Practical Elegance and the Principles of Traffic

The Following Essay was written by Reed Bates. Reed resides in Ennis Texas. He has not owned a car since 2003, and has used a bicycle for transportation since 2006. This essay was originally published on Reed’s blog and is republished here with his permission.

Most of us use the roadway system as we do our common everyday electronics—we tend to take for granted what makes them function. There is a practical elegance to the way our streets and roads operate, and a greater awareness of it would make us all more civil, safer and cooperative citizens.

There is a practical elegance to the way our streets operate, and a greater awareness of it would make us all more civil, safer and cooperative citizens.

There are two overarching principles that are the basis of our uniform traffic code. These two principles lead inevitably to six basic rules of traffic that govern nearly all of our daily traffic experience.

While they are known subconsciously and perhaps intuitively, most folks who operate motor vehicles on our nations roadways are unfamiliar with this more formalized expression of these principles. Even so, they operate by them when following the traffic laws and the traffic control devices found on their way.

Here are the arch-principles and the six basic laws of traffic that follow from them.

Travel to the right

Early roads had no lanes, and the width of the entire road could be quite narrow. It became customary in the United States that traffic would stay to the right to reduce chaos, perhaps following established maritime law. Other countries developed a stay to left tradition. From this arch-principle flows these two basic laws of traffic;

1) Always operate on the right-hand side of the roadway, not on the left.

2) When approaching an intersection,  position yourself according to the direction in which you want to go. Right-turning drivers are at the right, left-turning drivers are at the left, close to the center of the roadway, and straight-through drivers are between them, as conditions allow.

We practice this every time we take to the public road, but few of us have been exposed to the formalized stating of it. The second basic rule as stated presumes multiple lanes in each direction, but even on streets without lanes we turn right from close to the curb and turn left from the center area of the street.

First come, first served

The public space is a finite resource. How is it to be distributed to the public in a fair way? This arch-principle addresses that. It epitomizes the meaning of public in “public road”. Everyone has the right to travel in the public space, and they have a right to a reasonable amount space in front of them, behind them and to their sides in order to travel safely.

3) When two operators are traveling in the same direction in a travel lane, the one behind the other must leave enough space to avoid colliding with the operator in front of him.

Most of us today think of this rule as part of the driver’s prime directive; “Thou shalt not hit things”. But it is also a fundamental expression of the right of way on public roads. One cannot simply crash into slower traffic, we must overtake them when it is safe and to do so with due care.

4) When approaching a road that is larger than the one you are on, or carries more traffic, or faster traffic, or is protected by a stop or yield sign, you must yield to traffic on that roadway. Yielding means looking left and right until you see that no traffic is approaching so closely as to constitute a danger.

A person traveling down a road has “the right of way”, meaning you can’t just pull out in front of someone and put them in danger. We must allow him access to a reasonable amount of space in front of him to avoid a collision. We operate under this principle all the time, and we have an expectation it will be observed by folks pulling onto the road in front of us. The law grants us the right of way, and the lawful operator respects it.

5) When intending to move your line of travel either left or right upon the roadway, you must yield to traffic in the new line of travel. Yielding means looking in front and behind until you see that both directions are clear, that there is no traffic approaching so closely as to constitute a danger.

We have the right to the space we are occupying within a lane of travel, and it should not be encroached upon.

6) When operating between intersections, drivers position themselves according to their speed relative to other traffic. Parked vehicles are next to the curb, slow drivers are next to them, while the fastest traffic is to the left, next to the centerline as conditions of the roadway allow.

This is the speed positioning rule. It implies that overtaking shall be done on the left, and passing on the right is discouraged. The fastest traffic should return to the right lanes when slower traffic has been cleared.

These six basic rules interact with one another. For example, it is unlawful in many states to change lanes within an intersection. Someone entering the roadway at the intersection may proceed into the lane someone is merging into, inadvertently violating his right of way.

The uniform traffic code, adopted in whole -or with few exceptions to the body of it- by the various states means that a person driving into an unfamiliar place anywhere in the country will be able to operate with little difficulty. The local streets and their working function will seem normal to him.

This system functions just fine without an explanation of the underlying principles; As a result, most people have never thought about, or clearly understood them, as long as the other traffic around them has similar operational characteristics.

What do you mean by traffic, anyway?

Our society has seen fit to divide “traffic” into three basic types; Pedestrians, human powered vehicles and motor vehicles. The vehicle laws make some exceptions and special rules for each class to reflect their differing operational characteristics on our public roads.

