Honk Report: Washington St. & North Main

A RIPTA Bus driver honked at me today as I was biking home at around 7PM. I’ll get to the play-by-play details in a moment. First, let’s all do a google image search for “RIPTA BUS.”  For me, the second result in the image search was this:


The photo is from a post 2 years ago on the Providence Bicycle Coalition blog. (Their monthly meeting was this past Monday, and I missed it yet again – sorry guys.) Drawing conclusions from google search is an example of some grade-A lazy journalism. But I’m not a journalist, I’m a blogger, so… that’s kind of like being a lazy journalist. Anyhow, this image is kind of interesting, in light of today’s “event.”

I work downtown, very close to Kennedy Plaza which is the main bus hub for Rhode Island. I bike near buses every day, in fact, just throwing out a number here, I’d say I’m passed by (or pass) 2-5 buses every day that I’m on my bike. Including weekend rides and such, I must have close to a thousand encounters with buses in a year of cycling in Rhode Island. The vast majority of these encounters are without incident. However, not today.

When you bike the same route every day, you figure out how the lights are timed, and what lanes work the best. As I exit Kennedy Plaza and head east on Washington, I stay in the right hand lane of the two lanes. I ride in the right-hand wheel track of this lane. This way, when I’m stopped at the light, drivers wanting to turn right can pass me on the right and drivers wanting to go straight can pass me on my left. This is what I did on my way home from work tonight.

After crossing Memorial Blvd., Washington becomes 3 lanes wide. I continued straight in the middle lane, as illustrated below.

Like the little bike icon? I should probably make a better one.

I’m in the middle lane of a three lane street. That’s right I’m riding my bike in the middle of the street! Am I crazy? No. Do I have some sort of death wish? No. Am I a rude, arrogant cyclist bent on obstructing traffic by hogging the middle lane? No. (Do I have a persecution complex? Maybe). This is the safest way for me to ride on this block because I’m about to turn left at the next intersection, Washington & North Main. The light at Washington & Main is always red by the time I approach it, so I am not slowing anyone down by riding in the middle of the street. At Washington & N. Main, the left hand lane is left turn only, the middle lane is left or straight and the right lane is straight only. I ride in the middle lane of Washington because it allows me to turn left and then immediately be in the right hand lane in order to allow drivers to pass me again. As illustrated below.

Executing a left turn.

Hmm, what’s that looming behind me? It’s a RIPTA Bus. Today, I waited for the green light, signaled a left turn, and as I went into the intersection, the bus driver honked at me and I could hear him yell out his open window. He started to pass me on the right (um, illegal, right?) and I asked, “What did you say?” He responded, “Get out of the road!”

Ah, “get out of the road.” Few phrases uttered by a passing motorist inspire as much hatred as that one. You, dear reader, do not need to be reminded of the fact that I have the right to be in the road, so I’ll leave out the full list of justifications for it.

I’ve learned from my previous road rage incidents that it’s best to keep my cool. I responded, “I can be in the road.” The bus driver, “You were in the middle of the road!” Me: “I was turning left!” Bus Driver: “You were in my way.” He then continued on, passing me on the right.

Here’s a bad illustration of where the conversation took place (upper right):

Look how close that bus is to my bike!

If you regularly drive a car, it’s likely that you come close to a collision dozens of times a year. However, you are wrapped in a glass and steel cage the design of which has been refined over the years to provide you with a high degree of safety. If someone honks at you and yells, you are protected by soundproofing that diminishes the volume, and a radio that drowns out the noise. On a bike, you’re completely exposed. Let’s just say that getting honked at or almost getting hit while cycling feels a lot more personal.

Cyclists can go on and on about our close calls with stupid motorists who almost kill us. The thing is, we’re pretty much powerless to do anything about it. In an urban setting, we can usually catch up to an offender at the next light. But then what can we do? Ding their fenders with our U-lock? That may appeal to our inner Batman, but it’s just not a good idea. Yell and swear at them? That’s just more aggravation for the cyclist. Politely tell them the errors they made and how it almost cost us a head injury? Some motorists may respond to that, but we’re just as likely to get the finger as we are to get, “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I was that close.”

There’s one important difference between the car driver who yells at me and a bus driver who harasses me while I’m operating my vehicle in a safe and legal way: the bus driver has a an easily identifiable number printed above his head and several other places on the bus. He also has an employer I can call to complain. Will this get me anywhere? I don’t know. If the complaint actually makes its way to the driver, it will probably just make him hate cyclists more, but who cares, it needs to be done. I’ll give RIPTA a call tomorrow and we’ll see where this goes.

Postscript 1: I was able to catch up to the bus about 1/2 mile down the road (traveling by bus isn’t nearly as fast in an urban environment as traveling by bike). I gave him a happy wave. I used all five fingers.

Postscript 2 (warning, boring legal stuff): Rhode Island cycling law is kind of weird about left turns, check this out from Section 31-19-15: “A person riding a bicycle intending to turn left shall, unless he or she complies with the provisions of § 31-16-2, approach the turn in a position as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway. The turn shall be made at a position as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway along which the bicyclist intends to proceed after turning.

(b) If the turn is made at a location where traffic movement is controlled by a police officer or by a traffic-control signal, the bicyclist may not proceed after crossing the intersecting roadway until a signal to proceed is given to traffic moving in the appropriate direction on the roadway along which the bicyclist intends to proceed. At all other locations, after turning and before crossing the roadway he or she is leaving, the bicyclist must yield the right-of-way to all traffic approaching on that roadway.”

