Platoons and Gaps

What if you could have the road all to yourself?

When you drive on a busy road in your car, it seems as though there is just constant traffic around you. That’s because you’re traveling with a platoon.

The platoons travel between traffic lights, but while the light is red, the road ahead is mostly empty. You can work the timing of these gaps to your advantage.


Topic 7: Platoons and Gaps

Lesson Introduction

Cycling in traffic does not have to be about trying to muscle your way through thick and fast packs of cars.

CyclingSavvy is about strategy, not strength. And finesse, not fearlessness. Being observant of the patterns in traffic, and being patient and smart will make your ride easier than you can imagine. As a bonus, your smarter moves actually make things easier for the motorists around you.

For example, if you were riding in the right lane here —  a lane that takes drivers onto an interstate — you’d be making all those drivers go around you while you’re trying to get out of that lane!

Working With Traffic Patterns

First, let’s start with some basic principles of traffic flow.

Traffic signals can be used to your advantage. Since they hold back traffic, they create platoons, or packs of vehicles that all move down the road together.

You can learn to find the gaps between those platoons and get the road mostly to yourself for surprisingly long distances. Such gaps also make it far easier to change lanes if you need to turn left, or to negotiate through complex intersections.

Platoons & Gaps

Here’s an example of how a traffic signal creates platoons and gaps. No, the cars aren’t going that fast! It’s running at double speed to save us time and help you see the difference.

At the intersection behind the camera, the straight-through traffic has a green light.

Now that light has turned red. The cars you see in this light traffic phase are turning left from the cross street.

The road has a lot more capacity than cars. That is ideal for cycling, because it’s very easy for motorists to sort themselves into the other lanes.

And now the cross street has a green for through traffic. The only traffic is a few cars turning right from the cross street.

This is the gap phase.

It’s ideal for using the road with almost no traffic interaction, and it lasts almost a minute.

Here is the perspective from the road.

At the beginning of this clip, we’ll watch the end of a platoon coming by. It’s no big deal, they’re all changing lanes and no one is being delayed. No one appears to be upset. But car traffic generates a lot of noise!

And now we get a gap.

Ah, some peace and quiet! Let’s see how long it lasts.

The clock in the lower right of the screen is counting seconds.

It’s quiet enough for us to have a conversation. This is during a fairly busy time of day, but this gap lasts quite a while.

In total, it will be 45 seconds.

At 12 miles per hour you can cover more than a tenth of a mile in 45 seconds. So even a casual cyclist could use this 6-lane road to connect two quiet neighborhood streets.

Putting it to Work

Here’s an example of how you can use this fact-of-the-road to easily ride through an intimidating interchange.

We are here, and we need to make a left turn on the other side of the interchange here.

The speed limit is 45 miles per hour, and the road carries a lot of traffic.

By using a green light, we go directly to the lane we will need. As you can see, other than the one car that has turned with us, there is no other traffic using this stretch of road right now.

That red light will hold back traffic long enough that, before they catch up to us, we will arrive at the back of the traffic that is waiting at the red light up there at the bridge.

From there, we will be moving with slow traffic through the interchange until we get to our left-turn lane.

Seemed scary, but it was really easy!