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 by: Bill Oetinger  12/1/2017

More thoughts on Bike Lanes

You can probably file this one under the heading, “Here we go again!” I’m into the topic of bike lanes one more time. Been there, done that…I know. But it keeps being interesting, to me anyway.

This is not about bike paths, those stand-alone trails laid down some distance from any roads. This is about the lanes on the sides of roads with the little bike icons painted on them, with just the white “fog line” between the bikes and the cars.

There was a rather heated discussion on our club’s chat list a while ago jump-started by the reprinting of a testy little rant from a motorist about bikes and bike lanes. The rant was posted to some neighborhood forum. Here it is…

“This morning between 8 and 8:30 am going north between Third St. and College Ave. on Fulton Rd. there was a big group of over 25 bike riders who were not only not using the bike lane, but they were stretched out or clumped together riding in the right hand lane. Since they were taking up the right lane, they were an irritant and a danger to those of us who drive cars and would prefer not to hit them. These inconsiderate people shouldn't be at all surprised by the road rage they cause and how they give bike riders a bad name.”

There you go. On the face of it, it sounds kind of bad: riders hogging all over the road and—gasp!—not using the bike lane! But let’s add a little context to see if it fleshes out the narrative.

Fulton Road is a classic suburban boulevard. Four lanes wide, running north/south approximately on the western border of the City of Santa Rosa. It is always straight and usually flat. It certainly is both of those at the point where the driver encountered the cyclists. Medium busy traffic most of the time. 45 mph limit. Wide bike lanes most of the time. It’s not a road any cyclist would choose to ride as a charming back road adventure, but it connects many other good bike roads and bike trails and so is ridden frequently.

I don’t know what the cyclists were doing, exactly. I wasn’t there. There was a popular century ride going on that morning, with this section of Fulton just south of their route but not part of their route, as far as I know. I won’t make excuses for the riders. However, I know our own club often starts rides at either of two schools just off Fulton and uses that boulevard to get out of town. In those first miles of our group rides, we too are “stretched out or clumped together” because we are sorting ourselves out according to our respective paces. It can take a few minutes and sometimes part of the right lane to get everyone settled into place.

I can see how the cyclists could have been an “irritant” to the driver. Not so clear as to how they represented a “danger” to her. (It was a woman who wrote the rant.) More likely the driver would be a danger to the cyclists than the other way around. In any event, the driver could quite easily have moved into the left lane for whatever time it would have taken to get around the riders. It’s not like she was going to be held up there for a protracted period. Our driver is exhibiting a hefty sense of entitlement: that it’s all about her convenience and anything that gets in the way of that—especially cyclists!—is a major problem.

However…I’m not interested in relitigating this incident, as KellyAnn Conway would say. But it has got me thinking about those bike lanes along the sides of Fulton Road and other, similar roads.

For years, cycling advocates have been lobbying to have roads built (or improved) with wide shoulders that can be designated as bike lanes…a space where cyclists can ride in some measure of safety, with a little elbow room between them and the passing river of cars and trucks. I applaud their efforts. I believe most new road construction these days has such lanes mandated from the get-go, with all sorts of striping and signing and standards to be met. That’s a good thing, at least on urban and suburban boulevards such as Fulton. (I wrote a column in July, 2016 where I questioned the value of bike lanes on some roads. If you read that and think I’m contradicting myself now, go back and read it again.)

But these successful efforts to create safe bike lanes have—in my view—produced an unintended and unwelcome consequence. Most drivers know by now, at least in a hazy way, that those lanes are the protected preserve of cyclists; that they, the drivers, should not be in those lanes except in a few instances, such as making a right turn. So far so good. But the flip side of that coin is that most drivers now believe cyclists must stay in any designated bike lane at all times. I can tell you I have been yelled at and swerved at and even had drivers stop and get out of their cars to get in my face about my having strayed to the left of the white line defining the limits of a bike lane. Are they, in all their furious righteousness, correct? 

Let’s consult the California Vehicle Code, Section 21208, to get the exact wording on this…

(a) Whenever a bicycle lane has been established on a roadway pursuant to Section 21207, any person operating a bicycle upon the roadway at a speed less than the normal speed of traffic moving in the same direction at that time shall ride within the bicycle lane, except that the person may move out of the lane under any of the following situations:

(1) When overtaking and passing another bicycle, vehicle, or pedestrian within the lane or about to enter the lane if the overtaking and passing cannot be done safely within the lane.

(2) When preparing for a left turn at an intersection or into a private road or driveway.

(3) When reasonably necessary to leave the bicycle lane to avoid debris or other hazardous conditions.

(4) When approaching a place where a right turn is authorized.

