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The Invisible BFC Building Block

This month marked my 50th Bicycle Friendly Community site visit and, in all my travels, I’ve seen a lot of great things on the street, from green lanes to bike boxes. But those high-profile facilities are the result of something far less visible: words. Before you can put paint to pavement you need the laws and policies that legitimize and encourage safe cycling.

Over coming months, we’ll break down the building blocks of a Bicycle Friendly Community, and the first step is a solid legal foundation that can serve as a blueprint for the allocation of resources.

Our job as bicycle advocates — or advocates for happier and healthier communities — is to ensure those words that become law (or standards) create strong support for cycling. While we’ve made many gains over the years, there are still plenty of examples “legal impediments” to bicycling. Over the next few days, we’ll explore this building block in more detail, starting with three bad bike policies that have no place in a BFC.

Bike Bans

Not all that long ago, bicyclists were routinely denied the right to ride on major streets in various cities. Great efforts went into fighting these bike bans on a case-by-case basis and the League worked hard over the years getting those bike bans struck down. So much so, that, today bans are extremely rare and ALL states provide legal protection for bicyclists to use the roads as operators of vehicles (read more on this in our Bike Laws resources).

Yet, there are still places where bike bans persist, effectively denying cyclists the same degree of access to major destinations — shopping, workplaces, etc. — as someone in a car.  Imagine my surprise when I arrived by rental car in Platinum Fort Collins and the drop off for the car was on a street (College Avenue) that was off-limits to my bicycle! Well, with the assurance of Google maps that committing civil disobedience would be well justified, I did the Woody Guthrie thing and decided the ‘other side of the sign was made for you and me.’ But I didn’t appreciate having to resort to breaking the law in order to efficiently get to a bed that night.

Efforts are now underway to remove this bike ban from College Ave, (State Highway 287) in Fort Collins. Even when there are viable alternatives to streets such as these, the signs themselves tell the public that bicyclists do not belong — sending the wrong message about public space and community values.

Mandatory Use of Bike Facilities:

By now you’ve probably seen the YouTube video of a New York City bicyclist given a citation for NOT riding in the bike lane — and then demonstrates quite dramatically the hazards associated with following that particular regulation in the Big AppleIn the 1970s, 38 states required bicyclists to use bike lanes or bike paths. Today, there are still many places in this country that have either a mandatory side path law or, in the case of New York City, a mandatory bike lane law. While most of these holdouts provide some exemptions for the rider’s safety, a few still do not and it can be a problem. These tend to be state laws that will need to be overcome through new legislation at the state level, but sometimes cities can make these archaic laws disappear or at least irrelevant. For instance in Corvallis, a place where 95% of the arterials have bike lanes, Oregon’s mandatory bike lane laws do not apply simply because the local engineer has refused to certify them as “usable.”

Ride As Far to the Right…

I can’t think of a single law that has done more harm to bicyclists over the years — in terms of crashes — than the often misinterpreted law that compels cyclists to ride as far to the right as practicable. I’ve heard a Chief of Police in a Bicycle Friendly Community tell council members and an audience of more than 50 people, including the media: “Bicyclists must ride as far to the right as is possible.” Afterwards, I told him that the Minnesota statute actually says “practicable,” not possible, and that it also allows cyclists to take the full lane when necessary for their safety. To that, he simply said, “Yes, I know that.” 

This misinterpreted law has been so engrained in the public’s mind that it’s one of the most difficult things to overcome in teaching even experienced riders. The problem is made even worse when transportation officials refuse to install “Bikes May Use Full Lane” signs because they believe such signs are inconsistent with the laws in the state. Even Tucson, Ariz., a Gold BFC, has experienced this problem, but it’s not insurmountable. Just ask Long Beach, Calif. — see below!

Stay tuned for the next post on laws, policies and standards that can boost a BFC.