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Bike Law U: Local Regulations

While riding, most bicyclists are focused on their safety and their ride, rather than their rights. “Can I make this light?” “What is that car doing?”

Rarely, a person riding may notice that they pass from one jurisdiction to another. Maybe there is a Bicycle Friendly Community sign celebrating that jurisdiction’s efforts to improve bicycling conditions, maybe there is a general purpose sign saying that you have entered or are leaving the great city of Wherever. Perhaps, but hopefully not too frequently, the change from one jurisdiction to another will be met with an ominous sign that affects your rights as a bicyclist. The most common may be “No bicycling on sidewalks in the Central Business District,” but depending upon the powers of a local government there may be few, if any, limits on what restrictions you may face.

In this edition of Bike Law University, I’m digging into the authorization of local regulations as they relate to riding a bike from one community to the next — and how that might affect your ride.

The United States is a land of experimentation and local decision making, a product of our belief that local decisions are often the best decisions. A long ride might take you through several jurisdictions with several, possibly conflicting, rules. State laws related to local regulations may either give power or limit power depending upon the relationship between the state and local jurisdictions. Where there is a state law that specifically provides a rule it is both a grant and a limitation. Localities may create their own rules that are in accordance with the grant, but are generally limited because they cannot conflict with the state law.

Local bicycle regulations often show up in larger stories about bicycle regulations. In some cases this is due to local reaction to new technology –- such as New York City banning e-bikes. In others, it can be due to the selective enforcement of little known local laws -– such as alleged racial discrimination in how a Fort Lauderdale bicycle registration ordinance was enforced. In most cases, local ordinances negatively impact bicyclists by adding restrictions or fees not present in state laws.

As a cyclist you should care about the relationship between state and local governments because it may allow the rules of the road to be different for different portions of your ride. It may also serve to limit or empower your local jurisdiction when you advocate for better biking policies or seek to have a restriction removed. In general, the language of this type of statutes in many states reflects older language that was proposed at the national level decades ago and does not necessarily reflect modern attitudes about how bicyclists should be treated. While local decision making can result in many positive things, bicyclists would most likely be better served by uniform rules of the road.


View the full chart by clicking here.

What are local regulation laws?

The basic features of a law that authorizes the local regulation of bicycles are:

  1. A grant of power to local communities (“provisions of this code shall not be deemed to prevent local jurisdictions … within the reasonable exercise of the police power from: …”, and
  2. A list of powers allowed under the grant– parking regulations, operation regulations, registration, and inspection.

In a few states there may also be limitations, such as the five states that explicitly state that local regulations cannot conflict with state traffic laws, or Ohio, which prevents localities from limiting the use of some roadways and requiring the use of sidewalks.

In addition to the laws that specifically authorize the local regulation of bicycles, there are at least three concepts you should be familiar with before looking at your state’s law related to local regulations affecting bicycling. The first is home rule, the second is general law, and the third is Dillon’s rule. All of these concepts can exist within the same state. In general these three concepts govern the relationship between the state and local government, giving local governments certain powers to create rules or restricting those powers. These relationships can be complicated and this article will not attempt to explain them here. If you are interested in state-local government relationships you can find out more here.

Who has them?

Thirty four states have a law that allows local jurisdictions to regulate bicycles, or bicyclists, in some way. The most common authorization of local regulations allows local authorities to regulate the operation of bicyclists, with thirty three states having some version of this authorization. Most states with this type of authorization limit it by providing that local regulations must be consistent with state laws, or that local regulations can only apply on certain facilities. In twenty nine states, local authorizes are authorized to require the registration and/or licensing of bicycles and are usually explicitly allowed to charge a fee for that registration and/or license.

Spotlight State: Ohio

Ohio has an awesome and unique provision in its local regulation law.  In 4511.07(A)(8) local jurisdictions are allowed to regulate the operation of bicycles, but are limited to regulations that are consistent with state traffic laws and “no such regulation shall prohibit the use of bicycles on any public street or highway except [on freeways] as provided in section 4511.051 of the Revised Code.” This provision ensures that cyclists may exercise their right to the road throughout the state and prevents inconsistent restrictions on where bicyclists may ride.

Ohio also provides an excellent example about how laws that are not explicitly about local regulations may provide important limitations upon local jurisdictions. In section 4511.711 the law establishes that bicycles, but not other vehicles, are permitted upon sidewalks. Any regulation of bicycle behavior on sidewalks is left up to local jurisdictions, with the limitation that “no local authority may require that bicycles be operated on sidewalks.” This helps promote uniformity within the state and prevent local regulations that misinterpret the legislature’s motivation to provide rules for bicyclists on sidewalks as suggesting that bicyclists should only use sidewalks.

Two states are deserving of dishonorable mention for particularly bad laws that allow local restrictions on bicycling:

  1. Texas §217.003(c) provides that “the governing body may restrain or prohibit the firing of firecrackers or guns, the use of a bicycle or similar conveyance, the use of a firework or similar material, or any amusement or practice tending to annoy persons passing on a street or sidewalk.”
  2. Utah Code §10-8-69 provides that “the governing body of a city or town may prohibit or regulate conduct on a highway or sidewalk if the conduct interferes with or impedes traffic, including: …(d) riding a bicycle or tricycle; or (e) any other conduct or activity that interferes with traffic” unless the prohibition or regulation is inconsistent or conflicts with the Utah Traffic Code.

Both of these laws reflect the idea that bicycles are not vehicles, are not a part of normal traffic, but instead are some sort of annoyance or inconvenience to traffic. Both states also have other laws that allow additional local restrictions on bicycles, including the possibility of requiring registration and/or licensing. Together these laws may be used to discriminate against people choosing bicycles rather than other vehicles and the legitimacy of bicyclists using roadways.

Where did they come from?

The authorization of local regulations of bicycles is addressed in the UVC in section 15-102(a)(8). The uniformity of state traffic laws is addressed in the UVC in section 15-101. 

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