A right turn is easy to make: you’re already on the right hand side of the road, all you do is put out your right hand to signal and turn right (after you make sure there are no pedestrians, or worse yet, cyclists on the sidewalk). Left turns are a bit trickier because, at minimum, you have to move to the centre of the lane in which you’re in. The discussion here focuses on turning left when there’s traffic around you: if there’s no traffic, then there’s no problem but when there is, you have to be prepared to deal with it.
I haven’t got all the answers to turning left in traffic but I’ll write about how I do it.
Single Lane of Traffic
In this situation, the road has only one lane in each direction. Therefore, at an intersection, such as a stop sign, vehicles may turn either right or left or proceed straight through from that one lane. For cyclists, proceeding forward or turning right can be done from the right side of the road. However, when cyclists need to make a left, they shouldn’t do it from the right side of the road because it means that the cyclist will cross the lane in which there might be another vehicle. Furthermore, other motorists stopped at the intersection would assume that, if the cyclist is at the right side of the road, near the curb, the cyclist would either be traveling straight across the intersection or making a right turn, they would not expect the cyclist to make a left turn from the right side of the road. Communication, not just by signalling, is vital to safe cycling and turning left from the right side of the road is a failure in communication and a recipe for disaster.
Steps I Take When Turning Left from a Single Lane
Let’s start from near the end of the process and work backwards towards the beginning. To make your left turn, you need to be somewhere between the middle and the left side of the lane. The reason for this is two-fold: you need to make it clear to the motorist(s) behind you that you’re turning left (they may have missed your left turn hand signal but your position in the lane indicates your intent), you’re more visible (they’ll see you better if you’re in front rather than at the right side) and you need to be assertive and take the lane to force them to stay behind you. I used to stay towards the right side of the lane while making a left turn (although I did hand signal my intent) until one day, the motorist behind me decided to pass me on my left as we both went around the left turn, nearly forcing me off the road. Don’t take no guff, take the lane!
In order to get to the middle of the lane, you need to plan for it as you approach the intersection. Starting at least 100m before the stop sign (or light), gauge the amount of traffic that is travelling in the lane with you. If the road is essentially empty, signal with your left hand (despite the fact that there might be no traffic, get into the habit of signalling anyway), move into the middle of the lane and stop at the stop line of the intersection: any cars that show up afterwards will line up behind you.
If there is traffic but it is light and the posted speed limit is no more than 50kmh, there will be plenty of gaps for you to slide into. In this situation, I shoulder check at least a couple of times to ensure that I know where the cars are and to make certain that no new ones popped out of somewhere unexpected (eg. a driveway), then when I am fairly close to the intersection, shoulder check one last time, signal left and slide in to a large gap behind a car.
If traffic is heavy, you might need to pull over to the curb, stop, look backwards over your left shoulder and wait until you see an oncoming wide gap in traffic. As the opportunity gets closer, start pedaling slowly and as the car ahead of the gap passes you, shoulder check to make sure no other cars have either sped up or appeared out of nowhere to fill in the gap and if it is still fine, signal left and slide into the gap, taking the middle to left side of the lane and follow the car ahead to the stop line.
Single Lane Splits to Create a Left Turning Lane
This situation is very similar to turning left from a single lane if you start the process early enough or it can be more difficult if you start the process later. If you start early, then you just need to move to the centre or centre-left of the single lane in which you’re in, stay in that position as the left turning lane opens up, then signal left and move into the newly formed left turning lane. If you start late, you may have to negotiate two lanes of traffic: to move across the lane you’re currently in (or beside) and then into the newly created left turning lane. Therefore, I recommend starting early so that you’re already in position to shift to the left turning lane when it opens up.
Remember to put out a left turn hand signal to indicate that you are moving away from the curb and into the middle of the lane and again when wanting to move into the left-turning lane.
Multiple Lanes of Traffic
There are two intersections that I regularly deal with, from which I need to make a left turn, in which there are multiple lanes of traffic. In one case, there are two lanes of traffic but closer to the intersection, one more lane opens up on the left forming two lanes for turning left and the right lane is for turning right. In the other case, there are two lanes of traffic approaching the intersection that, at the intersection, become four lanes that proceed through the intersection; two lanes opened up into left turning lanes and the original two lanes that go straight through (there’s a fifth lane that opens up to turn right but we’re not worried about turning right at this time).
