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: are they actually only riding two abreast?

Optical illusion: are they 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

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?


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  • Dionne
    17 June 2013, 7:50 am

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

    • John Dean@Dionne
      24 June 2013, 8:13 pm

      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.

    • Chris Carter@Dionne
      7 August 2013, 7:50 am

      So Dionne, do most of your cyclist friends know about the road rules contained within the 6th bullet point of this link?

      • Lennyboy@Chris Carter
        9 August 2013, 10:30 am

        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.

      • Ian Parkes@Chris Carter
        14 October 2014, 4:50 pm

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

  • peter
    17 June 2013, 8:53 am

    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.

    • Ian Parkes@peter
      14 October 2014, 5:24 pm

      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.

    • Ian Parkes@peter
      14 October 2014, 5:55 pm

      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.

  • peter
    17 June 2013, 9:01 am

    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!

  • Don
    17 June 2013, 2:51 pm

    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.

    17 June 2013, 9:28 pm

    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.




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