I recently saw a man bicycling smack in the middle of the main travel lane on one of Portland’s busiest streets, with a line of cars trailing behind.

In cycling lingo, this is known as “taking the lane” or “controlling the lane.” And it seems to be a growing trend, especially in urban areas.

Bicycle safety experts say that controlling the lane is the safest way for cyclists to position themselves under a variety of scenarios. Some even recommend it as a default position for those riding in city traffic.

This is a controversial idea, because it forces motorists to slow down. It also is counterintuitive to believe that one would be safer riding amid cars and trucks rather than on the road’s edge.

As a slow, cautious cyclist, I often feel scared controlling the lane, even under conditions when I have no choice, such as taking a left turn or continuing straight through an intersection where one lane turns right.

But I have given this a lot of thought after reading a column by John Brooking and Charley LaFlamme, longtime Maine bicycle safety educators. They both hold national certification as League Cycling Instructors, and Brooking also teaches CyclingSavvy classes.

“We are big proponents of the concept of controlling the lane. … That means riding near the middle to make it obvious that it is yours,” Brooking and LaFlamme wrote in the spring edition of Maine Cyclist, the newsletter of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine.

LaFlamme and Brooking focused that advice on urban riding. They gave more nuanced advice about biking on rural roads than I can sum up in this column. But overall, they made a strong case for why cyclists would choose to control the lane as a safety strategy.

Coincidentally, their column appeared the same month that Portland police ticketed a South Portland school bus driver for violating Maine’s 3-foot rule by traveling too close to a bicyclist. That incident sparked a contentious debate on social media about why the cyclist was riding in the main travel lane rather than in the adjacent bike lane.

One woman questioned why cars should be “trapped behind bikes going 10 or 15 miles an hour.”

Maine law states that cyclists riding slower than the normal traffic speed should stay as far to the right as “practicable.” But the law allows cyclists to move into the main travel lane under many circumstances, such as turning left, avoiding glass and other hazards or keeping enough distance from parked cars to protect the cyclist from being hit by a door opening.

Cyclists also are allowed to control the lane when it is too narrow for a bicyclist and a vehicle to ride safely side-by-side. A large percentage of Maine roads – perhaps most of them – fit that definition.

Four years ago, Brooking convinced the Maine Department of Transportation to post signs on William Clark Drive in Westbrook saying that cyclists “may use (the) full lane.” Since then, similar signs have been posted in Ogunquit, Portland and elsewhere in Maine.

Last December, the Maine Supreme Court ruled in a lawsuit filed by a bicyclist who was hit by a bus that was taking a right turn in front of her. The ruling affirmed that cyclists can make their own determination about when they need to move from the edge of the road toward the main travel lane to protect themselves.

Brooking said his views about controlling the lane have evolved over time. Nowadays, he told me, “I would say that in a typical trip around Portland, I’m controlling the lane on average 50 percent of the time, with a lot of variance either way from that number, depending on the route.”

Controlling the lane makes a bold statement that cyclists are entitled to use the roads, just as cars are. Along with that right comes the responsibility to obey traffic laws, such as stopping for red lights. Cyclists also need to give clear hand signals to motorists about their intentions.

Sharing the road this way also offers a great opportunity for all of us to practice the Golden Rule.

I hope motorists will recognize that there are valid safety reasons for cyclists to be in the main travel lane, such as avoiding broken pavement or steering clear of cars turning right.

And I hope cyclists will act respectfully toward motorists by moving over to let them pass when it is safe to do so.

Shohana Hoose is a freelance writer who bicycles in Greater Portland and beyond. Contact her at [email protected]