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Bicycle Safety on Bay Area Roads: Five Laws to Remember

| May 3, 2013
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On my way to KQED the other day, I pulled up next to a fellow bicyclist who shot me a quizzical glance. “Do you know whether we have to follow traffic regulations?” she asked.

Umm….Yeah.

I’d like to say her ignorance surprised me. But it was hardly the first time I stumbled across gross confusion about the place of bicycles on the road and in the law.

(Flickr)

(Getty Images)

A couple of years ago, my son reported that one of his friends thought bicyclists weren’t allowed on streets at all — only sidewalks.

Then there was the guy in the truck who stopped me on Brannan Street to direct me to a bike lane two blocks over. And nearly every week a motorist honks at me for no apparent reason.

Such confusion is all the most important these days because, as the number of bicyclists increases in the Bay Area, so does the potential for accidents.

On Tuesday, Chris Bucchere, a cyclist accused of killing a 71-year-old pedestrian who was crossing the street in the Castro district in March 2012, appeared in court on manslaughter charges.

The hearing was mostly procedural, but the San Francisco district attorney’s office has emphasized the importance of traffic regulations in the case. “… Multiple witnesses took the stand, and court testimony indicated that Mr. Bucchere ran three red lights and a stop sign at over 30 mph before killing Mr. Sutchi Hui,” the San Francisco district attorney’s office said in a March 22 statement.

Bucchere’s attorney did not return my call, but earlier he told the San Francisco Chronicle that Bucchere thought he had obeyed all the rules.

It might take a jury to ultimately sort out what happened in the accident. So, in the meantime, here are some important — and perhaps surprising — facts for cyclists, motorists and pedestrians to keep in mind on Bay Area streets.

1) Bicyclists don’t have to ride in bike lanes, or even stay to the right.

In general, California law calls on cyclists to stay to the right and use bike lanes when available, but cyclists can ride elsewhere if they find it safer to do so.

Specifically cyclists can ride in the left part of a lane to make a left turn or on the left side of a multi-lane, one-way street.

They can move into the middle of the lane to avoid obstacles — including when cars are parked along the curb, because motorists often open car doors and can knock cyclists down.

Bicyclists also can move away from the right side of the lane near intersections where motorists might want to make right turns in front of them.

2) Bicyclists are required to use a light and reflectors at night. They must have a headlight and reflectors to the rear, on each “pedal, shoe or ankle,” and on the sides of the bike.

3) Cyclists must yield to pedestrians. In California, unlike many other states, bicyclists have to stop for people crossing the street on foot, just as motorists do. Bicyclists can take advantage of the same right of way by dismounting. As long as they are only walking their bikes, they become pedestrians for the purpose of the law.

4) Bikes have to stop at stop signs and traffic lights. As frustrating as it might feel when you’ve pumped your way to a beautiful speed, you can’t just sail through a stop sign, even if there’s no one else in the intersection. Bicyclists can’t go the wrong way on a one-way street either.

5) Bicyclists can ride on sidewalks, but the rules vary from one community to another in California. In San Francisco, you can’t ride on a sidewalk after you reach age 14. In Oakland, you can ride on a sidewalk if your bicycle has wheels of less than 20 inches in diameter or a frame of less than 14 inches in length.

How about Silicon Valley? Here’s what the Peninsula Press found out in researching that question:

Sidewalk cycling laws vary by jurisdiction in the South Bay. Riding on the sidewalk is legal everywhere in San Jose but illegal in other cities, including nearby Campbell. Other neighboring cities, like Sunnyvale and Gilroy, allow cyclists on sidewalks everywhere except business districts as defined by a city’s municipal code. Mountain View has the same restrictions, but in business districts as defined by the California Vehicular Code.

You have a week to bone up: bicycle groups are celebrating Bike to Work Day May 9 around the Bay Area.

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Category: Transportation

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  • ZA_SF

    Hear! hear! My personal pet peeve is to the cyclists riding the wrong way in a bike lane, especially around blind corners. It’s not just illegal, it’s suicidal.

  • http://twitter.com/BikeBlogChris Christopher Kidd

    Rules for sidewalk riding are left up to each city, with predictably scattershot results. I recently completed a study of sidewalk riding rules for every City and County in the state of California: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0AtzV0IstD_iNdENubXRBcjdWekdjQ0ZVZDZ2ejd5T0E#gid=0

    Bicyclists are never sure of where they can, and cannot, legally ride on the sidewalk. Drivers are often unaware as well; irate drivers have often told me to “get on the sidewalk”, even in cities where it’s illegal. Worse, there is almost never any signage letting bicyclists know what rules exist where.
    Imagine what would happen were the “right-turn-on-red” law applied city by city, but with no signage or education to let drivers know where it was legal and where it wasn’t? It would be total chaos. That bicyclists aren’t afforded the same certainty starkly shows the second-class status they are given as a legitimate mode of transportation.

