5 Things Drivers Could Learn From a Pace-line

My apartment overlooks an intersection, two freeway exits, and one entrance. Needless to say, from time to time, things can get a little hectic outside of my windows. There are three different traffic lights but for only two directions of traffic, the lane lines do not match up on the other side of the intersection, people often do not know which light is for them, and will start turning across the intersection while other traffic is still there. Cyclists do not have access to a bike lane, and there are a fair few potholes and other hazards which need avoiding. In the mornings and mid-afternoons there is heavy foot traffic, adding to the chaos. More times than I like to think about, myself and my neighbors have ended up in the street calling 911 on behalf of people who have been in accidents, or waiting with a shaken driver for a tow truck to come and get them long after the police have taken their statements and departed.

For a long time, it was people who lived in my same building that were petitioning the city to re-draw the lane lines, with particular regard to making sure they match up (what is 5 foreword direction lanes one on side of the intersection becomes one left turn lane, one left/foreword lane for the freeway only, one foreword for the freeway, and three forword but not freeway lanes). Combine that with counter-intuitive lights and motorists who may not be familiar with the nuances of our intersection and you have a recipe for disaster. Tired of all the accidents, screeching tires and honking, we wrote desperate emails to our representatives, for not only our sake, but the sake of all the drivers and pedestrians who had to navigate this intersection on a daily basis.

Things have improved slightly – we have different lights that make it easier to recognize the distinction and as a result there are less collisions, but we still have the problem of lane lines and non-vehicular traffic. Even though I live here, I often opt out of riding through this intersection, often taking the long way around to avoid it as most drivers are too busy trying to navigate the chaos to notice cyclists. But watching the drivers drive, it got me thinking about how my perspective of this situation and ones like it has changed since I started riding a bike. Now that I have ridden in a pace-line and have read much more about how they work and their efficiency, I can’t help but think of how much general traffic could be assisted by some of the most basic pace-line rules of the road. Clearly, not everything would apply – drafting is not very important for cars – but on general principle, most of it can’t hurt!

image by alharbiseye, via Lovely Bicycle

1. Keep an even speed: we’re taught to do this initially, but so many of us forget. So often, a light turns green, and we stomp on the gas only to slam on the brakes a few feet later. This is terrible for the car, the environment and the traffic behind you. Living in California, I have seen this happen unnecessarily on freeways as well – someone will speed up to merge and then hit the brakes as soon as the merge is complete forcing other drivers to do the same.

2. Don’t make sudden moves: veering abruptly with no signal makes life hard for everyone – drivers and cyclists alike. Sudden drifting in a lane due to wind or negligence is extremely disconcerting for the person in the lane next to you, just as abruptly crossing several lanes of traffic to turn right is disconcerting for the drivers behind you.

3. Plan: Not necessarily a rule specific to a pace-line, but certainly one that cyclists rely on heavily, regardless of our riding style. On nearly every ‘101’ blog section, be it for cycling or commuting, it is always advised to plan out your route on a map. GPS is not always reliable, road conditions change, detours pop up – things happen. It’s always helpful, no matter how you get around, to know at least vaguely, where you are going.

4. Never slam on the brakes: of course, this is different with driving because speeds are higher, changing the context of some obstacles, but if the rules of spacing are observed correctly, this becomes far less of a problem allowing much more time to slow down or move around the object.

5.  Keep enough space between you: For a pace-line, that space is much smaller than, say the fast lane of a freeway. But, the general rule still applies. If you are paying attention, you will have the time you need to stop.

People tell me all the time that pace-lines look terrifying and hugely unsafe. But really, they’re hyper-efficient poetry in motion. In context, a freeway is sort of the same thing; the speeds are higher and subsequently the gaps are wider, but we’re all just riding the wheel in front of us, whether we know it or not.


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