Making a left turn on a bicycle in urban traffic can be a little scary at times. Generally, bicyclists are required to ride as far to the right as possible on the roadway. Turning left might mean crossing into a regular lane, the realm of motorized traffic. Luckily, Illinois law offers bicyclists some flexibility when it comes to turning left.
Let's use the intersection of Milwaukee Avenue and Armitage Avenue in Chicago to illustrate how to make a legal left:
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The view above is from northbound Milwaukee Avenue approaching its intersection with Armitage. Riding our virtual bicycles, we wish to turn left onto westbound Armitage. Under Illinois law, we have two options for doing so. Section 11-1510 of the Illinois Vehicle Code states:
(a) A person riding a bicycle or motorized pedalcycle intending to turn left shall follow a course described in Section 11-801 or in paragraph (b) of this Section. (emphasis added)
Option 1 (Sec. 11-801): If traffic permits, you may take the extreme left lane of northbound Milwaukee Avenue, in this case the designated left turn lane, and turn as a car would. The law states that, "Any person operating a bicycle . . . upon a roadway at less than the normal speed of traffic . . . shall ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway except . . . When preparing for a left turn at an intersection or into a private road or driveway." 625 ILCS 5/11-11-1505. (emphasis added) Pedaling along the right edge of northbound Milwaukee, you may merge into traffic to the left turn lane as you begin to approach the intersection. Section 11-801(2) states:
The driver of a vehicle [bicycle] intending to turn left at any intersection shall approach the intersection in the extreme left-hand lane lawfully available to traffic moving in the direction of travel of such vehicle, and after entering the intersection, the left turn shall be made so as to leave the intersection in a lane lawfully available to traffic moving in such direction upon the roadway being entered. Whenever practicable the left turn shall be made in that portion of the intersection to the left of the center of the intersection.
Simple, right? You have the same rights and responsibilities as a motor vehicle when it comes to turning left. That point noted, it is sometimes just plain dangerous and frightening to merge across lanes of moving motor vehicle traffic on a bicycle. Recognizing that, Illinois law provides a second option.
Option 2 (Sec. 11-1510 b): This option does not require taking the left lane of Milwaukee Avenue at all. Instead, we would pedal our virtual bike in the right lane of Milwaukee Avenue across Armitage, assuming of course the traffic light is green in our favor. We would then position ourselves in front of Walgreens, facing westbound on Armitage. The best place would probably be to the right and a bit in front of the red minivan in the photo above. After doing so we would wait for the light controlling traffic on Armitage to change before proceeding west. Section 11-1510(b) states:
A person riding a bicycle. . . intending to turn left shall approach the turn as close as practicable to the right curb or edge of the roadway. After proceeding across the intersecting roadway to the far corner of the curb or intersection of the roadway edges, the bicyclist. . . shall stop, as much as practicable out of the way of traffic. After stopping the person shall yield to any traffic proceeding in either direction along the roadway such person had been using. After yielding, the bicycle. . . shall comply with any official traffic control device or police officer regulating traffic on the highway along which he intends to proceed, and the bicyclist. . . may proceed in the new direction.
Option #2 is probably the safer approach but may not be the fastest way to make a left turn. Of course, if you get into a bicycle accident you may not go anywhere quickly for quite some time. The approach you take should depend on the intersection, traffic conditions and your skill and comfort level as an urban cyclist. Remember, that just because you have the legal right to do something does not mean that you should. In a bike accident, the cyclist usually loses.