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If You Want to Know Bike Laws, Don’t Ask the California Highway Patrol

Yesterday, regular reader and MetroRider Calwatch sent me a story from the Daily Bulletin that quoted a member of the California Highway Patrol that bike riding two abreast is always illegal.  The worst part of the article was that the CHP initially said that two abreast riding is legal in certain circumstances but then the agency went to great pains to backtrack and make sure to get out the wrong information. 

Not being an expert on the specific sections of state law, I put out a call for help to help me with background on the story.  What I got was an amazing and detailed take down of the article and the CHP by Long Beach uber-activist Dan Gutierrez.

A quick word about the credentials of Gutierrez to respond to a retired CHP officer when it comes to the rights and obligations of cyclists.  He is a certified instructor from the League of American Cyclists, the policy chair for Caltrans' District 7 Bike Advisory Committee, and the California Associaiton of Bicycling Organizations District 7 Director amongst other titles and committees.  In his free time, he makes videos about safe cycling and cyclists legal obligations.  In other words, he knows his stuff.

Even though Gutierrez quotes extensively from the article, I recommend reading it before reading on after the jump.

 Michelle Pearl wrote in the Daily Bulletin:

“The California Vehicle Code book weighs over 3 pounds, has over 1,000 pages and contains over 40,000 laws and provisions. I would love to say that I know every code and every nuance of its numerous sub-decimal appendages by heart, but that wouldn't even come close to being the truth.”

All well and good, but the code sections that are relevant fit nicety on both sides a sub one ounce sheet of 8-1/2” x 11” paper.  In particular 21200, 21650, 21654 and 21202 are the relevant codes to this discussion.

Pearl continued:

… a reader wrote and asked about the legality of bicyclists riding side-by-side. Unable to find a specific mention of this practice in the vehicle code book, I contacted my source in Sacramento, Information Officer Jaime Coffee, who verified that there was no code which specifically stated that the bicyclists riding side-by-side was illegal, although individual municipalities might be able to enforce specialized citywide ordinances.”

It is true that there is no legal prohibition in California for side by side operation by any drivers, or even motorists in very wide lanes.  In addition, the CHP officer has apparently never looked at CVC 21, which requires statewide uniformity of the vehicle codes, unless another specific code gives express authority to local jurisdictions.  Since there are no codes that give local jurisdictions express authority to enact custom movement laws, counties and cities CANNOT enact “specialized citywide ordinances” requiring single file operation because such laws are rendered illegal and unenforceable by virtue of CVC 21.  As a national, state and local cycling advocate and educator, it pains me to read about CA law enforcement agencies like the CHP with officials lacking knowledge of fundamental aspects, such as uniformity, of the California Vehicle Code.

Retired police officer Kevin Cushman took umbrage with this conclusion, and he let me know it in no uncertain terms. Fortified in righteousness from having my answer verified by my ace-in-the-hole in Sacramento, I sent him the contact information to duke it out directly with the Sacramento CHP.

Well, kudos to Officer Cushman for his persistence, as I received the following e-mail from Sacramento:

"Michelle, I was hoping you could run a correction to the answer that we discussed that ran in your column a while back about bicyclists riding side-by-side. After speaking with retired officer Kevin Cushman recently, I decided to pose the question to our folks over in the Vehicle Code section at our Academy. Hopefully, this will prevent anyone from getting a ticket or putting themselves in harm's way."”

First of all, riding side by side is NOT a safety issue.  Officer Cushman is quite wrong about this, since laws like CVC 21202 are NOT for the safety of cyclists (more on this below), they are designed to facilitate the in-lane overtaking of cyclists by faster motorists, not to protect cyclists’ safety.

VC 21202 (a) indicates that any person riding a bicycle upon a roadway at a speed less than the normal speed of traffic moving in the same direction at that time shall ride 'as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway' except if they are passing another bicycle or vehicle, if they are making a right or left turn, or if they need to avoid an obstacle or hazard.

