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Gear Prudence: Now that I know what shoaling is (thanks!) I’ve since realized I do it fairly frequently…to people driving cars. If I get stuck at a red light, I often make my way to the front of the line and try to be the first one crossing. Is this something cyclists are allowed to do? And if it’s allowed, is it unsafe and/or rude? —Provided Above, Shoaling Seems Eminently Reasonable
Dear PASSER: First, the law. But even before that, the caveat that I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. And even before that, the caveat that I’ve never taken the LSAT, though once in a moment of post-baccalaureate career anxiety, I did think about it but declined. Then I fell into the lucrative bike-advice industry, and I’ve never looked back.
Section 18-1201.3 of D.C. Municipal Regulations lays out the conditions by which a bicyclist may pass another vehicle. Part C reads: “If a lane is partially occupied by vehicles that are stopped, standing, or parked in that lane, a person operating a bicycle may ride in that or in the next adjacent lane used by vehicles proceedings [sic] in the same direction.”
I take this to mean that cyclists are under no obligation to queue behind stopped cars, and if there’s room to pass safely (on either the left or right side, per part B), there’s no legal imposition to prevent you from riding to the front of the line. This leaves the question about whether you should actually do this. That’s trickier to suss out.
On one hand, you’re not in a car and the etiquette obligations of riding a bicycle are different. A bike demands less space, after all, and you should be allowed to benefit from that. If you’re turning at the intersection, that seems like it might be a justification to ride to the front. Or if there’s a dedicated bike lane starting on the other side of the intersection and riding to the front of the line will allow you to get to that lane faster, then that seems reasonable.
However, if riding to the front only results in your being immediately passed again by the drivers you just passed, then your leapfrogging seems a somewhat dubious decision. And if you don’t make it to the front before the light turns green, you could end up in an awkward spot. If your goal is safety, you could likely achieve this by waiting in line (directly behind a stopped car rather than wedged off to the side by the curb). When traffic moves again, take your turn and then move back when it’s safer.
In any case, this is all very situational, so use your best judgment. —GP
Gear Prudence is Brian McEntee, who blogs at talesfromthesharrows.blogspot.com and tweets at @sharrowsdc. Got a question about bicycling? Email email@example.com.