Can You Ride Two Abreast?

There’s been a lot of correspondence in the media lately about cyclists’ versus motorists’ rights. One item that has been frequently raised is the issue of cyclists riding two (or more) abreast (i.e. side by side), when motorists have been approaching. It’s not surprising when cycling is such a social activity that you should want to chat to your mates while riding!

Recreational or competitive bunch riders tend to be singled out the most for claims about riding 3, 4, or more abreast – “I came around the corner and they were all over the road!”. While I’ve no doubt that there is some less than desirable behaviour from some of the roadies out there, I have a sneaking suspicion that sometimes it’s an optical illusion – a platoon of double-file cyclists from a slight angle could look like they’re just a random pile of riders all over the place.

Optical illusion: they're actually only riding two abreast
Optical illusion: they’re actually only riding two abreast

Many cyclists believe that the law is completely on their side with this behaviour, as the Road Code (and the underlying legal Road Rules) allows cyclists to ride two abreast. However the rules do not give cyclists the right to ride two abreast in all circumstances. For example, they must resume cycling single-file when passing to the right of another vehicle, including a parked vehicle. Technically this makes it rather hard to ride next to your mate on many urban streets; you’d be constantly switching back and forth between one and two abreast.

Also, when the slow speed of cyclists impedes the normal and reasonable flow of traffic, they (like any other slow vehicles) are required “as soon as it is practicable” to move as far left as practicable to allow following traffic to pass. Note that this doesn’t mean you have to move over immediately, only when you feel it is safe for you to do so and safe for motorists to be able to pass you. All road users in/on a vehicle (that includes bikes) also have an obligation not to be “careless or inconsiderate”. Ultimately, the golden rule is “don’t be a d***k” (insert word of choice here); if you’re unnecessarily holding up traffic move over.

{Note that for a controlled cycle race, where traffic management is in force, riders are usually exempt from these requirements}

In some situations where there is no shoulder and you have to cycle in a narrow traffic lane, then it is reasonable to “take the lane” so that a motorist doesn’t try to overtake you unsafely. If it is actually a multi-lane road where motorists can use the other lane to pass, then there is even less reason for a driver to get grumpy about you holding them up. And in that situation it would seem reasonable that riding two abreast is no more of an impedance than a single rider taking the lane.

Two abreast but there’s another traffic lane – seems OK to me

It’s not all on the person cycling of course; motorists also have certain obligations when sharing the road with cyclists. For example, ideally, motorists should allow at least 1.5 metres space when passing a cyclist, and wait for a clear space before passing a cyclist on a narrow road (unfortunately the law isn’t specific on these requirements, other than the above “careless or inconsiderate” requirement). Motorists must also not drive at such a speed that they are unable to stop in the length of road that is visible to them, which is particularly crucial near blind corners. So, while they may legitimately have cause for concern about “suddenly” encountering cyclists spread across the road, the law says that they should be able to safely react to it as well.

Suffice to say that whole area is not well understood by people driving or cycling. So I certainly wouldn’t just rely on having the law on your side to get you home unharassed. By all means ride alongside your colleague where the circumstances allow it. But be mindful of following traffic that may be unduly impeded by your progress, and switch to single file when it makes sense.

What’s your view about riding two abreast?

25 thoughts on “Can You Ride Two Abreast?”

  1. Great article. Most of my cyclist friends know all of this… It’s just a shame many motorists don’t!!

    1. Interesting reading … many things have not changed over the years including the “road code”.. another word “etiquette” in general.
      Today, everyone is in just too much of a hurry but until we have the driver (motor vehicles) and the riders (bikes) giving each other some “respect” nothing is ever going to change.
      You can bring as much infrustructure or rules as you like but until these two types of road user came respect each other nothing will change.
      I always thank the driver when I know I have held him/her up a little so I simply lift my right hand out (almost a wave) to them as they pass, this works wonders and removes the drivers frustration, try it it might work for you … atleast the driver will now that you appreciated they slowing down for those few seconds.

      1. Unfortunately, the NZTA Factsheet doesn’t really convey the nuances mentioned above (and captured in the actual legislation). In particular, the “as soon as is reasonably practicable” part is quite important in the context of what is safe.

