The Close Pass
California’s new “3 Feet for Safety” Act, which requires motorists to give bicyclists 3 feet when passing, went into effect last month. While most motorists seem to be abiding by the new law, I’ve had a couple of close calls the last few weeks that suggest motorists could use a bit more education on how to safely pass cyclists. The fact that both incidents occurred on the same stretch of roadway in Pasadena also seems to strongly suggest that this road needs additional infrastructure treatment (i.e., a “road diet” that narrows the traffic lanes and buffered or protected bike lanes) to slow the speed of traffic and provide safe space for bicyclists.
The first close call came a couple of weeks ago when I was traveling south on Rosemead Blvd in the bike lane between Sierra Madre Villa and Halstead. The road curves to the right and as I rounded the curve, a driver in a Honda Civic passed me so close I could feel the wind from her passenger-side mirror brush my left arm, which startled the hell out of me. Her right tires were actually on the bike lane line. She was probably doing about 40 mph, and as she passed I involuntarily yelled out of fear. I tried to catch her, but she was going too fast and I got stopped at the red light on Rosemead and Halstead. As she sped away, she seemed to slowly drift in her lane from left to right and back. Was she drunk (this was a Monday morning about 10:00 am)? On meds? Texting?
The second incident occurred last Friday afternoon about 1:30 pm, traveling southbound on Rosemead again, this time between Halstead and Hastings Ranch Road. On this stretch of Rosemead there’s no bike lane, as it ends at Halstead. There is a shopping center with a new L.A. Fitness center that opened recently, and now that it is open, there are many more cars parked on the street here. This forced me to ride in the traffic lane, as the curbside shoulder is now occupied by the cars of people working out at the fitness center. How ironic that people park their cars on the street here, despite the fact that there is plenty of parking in a lot behind the fitness center, but drivers would have to walk maybe 100 feet farther to the entrance to the gym if they parked in the lot (better to save your walking for the treadmill you’ve paid for inside the gym, huh?). Meanwhile, the presence of their empty cars in the street creates a hazard for those using alternate modes of transportation. There would be plenty of room for bike lanes here if Pasadena DOT prohibited on-street parking here, but clearly the safety of cyclists is not a priority.
As I rode in the right-hand traffic lane and tried to avoid the “door zone” (about three feet away from the parked cars), a driver in a compact sedan sped by me at high speed and far too close for comfort. This time, I caught up to the driver as she sat at the next red light. Her passenger side window was closed, but I leaned over and said loudly (my adrenaline was up from the close call), “you need to give cyclists three feet when you pass.” She rolled down her window and apologized (which surprised me). She explained that another car had been passing her in the lane on her left when she passed me, so she couldn’t move farther to the left as she passed. I thanked her for her honesty, she apologized again, then the light turned green and she took off.
At least the exchange was cordial, but as I rode on, I thought to myself, “if it wasn’t safe for her to move to the left to give me space, shouldn’t she have just slowed down for (at most) a few seconds until it was safe to pass?” The answer is obvious, of course she should have. This is an aspect of driving that most motorists don’t think about when passing a person on a bike. People are often in a hurry, so they figure they’ll just squeeze by. Squeezing by another motorist when you’re both wrapped in 2,000-lbs of steel is not perceived as a problem. Worst that might happen is scratched paint. Squeezing by a bicyclist is a life-threatening move for the bicyclist.
According to the California Vehicle Code, bicyclists are allowed to “take the lane” if it is not safe for a bike and a car to pass side-by-side, and I probably should have been smack dab in the center of the travel lane rather than riding on the right half of the lane. It would have forced motorists in my lane to slow down behind me. Yet, few things irritate drivers more than cyclists “hogging” the lane. Hey, it’s not a picnic for me. I don’t like to slow others down and I don’t like the feeling of a car running up behind me, either. A recent study by the League of American Bicyclists found that the largest portion of car-on-bike fatalities were cars hitting bikes from behind. Nor do I relish being honked at or yelled at by impatient motorists who don’t give a shit about my right to the lane. But, it’s probably safer than having a driver try to pass me too close when there isn’t enough room.
This raises a larger point I made earlier about the lack of bike lanes (including protective buffers between cars and bikes) on high-speed arterials like Rosemead Blvd. There’s plenty of space. For one thing, there’s no need for on-street parking when the adjacent shopping center has an ample off-street parking lot. Buffered bike lanes or cycle tracks (bike lanes with physical separation from automobile traffic) could be installed on the shoulder of the road where empty cars now sit and it would not impact traffic flow. Further south on Rosemead, the city of Temple City has already installed cycle tracks. It’s time for Pasadena to do likewise. At the very least, the Pasadena DOT should ban on-street parking on that stretch of Rosemead so bicyclists can safely use the shoulder out of the way of speeding cars. The fact that I’ve had two close calls on the same stretch of roadway indicates the street is not safe. There’s too little space for bikes and cars are driving too fast.
I’m glad the 3-foot passing law is now in effect in California, but we still need better education on how to pass a bicyclist safely and, most importantly, protected bike lanes on more of our streets. What do you say, Pasadena?