Bike Lane Law Update: What it Means
As a product of this year’s legislative session, there has been a change in the language of the far right/mandatory bike lane law.
The change “clarifies situations in which a bicyclist is not required to ride in the marked bicycle lane (if the roadway is marked for bicycle use) or as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway. The bill clarifies that a bicyclist is exempt from this requirement when a ‘potential conflict’ or a turn lane interrupts the roadway or bicycle lane.”
Here’s the way the statute looks in CS/CS/HB 1223:
316-2065(5)(a) Any person operating a bicycle upon a roadway at less than the normal speed of traffic at the time and place and under the conditions then existing shall ride in the lane marked for bicycle use or, if no lane is marked for bicycle use, as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway except under any of the following situations:
- When overtaking and passing another bicycle or vehicle proceeding in the same direction.
- When preparing for a left turn at an intersection or into a private road or driveway.
- When reasonably necessary to avoid any condition or potential conflict, including, but not limited to, a fixed or moving object, parked or moving vehicle, bicycle, pedestrian, animal, surface hazard, turn lane, or substandard-width lane, which
thatmakes it unsafe to continue along the right-hand curb or edge or within a bicycle lane. For the purposes of this subsection, a “substandard-width lane” is a lane that is too narrow for a bicycle and another vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane.
(b) Any person operating a bicycle upon a one-way highway with two or more marked traffic lanes may ride as near the left-hand curb or edge of such roadway as practicable.
Probably the easiest thing to define is where a cyclist is unlikely to encounter potential conflicts when riding in a bike lane or near the edge of a wide lane. That would be on a long, straight stretch of road where there are no parked cars, no intersections, no driveways and no debris or standing water. And where the bike lane or wide lane width was sufficient to provide adequate operating space and passing clearance from large vehicles. That’s pretty much only going to occur in a low-density setting.
An urban bike lane is so riddled with potential conflicts that the exception voids the law (or it would in an unbiased world). Potential conflicts exist:
- Anywhere motorists can enter or leave the roadway — any intersection or driveway. In an urban grid, there are intersections every 200-300ft. In a high-density commercial or residential area, there are driveways every 30-50ft. A right hook, left cross or drive-out can happen at any driveway. I’ve been nearly left-crossed by a motorist turning into a private home driveway on Lakemont Ave (a residential collector).
- Anywhere a bike lane exists next to on-street parking. Not only is the door zone an issue, the potential for motorists entering and leaving parking spaces offers a conflict. I’ve had an elderly driver dive into a parking space in front of me (nearly grazing my front wheel) on Edgewater Drive.
- Anywhere the bike lane, or edge of the road is likely to be obstructed or covered with debris or standing water so regularly that getting in and out of the bike lane creates constant, unpredictable movement. Or such that the cyclist is likely to get trapped between an obstruction and overtaking cars.
- Anywhere the bike lane or right edge causes the bicyclist to be trapped in a position that interferes with sensible traffic flow. There are many cases where a bike lane is to the right of a lane that diverges, and then jumps to a pocket bike lane just before the intersection. Traffic flow actually begins several blocks before the intersection, so it is safer and easier to move to the next lane over well before the bike lane does. This video shows an extreme example of bad design (the bike lane ends 1000ft past that interchange, making it pointless to use it).
- Anytime your speed is such that it would be impossible to react safely to potential downstream conflicts. Never ride at downhill speed in a bike lane (I rarely use absolutes, but I mean it here). The design speed of the standard bike lane (for a user not trained in emergency maneuvers) is about 12mph (something proponents don’t recognize or won’t admit).
- When a lane marked for bicycle use is so narrow that you can’t possibly get safe passing clearance from vehicles in the adjacent lane. The same is true for a 14ft lane. If there is potential for trucks, buses or landscape trailers to be on that road, it’s not wide enough to keep right and share the lane.
Forward focus is your priority in a complex streetscape. Leaving a bike lane to avoid a potential conflict requires scanning behind you to negotiate before moving left. Any time a series of potential conditions would cause you to move in and out of a bike lane every 15 seconds (that’s common with a city street grid, it also happens on trash day), it’s easier and more predictable just to stay out.
Unfortunately, we live in a culture where 99% of the population, including street designers, law enforcement and many bicyclists, don’t know what potential conflicts are or how to recognize the conditions which produce them. If they did, we’d have much lower crash rates for bicyclists, and we wouldn’t have urban bike lanes. Because urban bike lanes manufacture conflicts.
Special concerns for cycling in groups
Individual cyclists have a more options for dealing with an imminent bike lane conflict that a group does. We can slow down, negotiate a lane change, or at worst, perform an emergency stop.
For a group of cyclists, lane changes must be initiated by the rear rider (to avoid trapping a car in the middle of the group). Sudden changes in speed at the front cause wild braking fluctuations and swerving at the back as each rider responds with a little more braking force than the rider ahead. Emergency stops are completely out of the question — they would result in a pile-up.
