Ride Boldly!

Bikes, bicycling, and road safety.

The Fallacy of ‘Riding to the Right’


Per Minnesota Statute 169.222, “every person operating a bicycle upon a roadway shall ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway.” Several exception cases are codified in the statute. As a unit, here is the entirety of Subd. 4:

Subd. 4. Riding on roadway or shoulder. (a) Every person operating a bicycle upon a roadway shall ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway except under any of the following situations:
(1) when overtaking and passing another vehicle proceeding in the same direction;
(2) when preparing for a left turn at an intersection or into a private road or driveway;
(3) when reasonably necessary to avoid conditions, including fixed or moving objects, vehicles, pedestrians, animals, surface hazards, or narrow width lanes, that make it unsafe to continue along the right-hand curb or edge.

Part 3 alludes to the core of the fallacy. The key to the entire statute is the concept of practicable, and part 3 makes it clear that narrow-width lanes are among the reasons not to hug the curb.

Yet many cyclists persist in applying this statute not as practicable, but as possible. As a result, they cling to the curb, sometimes to a ridiculous extent, and actually make their journey less safe as a result.

Selecting a lane positionThere are a number of reasons why clinging to the curb is a really bad idea:

  1. Visibility: The first rule of safe cycling is to be seen. When hugging the curb, your visibility to drivers actually goes down due to line-of-sight issues relative to vehicle placement in the lane. When a driver cannot see you, you are automatically less safe. The visibility rule applies equally in urban and rural environments.
  2. Pavement issues: The join between most curbs or shoulders and the main roadway is not always smooth. As a result, there can be cracks, bumps, and other hazards that may result in a cyclist going down, and bouncing into the traffic lane.
  3. Maneuverability: When you cling to the curb, beyond the basic pavement issues you have other maneuvering issues. In particular, you have limited mobility to dodge hazards in the lane, such as gravel, holes, glass, dead varmint, etc. Without a minimum 3-foot space between you and the curb, you must dodge hazards by dodging to the left – into the lane, and possibly right into traffic. Once again: Not safe, and arguably not a practicable approach. By holding to a best-practice three-foot gap to the curb, you have more room to react to roadway issues in a safe manner.
  4. Lane choice issues: When you hug the curb, you may not be in the correct lane. Cyclists should ride to the right in the lane that most accurately points to their destination. A cyclist going straight shouldn’t be in the right-most lane if said lane is a right-turn-only (RTO). A cyclist going left shouldn’t do it from the curb lane. And a cyclist going straight puts him/herself in danger by hugging the curb in an option lane that offers a choice of going straight or right-turning.
  5. Narrow lane issues: Some cyclists would argue that riding to the far right in a narrow lane is especially important. Actually, in such lanes, it’s probably more important – and safer! – NOT to do so. Under Minnesota law, motorists must at all times maintain a three-foot clearance when passing a bicycle. In a narrow lane, this will end up requiring a vehicle to move into the next lane over to pass a bicycle, even if the cyclist is hugging the curb. Depending on the road, this may either be into a lane further left, or crossing the center line for the pass. If a cyclist hugs the curb too closely, it encourages the motorist to pass too closely in order to stay within the lane.
  6. Parked cars: When the curb lane is used for on-street parking, cyclists should maintain a three-foot clearance when passing parked cars to help avoid getting doored.

Sure, in many cases if a cyclist moves three feet out from the curb in a narrow lane it will slow motorized traffic. Often, a good path to choose in a narrow lane is the impression area typically created by the right-side tires of cars that have used the roads. The drivers who are most likely to be irritated by a cyclist riding in this lane position will be irritated by the presence of a cyclist in the road regardless of how close to the curb a cyclist rides.

A good cyclist cannot make their lane decisions based on the perceptions of people who will hate the cyclist no matter what. A good cyclist needs to ride according to best practices for safety, visibility and maneuverability. Riding to the right is about ‘practicability,’ which means that cyclists should make educated decisions about conditions and lane width in selecting their lane position.

Photo by Asbjørn Floden, via Flickr

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Author: julie

Julie Kosbab is an online marketing consultant and active transportation advocate living in Anoka County, Minnesota. She was one of Minnesota's only League of American Bicyclists Certified Instructors when certified in 2005. She is a past member of the National Bicycle Tour Directors Association. She has 2 children and 4 bicycles. Find her on Twitter as @betweenstations.


  1. I am not a fan of the wording of this statute because it implies that “narrow width lanes” that are uncommon. Most experienced cyclists I know consider the majority of lanes narrow enough that it warrants moving further left in the lane to send a clear message to drivers following.

  2. Great post, and very timely: winter is the time of year that has the most “surface hazards” that move me further into the lane.

    The dilemma that I run into, year round, is on a divided road with two lanes in either direction where I need to make a left turn: for example, coming into downtown St. Paul on Kellogg past the Excel Center and central library. I need to be in the left lane to make my turn, so I typically move about a block from the turn. But being on the right side of the left lane makes me feel like I’ll be smooshed by cars moving in my direction on both sides (I’ve had some close calls here, particularly with cars merging from the left). I usually claim the lane–being on the left of the left lane makes me feel a little less visible.

  3. Michael: I’d agree with that, especially in any traffic. It’s not as though you’re blocking traffic for a long period, and it really is about visibility and safety. Some of those left-lane configurations are choice-lanes as well (straight or left from a single lane), which creates a new set of hazards.

    Reuben: Exactly. Or in the city, the number of places with a slightly wider lane… and curb parking. The lane is designed more to accommodate the parked vehicles (and people getting in and out) than it is cyclists.