Traffic School: How to Make a Left Turn on a Bike

You know you shouldn’t ride on the sidewalk; it’s more dangerous, slower, and just looks so uncool. So why do people still do it? When I’ve asked sidewalk riders why they risk it, the most common answer is that they don’t feel comfortable on the road. 

Let’s change that! In this series, we’ll take a look at common traffic situations and how to handle them safely and speedily on two wheels. In today’s post, we’ll demystify the maneuver that took Zoolander his whole life to learn: how to make a left turn.

There are essentially 3 ways to make a left in traffic, which you use will come down to personal preference, traffic conditions, and your comfort level. We’ll start with the most common:

Vehicular Left

Sounds fancy right? This is your bog standard left turn:

  1. Check for a gap in traffic
  2. Signal
  3. Move into the leftmost lane or turn lane
  4. Proceed through turn when clear
  5. You did it!

We’ve all likely made this move a million times in cars, busses, etc..., and the same principles apply on the bike. Check over your shoulder for a safe opportunity to change lanes, signal, move over to the left, make your turn – done! The upsides to this turn are that it’s the most predictable (cars are looking for people going left from the left turn lane) and typically the fastest, especially if you’re hitting the intersection on a green light.

But what if you have issues merging into traffic? You might be interested in a box turn!

Box Turn Left

The box turn lets you make a left without leaving the right side of the road, perfect for riders too skittish to leave the shoulder. For this turn:

  1. Stay to the right entering the intersection
  2. Signal your intention to slow/move right
  3. Stop at the front of the rightmost lane of cross traffic and wait for the light
  4. Proceed straight across the intersection.

This is how many left turns work in cities with great bike infrastructure, utilizing advanced stop boxes to keep bikes from having to mix too intimately with 3,000lbs traffic. Essentially, you’re merging into the stopped through-traffic, waiting for the signal to change, and then proceeding straight through the intersection to “complete” your left. Even though we don’t have advanced stop boxes, just pulling into the front of the lane works (and if there’s a car there, pulling up in the crosswalk works too, just leave room for crossing peds). This turn is perfect for streets with heavy traffic or super wide lanes that might be tough to cross.

But what about when there’s a shared center turn lane or a left turn/thru lane and you don’t want to risk being stopped in the middle of thousands of pounds of moving metal? For you, let’s check out the U-turn option:

U-Turn Left

Being stationary on a bike in traffic is sketchy. Cars whizzing by, high differentials of speed, and no way to maneuver if something goes sideways. A bike in motion can avoid issues by steering, accelerating, braking, etc…, but if you’re not moving, you’re essentially just standing in the middle of the street and that’s where things get spooky. Check your local laws to make sure you’re in the clear for this one, but if I’m ever presented with a choice between my safety and blindly upholding a traffic law – I'll choose safety every time (and will keep doing so until the traffic laws are designed with bikes in mind). For situations where a vehicular left would mean standing still in a center turn lane and a box turn is out (for example, because because there’s no light for through traffic, it’s a t-interection, etc..) I’ll make a U-turn left:

  1. Check for a gap in traffic
  2. Signal
  3. Move into the left most lane/the lane you’ll be turning from
  4. Proceed carefully until there’s a gap in oncoming traffic
  5. Signal and make a U-turn when clear
  6. Make a right to complete your “left”

This left keeps you moving and essentially lets you “look for the gap” in traffic, as opposed to waiting for the gap to come to you. Just be sure to keep your heads up for oncoming cars entering the turn lane if it’s shared in both directions and, again, check your local laws if being on the right side of the rules is important to you.

And that’s it! Personally, I’m a huge fan of vehicular lefts for their speed, ease, and predictability, but I know plenty of riders who prefer the box turn. Try ‘em out for yourself and see what’s right for you!