But while the rear rider controls the lane change, the front rider is the one who sees the obstruction. If a parked truck is blocking the bike lane, all the riders can see it and communicate in time to have the rear rider negotiate out of the bike lane to avoid the obstruction. But if the bike lane is obstructed by a pile of glass or some other hazard, there is not enough time/distance for the leader to see it and communicate from front to rear and negotiate before hitting it. As a result, the front rider has no choice but to swerve and try to communicate the hazard to all the other riders, hoping there are no overtaking cars. There have been many paceline crashes caused by this kind of last-second obstruction avoidance. Bike lanes and shoulders, by their very nature, accumulate hazardous obstructions that are rarely found in a general use lane.
The distance from an intersection at which a single rider would leave a bike lane to prevent intersection crashes must be increased by the length of the paceline and the time/distance it takes to communicate from front to back. Right hooks and other disruptions are caused because a motorist can’t judge the length of a group and distance needed to pass. If a motorist begins passing a group a block from the intersection where he wants to turn, but the group is 80-100ft long and traveling at 30ft per second, he probably won’t reach the front of the group in time to slow for the turn before the intersection. He will face the choice of attempting to speed up and cut the group off, or stop in the thru lane and wait for the group to pass. I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer not to trust my safety to the decisions of a motorist whose judgement is unknown. (See animation for more group bike lane conflicts.)
By groups, I don’t just mean roadies. When we plan social rides like First Friday, s-cargo and ice cream rides, we steer clear of roads with bike lanes. It’s not only too risky, it’s not at all social to have to ride single file in a bike lane, when you could otherwise ride 2 abreast in a general use lane.
So what does it mean?
In the short term, it can’t hurt to have one more legal defense if you get cited by an uninformed police officer who believes you are violating a discriminatory law that shouldn’t exist in the first place. Many police and magistrates are ignorant of how we drive defensively, so they wouldn’t know what constitutes “far right as practicable,” even if they know what the word itself means.
Legal redundancies are an attempt to band-aid a festering problem of ignorance, bias and injustice in a dysfunctional, car-centric traffic culture.
The truth is, “Potentials conflicts” and conditions “that make it unsafe…” are covered by “practicable.” It is not practicable to subject yourself to unsafe conditions or potential conflicts. The exceptions are redundant in the same way the 3ft law is redundant to the law requiring an unspecified safe passing distance (which is really more than 3ft most of the time!) and the duty to exercise due care not to run into people. Both redundancies are an attempt to band-aid a festering problem of ignorance, bias and injustice in a dysfunctional, car-centric traffic culture.
The “far right as practicable” law and its offspring— mandatory use laws for bike lanes, shoulders and side paths—serve no other purpose than getting bicycle drivers out of the way. They were created by the culture of speed (AKA Motordom). The original far right law, added to the UVC in 1944, did not have any exceptions beyond the word practicable. At the same time that law was imposed on bicyclists, the bicycle was downgraded from “vehicle” to “device” in the UVC. At least bicyclists retained the rights and duties of drivers, save for the new restrictions. The familiar exceptions were added in the 1970s, after a failed attempt to remove the far right law altogether. The UVC also restored vehicle status to the bicycle (though a number of states did not adopt that change).
In retrospect, those exceptions may have served to preserve the law itself more than to protect us. In practice, it is the law itself that reinforces the bias. The exceptions are often ignored by law officers as they substitute their biased opinions for accurate interpretation of the law. In practice, even if a cyclist is able to defeat a citation, the time, hassle and costs of legal council are an unfair burden to defend defensive driving (something every other driver is granted without question).
The FBA staff and lobbyists who worked to add this new exception did so because they know we currently don’t have the political or public support to get rid of the law itself. I understand that. I’ve been a part of many discussions on this topic and I still don’t have a clear idea how to proceed politically. I understand advocates in Pennsylvania spent years building relationships in order to create the conditions for having their far right and mandatory side path laws removed from statute. It takes time and deliberate action.
This is not the end
Exceptions or not, the far right and mandatory bike lane laws repress defensive driving practices for the drivers who are most exposed, passed with the highest speed differentials, create the least impact upon the system, and are the least likely to threaten the safety of others. These laws are egregious. The costs of having to fight an unjust and unwarranted citation in a potentially-biased court are onerous. This creates conditions for targeted harassment, such as Fred has suffered in Port Orange, Ormond Beach and recently Daytona Beach. Exceptions or not, they make us second class citizens.
We will not build a healthy community for alternative transportation on second-class citizenship.
So here’s my challenge to all those who want to promote bicycling (bike industry, health industry, environmentalists, new urbanists, etc): The foundation must come first! Put your power, money and energy into helping get rid of these laws entirely. This is the base of the pyramid and without it, we will build nothing of lasting value.