In California, bicyclists are legally allowed to take an entire lane to themselves. This is to ensure that a cyclist can always move out of danger if necessary; can take safe left turns with the flow of traffic; can move like a vehicle (albeit a slow-moving one).
Getting used to the power of taking a lane can take awhile, though. It's scary, in a dense city like San Francisco, to feel safe on the road, even in a bike lane. There's a good reason for that -- four bicyclists were killed in 2013, and over a dozen pedestrians. Sometimes it feels like the cars are out of control, that their drivers don't have a sense of the immense power and responsibility they have when they're behind the wheel.
Events like Sunday Streets, where entire neighborhoods are shut down to cars for a day and people and rollerbladers and cyclists and razor scooters and rollerskaters take over the pavement, highlight the stark reality that cities are designed for cars, not people. It no longer seems obvious to me that of course we should have enormous swaths of space solely dedicated to the transit of vehicles, especially ones that have such lethal capacity. I don't know what the solution is -- I'm not an urban planner or city designer -- but I am fascinated by the conversation.
All I know is that when I take the lane on my bike, and drivers respect my space, I feel like I'm fully participating in the city. I feel in control of my transportation, and that feeling very empowering. I can take myself where I need to go, and don't depend on anyone to do it for me. I do depend on an infrastructure and community and rules of the road which supports me and other like me, a cyclist on a bike in a river of cars. Similarly, cars don't exist in a vacuum: drivers depend upon society to maintain roads and stoplights, and trust that others will stop at a red light when they're supposed to. Maybe being on a bike just makes that sense of interdependency all the more clear.
Over time, my comfort with taking a lane has grown. I get spooked every now and then by the news or by a close call with an carelessly opened door or a car that doesn't signal its right turn, and when that happens, I take a break for a little bit. But I still seem to get back on the saddle again eventually. I think that confidence in riding is a powerful ally because I think it communicates to drivers that I won't just pitch over or swerve into them. That I know what I'm doing, and deserve the same respect as any other vehicle.
The other night, I signalled a left turn at a four-way stop at which I had the right-of-way, and all the drivers waited patiently as I made it through the intersection. I was absorbed in the ride, with making the turn correctly and visibly, with the sound of tire on pavement, with the lane into which I was turning. I stayed in the center of the lane at the next intersection, so I could head straight when the light turned green, and at that red light, I realized that I hadn't even thought about whether I should take the lane or not.
Moreover, I wasn't afraid. I was just there, on the pavement, claiming my space.