Friday, July 2, 2010

Bicyclists Behaving Badly

It's time to discuss traffic behavior again. There seem to be a lot of new cyclists on the road, plus the usual suspects, and a whole lot of excuses and misinformation.
If you talk about bicycles with any non-bicycle-riding person, you will certainly hear stories of cyclists they encountered who ran red lights, snuck to the front of the line of traffic, etc. Many people think that bicycles are not only allowed, but supposed to ride on sidewalks. Any news story about bicycling is followed by angry comments about lawless bicycle riders. People ask me if cyclists are supposed to stop at traffic lights. Now, there are plenty of traffic infractions going on at any time, it is entirely true that a large percentage of cyclists routinely break traffic laws.

This breeds hostility and confusion. I've been delayed at four-way stops as all traffic comes to a halt because they don't know what I, on my bicycle, am about to do. I've seen drivers run stop signs ahead of me, because they are expecting me to do the same. I've nearly been hit riding my bike through a green light, by some other cyclist who was running the red. I've had to swerve out of my lane because someone is riding the wrong way towards me. I've nearly been hit by bicyclists while walking down the sidewalk.

Sure, some people who ride bicycles think they're part of some special subculture. Whatever. Or they think that past confrontations entitle them to base their traffic operations on their own judgment rather than law. I've heard all the excuses. Some people have elaborate explanations about the justification for their actions.

Well, if you do care about anyone who else who rides a bicycle, or if you think there is any hope for Atlanta to become safe and pleasant for cycling, then start riding legally, now. No excuses.

For all the hundreds of polite drivers you encounter when riding a bike, it's the one jerk that you remember. Same for drivers - they remember the one inconsiderate cyclist instead of the ones who are riding courteously and legally. If bicycle riders, as a whole, are seen by the general public as a routine part of traffic, we will see huge gains in road safety. I don't want to offend anyone here, but trust me, I experience this every day. I'm predictable, law-abiding, and friendly, and get treated with an abundance of patience and respect. I would be thrilled if other people could experience Atlanta's streets the way I do.

Here, once again, are the basics:
  • A bicycle is a vehicle.
  • A person riding a bicycle must follow all of the same laws that apply to driving a car - obeying traffic signals and stop signs, merging and turning safely from the correct lane, stopping for pedestrians where required, and travelling in the roadway in the same direction as any other vehicle. If you shouldn't do something in a car, don't do it on a bicycle. Don't ride on the wrong side of the street or the wrong way on a one-way street. Don't go straight from a right turn lane. Don't stop in the crosswalk. Don't pass on the right or try to share a lane if there isn't enough room.

 There are a few rules specific to bicyclists...
  • Bicycles are doubly prohibited from riding on the sidewalk under two separate state laws. Riding on the sidewalk is not safe, because drivers don't expect anything on the sidewalk to be going faster than, say, 3 miles per hour. They don't look for you on the sidewalk when they are pulling out of a side street or turning off the main road. The sidewalk is where a large percentage of crashes happen. It also scares and endangers pedestrians.

  • Children 12 and under are permitted to bicycle on the sidewalk. Children are theoretically biking at an adult walking pace, which is why they are allowed here. A proficient child cyclist who will be riding at an adult cycling pace should switch to the road.
  • Bicycles operated at night must have a front headlight and rear reflector. I recommend a bright taillight, and don't skimp on it. Mount lights thoughtfully and then have a friend ride your bike down the block and back so you can see how it looks from a distance. Blinking lights may get attention but solid lights are more likely to indicate "moving vehicle" to others on the road.
  • Bicycles may operate in bike lanes and on marked shared-use paths, and may not operate on certain roads where non-motorized vehicles are explicitly prohibited (although there is some debate over the legality of this).
  • Bicycles may not ride more than two abreast. I'm not sure why - we may need to challenge this as we get better and wider bicycle infrastructure. After all, it seems like a big waste of capacity to have only two bikes in a 10 or 12 foot lane.
  • Cyclists should take the lane if it is not wide enough to share. There is no exact definition for a shareable lane; I would say 15 feet minimum. If it is wide enough to share, you are supposed to stay to the right of the lane to the extent it is safe to do so. That means staying far enough from the edge of the road to avoid uneven pavement, gravel, tree branches, etc. It means riding at least 3 feet out from parked cars so you can safely avoid open car doors. Cyclists should change lanes or lane position in order to pass slower traffic - always pass on the left - or to make a left turn, merge, etc.


  1. I understand that the freedom and flexibility of biking tempts cyclists to use the cafeteria plan when it comes to rules of the road, but having almost hit a cyclist who was speeding on a sidewalk and having almost been hit biking by drivers on cell phones, it's just time we all get on the same page about the rules.

    I hear that in the Netherlands, kids go to biking classes as part of the regular curriculum. Maybe we need to do the same in the U.S. Makes me wonder if maybe educated bikers end up making safer auto drivers. Hmmm . . .

  2. Failing mandatory classes for kids (which I think is a good idea, as this is children's first transportation), parents should take an active role in educating them. We can hope they -- and everyone -- would be so responsible.

    Michelle, I love the bold NOs.

  3. The problem I see the most often wear I live is bicyclists going down a one way street in the wrong direction or riding the wrong direction in the bike lane. Very dangerous.

    Here in Flagstaff, bicyclists are allowed to use the sidewalk if their is no bike lane or bike path and the road conditions are bad. In Flagstaff the only place where I use the sidewalk most of the time is on Milton Avenue. It is a drag strip with few stop lights that prohibit speeding. Unfortunately, the streets are dominated here by large trucks and SUV. I suspect the more aggressive drivers don't live here full time or are students. I really hate using the sidewalk but biking on Milton is discouraged. I'll only do so in the early morning.

  4. Yeah, it's funny since today my husband and I rode to lunch and were following all the rules of the road. We came to a 4-way stop and a car arrived at the same time. Since I was a few feet behind my husband, he was waiting for me, even though technically I think he got to the stop right before the car. He was just balancing, trying to avoid unclipping his shoes (was riding a road bike) and I actually had come to a complete stop with a foot down. However, this holier-than-thou Prius driver felt the need to pull up right in front of us and yell through his passenger window "same rules of the road, right"! I swear it's probably good that I didn't have something that I could throw at him since I probably would have been taken to jail. I don't know what it is about Prius drivers that make them think they are even MORE environmentally conscious than bikers, therefore it gives them the right to make snide remarks! Apparently it's still not good enough for some people when bikers do follow the rules of the road.

  5. Lots of good points! And I'm glad no one was offended. :) Bliss Chick and Kyle, the education idea is really important. Other than "look both ways" kids don't really learn about the rules of the road until they hit 16, when they are unleashed on the world with some rudimentary training and a 2-ton piece of speeding metal. Seattle (Feet First) has been conducting some "mobility education" that teaches walking, cycling, and driving in an integrated program. I'd love to hear how it's going.

    She Rides a Bike - I have seen a number of wrong-way cyclists, but didn't have any photos as I was always busy swerving around them! Also, it's a great point about the major thoroughfares - these roads are often the only route in certain areas, but extremely treacherous for cyclists (or for anyone, really). It may take a long, long time for the US to figure out how to fix them, and to find the money to do so. PS - great blog.

    Traci - so true. And ironically, some of the most excessively courteous drivers I have ever encountered were driving Hummers. It sounds like this guy was most troubled by his own confusion - he expected you to run the stop sign, but then couldn't figure out who actually had the right of way when his expectations didn't play out. PS - another great blog, and here in Atlanta!