Motorists and cyclists must yield right of way to pedestrians crossing the roadway at a crosswalk, for example. [3] Cyclists are often restricted from using limited access highways because they are not capable of maintaining the minimum speed required for safe operation. People who wish to operate motor vehicles on the public way are subject to licensing and insurance requirements due to the potential damage and injury that the misuse of such vehicles can do to others.

Because motor vehicles are the overwhelming majority of traffic on public roads, people tend to think of “traffic” as only consisting of automobiles and the like. But most states define what they mean by “traffic” in the highway codes to include a much broader variety in modes of travel than just motor vehicles. (Because I am a citizen of Texas, and as I am most familiar with their codes, I will now be speaking less generally and more specifically of the Texas Transportation Code. [TTC])  The TTC defines “traffic” as; “pedestrians, ridden or herded animals, and conveyances, including vehicles… singly or together while using a highway for the purposes of travel.” [1]

I doubt most Texas drivers think of horse drawn wagons when they think of traffic! And yet, the law recognizes and allows for a horse drawn wagon to have the same right of way as an automobile, that is, a reasonable amount space in front of them, behind them and to their sides in order to travel safely on the public road.

The traffic laws apply to all these different road users as the nature of their vehicle allows. [2]

Thwarted expectations lead to anger.

Because motor vehicles are the most common form of traffic on public streets today, there is a popular expectation that people ought to proceed at or above the speed limit regardless of prevailing conditions.

The necessity of putting a limit on the maximum speed one can travel is almost entirely a creation of the automobile itself. As automobiles became more powerful, all societies determined that speed limits were necessary to protect the innocent public from the destructive power of such fast heavy vehicles. While an out-of-control bicycle can cause severe injury, it can never approach the damage potential of a 4,000 lb. vehicle.

As automobiles became more powerful, all societies determined that speed limits were necessary to protect the innocent public from the destructive power of such fast heavy vehicles.

But a maximum speed limit is just that; A cap on how fast a motor vehicle can operate on a public road in perfect conditions, for the purpose of public safety.

Certainly upon a moments reflection, one can describe dozens of conditions that would prevent operating at maximum speed; Inclement weather, poor road surface, blind corners and hills, animals on the roadway, construction activity, slow traffic, trains at railroad crossings, emergency vehicles and even traffic lights! These conditions and more inhibit our forward progress endlessly.

So is it any wonder that a motorist going about with an expectation of traveling at top speed is constantly frustrated and annoyed? Is not this foolish expectation a source of his angst?

This anger often finds a scapegoat when the impedance is non-standard traffic, like a cyclist. A few of our fellow citizens take advantage of their position of power anonymity inside their automobile to bully and harass lawful travelers on our public roads.

Right of way and impeding others.

Not understanding the six basic rules leads to a misunderstanding of the difference between lawful impedance and unlawful impedance.

As we go about our daily travels, we are impeded at every turn. That is, someone using the public road manages to be in the way of faster traffic, forcing us to slow down to avoid hitting them. Nearly all of these conflicts are a lawful interruption of your forward progress. In fact, most traffic conflicts are so common we hardly consider them an impedance at all! That is, as long as the impedance fits your definition of traffic!

As we go about our daily travels, we are impeded at every turn. Most traffic conflicts are so common we hardly consider them an impedance at all! That is, as long as the impedance fits your definition of traffic!

If it is an automobile in the lane ahead of you waiting for oncoming traffic before executing a left turn that is causing you to slow down and even stop, it is no big deal. But if it is a cyclist in the lane ahead of you, well, that is a horse of a different color! “Doesn’t he know that the roads are designed for cars!” is an oft heard complaint. (Actually, most roads are designed so that trucks can operate on them. Should we be glad truckers deign to allow us to drive our cars on them?)

All operators of vehicles have the same rights and duties on public streets. Parking a vehicle in a travel lane would be against the law, (unlawfully impeding traffic) unless the vehicle was broken down and unable to move out of the way. Traveling unreasonably slowly can also be an illegal impedance, if the vehicle is capable of keeping up with the faster traffic around him. And this is the notion that creates allot of the animosity toward bicycles: Aren’t bicycles impeding traffic because they are moving so much slower than other traffic?

