Canadian cities finally getting serious about dedicated bike lanes is one of the (few) pleasant consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Anticipating a decline in public-transit use and increased traffic congestion, municipalities are installing lanes along main routes. The goal is to make cycling not only a healthy way to commute but a quick one. If cycling is faster, more people will leave the car at home.
In Toronto, at least, these new lanes are currently pretty empty, but they’re likely to fill up as people realize they can shop, work and dine without having to find parking and pay parking fees. All it took was the worst pandemic since the Spanish Flu to get Canadian cities to take commuting by bicycle seriously. Who knew?
And so, at this momentous time, may I entreat current and future bicycling zealots to please, in the name of all that is holy, stop executing the “L-turn” at traffic lights?
Never heard of the L-turn? Perhaps not, but you’ve seen it. The L-turn is a popular move with cyclists around the globe. It’s a little like an old-fashioned wide-receiver route called the “down-out-and-down.” Here’s how it works:
- A cyclist arrives at a four-way intersection. He’s facing a red light. Cars are stopped as well.
- He cuts across traffic, a few feet in front of the waiting cars, opting to bike across the intersection along the pedestrian-crossing path rather than wait for the light to change.
- When the light changes, he bikes forward on the wrong side of the street, going against traffic.
- Hence the “L”
The problem with the L-turn is that the cyclist emerges out of a driver’s blind spot. That’s trouble when the light has just gone red, but the real danger occurs when a cyclist does this move out of impatience. They’re tired of waiting for the light to change. So they start their L-turn as the light is just beginning to switch. The drivers are preparing to move forward and then – hey presto – a cyclist appears out nowhere two feet in front of their vehicle. The motorist has no way of knowing the cyclist is coming. It is impossible, for instance, for a driver who is turning left to keep an eye out for a bike darting in front from the right side.
I see this move pulled over and over. Perhaps the cyclists who do it think they’re saving time, but they are taking a risk, one they can ill afford to lose.
The same can be said for cyclists who can’t be bothered to bike on the correct side of the road. If you are riding against traffic and cross into an intersection, the driver who is turning left cannot see you. They are looking at traffic and making sure no pedestrians are in the vicinity. You are coming out of nowhere.
It’s at this point that some cycling advocates shut down. Rather than acknowledge that certain practices are dangerous, they shift the conversation to a discussion of whether or not cars should exist, whether driving should be outlawed in city centres. They pine for the good old days of unpasteurized milk, when typhoid and diphtheria were rife and the horse and carriage were king. Then they are quick to remind us that helmets don’t prevent collisions.
Of course, no one ever said they did. Helmets decrease the severity of certain kinds of head injuries. If you don’t like cars, fine. Next time you need an ambulance, hail a carriage.
Here’s an idea: Instead of doing an L-turn, why not simply occupy the centre lane?
As a driver, that’s my preference. You have every right to be there. Bicycles are vehicles. I can see you clearly. You can make your left turn, and then I can make mine. I’m not excusing all the terrible driving out there. It’s pervasive and far more dangerous.
That said, when it comes to L-turns, this is not a cars versus bicycles debate; it’s a question of a dangerous versus sensible cycling. You can’t pick and choose when you want to obey traffic rules, especially when, if you are a cyclist, the consequences are never going to be in your favour.
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