    • Prinzrob

      Indeed! This is specifically why we tell attendees of our free bike safety classes to just always stay off the sidewalk, so they can be sure they are in compliance. Beyond conflicts with pedestrians, sidewalks are often just a bad place to bike due to visibility issues with drivers, sidewalk surface issues, lack of curb ramps, difficulty in making turns across the street, etc.

      CA has a universal vehicle code which means the same bike laws are supposed to apply everywhere, with exceptions built in just for bike registration requirements and sidewalk cycling laws. I’d say it’s time we standardized the sidewalk laws, as I can’t think of any good reasons for them to change across city borders.

    • Stacey

      I still think it’s common sense to follow traffic signs such as lights and stop signs. I don’t always see cyclists doing this.

      • http://www.bikexprt.com/streetsmarts/usa/index.htm billdav

        Everyone should obey the rules of the road. Motorists are the ones doing most of the killing and serious injury and property damage on the road. I see more motorists breaking the law than bicyclists.

        • Stacey SumSum Rivet

          Motorists sure do no doubt but a cyclist isnt going to be pointing fingers with a fatal accident from initially a motorist ‘s negligence. The latter will be the one to survive an accident. My dad told me when navigating the streets as a youngin to never trust anybody on the road. It appalls me to see cyclists “trust” that motorists will behave…id follow the rules to stay alive and wait five mins to cross the road if that’s what it took. There needs to be better road laws and navigation for cyclists to further aid in protecting them against motorists.

          • http://www.bikexprt.com/streetsmarts/usa/index.htm billdav

            Actually, there needs to be better education about how to ride a bicycle safely in traffic. This education needs to go to everyone. I don’t trust drivers to do the right thing. I do trust them to behave the way that they normally behave.

  • Guest

    thanks for the list, as a motorist, motorcyclist, and a pedestrian living in the City, 3, 4, and 5 are all very nice but yes I won’t disregard 1 & 2

  • Amanda HK

    Laird Harrison just wrote the following mind-boggling statement: “Cyclists must yield to pedestrians.” He is dead wrong. And speaking of dying, I sincerely hope his mistake doesn’t make him the next one of the nearly 20 pedestrians who die every year on San Francisco’s roadways. Most of these people wouldn’t have to die if BOTH sides — pedestrians AND vehicles — understood an acted in accordance with the vehicle code.

    Laird, like the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, has misquoted CVC 21954 and interpreted it to mean that “cyclists must yield to pedestrians.” Allow me to quote the entire section so everyone can see how absurd Laird’s statement is.

    CVC Section 21954 Pedestrians Outside Crosswalks

    21954. (a) Every pedestrian upon a roadway at any point other than within a marked crosswalk or within an unmarked crosswalk at an intersection shall yield the right-of-way to all vehicles upon the roadway so near as to constitute an immediate hazard.

    (b) The provisions of this section shall not relieve the driver of a vehicle from the duty to exercise due care for the safety of any pedestrian upon a roadway.

    Read subsection (a) again: EVERY PEDESTRIAN . . . SHALL YIELD THE RIGHT-OF-WAY TO ALL VEHICLES UPON THE ROADWAY. That’s right: ALL VEHICLES. That includes bicycles.

    Subsection (a) also implies that IF the pedestrian is in A MARKED CROSSWALK OR WITHIN AN UNMARKED CROSSWALK AT AN INTERSECTION, then the vehicle must yield to the pedestrian.

    Subsection (b) says that vehicle operators should be careful. No one can possibly disagree with that. But (b) doesn’t make any claim about yielding and/or about who has the right-of-way.

    Bicycles — like all other vehicles — must yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk or lawfully crossing at an intersection. But if the pedestrians enter the roadway in ANY OTHER FASHION — including stepping out into the bike lane from between two parked cars, running across the street to catch a cab, crossing against a DON’T WALK indicator or crossing the street ANYWHERE other than IN A CROSSWALK or AT AN INTERSECTION, then THE PEDESTRIAN MUST YIELD TO THE VEHICLE. And since, in California, bicycles are vehicles, the pedestrian must yield to the bicycle.