If the cyclist is traveling at a reasonable pace for a bicycle, then it not an illegal impedance. He is operating a slow vehicle, and one that drivers of fast vehicles must give way to as they would to any other slow traffic. You know, buses, farm equipment, street sweepers and the like. The automobile operator has the obligation to respect the cyclist’s right of first come first served, just as he would the driver of any other slow vehicle.

Doesn’t the operator of a bicycle have an obligation to stay out of the way of faster traffic?

Sometimes, but rarely. Most states require cyclists to ride as close to the edge of the roadway as practicable. (Yes, practicable!) This is a reflection of the unique characteristics of the narrow profile of a bicycle. It is the only vehicle on public roads that is required to share a lane side-by-side with automobiles in some circumstances. And it is the only vehicle that is directed by law as to where in the travel lane he must operate.

But because operating within the same travel lane side-by-side with faster traffic is often neither safe nor practicable, the law has made exceptions to those rules. In Texas, those exceptions include, but are not limited to, a condition of the roadway, pedestrians in the lane, surface hazards, parked cars, and if the travel lane is less than fourteen feet wide. [4]

It may not be obvious to the motorist why the cyclist is not operating closer to the edge of the roadway than he is, but that is really immaterial to the performance of his duty to use due care. If there is not enough room to pass a cyclist with reasonable safety within the lane, the faster traffic must change lanes to pass him. (It is illegal in Texas to straddle the lane.) [5]

One or more exceptions to the far-to-right rule is present on almost every road in Texas.

Motorists will often get extremely angry when two cyclists are riding abreast in a traffic lane, even though the travel lane is too narrow to allow a car and a bicycle to travel side-by-side. Before slandering the character of the cyclists in front of you, please consider whether you would be able to pass a solo cyclist without changing lanes.

Some have told me that a cyclist must ride on an improved shoulder alongside a roadway if one is available, but a careful reading of the statutes shows that this is false in Texas. A cyclist is permitted to ride on an improved shoulder, but this is not mandatory. [6] In fact, it could be argued that doing so removes a cyclist from many legal obligations and protections. [7] I  am of the opinion that riding on the shoulder is more dangerous than operating in the roadway. [8]

Access to the roadway space is allocated on a first come, first served basis for every form of traffic. So if you see a cyclist in the travel lane ahead of you, don’t be afraid to touch your brakes. Calm down, it is really not that hard to pass a cyclist safely! Just treat them as you would any other slow moving vehicle. With but a moments delay, you will be speeding off to the next traffic conflict or red light in no time!

Acknowledgements.  I am, as it has been said, standing on the shoulders of giants! The basic principles spring from John Forester, but I have added to his list of five the one about following distance.

Any clarity I have on traffic dynamics and impedance must be credited to Mighk Wilson,
Caffrey and Herman May who have done most of the heavy lifting for me.

Thanks also to P.M. Summer and everyone on the ChainGuard mailing list who have unlocked many mysterious traffic engineering concepts for me.


[Note: the statute references are to Texas transportation code. Texas statutes are very similar to, but not exactly the same as Florida statutes]

[1] Sec. 541.301.  TRAFFIC.  In this subtitle “traffic” means pedestrians, ridden or herded animals, and conveyances, including vehicles and streetcars, singly or together while using a highway for the purposes of travel.

Sec. 541.201. (23)  “Vehicle” means a device that can be used to transport or draw persons or property on a highway.

[2] Sec. 545.002.  OPERATOR.  In this chapter, a reference to an operator includes a reference to the vehicle operated by the operator if the reference imposes a duty or provides a limitation on the movement or other operation of that vehicle

[3] Sec. 552.003. PEDESTRIAN RIGHT-OF-WAY AT CROSSWALK. (a) The operator of a vehicle shall yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian crossing a roadway in a crosswalk if: (1) no traffic control signal is in place or in operation; and (2) the pedestrian is: (A) on the half of the roadway in which the vehicle is traveling; or (B) approaching so closely from the opposite half of the roadway as to be in danger.
(b) Notwithstanding Subsection (a), a pedestrian may not suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and proceed into a crosswalk in the path of a vehicle so close that it is impossible for the vehicle
operator to yield. (c) The operator of a vehicle approaching from the rear of a vehicle that is stopped at a crosswalk to permit a pedestrian to cross a roadway may not pass the stopped vehicle.

