When it comes to the rules of the road, bicycles live in a special hybrid zone that allows them to operate under the rules for cars or under the rules for pedestrians. It really all depends on where the cyclist is traveling… on the road or on a walkway. There are also some rules that apply only to cyclists and to no others. It’s no wonder that cyclists, and motorists, can so easily get confused about what’s legal and what’s not.
Over time, I’ll address each of the rules of the road for bicyclists. (I’ve already covered two: rules for right hand turns and times to “take the lane.”) But today I just want to walk through some simple umbrella rules that will help you to know how to operate when you have no idea what the rules are. And those times do come. All it takes is one “Road Construction Ahead” sign, and your usual daily route might have to be scrapped and replaced with some spur of the moment decision making.
When in doubt, act like a car. Or act like a pedestrian. But trying to do both at once (traveling in a pedestrian manner at closer to an automobile speed) only puts yourself and others in danger.
Act like a car
More often than not, you should act like a car. Most of us have completed drivers training and have a drivers license, so this should theoretically be pretty easy to do. But for whatever reason, the presence of a bicycle can sometimes scramble people’s brains. I’ve seen this happen with people that are on a bike. (“Hello! That was a red light. Everyone needs to come to a complete stop, even you!”) And I’ve seen this happen when I’m on the bike and people are driving or walking near me. (“You got to the intersection before me. That means you have the right of way. So please stop trying to wave me on.”) I don’t understand it, but there appears to be some magical force that surrounds bicycles and clouds people’s minds.
I think that for all vehicles, we have to train ourselves to act rationally because we often have to make split second decisions and rational responses don’t always come naturally. Until you’ve trained yourself to make the right choice automatically, you’ll probably have to spend some time thinking through what your correct response should be. Let me take an example that I’ve seen lately.
Eastbound Mountain Avenue between Shields and Grant street has been closed while the city pulls out the 100 year old water pipes and replaces them. So the south side of the street has been blocked off and traffic is being diverted along Oak Street, which is only one block to the south. Every single motorist that wants to travel along that section of Mountain has, rightly, chosen to either take the posted detour, or to follow another appropriate detour of their own choosing. Cyclists, on the other hand? Oh Lordy. I’ve seen person after person put themselves and others in harms way because they decide that they can follow their own rules in such circumstances. Instead of following the detour, or finding some other street to detour on, they’ve used the bike lane (or the sidewalk) and traveled against the flow of traffic on the north side of the street.
Riding in a bike lane against the flow of traffic is illegal. [CRS 42-4-1002. (1) Drivers of vehicles proceeding in opposite directions shall pass each other to the right.]
Riding on the sidewalk against the flow of traffic is legal, but dangerous. (Just because something is allowed, doesn’t mean it’s safe. Riding on the sidewalk against traffic should only be used for very short sections. I’d recommend they be sections less than a block in length. If you have to travel further than that, you should find another travel route.) Riding on the sidewalk also means you’re operating like a pedestrian. So you’ll be using some different rules than when you’re operating as a car. (See below.)
The only exception that I would make to what I’ve said above is when the construction is finished and the road blocking signs are only up because there’s still landscaping work to be completed. At that point I would feel comfortable using that section of road as part of my route. (I call this period during road construction the “Open Streets” stage.)
Act like a pedestrian
It is entirely legal for a cyclist to operate like a pedestrian instead of a motorist. This means riding on sidewalks, crossing intersections at the crosswalk instead of in the travel lane, and using dirt paths (sometimes called social trails). Parents usually encourage their children to use sidewalks rather than streets (and with good reason). There are also some adults that simply feel safer on the sidewalk. And there are times when the place you’re trying to get to is only accessible by sidewalk. (Businesses along College come to mind.)
But bicycles can travel a lot faster than pedestrians, which can be a problem. In the same way that we want motorists to respect us when we’re sharing the road, in the same way we need to respect pedestrians when we’re sharing the walkways. Don’t buzz past a person without warning. Always give some sort of audible signal that you’re coming up behind someone. A bike bell works well, but if you don’t have a bell, just call out “passing on your left” as you approach. Oh, and did you catch that. Pass on the left. Granted, sometimes pedestrians step left to get out of the way rather than right. It happens. You have to approach at a speed which will allow you to stop suddenly if need be. But more often than not, the pedestrian will assume you will pass on the left and they’ll step to the right. You just need to let them know you’re coming.
And if you’re traveling in a space that includes pedestrians, then you should travel at a speed that will allow you to adjust for their unpredictable behavior patterns. The wonderful thing about being a pedestrian is that you can change travel directions on a dime. You can travel at variable speeds as needed. And you can usually text or call others without concerns of killing anyone. So pedestrians are less of a hazard to those around them than cyclists or motorists. But it’s also harder to anticipate their actions. Add a dog or a child to the picture, and speed control becomes even more imperative. You don’t have to travel as slow as a pedestrian. But you should travel slow enough that you can stop quickly if need be. If you’re in a hurry, you should plan on behaving like a motorist and using the street. But if you feel safer on the sidewalk, or need to use the sidewalk for some other reason, then cap your speed.
When riding on the sidewalk, also be aware of driveways and other points where cars and pedestrians will be crossing your path. Another reason to ride slower than you would if you were on the street is to make sure anyone crossing your path has time to see you coming. If you’re traveling at closer to a regular biking speed, you’ll “come out of nowhere” and it’s very likely you’ll either run over a pedestrian or you’ll be run over by a car. So don’t do that. As I said above, if you’re in a hurry, you should use the street and behave like a car.
Don’t Confuse Matters
When in doubt, act like a car… or a pedestrian… but not both. The reason we operate as one or the other is for predicability. We want others to be able to predict what we’re going to do so that they can make smart decisions about how to operate in our presence. Traffic will travel more smoothly and everyone involved will be safer.
Zipping up onto the sidewalk, then back to the street, then back to the sidewalk, and so on, just leads to confusion for pedestrians and motorists alike. Pick one and stick with it.
There may be times when you need to transition from traveling one way to traveling the other, but then adjust your behavior as well. If you pop onto the sidewalk from the street, slow your speed until you’re traveling at a safe pace to be around pedestrians. And if you pop onto the street, don’t ride against traffic or weave around people like you might if you were a pedestrian. People shouldn’t have to crane their necks around to figure out where you’re at or what you’re up to.
Our behavior as cyclists is more transparent when we follow a common set of rules. The more we can learn and stick to the rules of the road, the more predictable we’ll become. And the more predictable we are, the fewer accidents there will be.