    Of course it’s as ridiculous to say that pedestrians should ALWAYS yield to bicycles as it is to say that bicycles should ALWAYS yield to pedestrians. As with every other situation involving right-of-way vs. yield circumstances, it ALWAYS boils down to specific circumstances. Right-of-way is not some kind of God-given right or, as I read one commenter write once: “right-of-way is inversely proportional to weight.” Meaning that they thought the bigger you are, the less right-of-way you have. I’m not kidding, somebody really wrote that. And they weren’t being facetious! I hope they never decide to put that belief to the test by walking in front of a freight train.

    Right-of-way is not automatically granted to someone just because she is a pedestrian, any more than it might be automatically granted to a vehicle. It always depends on the specific situation. And it’s dangerous advice — and sometimes deadly advice — to give to pedestrians. For that reason, Laird and the SFBC should stop spouting this nonsense.

    Furthermore, cherry-picking some garbage Laird read about the Bucchere case somewhere and using it to support his argument is completely asinine. It’s well-documented by Forbes that the eyewitness testimony he referred to was disproven by video evidence. Every attorney knows that eyewitness testimony is the least-accurate form of evidence and video is, well, video. If Laird had done proper research, he might have picked a case where every “fact” brought before the court by the prosecution wasn’t challenged and debunked. That’s probably why the Bucchere has dragged on for almost a year-and-a-half without any kind of resolution. Here’s the Forbes article for reference: http://www.forbes.com/sites/kashmirhill/2013/03/15/google-glass-will-be-incredible-for-the-courtroom

    I applaud Laird for trying to educate people in the CVC. And, in his defense, he did get one thing right: people don’t understand the rules of the road. What he neglected to mention was that he doesn’t either.

    • http://twitter.com/WhoTheHellIsKyt Kyt

      “to all vehicles upon the roadway so near as to constitute an immediate hazard.”

      that’s a great rant but you have to remember every part of the law is up to interpretation in court. Me personally, I’m leaning towards the idea that a speeding and wreckless vehicle is still at fault when running over a pedestrian, especially if everyone on the curb judged that the bike was far enough away that crossing the street was safe as interpreted by the term “immediate hazard”.

      If not, then we’re going to see a lot of future defense saying “sure I was speeding and blowing through lights but they shouldn’t have been crossing the street”

      • http://www.bikexprt.com/streetsmarts/usa/index.htm billdav

        The part you quoted only applies when the pedestrian is crossing some place other than a crosswalk or unmarked crosswalk at an intersection.

        • Amanda HK

          I didn’t quote it of my own accord. I’m objecting to Laird’s use of CVC 21954. Follow the hyperlink in Laird’s article, bullet #3: “Cyclists must yield to pedestrians.” <– he incorrectly quoted the CVC. I just wanted to make sure everyone knew what underlying information he was using to back his fallacious logic.

      • Amanda HK

        I’m not done ranting yet.

        You wrote: “a speeding and wreckless [sic.] vehicle is still at fault when running over a pedestrian, especially if everyone on the curb judged that the bike was far enough away that crossing the street was safe as interpreted by the term ‘immediate hazard.’”

        That assumes that Bucchere was in fact speeding and acting recklessly. So I take it not only were you there at the scene to witness the speeding and the recklessness, but that you actually saw into the minds of the pedestrians on the curb and channeled their thoughts that the bike didn’t present a hazard. But in the end I guess it did, didn’t it?

        FYI, I was AT the preliminary hearing. I got to watch the video over and over and over and over, as did everyone else in the courtroom. In journalism, that’s called being a primary source. All you’re doing is believing and regurgitating the drivel you read in Matier & Ross’s gossip column. They have a “tip line.” If you want them to print something, just make something up, call in and leave your little tidbit on the tip line. Then see what happens.

        If you were at the hearing — if you had watched the video — you would have seen that many — I counted at least six — pedestrians started crossing up to seven seconds before the WALK symbol came on, converging upon Bucchere and giving him no chance of getting out of that intersection in one piece. Moreover, nearly everything the three eyewitnesses said and nearly every word the DA’s “expert witness” said were directly contradicted by the video evidence the DA introduced.

        So if the bike entered on yellow and the pedestrians entered against the DON’T WALK, then you’re right: “they shouldn’t have been crossing the street.”

    • Prinzrob

      For the record, bicycles are not classified as vehicles in the CVC but as devices, the operators of which are afforded the same rights and responsibilities as the operators of vehicles. This works in bicyclists’ favor for the most part, but it also makes for some very confusing conversations about the law and its application.

