Picture a bike.
Now picture a car.
And now, pictures some pedestrians.
Are you seeing what I’m seeing here? They’re so… different. Its true—bikes are not cars, and cars are not bikes. And bikes and cars aren’t pedestrians and—you get the picture. And yet, when it comes to bikes and cars, in the eyes of the law the distinction is not so clear. Most states classify bicycles as “vehicles,” and therefore bicyclists as “drivers” of vehicles.
Practically what this means is: car rules are bike rules. So if bicyclists are so different from cars and pedestrians, why do the laws that apply to cars also apply to bikes? Well, mostly for good reason. Chaos would ensue if the rules governing bicyclist behavior differed radically from the rules governing cars.
But, there are some car rules that really shouldn’t be bike rules, and there are some rules that are probably better suited for bikes. Because here’s the thing: biking is on the rise. Several reports indicate that the share of bike commuting is increasing, and the more we learn about emerging demographic preferences the more we should expect that increase to continue. We are entering an era where biking and walking are increasingly important parts of the overall transportation picture, but we’re behind when it comes to establishing the rules, norms and etiquette that will help the different modes work together. Work together in ways that are safe for all, efficient for all, and pleasant for all. As long as our roadways are built the way they are and as long as cyclists share the road with motorists, there need to be specific rules for interaction—that much is obvious.
But we need to recognize the inherent differences between the two, and develop rules that elevate the status of the bicycle at the same time they sensibly manage conduct to account for safety and a fully functional traffic system. Some states have moved in this direction by addressing a few specific rules for cyclists, but often they are unfair or even punitive. We need to do better. At the risk of becoming a pariah with my bike buddies, I’ve made a list of rules I think ought to be adopted. I think that if adopted, they’d help better integrate biking into the transportation system. Here they are:
The Bike Rules
Rule #1. Make it clear that bicyclists must travel with traffic, for good reason–it’s safer for bicyclists and motorists alike. Some states don’t do this, and they should. Provide for penalties when riders travel against traffic. While it’s true there are many one way streets, I find it hard to believe that it’s asking too much to circle the block, or walk the bike on the sidewalk.
Rule #2. Nix the “far right” rule, which requires cyclists to stay as far to the right of the roadway as possible, even in circumstances where it’s unsafe or difficult to do so. That in and of itself is punitive. On top of that, most states also have a “slow moving vehicle” rule that requires slower vehicles to stay to the right to allow faster moving vehicles to pass on the left. Not only is the far right rule discriminating specifically against bikers, it’s also redundant.
Rule #3. Apropos to rule #2, encourage bike lane use, but don’t mandate it. Bike lanes, especially in the west, are overlooked for maintenance and street cleaning and are the repositories of heavy winter snow—sometimes impossible to use. They often contain road detritus and compromise safety if there are potholes or blockages. When conditions allow, bikers should use available bike lanes, but it should not be punitive for bikers to be on the roadway when there are other options available. Same goes for shoulders and side paths.
Rule #4. Legalize the “Idaho stop”. This allows cyclists to move through an intersection against a red light when there is no opposing traffic. Mind you, it doesn’t mean that they can blow through a stop sign. It means that bikers may treat stop signs more like yield signs.
Rule #5. Like rule #4, when confronted with a school bus stop, cyclists should stop if the street is trafficked, but otherwise be allowed to treat the stop as a yield, proceeding slowly and with caution. Again, this is not the same thing as blowing through this stop. Pedestrians have the first right of way—especially children for crying out loud!
Rule #6. There should be an explicit acknowledgement of bicyclists being able to park on the sidewalk. You know, where the bike racks are. Since “bikes are vehicles” and vehicles cannot park on a sidewalk, some cycling cynic could argued that bikes don’t belong. This is a quintessential example of the “bikes aren’t cars” idea.
Rule #7. Lighting on the front and back of the bicycle should be required when operated at night. Most states require a white light on the front, but few require a red light in the rear, opting instead for reflectors. See and be seen—put a light on the front and back. Reflectors on the side should be required as well, though the nature of how that’s accomplished should be flexible.
Rule #8. Cyclists should demonstrate their intent to turn by using hand signals. However, they should be exempt from “continuous signaling, ” which requires drivers to activate their turn signal a certain distance away from the intended turn, then keep the signal active until they reach the turn. Since cyclists need two hands to most effectively control their bike, especially while turning, they should be exempt from continuous signaling.
Rule #9. Helmets should be required. Evidently there is a…not heated necessarily, but warm argument, going on over this issue. Here is a good breakdown of both sides. But I find the helmet-less argument quite a bit less compelling than I find the helmeted argument. They protect your noggin, pure and simple. I admit that some of these may seem onerous to the hard core biking contingent out there. Some will probably be perceived as being too “bike-centric” irritating our motorist friends.
Sorry. We are not yet at a point in our national evolution where bikers are the sole or universally accepted roadway habitants. Renegade and reckless bicycling does nothing to make that happen. If you want to accelerate the pace by which bikes become a more widely accepted transport mode, your best course is to follow the rules. And to make better rules. And anyway, these scofflaw bikers still pose a danger to the even less-protected pedestrian.
p.s. In writing this post, I came across a number of other ideas that don’t fit neatly in the “bike rules” rubric, but are still important pieces of a more complete bicycling future. I will post some thoughts about that next week, as well as a few resources for more information.