      2. Uhuh. She just said so. That doesn’t say anything different to Lenny’s post, which prompted her comment.

  2. I used to road race in the late 80’s and 90’s, and on our training rides we always made a point to be courteous to motorists. it might be my generation (X), but it seems a lot road riders expect cars to go around them rather than cyclist accommodating themselves in a smaller space was what I remember. we came together very tight when cycling two abreast. a lot of roadies are weekend ones and don’t have the same etiquette, courtesy, and skills as roadies who are doing it professionally on the whole.

    1. I agree with both of your comments. I’ve been in road gangs where they spread out, sometimes inconsiderately but more often I’ve seen them tighten up to give cars room. There’s usually a few people in the group looking out for cars and waving them through etc. Sometimes a big bunch is just plain unwieldy but remember, that’s a high density of road users on that patch of tarmac and motorists aren’t usually held up for long. It might pay to remember the same number of cars might be more of a hindrance. Bikes are slower? Okay just be thankful it’s not the same number on tractor enthusiasts’ outing. But what’s wrong with expecting drivers to drive around? It happens all the time in Europe – motorists deliberately going to the other side of the road to give cyclists a wide berth. That’s what that twiddly thing in front of drivers is for – it enables cars to drive around things in or on the road. For some reason non-cycling drivers here seem to think if they have an obligation to hold their line, lest it be seen as a sign of weakness, even if that gives just millimeters to cyclists. Nay, whatever the cost.

    2. Further to previous post. A bit of give and take on both sides is obviously best. I think part of the reason we don’t do this well is the fault of ‘defensive driving’. That phrase sends entirely the wrong signals. It encourages road users to think they have some territory to defend against aggressors. Regardless of what they have been led to think, they don’t own the road, or a right to unimpeded passage on their chosen line. There is nothing to defend and no aggressors to repel. It would be far more useful, I think, to encourage ‘active driving’ where people are encouraged to think of driving as a dynamic activity in a fluid environment – having to constantly assess, adapt and adjust, recognizing there are other active people out there in or on on a variety of vehicles, as well as a rolling carpet of static challenges like changing road surfaces, islands, lights, stationary vehicles etc. I think that would encourage a much more inclusive and forgiving attitude on the road.

  3. we rode for training and race preparation and the lesser component was social activity, now days the social factor has more weighting and posing at café;s after your ride – what a laugh. rock up on your urban commuter with regular clothes on to a café but please not your lycra. nb -must note humbly that we didn’t have cafe’s in my race years only tea rooms, ha!

  4. My son and I cycle through a new subdivision near our place. These streets have a huge grassed ditch down the middle of the road, so despite being very wide, there is still not room for cyclists. There is not enough room for a bus to get passed a single cyclist. We have to go up onto the footpath to let the buses through.

    It is nuts.

  5. I skateboard on the roads a lot. Don’t ride a bike.

    Skating 2 abreast is a crazy idea and I’m amazed that cyclists do it. The drivers do not obey the 1.5m rule and there are handlebars and pedals that can get clipped by cars.

    A skateboarder on the road stands out, cyclists, it seems. are a target.

    nat

  6. ‘ If it is actually a multi-lane road where motorists can use the other lane to pass, then there is even less reason for a driver to get grumpy about you holding them up. And in that situation it would seem reasonable that riding two abreast is no more of an impedance than a single rider taking the lane.’

    The above comment is not very helpful. Several months ago, when travelling along Memorial Ave in Christchurch, the left hand lane of the dual carriageway was completely blocked by a pair of cyclists riding two abreast and passing a long line of parked vehicles. The inference given in the above paragraph, is that it’s OK for these cyclists to ride 2 abreast in this situation and to block the left hand lane, because there is another lane for vehicles to move into and pass. Unfortunately, this section of road can be busy at times, with both lanes containing long streams of vehicles. The situation that I encountered, required me, and a long line of vehicles behind me, to slow to the speed of the cyclists (15km/h) whilst the right hand lane continued unimpeded at 60km/h. These cyclists broke 2 road rules, yet were completely oblivious to their legal obligations when I spoke to them further up the road.

