Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

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.

Drivers encroach on the bike lane on Rosemead Blvd at 40 mph. At least half of the cars in the right lane crossed into the bike lane on the morning I took this picture. A buffer and green paint in the lane would increase safety, as would a reduction in the 40 mph posted speed limit.

Drivers encroach on the bike lane on Rosemead Blvd at 40 mph. At least half of the cars in the right lane crossed into the bike lane on the morning I took this picture. A buffer and green paint in the lane would increase safety, as would a reduction in the 40 mph posted speed limit.

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.


Parked cars (mostly for the fitness center on the right) force bicycles into the fast-moving traffic lane. Pasadena DOT could make this a no parking zone and have plenty of room for buffered or protected bike lanes here.

Parked cars (mostly for the fitness center on the right) force bicycles into the fast-moving traffic lane. Pasadena DOT could make this a no parking zone and have plenty of room for buffered or protected bike lanes here.

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?

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18 thoughts on “The Close Pass

  1. Sensitive skin, a reminder to drivers – when in a car be generous to others, it’s only a few seconds to back off of someone not cloaked in 2000 lbs of armor.

    A policeman to me at Artnight on Friday to be sure to collect license plate numbers of those who pass too close. He assured me the PD would go visit them at their residence.

    • Glad to hear PPD is interested in educating drivers on the 3-foot law. Unfortunately, the first car I encountered sped off so fast I didn’t have time to read the license plate. And everyone needs to remember that it indeed only takes a couple of seconds to slow down to pass when safe.

      • Two fine examples of poor planning of the road. On the curve I would have gone with some rumble strip or use those floppy reflective markers that some bicycles claim protects them. The bottom seems like the strip is there to protect the drivers getting out of their cars yeah? I’d feel sad if I saw some bicyclist trying to use that as their “bike lane”. I wouldn’t feel bad about using the full lane there either.

        BTW, thanks for adding me. I read your About page. I would have liked to seen a little bit about our obesity rate. There was some points made about making our selves healthier and that ~40% of the car trips are two miles are less. Good points, but I’d also stress that our adult population is ~60% over-weigh or obese. Really there’s very few arguments not to ride a bike. Safety being the biggest I think.

      • You’re absolutely correct about the obesity issue. I think you might be interested in this post I did related to obesity a while back.

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  3. Rich Slimbach on said:

    In addition to my commute from home (Monrovia) to work (Azusa), most Mondays I add a leg to San Dimas for an evening meeting. Route 66 through Glendora is a cyclist’s nightmare: no bike lanes and thick traffic, especially around rush hour when some drivers act as if they’ve received the green flag at the Indy 500. I’m not sure why, but I feel particularly threatened by (mainly) white guys in 4×4 trucks. Three weeks ago, one guy nearly ran me off the road. Maybe he imagined himself driving a Humvee at full throttle through the Iraqi desert. There was, after all, a huge flag festooned from the bed of his truck, and the US bombing of Syria and Iraq had just begun that morning. In any case, it got me thinking about the car (or truck), not just as a tool of mobility, but also as an extension of the self. As an ego-laden object, they can be used to “get our way” on the road. The new “3 Feet for Safety Act” sends a potentially unpopular message: that motorists no longer “own” the streets, and that the exercise of direct control over their environment is constrained by both other drivers and by cyclists. Loss of control can intensify stress, provoke reckless driving behaviors, and even road rage. If cities continue to sprawl, and commuting distances get longer, the problem will only get worse. Many aggressive drivers will perceive the new law, and the cyclists meant to be protected by it, as thwarting their sense of freedom and forcing them to alter their behavior. Stay alert. At times, it could get ugly.

    • Rich, Thanks for the comment. As usual, you do an excellent job making the connections between these issues and the larger cultural/public policy problems they are a symptom of. Ride safe, my friend.

    • I started my bicycling life in Sacramento. When I started there there was very little infrastructure for the cyclist. I go back all these years and now there’s infrastructure! Before I felt like I was “thrown to the lions”. Now I see how things are with infrastructure and it’s really quite chill now. Perfect? No but waaaaay better. And things were done with VERY LITTLE cost. Some signs, some re-striping, some flower pots, some curbing and you got a new town! It makes the drivers more chilled too! I was a bit taken by drivers being a bit more relaxed and giving me the right-of-away, even though it wasn’t mine. Makes such a difference having some infrastructure!