This paraphrasing of the law, and the lack of mention of CVC 21200 and CVC 21654 does Daily Bulletin readers a huge disservice, and doesn’t speak well for the thoroughness of Cushman and the CHP.  CVC 21200 requires that cyclists follow the rest of the vehicle codes because they have the same rights and responsibilities as other drivers.  

Because of this they must follow CVC 21650 (drive on the right half of the roadway), and CVC 21654 which requires that slower drivers “use the right hand lane for traffic or drive as far right as practicable to the curb or edge”.  Which in turn means that any slower drivers, motorist, motorcyclist or bicyclists are required to use the right hand lane, with no intra- lane positioning restrictions, and only drive as close as practicable to the curb or edge when no marked (painted lane stripes) lanes (and therefore no right hand lane) are present.  Thus slower drivers may use the marked right hand lane any way they see fit, and slower motorcyclists may ride two abreast if they so choose.

Why 21654 is important will be apparent shortly.

Unfortunately bicyclists and no other drivers are subject to a discriminatory law, CVC21202, which forces a further restriction on slower cyclists.  Here is the full text of 21202(a):


(a) Any person operating a bicycle upon a roadway at a speedless than the normal speed of traffic moving in the same direction atthat time shall ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb oredge of the roadway except under any of the following situations:   (1) When overtaking and passing another bicycle or vehicle proceedingin the same direction.   (2) When preparing for a left turn at an intersection or into aprivate road or driveway.   (3) When reasonably necessary to avoid conditions (including, but notlimited to, fixed or moving objects, vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians,animals, surface hazards, or substandard width lanes) that make itunsafe to continue along the right-hand curb or edge, subject to theprovisions of Section 21656.  For purposes of this section, a"substandard width lane" is a lane that is too narrow for a bicycle anda vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane.   (4) When approaching a place where a right turn is authorized.

This law has 4 exceptions, the last two being the most important for through travel.  When any one of the exceptions applies, CVC 21202(a) does not apply at all.  So a slower cyclist is only beholden to CVC21654 when any of the above four exceptions applies.  For some reason police officers don’t seem to recognize this important aspect of traffic law.  Now let’s look at the effect of the last two exceptions:

Exception (a)(3) applies to lanes that are not wide enough to share side-by-side with a vehicle.  In other states like Texas, “substandard width” is explicitly called out in traffic law as lanes less then 14 feet wide.  In CA a typical line width is 12 feet wide, and is not wide enough for safe side by side lane sharing.  The upshot of (a)(3) is that most lanes, particularly those in urban areas, which are often 11’ wide or narrower, are not side by side shareable, so cyclists only need follow 21654, and can ride legally anywhere they want in the right hand lane, including two abreast riding.  This has important practical implications across most urban areas in CA.  In my home city of Long Beach for example, well over 99% of the lane miles in the downtown area has lanes that are under 12’ wide, so CVC 21202 doesn’t really  pply.

This is true of every urban core I’ve visited: LA, San Francisco, Santa Monica, Mountain View, etc.

Now lets look at exception (a)(4) which applies when a cyclist is approaching driveways and intersections (places where right turns are authorized).  In these situations cyclists are also bound only by 21654. The reason for this is to allow cyclists to get way from the edge of the road to avoid being right hooked by  otorists and to avoid left cross turns and intersection/driveway pullouts by motorists.   So in residential or commercial areas with frequent driveways and intersections, a cyclist is essentially always approaching a place where a right turn is authorized, so even if the lane are wide, the cyclists doesn’t have to ride near the curb, and two cyclists can ride side by side.

What we can conclude from these last two exceptions may come as a surprise, but in general, through cycling downtown areas with narrow lanes, and commercial areas with frequent driveways are NOT governed by 21202, only 21654.  Thus two abreast cycling is legal.  Even more interesting is the fact that most residential areas, cyclists are similarly exempt from 21202 because of a driveway every 50 feet, so cyclists are not obligated to ride near the edge in these areas either, and can therefore also ride two abreast.