Sec. 552.005. CROSSING AT POINT OTHER THAN CROSSWALK. (a) A pedestrian shall yield the right-of-way to a vehicle on the highway if crossing a roadway at a place: (1) other than in a marked crosswalk or in an unmarked crosswalk at an intersection; or (2) where a pedestrian tunnel or overhead pedestrian crossing has been provided. (b) Between adjacent intersections at which traffic control signals
are in operation, a pedestrian may cross only in a marked crosswalk. (c) A pedestrian may cross a roadway intersection diagonally only if and in the manner authorized by a traffic control device.

[4] Sec. 551.103.  OPERATION ON ROADWAY.

(a)  A person operating a bicycle on a roadway who is moving slower than the other traffic on the roadway shall ride as near as practicable to the right curb or edge of the roadway, unless:

(1)  the person is passing another vehicle moving in the same direction;

(2)  the person is preparing to turn left at an intersection or onto a private road or driveway;

(3)  a condition on or of the roadway, including a fixed or moving object, parked or moving vehicle, pedestrian, animal, or surface hazard prevents the person from safely riding next to the right curb or edge of the roadway;  or

(4)  the person is operating a bicycle in an outside lane that is:

(A)  less than 14 feet in width and does not have a designated bicycle lane adjacent to that lane;  or

(B)   too narrow for a bicycle and a motor vehicle to safely travel side by side.

[5] Sec. 545.060.  DRIVING ON ROADWAY LANED FOR TRAFFIC.  (a)  An operator on a roadway divided into two or more clearly marked lanes for traffic shall drive as nearly as practical entirely within a single lane.

[6] Sec. 545.058.  DRIVING ON IMPROVED SHOULDER. (c)  A limitation in this section on driving on an improved shoulder does not apply to: (3) a bicycle

[7] The rights and duties spelled out in the TTC only apply to operators of bicycles riding on a “highway”. Sec. 551.001.  PERSONS AFFECTED.  Except as provided by Subchapter C, this chapter applies only to a person operating a bicycle on: (1)  a highway;  or (2)  a path set aside for the exclusive operation of bicycles.

The TTC defines a highway as “Sec. 541.302. (5)  “Highway or street” means the width between the boundary lines of a publicly maintained way any part of which is open to the public for vehicular travel.”  Which seems to mean from fence-line to fence-line, except for the part about “open to the public for vehicular travel”.

The TTC defines a shoulder as; “Sec. 541.302. (15)  “Shoulder” means the portion of a highway that is: (A)  adjacent to the roadway; (B)  designed or ordinarily used for parking; (C)  distinguished from the roadway by different design, construction, or marking;  and (D) not intended for normal vehicular travel.”

I must conclude then that a shoulder is not a part of the highway, and so, under this interpretation, the rights enjoyed by a cyclist on the roadway may not extend to those riding on the shoulder.

[8] With the many distractions inside the cabin of the modern automobile, and the tendency of a distracted driver to drift to the right, I am more comfortable in the lane in front of the distracted driver where I am more likely to be noticed than on the shoulder and overlooked. There are many other reasons as well, but isn’t this one sufficient all by itself?

3 Comments on “Practical Elegance and the Principles of Traffic

  1. I live in Florida where we have lots of Bikes and golf carts on our public roads.

    My problems is the bikes driven by adults because they do not stop at stop signs or stop lights even though they are riding on the public roads. The ride two or more abreast and are talking like there is no one else on the road.

    Another thing I saw in my neighborhood was two women pushing baby carts with babies, two abreast on the street stopping traffic. They thought if was funny on a busy street. I did not understand why because there was a side walk for them and to obstruct the road in that manner was dangerous for their babies and everyone else.

    I was reading your rules and they were hard to folllow, are there rules for each state?

    Can I get the one for Florida I would like to know the Bike Rules of The Road for Florida.

    Also we have roller bladers that come in the evening in large packs who are over the roads, and they are quiet that you can not hear them coming.

    Thank you for your help,
    Kay Jenkins

    • This site is ALL Florida….

      ONLY VEHICLES are allowed on Public ROAD…. Anyone “afoot” (that includes roller blades, skateboards, baby carriages) MUST be on the sidewalk.


    • that, let me tell you exactly what did do the job. The auhroting is actually incredibly engaging and that is probably why I am taking the effort to opine. I do not really make it a regular habit of doing that. 2nd, whilst I can notice the jumps in logic you come up with, I am definitely not convinced of exactly how you appear to unite your details which produce the actual final result. For the moment I shall yield to your position however wish in the foreseeable future you link the facts much better.

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