The following article by Brendan Kevenides originally appeared on the Urban Velo website.
Ever expanding bicycle infrastructure is awesome, hands down. But are you compelled to use a bike lane or separated path if it exists, even if it is in disrepair or otherwise not suitable? Read on.
Q:There are new bike lanes popping up all over. That’s cool, but do I have to ride in them?
Bike lanes are awesome, except when they’re not. As someone who has been riding in the big bad city for decades, I am thrilled at the proliferation of bike specific infrastructure in my town and others nationwide. Our cities are evolving. However, no big North American city can claim to be on par with bike meccas like Amsterdam and Copenhagen. In the evolutionary timeline we have crawled out of the primordial ooze, but we are still pretty wet behind the ears. Sometimes bike lanes, and other cycle specific infrastructure, suck. Thankfully, in most places bicyclists are not required to use bike lanes or separated paths.
There are several reasons why a cyclist might choose not to ride in a bike lane. It may be in disrepair, full of potholes, ruts or broken glass. Leaving the bike lane may be the safe thing to do. It is common in U.S. cities for the lanes to be occupied illegally by cars, delivery trucks or other vehicles. Here in Chicago, buses are permitted to share bicycle lanes with people on bikes. In the winter months, bike paths maybe rendered impassable due to the accumulation of snow and ice. There are even times when cycling on a path or in a bike lane clear of obstructions just does not make sense. For example, a roadie on a training ride may be advised to avoid a path crowded with cyclists traveling at a more leisurely pace.
There once was a time when the majority of U.S. states had what are commonly referred to as “mandatory use laws,” that is laws that require cyclists to use a bike specific path or other designated area located adjacent to a regular travel lane. These laws were more common at a time when there were actually fewer such paths in existence, and virtually no bike lanes in North American cities. According to the League of American Bicyclists, “In the 1970s, mandatory use laws of some sort existed in 38 states.” Now, however, there are far fewer such laws, many having been repealed. Illinois’ vehicle code has no mandatory use requirement. Until recently, the municipal code of Chicago had such a requirement which read, “Whenever a usable path for bicycles has been provided adjacent to a roadway, bicycle riders shall use such path and shall not use the roadway.” The ordinance did not define what a usable path was. Was it a bike lane with nothing more than a painted line separating cars and bikes? Or, was more substantial separation required, like a jersey barrier? This vagueness ultimately lead to repeal of the ordinance in June, 2013.
Cyclists throughout Illinois and in places like Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and many others cyclists may ignore bike lanes and paths for any reason. In other jurisdictions a cyclist’s right to do so is qualified. For example, in California a bicyclist must use a bicycle lane where one is provided, unless he or she is traveling at the same speed as traffic moving in the same direction. California bikers may also abandon the lane when overtaking another bicyclist or pedestrian, when preparing to turn left, to avoid debris or hazardous conditions or when approaching a place where a right turn is authorized. The law in New York seems to be the same. Where there are bike lanes, cyclists have to use them. It appears, however, that cyclists there may abandon them under the same circumstances set for the in California Code.
The state with perhaps the scariest mandatory use language is one generally considered the most bike friendly in North America, Oregon. Its vehicle code states that, “A person commits the offense of failure to use a bicycle lane or path if the person operates a bicycle on any portion of a roadway that is not a bicycle lane or bicycle path when a bicycle lane or bicycle path is adjacent to or near the roadway.”
An “offense.” Yikes. Still, even in Oregon a bike lane or path may be abandoned to pass other cyclists, to make a left turn, to avoid hazard and to execute a right turn. Also, Oregon provides that a person need not comply with the mandatory use law unless it has been determined after public hearing that the bike lane or path is “suitable for safe bicycle use at reasonable rates of speed.”
As is generally the case, knowing what the law requires depends on the particular circumstances and where you are. If you want to check the law on mandatory use in your state, The League of American Bicyclists has a very helpful chart online. Be advised, however, that laws can change at any time without notice.