So you may be asking where 21202 does apply.  Here is what we teach our students in our traffic skills classes:

Lane sharing (riding near the curb) for through travel is only required when ALL three constraints apply:

1)  You are moving slower than other traffic (otherwise control the lane)

2)  You are away from driveways and intersections (otherwise control the lane)

3)  The lane is of safe shareable width (otherwise control the lane)

Here is a link to a video, entitled “The Rights and Duties of Cyclists” that shows examples of controlling narrow lanes and sharing wide lanes away from driveways and intersections.

BTW, on the subject of safety, discriminatory FTR (far to right) laws like 21202 are in effect in 42 US states, with 8 states treating cyclists as full and equal drivers.  To understand more about discriminatory laws, please read the “Equality for Cyclists” (6Es) article I co-wrote with League of American Bicyclists’ Board Chair and fellow Certified Traffic Cycling Instructor, Amanda Eichstaedt.

Also note that the League Adopted an Equity Statement (6Es) that specifically targets discriminatory laws for repeal:

“Equality – The equal legal status and equal treatment of cyclists in traffic law. All US states must adopt fair, equitable and uniform traffic laws, that are “vehicle-neutral” to the greatest extent possible. Cyclists’ ability to access to all destinations must be protected. State and local laws that discriminate against cyclists, or restrict their right to travel, or reduce their relative safety, must be repealed.”

And finally here is a graphic showing the relationships of the 6Es. .

With all this in mind, the discriminatory NY state FTR law explicitly states the reason for the law in the legal text itself:

Ҥ 1234. Riding on roadways, shoulders, bicycle or in-line skate lanes and bicycle or in-line skate paths.

(a) Upon all roadways, any bicycle or in-line skate shall be driven either on a usable bicycle or in-line skate lane or, if a usable bicycle or in-line skate lane has not been provided, near the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway or upon a usable right-hand shoulder in such a  anner as to prevent undue interference with the flow of traffic except:

- when preparing for a left turn or

- when reasonably necessary to avoid conditions that would make itunsafe to continue along near the right-hand curb or edge. Conditions tobe taken into consideration include, but are not limited to,

- fixed or moving objects,

- vehicles, bicycles, in-line skates, pedestrians, animals,

- surface hazards or

- traffic lanes too narrow for a bicycle or person on in-line skates anda vehicle to travel safely side-by-side within the lane.”

The key phrase is “near the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway … in such a manner as to prevent  interference with the flow of traffic”.  Thus the purpose of the law is NOT for cyclist safety; rather
it is to get cyclists “out of the way” of the flow of traffic (- as if bicyclists weren’t traffic!).  Normally faster traffic is expected make safe lane changes to pass slower traffic in the right hand lane instead of making in-lane passes, whereas slower traffic is normally not expected to “get out of the way” of faster traffic by abandoning control of the right hand lane.

Most of the FTR laws in the US (yes, I’ve reviewed all 42 of them) have a provision exempting cyclists from sharing a lane that is too narrow for safe side-by-side car-bike sharing, and this is a dead giveaway that the purpose of the law is to force slower cyclists, and no other drivers, to abandon control of the right hand lane to allow faster traffic to pass on the left within the same lane.  This isn’t about cyclist safety; it is about motorist overtaking convenience.

The Bulletin quotes the CHP one last time:

So, if a bicyclist is riding next to another cyclist (or side-by-side) than there's no way the cyclist on the outside could be riding as close as practical to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway... and therefore would be in violation of VC Section 21202(a) and could be cited by an officer.  Hope that helps.....” Jaime Coffee, Information Officer II, CHP Media Relations.

First of all, the cyclist closer to the center of the road is further “inside” the lane, not “outside”, since the curb is as far “outside” as one can get in the roadway!  While it is true that in, say a 15’ wide and therefore shareable lane, away from driveways and intersections, a leftward cyclist in a pair of slower cyclists that are riding side by side near the curb could be cited, but this is rather the exception
rather than the norm in most urban areas of California!

It is extremely disappointing that so few in law enforcement know the operating laws, and the reasons behind the laws, sometimes discriminatory, that pertain to bicycling on public roads in CA.

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