There are some things that I wish people who rely solely upon cars for transportation understood about people who don’t. (3 Things Cyclists Wish Motorists Understood) But whether there’s understanding or not doesn’t change the fact that there are some laws in place that protect people who are using active forms of transportation. I wish we all knew all the rules — but if I had to narrow it down, I’d say there are three basic rules that everyone should know.
Despite the fact that bikes were around long before cars, the infrastructure available to most American citizens these days has been built primarily for cars. Though most new projects taking place on Fort Collins’ roads include improvements for bicyclists, pedestrians, and sometimes even transit users, this overhaul of our system is going to take a lot of time, money, and work before it’s complete. In the meantime, people on bikes have to make do with the system before us.
We have some great bike trails that have been around since the 1980s. We have wide streets that have made cycling in many areas comfortable, even when there are no designated bike lanes. But we also have some significant gaps in usability. There are some areas where there’s simply no room for a bike lane. And there’s some places where a bike lane exists, then disappears, then reappears, then gets so skinny a chihuahua couldn’t fit safely along it, then it widens out again to the size of a full car width, then disappears again. (…unlike car lanes which tend to say within a certain width pretty much all the time.)
So there are times when the safest place for a cyclist to be is in the center of the traffic lane. (See Skinny Bridge Tactics for Riders/Drivers for more on that.)
There are also times when a bicyclist needs to make a left hand turn. By law, left hand turns have to be made from the left most lane. In order to get there, the cyclist is going to have to gradually move from lane to lane until they’re in the turn lane, just like a car would do. Which means they’ll be in your lane sometimes because they’re going to be turning up ahead.
And there are times when there’s so much freakin’ debris in the bike lane that you could collect all the crud up and build a small house out of it all. Between the branches, gravel, trash, not to mention pot holes and manhole covers, the lane simply is not safe. You might not notice from your car that there’s a problem in the bike lane. But believe me, the bicyclist can feel every bump and rut and rock that they’re hitting. If they’d rather ride in the same lane with cars than put themselves through the debris in the bike lane, then it must be fairly bad. (And note, when a bicyclist is using the traffic lane instead of the bike lane, it’s safest to be in the middle of the lane. And if there are multiple bicyclists traveling in the same direction at the same time, then they can save space on the road by riding two abreast in that lane.)
And here’s the clincher. There’s not just reasons why bicyclists might be riding with you in the traffic lane. There’s laws that back them up. Everything that I’ve described here is completely legal in the state of Colorado.
Fort Collins Traffic Code, 1412. – Operation of bicycles, electrical assisted bicycles and other human-powered vehicles.
(5)(a) Any person operating a bicycle upon a roadway at less than the normal speed of traffic shall ride in the right-hand lane, subject to the following conditions:
(I) If the right-hand lane then available for traffic is wide enough to be safely shared with overtaking vehicles, a bicyclist shall ride far enough to the right as is reasonably prudent to facilitate the movement of such overtaking vehicle unless other conditions make it unsafe to do so.
(II) A bicyclist may use a lane other than the right-hand lane when:
(A) preparing for a left turn at an intersection or into a private roadway or driveway;
(B) overtaking a slower vehicle; or
(C) taking reasonably necessary precautions to avoid hazards or road conditions.
(5)(b) a bicyclist shall not be expected or required to:
(I) ride over or through hazards at the edge of a roadway, including but not limited to fixed or moving objects, parked or moving vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, animals, surface hazards or narrow lanes; or
(II) ride without a reasonable safety margin on the right-hand side of the roadway.
(6)(b) Persons riding bicycles two (2) abreast shall not impede the normal and reasonable movement of traffic and, on a laned roadway, shall ride within a single lane.
Note there’s some inherent conflict between “shall not impede the normal and reasonable movement of traffic” and “may use a lane other than the right-hand lane when….” When part 5 and part 6 seem to be in conflict, that word “reasonable” especially comes into play. If the traffic lane is being used by the cyclist because it’s safer or because they need to make a left hand turn, or any other reason given above, then it is “reasonable” for them to be temporarily impeding traffic. Once it’s safe, and there’s room to do so, the cyclist(s) should get right so blocked traffic can pass (just as would happen for any other slow moving vehicle).
