Skip to main content


The Five Borough Bicycle Club


News / Announcements / Articles

Cross Town Streets: Should I Be On the Left or Right?

Geoffrey Cohen | Published on 9/14/2014

As a New York City cyclist, bike commuter, and all around “let’s ride everywhere” kind of person, I regularly enjoy, while riding cross town, the mystery of wandering bike lanes that seem to move, without rhyme or reason, from one side of the street to the other, and then back again, as if simply restless and seeking a different view.  I think about this conundrum.  

I also think about my deeply held goal number one for cycling:  Arrive safely at my destination.

The two meet and swirl around my addled brain, seeking some sensible output that will offer me both a greater chance of arriving safely where ever I’m going and provide some rational explanation that explains why the lane jumps from the right to the left side of the street and back again.  As I lock my bike, I look back at the lane and start thinking.  

When riding the usual single lane city streets, where am I safest?

Being left handed, my natural urge is to holler from the hill tops “Go Left Young Man!”, yet I decide I should think with more than my dominant hand and delve deeper.  I start asking myself questions:

When a car is occupied, where are the people inside most likely to be sitting?  This may seem like a trick question, and you may say to me, “well in England...” 

However we are not in England, so I confine my examination to our more immediate surroundings.  Most cars, I realize, have a driver.  In these United States, that driver sits in the front left seat.  Also, as we know and as has been shown through studious observation, few Americans coordinate their travel; most cars on our roads are occupied by only one person.  Yes, that same driver sitting on the left.  

Thinking even deeper, I realize that most of the time the driver opens the door at his or her side, rather than crawling across the front of the car to the far door. 

If I ride on the left, I am far less likely to be doored by an inattentive driver seeking to leap from his vehicle without taking the second or two to look back and see if I am blithely riding down the road and near his car.  The driver in on the other side of the car when leaping out, so I am safest if I RIDE ON THE LEFT.

That seems to be a pretty compelling argument for staying to the left.  Let’s look further.

Those other cars, not the parked ones, the ones that now and then move along the roadways when not stopped in lines of traffic, have the driver sitting on...hmmm, looking above, I noted that the driver sits in the driver’s seat in the front left side of the car.  Taking that a step further, and assuming that most motorists truly do not seek to run me and my kind down, where would I position myself to best be seen by a driver?    How about right next to the driver?  Riding on the left, the driver has the best view of me; sees where I am; sees how close he or she is to me, and can most safely maneuver by me while allowing me the usual and customary 3 feet of clearance, unless of course the driver is in an SUV, in which case the driver affords me the SUV usual and customary clearance space of 6 inches or so.  RIDE ON THE LEFT.

There must be some reasons against riding on the left.  I again start thinking, my brain going into overdrive, smoke billowing out my ears.  Safe from the driver’s door, I wonder what could befall me when riding on the left?

Reason number one hit me.  Not exactly at the time I was thinking about my answer, but on three different occasions in our fair city.  Passengers, delighted to having avoided the various tolls and parking fees the driver has just spent a small fortune paying, joyfully throw their door open, smashing into my (fill in appropriately) arm/hand/knee or simply right in front of me so I can enjoy the experience of quickly dismounting my bicycle and flying through the air, at least for the second or so that precedes what is most often a rather inelegant landing.  

Do I ride on the right to avoid those passenger doors?  Again, I return to the statistics.  There are more drivers than passengers.  STAY TO THE LEFT.

There must be other reasons!  

I know, the right hook!  When you ride on the right, and you are close to the vehicle, you are often in the driver’s blind spot, making you susceptible to the dreaded right hook, where the driver turns into you.  This can have dire results for the cyclist.  STAY ON THE LEFT.

What about the dreaded left hook?  Does that occur while riding on the left?  Yes, it can happen.  However you are next to the driver and better able, if you are aware and attentive, to see what the driver is doing.  And there is a chance the driver will see you since you are often within 36 inches of the driver.  This gives you added chances to avoid a collision.  STAY ON THE LEFT.

I look above at the various conclusions; and they all point the same way....ride on the left!  It is the safest way to ride!!!!