I think they mean something like the box turn in this illustration:

From the commuteorlando blog (maybe)

I can see how a novice cyclist may want to do something like this at a big intersection as depicted, but this adds an additional traffic light cycle to you time, plus it just puts you right in front of a line of cars that didn’t expect a bike to roll over and into the front of “their” lane. But it’s the law right? Well, how about that part that says, “…unless he or she complies with the provisions of § 31-16-2…” What does that mean? Here’s what it says with regard to turning from a one-way to a one-way, “…the driver of a vehicle intending to turn left at an intersection shall approach the intersection in the extreme left-hand lane lawfully available to traffic moving in the direction of travel of the vehicle, and, after entering the intersection, the left turn shall be made so as to leave the intersection, as nearly as practicable, in the left-hand lane lawfully available to traffic moving in the direction upon the roadway being entered.” Well, if I’d followed that, I would have been in the far left lane and then I would have needed to make my way back to the right after executing the turn. If everyone followed that part of the law at an intersection like this, then no one would be able to turn left from the middle lane which is marked “left turn or straight.” The law doesn’t even mention a three lane situation like the one in question.

When I get old, it’s pretty obvious that I’m going to be the guy who writes angry letters to the government. Oh well, I’ll need something to keep me busy.

16 responses to “Honk Report: Washington St. & North Main

  1. I think I learned to do what the image above labels the “standard turn,” which can mean stopping with the bike just to the side of the center line, if waiting for a break in the traffic to cross. Is this not right? Admittedly, this was overseas where the traffic office had miniature traffic layouts where we practiced and passed tests as children. I searched for a picture of this sort of thing and found one, where I swear one of the cyclists is doing the left hand turn as I remember. Now I’m thoroughly confused about how to make a left hand turn!

  2. “Standard turn” is the preferred method for vehicular cyclists. That is, it’s what you would do if you were in a car. I re-sized the image so you can see the “box turn” better. WordPress always seems to narrow my columns more in the final version than it does in the editing page. The laws on the books don’t really seem to take into account multiple left turn lanes (some of which may be left/straight lanes). I’d guess there’s something in there about following signage and lane markings that would cover the intersection in question.
    I believe that the illustration is intended to show alternate strategies for a cyclist to make a left turn. Some cyclists are intimidated by large suburban intersections, and would prefer to act as a pedestrian in such places. In my experience, “standard turn” is the best way to go, unless you just can’t manage to get over to the left. It can be difficult to cross 3 lanes of traffic in such a situation. In that case, you can do one of the other turns. There’s not many huge intersections like this in our neighborhood, so it’s not really an issue around here.
    I think teaching kids how to ride a bike in traffic is extremely important. Maybe we’d have fewer salmon and sidewalk riders if we taught high school students the rules of the road for cyclists. Then again, we teach them the rules of the road for cars, and they don’t seem to pay that much attention to them.

    • Thanks, I think I understand better now. But I can’t imagine doing the Box Turn. I think biking-in-traffic was required in school in 4th or 5th grade. The mini streets and signs were so fun, sort of in the mode of a mini-golf course. And there were policemen in full uniform directing us about. It was part of Sport class. But that’s all in a country where if you violate a traffic rule on your bike, it can affect your diver’s license!
      Hope you follow up with RIPTA, in any event.

      • Um, I hate to rely on a cultural stereotype here, but that all looks very German. I’m totally jealous of the mini-streets and signs. I remember a bike safety mini-course in grade 4 or 5 (I was on my Schwinn Thrasher BMX). I don’t think it was about safety in the road at all. The only thing I really remember was riding my bike in a straight line or in a circle and being sure to ride between pairs of little wooden blocks places along the circle. There was also a cone-slalom course. The emphasis was more on learning to control the bike, not learning how to operate a vehicle in accordance with the law. These days many American grade schools don’t allow students to bike to school!
        My German is a little rusty, so I ran that page through Google-translate. Here’s my favorite line: “Children perceive only the things that interest them straight. Other events are not perceived or considered unimportant.” I’d say that goes for adult RI drivers as well.

      • Here’s a link to the commuteorlando animation. They seem to have a few that illustrate different strategies for biking in traffic.

  3. Did you get a bus number? I’d definitely encourage you to follow up with RIPTA about this. I did so with a Downtown Providence vehicle back in March, with reasonable response. The end result was they promised to include information about bicycle rights and driver responsibilities in their driver training program. I consider this a win.

    • Thanks Mark! I saw your post about that incident back in March, and I’ve kept it in mind in case I had close calls from official vehicles. A plate number on a civilian car won’t help you much, but I did get the bus number. In fact, the last thing I said to the bus driver was “102” – the number posted right above his head. I’m glad I was able to keep a cool head and not cuss him out because that wouldn’t help me when I call RIPTA later today. I’ll be sure to report on what happens.

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  6. What kind of moron rides a bike in the middle of the road and expects a bus to watch out for him!

    • Mike, did you read the whole post, or are you just trolling? I was in the right-most left-hand turn lane before making a left-hand turn. Being in the middle of the road means that I’m the more visible than if I am cowering on the edge. It was perfectly safe and completely legal. The fact that the bus driver honked and yelled at me shows that he certainly saw me. He was just ignorant of the law.

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  8. You should rename this story “Idiot Looking For Trouble”. Nobody rides in the middle lane on a bike and complains that a bus driver who drives eight hours a day or more doesn’t know what they are doing. Yes, the bus is a lot bigger than you, hence the reason you don’t ride on the road beside one.

    • You should rename yourself “troll looking for attention.”

    • The middle lane was the right-most left-hand turn lane. It’s the lane I was supposed to be in. If someone works eight hours a day driving a bus they should know better than to harass a cyclist.

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