  4. “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?).”

    Be thankful you weren’t at a fitness center that has a first and second floor. So surprising how many people take the elevator to get to the second floor! :-/

    On biking – It’s hard to say without being there, but it seems that maybe taking the lane would have been better? I know there’s those REALLY poorly designed lanes where it looks like the biker has a little bit of room there. One thing that I find that helps is to use a bright flashing rear light. Me personally I’m using a 2 watt Hotshot. ( Wish I had stock in this, but don’t. )

    Be safe.

    • Thanks for the comment. Today when I rode that route, I used my flashing rear light in the daytime (check out the photos for illustration on the blog now). I may indeed have been safer taking the middle of the lane, and this is something drivers need to learn: there are legitimate reasons cyclists may ride in the middle of the lane. Finally, my bike-riding has attuned me to some of the absurdities of our car-culture, such as the drive to the gym for exercise because of the sedentary lifestyle of the car, creating more traffic, creating more sprawl, creating more car dependence, creating more need to drive to the gym to work out, ad infinitum.

  5. Maybe its just me, but it seems auto drivers honk to get bicyclist to move over so they have a 3 foot buffer.

  6. The Odd Duck on said:

    Here is the real world from someone that ridden a motorcycle 200,000 miles. If you plan for everyone to obey the rules of the road, forget it. Its how interesting how most of the bicyclists in America believe they can run the red lights, stop signs and dare to be stupid movies in traffics and expect auto drivers to obey the three foot law. What needed to be practice is polite and courteous while walking, bicycling, autos, trucks, motorcycles, otherwise it will a gladiator style of the uses of the streets. When I was riding my put out on the road I liked to be around the big rigs and they for the most part some of the safest driver out there.

    Four rules to remember

    1. Everything and everything out there is trying to kill you.
    2. Never assume you have the right of way even if you do.
    3. If you lock horns with 3000 pounds you will loose.
    4. Defensive driving, defensive driving, defensive driving.

    For the most part you are on your own for keeping yourself alive.

    • I agree with your comment about defensive riding (and driving). It is something I practice all the time. As for the bike-hating bullshit about how “most of the bicyclists in America” run red lights and ride stupidly, speak for yourself. I am a VERY safe rider. I know the law and follow it. I’m also an LCI who teaches bike safety classes in my community. I don’t ride stupidly and don’t deserve to be run off the road by motorists who don’t follow the law or exercise due caution. It’s my blog and if I want to point this out it is my right. If you don’t like what you’re reading here, go somewhere else, troll. It is interesting that you castigate bicyclists for not obeying the law, but excuse motorists who don’t obey the 3-foot law. This double standard illustrates your bias. The fact that we can’t depend on people always obeying the law underscores precisely why we must have better bike infrastructure. This is why protected bike lanes, for example, would be wise on high-speed arterials like the road I describe in this post.

    • Yes, here in the real world from someone that’s been around the world five times. You bring up a very good point Odd Duck! Drivers believe they can always speed with impunity (late for that double latte ya know). Have a right to the road, even though you’re in front of them! (f’ your rights!) For some reason, always think the road was meant for them and you should have stayed home! And you see this everyday on TV, always running from the cops!

      The other dribble I guess is OK.

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  8. I use that stretch of road quite often as it is my main artery of getting in and out of Pasadena and have experienced similar incidents and have found overtime it’s just easier and safer to take the lane when going east/south. However, I’d like to mention that my closest of calls have occurred going the opposite direction. Right where Rosemead splits before Sierra Madre, I’ve nearly been taken out a handful of times as drivers who are veering right to head north on to Sierra Madre have come within inches of wiping me out. It seemed to be a mixture of impatience and miscalculation on their part of my moving speed.

    Hopefully, if the city actually puts in a buffered bike lanes on Orange Grove they will consider connecting it to the protected bike lane now on Rosemead but I guess that would necessitate getting East Pasadena involved.

    • Yes, I agree that the westbound Rosemead Bl to northbound Sierra Madre Villa is an extremely dangerous right turn. I’ve actually ridden the sidewalk on that curve because cars come flying around that turn, drivers are looking over their shoulder as they prepare to merge and visibility is not good. I’ve alerted DOT staff to this problem, but to date they’ve taken no action.

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