      • Amanda HK

        Can you point to one example of how a vehicle and a device are different with respect to the CVC? As far as I can tell, they’re the same thing.

        • http://www.bikexprt.com/streetsmarts/usa/index.htm billdav

          It’s really academic but vehicles must have VIN’s. Devices don’t need VIN’s.

  • http://www.bikexprt.com/streetsmarts/usa/index.htm billdav

    It’s just sad that anyone finds any of these things surprising. It’s basic rules of the road. Everyone should already know these things. However, try crossing an uncontrolled intersection on foot some time and see how many motorists will actually yield to you as required by CVC 21954.

  • saimin

    Some sidewalks are designated bike paths, which is kind of confusing. E.g. the Embarcadero in San Francisco and various paths in Golden Gate Park and the Panhandle.

    • http://acme.com/jef/ Jef Poskanzer

      And the Ohlone Greenway in Berkeley/Albany/El Cerrito, which unlike the others you mention has some street crossings controlled only by a crosswalk. Which leads to no end of amusement.

  • Prinzrob

    Thanks for this detailed article. When writing about cycling laws journalists have the tendency to leave out some important pieces of information, so I am happy to see that you covered the subject of when one can leave a bike lane or right side of a roadway rather completely. A couple points were left out, however, as follows:

    1) Bicyclists can leave the right side or bike lane when traveling the speed of traffic (going down hills, waiting at stop lights, in heavy/slow traffic, etc).

    2) Bicyclists can leave the right side or bike lane to pass (other bicyclists, drivers, busses, etc).

    3) You stated correctly that bicyclists can leave the right side or bike lane “near intersections where motorists may want to make right turns”, but the law actually states “anywhere where right turns are permitted” which means not just intersections, but also driveways, right turn lanes, curb cuts into parking lots, and so forth. In an urban environment these are almost constant, so there is almost always an excuse to leave the bike lane if one deems it necessary.

  • Cycling grandma

    I was cycling with my grandchildren recently in Palo Alto, attempting to teach them to safely operate their bikes in a bike lane. One of them, aged 8, said But bicyclists don’t have to stop at stop signs. We stopped at every stop sign

    • http://www.bikexprt.com/streetsmarts/usa/index.htm billdav

      Nice. That’s more than most motorists do.

  • Jonny in Oakland

    Selective enforcement of the “bicycling on Sidewalk” law is often used as an excuse to stop individuals with the intent to search. I was stopped in Oakland in front of a coffee shop not 10 ft from a bike rack, then asked if I had any illegal drugs or weapons. The officer then tried to turn my declaration of my rights as a citizen to refuse search without probable cause as evidence of possession of a controlled substance. I requested another officer at the scene. The officer called backup. Backup arrived, promptly wrote me a ticket, and let me go on my way. The first officer was irate, said I was “lucky” (???). I fought the charge, but the judge found me guilty (I was on the sidewalk, true), despite the officers aggressive behavior, my proximity to the bike rack, and the presence of other riders on the sidewalk within view (all deemed “irrelevant”). Moral of the story: my defense should have been that I felt safer on the sidewalk at the time due to traffic conditions.

  • http://www.bikexprt.com/streetsmarts/usa/index.htm billdav

    The most common reason that it is unsafe for bicyclists to ride to the far right was not mentioned. That is lanes that are too narrow for a bicycle and a car to travel safely side by side within the lane (CVC 21202(a)(3)). Most traffic lanes are not wide enough for bicycles and cars to travel safely side by side within the lane. Motorists tend to try to stay in their lane no matter what and this is why bicyclists who ride to the far right are frequently subjected to dangerously close passes. Bicyclists who ride in the middle of the lane don’t get nearly as many. Some lanes are wide enough (>14 feet) but most are 12 feet wide or less, which is simply inadequate for a bicycle and a car side by side.

  • Danny

    Regarding the Bucchere case, the last I was reading at SFGate was that the prosecution made fools of themselves during the prelim hearing and that their expert on the stand didn’t even see the stoplight in the video which showed Bucchere entering the crosswalk when the light was still yellow.

  • John Franklin

    I always thought you couldn’t ride on a sidewalk anywhere and I imagine that it’s true in Berkeley or at least for adults. I have an adult trike that moves mostly at walking speed except for downhill and I sometimes take routes on sidewalks to avoid certain congested intersections. I always slow down and steer around any pedestrians which there are few of during my time of travel. So far nobody has said anything so maybe trikes are o.k. you can stop suddenly and not fall over or loose control that you might with a bike so they do seem safer on a sidewalk being close to pedestrians.