Okay then…quite a bit to chew on here. First of all, there is the matter of speed mentioned in the opening paragraph. I’ve written about this before. It’s an old argument that is often misunderstood by everyone from cyclists to law-enforcement personnel. I don’t want to relitigate that one either but if you are unsure of what it means, you can read my earlier essay on that matter. Obviously, if I am riding at a speed lower than that of “normal” traffic, I should be in the bike lane, all else being equal.  

But all else is rarely going to be equal. Take items 1 and 3 on the list of exceptions above. Even though I wasn’t there to witness what was happening, I feel fairly confident in proposing the first one pretty well covers the situation that got our ranting driver in a huff: cyclists sorting themselves out…”overtaking and passing another bicycle.” 

As for item #3, that covers so many situations  and conditions that it pretty well wipes out the entire premise about having to stay in the lane. There are so many hazards and so much debris to be avoided along the sides of roads. Where to start?

• Broken glass (90% of which originates as alcoholic drink bottles thrown from cars)

• Putrid road kills (run over by cars) 

• Shoals of gravel (mostly spit out from car tires)

• All manner of litter (thrown out of cars)

• Tire-cutting chunks of metal (fallen off the undersides of cars or bounced out of the beds of trucks, etc)

• Little snips of radial tire wire, perfect for slow leaks (from blown car tires)

• Jagged metal and plastic and glass left behind after wrecks (car and truck wrecks)

Do you start to see a trend here? Most of the crap that ends up in the bike lanes and causes problems for riders—forcing them to leave the bike lane—originates with the cars and trucks on the other side of that white line. Oaky, to be as fair as possible, there are some things that end up in the bike lanes that arrive there because of natural causes: windfall branches, rocks falling off cliffs, water and flotsam from overflowing creeks. Plain old rain puddles. Granted. I didn’t say all of the crap; I said most of the crap, like 90% of it. When you look at that list, you can see that we are being required to ride in what essentially amounts to the drivers’ garbage dump. 

You know the old world of segregation: separate but equal? Only it never was equal and that applies to the world on the right side of the fog line as well. We are treated as second-class citizens of the road. To a driver, “Share the road” means. “I get two big, smooth lanes and you get one little, raggedy-assed lane filled with my garbage.”

So far, we’re only talking about the official, designated bike lanes along those urban and suburban boulevards. But many motorists can’t seem to tell the difference between those dedicated bike lanes and some manner of shoulder out on a country road. Yes, many roads have shoulders but not all of them are official bike lanes. The width of the available space to the right of the fog line on rural roads varies from eight feet to nothing. On such roads, the Vehicle Code doesn’t say cyclists have to stay to the right of the white line. They simply have to ride “as far to the right as is practicable” (when traveling at a speed lower than blah blah blah…all that stuff noted above…plus of course all the exceptions also noted above). Sometimes, if “practicable,” that will be to the right of the white line. Sometimes not. But a lot of drivers can’t seem to sort that out. 

An irate pick-up truck driver who screeched to a halt and jumped out to berate me for having strayed over the line did so on a narrow country road where the shoulders came and went. And then there was the fellow who posted a tirade on his own website—covered in this prior column—where he more-or-less advocated violence against any riders who dare to ride on the left side of the fog line…”I have some suggestions for these Tour de Speedbump contestants. First, anyone not in single file and/or on the right side of the solid white line is fair game. And, on that note, all of them should be required to have license plates and carry insurance… That way I would be more apt to call Jonny Law and report them rather than resorting to my only other option- running them off the road.”

Not all drivers are as rabid as this doofus in their attitudes about bike lanes and fog lines—at least I hope not—but I’ve seen enough first hand and read or heard more second hand to believe this misapprehension is quite widespread: that bikes MUST at all times be to the right of any and all white lines on the right sides of the driving lanes, regardless of whether there is a designated bike lane there or not and regardless of whether any of the many exceptions might apply. All those distinctions between official bike lanes and plain old shoulders—of whatever width—and all those pesky little exceptions…that’s just too complex and nuanced for some folks to process.

Even in the discussion on the bike club chat list, there were cyclists—purporting to be the voices of probity and correctness—who insisted that bikes should stay in the lanes at all times. They might grudgingly allow that some extenuating circumstance could force a rider out of the lane, but in general, their stance is that the bikes should be in the lanes, period. Sorry, but I’m calling that an Uncle Tom point of view: that we cringe and cower over on the ragged edge of the road until and unless massah says we can come out and use the regular part of the road. 

Hey, if the official bike lane is clean and clear of debris, I will ride in it and say thank you to the planners and advocates who got that lane added to the road. But if it’s not clear of hazards or if I am traveling as fast as the traffic—on a descent, for instance—then I’m taking the lane…the lane on the left side of the white line. 

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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