle. As such, its proper place is usually, though not always, on the right. As previously posted, staying out of the way is best in city traffic. In any case, one usually has no choice in the matter. The challenge is to get from the right to the left, and then actually make the turn. Traffic changes from moment to moment--even a pedestrian knows that. NYC pedestrians know it very well. They cross whenever they get the chance, not merely at the crosswalk on the walk signal. Making a safe left turn is a little like that--it requires a little flexibility.

There are several scenarios off-hand that come to mind. There is slow-moving, congested traffic and there is traffic that is moving well. As I write I have several intersections in mind. In Chinatown, there is the intersection where Pearl Street runs into Chatham Square. I am usually coming down Pearl and looking to make a left at Chatham Square, but fortunately so is everyone else (including the right lane sometimes) and traffic gets jammed up there because oncoming traffic is also trying to turn there. Slow traffic is good for left turns because it gives a cyclist a chance to get to the left. Sparse traffic may do the same, but it is trickier because it moves faster and is harder to gauge. The other consideration is whether you'll get a chance to turn. Turning lanes are helpful here. Is oncoming traffic heavy? The easy and safe way to make a left if in doubt, or traffic is too intense, is to stay on the right, stop on the other side of the intersection where you want to turn, and wait 'till the light changes and proceed with the new flow of traffic going in the direction you want to go. This is a good, if inelegant, default tool to fall back on, as well as useful while one is learning to handle traffic.


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