    1. But Chris, the Memorial Ave lanes aren’t very wide so, even if they’d ridden single file, it would be unsafe for anyone to overtake them while still remaining in the same lane. Unfortunately, you often have to ride further out or two abreast for some drivers to appreciate that fact.
      Speaking from experience, it is not nice at all if you choose to keep hard left while riding along Memorial Ave and let people “squeak” past you (at 60+ km/h too). Obviously once there is a decent gap in the parking, a person riding in that situation should move over to allowed any built up traffic to get past.

  7. Hi Lenny

    I often cycle along this stretch of road, and have never felt unsafe riding single file past parked cars, with vehicles passing in the left hand lane. Likewise when I’m driving, there is adequate spacing for both bikes and cars. The problem arises when cyclists ride illegally 2 abreast when passing parked vehicles and are impeding other traffic, thereby breaking two road rules. Click on the following link for confirmation of this – the 6th bullet point is the relevant one to the above situations.

    http://www.nzta.govt.nz/resources/factsheets/01/cycles-rules-equipment.html

    1. Fair point about the “passing parked vehs” rule although, as I have said in the article, it is one of the most impractical laws to apply in practice when parking is sporadic. We can argue the toss about Memorial Ave’s width perhaps, but I would hope that we can agree that for a road like the one in the photo it makes no practical difference whether you ride one or two abreast because there is no possible way for a car/truck to safely use the lefthand lane to overtake. Therefore you’re not legally impeding traffic because there’s no other place to go (same if there’s an occupied parking space adjacent).

    2. Nice that you are confident having cars pass close by you when cycling Chris but not all cyclists are like that. I know it gives me the willies. So yes, where I don’t feel safe, I will sometimes claim a lane on a two lane road with parked cars as described above. That might hold up traffic for a few seconds – which clearly seem like hours to waiting motorists, judging by the way they roar off when I find room to pull left. Then, a few more seconds later, I catch them again, pootling along behind the bumper of another car. Strangely, this doesn’t seem to bother them. They are with their own kind. I just leave them to it. In a way, I’ve probably enriched their days. For a few seconds they felt the freedom the car often promises and so rarely delivers in urban traffic.

  8. I have an issue when approaching small roundabouts particularly when turning right . Having been pushed to the very outer of the circle by vehicles passing me dangerously close whilst on the roundabout I have tried the ” stay in the middle of the lane , be seen , and indicate clearly approach ” well beforehand . Scary when you hear cars approaching from behind, ignoring the hand signal and still going past you while on the roundabout. Then you have the problem of turning the bike with one hand , whilst the other is firmly out indicating your direction and still being ignored. Just what should be the safest way to negotiate this scenario ??

    1. Robert, I find when approaching intersections or pinch points getting off the seat and taking a good look behind helps.
      Doing this at a pinch point yesterday and seeing a semi trailer approaching I signaled I was taking the footpath and looked across to get a thumbs up from the driver.

    2. I’m a big fan of roundabouts. Replacing current roundabouts with traffic lights is the opposite of what should happen unless you actually want to stop the traffic every few metres. However, on a bike they can be a nightmare. I was on the left of the lane going straight (second exit) and a car turned left right across me and forced me left as well, even though I was banging on his car. Scary. Basically people should be overtaking in an intersection but apparently not everyone obeys the rules. So sorry Robert, I’m no help except to agree roundabouts call for maximum vigilance and a bit of luck.

  9. If cars parked on one side of the road and there was a cycle path on the other side, there would be less weaving around cars, motorists wouldn’t get a surprise when any cyclist appears, whether single file or two abreast.

  10. We live rural where we encounter cyclists riding next to each other all the time.the road has a lot of hills and blind spots which is to no concern for the cyclist.A couple of times I had to slow down to nearly zero because Im not taking chances on blind spots.If I honk at these guys they show me the finger

    1. You live in a rural area where there are frequent blind hills and corners. The cyclists helpfully ride two abreast to indicate to you that they do not consider it safe for you to pass them in such places. You then harass and intimidate them with a weapon because they have forced you to drive safely and yet you are surprised that they are riled by you commiting a crime against them?

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