Rules of the Road: Bike Lane Laws

Marc Lindsay
by Marc Lindsay
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Rules of the Road: Bike Lane Laws

What cyclists are and are not allowed to do on the road can be a confusing topic since laws vary from state-to-state and even city-to-city. While bike lanes are one such gray area, it’s actually more straightforward than many of the other bike laws that exist.

Let’s take a look at how cyclists should use bike lanes and other basic operation laws to stay safe:

BIKE LANE BASICS

In general, bikes are expected to follow the same rules of the road as any other vehicle. This includes riding to the right side of the road (and never against traffic), yielding when necessary to crossing traffic in an intersection and yielding to faster approaching vehicles when you need to move left to change lanes or turn.

As it pertains to when to and when not to use the bike lane, speed and safety are the two areas to consider. The law in all 50 states is that the slowest vehicles on the road should ride the furthest to the right. If there is a bike lane provided, cyclists may occupy this lane as long as it is safe to do so. When the bike lane does not provide enough space due to obstacles or hazards such as parked cars or pedestrians, cyclists may take the lane after yielding to other vehicles already occupying that space.

In areas of high traffic, when cyclists are not moving at a slower speed than other traffic, the middle of the lane may be taken for purposes of safety. When attempting to move into lanes to the left, cyclists must yield to traffic just as you would if operating a motorized vehicle.

Like cars and motorcycles, whether you’re in the bike lane or not, cyclists are required to obey all stoplights, traffic signs, and yield to pedestrians when necessary. When changing lanes or turning, signaling so other people in traffic know your intentions is required. Failure to do so can result in a citation.

Riding in the far-left lanes when you are moving slower than traffic is generally considered unsafe and can result in a citation. If a bike lane is available, use this lane unless there are obstacles or if you need to move to the left lane to turn. In this instance, yield to other vehicles before moving into these lanes.

RIDING ON THE SIDEWALK

When there are no bike lanes, riding on the sidewalk is not an option in most states. In cities like New York and San Francisco, the law states specifically that cyclists older than 13 are not allowed to ride on the sidewalk. But while most cities and states see bikes as another vehicle and don’t allow cycling on the sidewalk because it endangers pedestrians, there are some cities that allow it. In Boston and Washington, D.C., for instance, cycling on the sidewalk is allowed with the exception of downtown areas. In Arizona, bicycles are not defined as vehicles, and are allowed to ride on the sidewalk without being subjected to a fine.

While sidewalk cycling might seem like a safer option in heavy traffic, it can actually make things more dangerous. Since turning vehicles aren’t anticipating fast-moving vehicles on the sidewalk, collisions often occur because bikes become invisible to unsuspecting motorists. Check with your individual city’s laws to find out what’s acceptable.

RIDING TWO-BY-TWO

Another area of contention is individual laws concerning cyclists riding two abreast. These laws can be trickier and depend on the state you live in. Here’s a basic breakdown of some of the rules regarding when it’s OK to ride side-by-side:

  • In 39 states, cyclists may ride side-by-side.
  • In some of these states, however, you may only ride two abreast when it is deemed safe to do so and traffic is not being impeded.
  • New York, Virginia and Massachusetts are three states that require cyclists to be single-file (even while in bike lanes) when being overtaken by another vehicle.
  • Examples of specific state laws include:
    • Hawaii: Two abreast riding is allowed in the bike lane only.
    • Montana: Two abreast riding is allowed, but only when there are at least two lanes in each direction.
    • Nebraska: Two abreast riding is allowed only on the shoulder.

Cyclists should also never pass another cyclist on the right, whether you’re traveling in the bike lane or not. Keep in mind dashed lines on a bike lane mean vehicles are able to enter this lane to turn or park to the right of the road, so watch out for vehicles turning into your line of travel without signaling.

If you have further questions about your specific state bike laws, you can view them at bikeleague.org.

About the Author

Marc Lindsay
Marc Lindsay

Marc is a freelance writer based in Scottsdale, Arizona. He holds a master’s degree in writing from Portland State University and is a certified physical therapy assistant. An avid cyclist and runner of over 20 years, Marc contributes to LAVA, Competitor and Phoenix Outdoor magazines. He is the former cycling editor for Active.com.

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