In both cases, I have to cross lanes of traffic to get to the left turning lanes so I have to be very aware of traffic around me. It is not uncommon for me to come to a full stop, look back, assess traffic and wait for an upcoming gap in which to insert myself. On both roads, the posted speed limit is 60 kmh which is to my advantage because at that speed, as the cars get closer to the intersections, they need to slow down fairly significantly which means that there will be better and safer opportunities for me to find gaps and cross lanes when the cars are slowing to approach the intersection. Again, I’d like to point out that if there are no safe options, I will stop at the side to wait and watch for an upcoming gap in traffic: I don’t feel the need to take unsafe maneuvers.
There is a third intersection that I will occasionally want to make a left turn at and to do so, I need to cross 2 lanes of traffic to reach the left turning lane but it is at the top of a hill and traffic is commonly very busy so more often than not, I’ll either stop at the side of the road to assess traffic before I make my move across two lanes to the left turning lane or I’ll ride up to the lights on the right side, walk my bike across the intersection like a pedestrian, then get back on it and continue on my way.
My goal is not to ride 100% of the trip, my goal is to make it to my destination safely and if that means I sometimes have to get off and walk, then that is what I will do.
Completing the Left Turn
This isn’t always as easy as you might think but generally it is.
First of all, just as when you’re lining up to make the turn, at about the centre to centre-left of your lane, when you are making the left turn, stay in the same proximity within the lane as you round the corner. This, just like your position in the lane when stopped before the turn, will allow you to assertively take the lane and force cars behind you to stay behind you.
When making a left turn from one road to another with the same number of left-turning lanes as there are “receiving” lanes—1 and 1, 2 and 2—you are to stay in the same lane from the turning lane to the receiving lane. That means, if you’re making the left turn from the rightmost lane, you then move into the rightmost lane on the new road. As you complete the turn, you can ease over towards the right side of the lane and the cars behind you can then pass you on your left.
However, when making a left turn where there are fewer left-turning lanes than receiving lanes—1 turning lane vs 2 lanes on the receiving road—then you could run into a situation where you complete your left turn into the left lane of the receiving road and an oncoming car has made a right turn into the right lane beside you, you can be a bit trapped in the left lane. Most of the time, I’ve found that the driver making the right turn recognizes this and holds back on the right turn to allow you to complete the left turn and move across to the right side of the right lane and then the driver will make the right turn behind you.
If the driver does make the right turn beside you, keep your lane (although you might want to move towards the right side of it) until the car on the right begins to speed up and pass you on your right, put out your right hand to signal a right turn and slide in behind the car to your right and across the lane behind him to the right side of the lane.
Be careful though, I have had an impatient driver behind me pass me on my right. When the car to my right sped up and passed me, the car behind me has seized the opportunity to also pass me on my right by pulling out into the empty space to my right and passing me. You must listen to the car behind you revving the engine as if to speed up, listen to see if the sound is shifting to your right indicating that he has moved into the empty lane to your right and also you must look over your right shoulder to see where he is. Obviously, hold back on making the lane change until he has passed you but as he does so, put out your right hand indicating that you want to move over and maybe the next car won’t be so aggressive.
Left turns are tricky, absolute care must be taken. You must be observant of what’s going on around you, signal your intent so that cars behind you know what you’re planning to do and you may also be assertive about taking the lane which also provides some degree of safety because cars will generally not pass you if you’ve taken the lane.
If you’re not comfortable making any of these types of left turns in traffic in the same way as I’ve described, don’t try to do something you’re not comfortable doing because that could end in failure and on a bike, that sometimes means injury to yourself (leading to a lack of self-confidence and unwillingness to ride your bike in traffic again). If, at first, the only way for you to be comfortable making a left turn in traffic is to walk your bike until you’re headed in the right direction, please, don’t hesitate to do so: I’d rather you be safe than sorry (or sore).
Ride safely and enjoy your cycling!