On the other hand, while it’s legal for a bicyclist to pedal along with cars in the traffic lane, the same is not true in reverse. Cars are not allowed in the bike lane unless they are turning or parking. That means a car cannot legally be parked in a bike lane, even if it’s “just for a minute.” Putting your hazard lights on does not make it better.
Not only is parking in the bike lane illegal, it’s also disrespectful. How do you think bicyclists feel when they find their bike lane cluttered up with parked cars, trailers, yard debris, trash cans, and construction signs? How do you think motorists would feel if their travel lane was cluttered with those same items? Bicyclists don’t park their bikes in the traffic lane. Please don’t park your car in the bike lane.
And if you get ticketed or towed for being in the bike lane when you shouldn’t, here’s the Fort Collins Traffic Code that the cop will be referencing:
Fort Collins Traffic Code, 1203. – Obstructing traffic or highway maintenance prohibited.
No person shall park any vehicle upon any street or highway in such a manner or under such conditions as to interfere with the free movement of vehicular traffic or street or highway maintenance.
Fort Collins Traffic Code, 1013. – Driving on roadways with designated bicycle lanes.
Whenever a bicycle lane has been established on a roadway, any person operating a motor vehicle on such roadway shall not drive in the bicycle lane except to park where parking is permitted, to enter or leave the highway or to prepare for a turn. Any person operating a motor vehicle shall not enter a bicycle lane as provided by this Section until yielding the right-of-way to all bicycles lawfully within the bicycle lane.
Whether a person on a bicycle is using the bike lane or the traffic lane, the law requires a 3 foot buffer between the farthest right point of the motor vehicle (which is often the side mirror) and the left side of the bicyclist (which usually means the tip of the left handlebar, although if the cyclist has panniers on the back of their bicycle (those little bags that fit over the sides of the back wheel) then those could be sticking out the furthest).
This is one of those rules that local cops don’t enforce unless you screw up. Rather than ticket a motorist that’s driving too close, the local police may use that situation as an educational opportunity. But if you take out a cyclist because your side mirror smacks into their left handlebar and sends them flying, then it’s quite likely that included among the citations will be this rule about keeping a 3 foot buffer between your vehicle and the bicycle.
Note that keeping that yardstick worth of space between you and the bike doesn’t mean that it’s OK to drive right into oncoming traffic on the road. You’ve got to weigh both sides of the situation and only pass the bicyclist if it is safe to do so. If it’s not safe, then ride a comfortable distance behind the cyclist until it is safe and possible for the cyclist to get right, or the oncoming traffic has a break and you’re able to safely change lanes to pass. (Remember that a car can cross over a double yellow line in order to pass a bicyclist.)
Fort Collins Traffic Code, 1002. – Passing oncoming vehicles.
(2) A driver shall not pass a bicyclist moving in the same direction and in the same lane when there is oncoming traffic unless the driver can simultaneously:
(a) allow oncoming vehicles at least one-half (½) of the main-traveled portion of the roadway in accordance with Subsection (1) of this Section; and
(b) allow the bicyclist at least a three-foot separation between the right side of the driver’s vehicle, including all mirrors or other projections, and the left side of the bicyclist at all times.
Fort Collins Traffic Code, 1008.5. – Crowding or threatening a bicyclist.
(1) The driver of a motor vehicle shall not, in a careless or imprudent manner, drive the vehicle unnecessarily close to, toward or near a bicyclist.
(2) Any person who violates Subsection (1) of this Section commits careless driving as described in Section 1402.
Sources for this article:
The Spring Creek and Poudre Bike Trails were both started in the 1980s according to the Coloradoan. The trails were paid for with a quarter cent sales tax that was voter approved in 1973. (“40 years later, Fort Collins trails well-traveled“, by Stephen Meyers. The Coloradoan, August 11, 2014.)
Thanks to William Hickey and Larey Kerling for helping me find the relevant sections of code regarding parking in the bike lane.
The Fort Collins Traffic Code can be found on the MuniCode website. It mirrors the traffic law for the state of Colorado. So if you see it in the FoCoCode, then it’s probably in the Colorado code as well (often with the exact same wording).