If you talk about bicycles with any non-bicycle-riding person, you will certainly hear stories of cyclists they encountered who ran red lights, snuck to the front of the line of traffic, etc. Many people think that bicycles are not only allowed, but supposed to ride on sidewalks. Any news story about bicycling is followed by angry comments about lawless bicycle riders. People ask me if cyclists are supposed to stop at traffic lights. Now, there are plenty of traffic infractions going on at any time, it is entirely true that a large percentage of cyclists routinely break traffic laws.
This breeds hostility and confusion. I've been delayed at four-way stops as all traffic comes to a halt because they don't know what I, on my bicycle, am about to do. I've seen drivers run stop signs ahead of me, because they are expecting me to do the same. I've nearly been hit riding my bike through a green light, by some other cyclist who was running the red. I've had to swerve out of my lane because someone is riding the wrong way towards me. I've nearly been hit by bicyclists while walking down the sidewalk.
Sure, some people who ride bicycles think they're part of some special subculture. Whatever. Or they think that past confrontations entitle them to base their traffic operations on their own judgment rather than law. I've heard all the excuses. Some people have elaborate explanations about the justification for their actions.
Well, if you do care about anyone who else who rides a bicycle, or if you think there is any hope for Atlanta to become safe and pleasant for cycling, then start riding legally, now. No excuses.
For all the hundreds of polite drivers you encounter when riding a bike, it's the one jerk that you remember. Same for drivers - they remember the one inconsiderate cyclist instead of the ones who are riding courteously and legally. If bicycle riders, as a whole, are seen by the general public as a routine part of traffic, we will see huge gains in road safety. I don't want to offend anyone here, but trust me, I experience this every day. I'm predictable, law-abiding, and friendly, and get treated with an abundance of patience and respect. I would be thrilled if other people could experience Atlanta's streets the way I do.
Here, once again, are the basics:
- A bicycle is a vehicle.
- A person riding a bicycle must follow all of the same laws that apply to driving a car - obeying traffic signals and stop signs, merging and turning safely from the correct lane, stopping for pedestrians where required, and travelling in the roadway in the same direction as any other vehicle. If you shouldn't do something in a car, don't do it on a bicycle. Don't ride on the wrong side of the street or the wrong way on a one-way street. Don't go straight from a right turn lane. Don't stop in the crosswalk. Don't pass on the right or try to share a lane if there isn't enough room.
There are a few rules specific to bicyclists...
- Bicycles are doubly prohibited from riding on the sidewalk under two separate state laws. Riding on the sidewalk is not safe, because drivers don't expect anything on the sidewalk to be going faster than, say, 3 miles per hour. They don't look for you on the sidewalk when they are pulling out of a side street or turning off the main road. The sidewalk is where a large percentage of crashes happen. It also scares and endangers pedestrians.
- Children 12 and under are permitted to bicycle on the sidewalk. Children are theoretically biking at an adult walking pace, which is why they are allowed here. A proficient child cyclist who will be riding at an adult cycling pace should switch to the road.
- Bicycles operated at night must have a front headlight and rear reflector. I recommend a bright taillight, and don't skimp on it. Mount lights thoughtfully and then have a friend ride your bike down the block and back so you can see how it looks from a distance. Blinking lights may get attention but solid lights are more likely to indicate "moving vehicle" to others on the road.
- Bicycles may operate in bike lanes and on marked shared-use paths, and may not operate on certain roads where non-motorized vehicles are explicitly prohibited (although there is some debate over the legality of this).
- Bicycles may not ride more than two abreast. I'm not sure why - we may need to challenge this as we get better and wider bicycle infrastructure. After all, it seems like a big waste of capacity to have only two bikes in a 10 or 12 foot lane.
- Cyclists should take the lane if it is not wide enough to share. There is no exact definition for a shareable lane; I would say 15 feet minimum. If it is wide enough to share, you are supposed to stay to the right of the lane to the extent it is safe to do so. That means staying far enough from the edge of the road to avoid uneven pavement, gravel, tree branches, etc. It means riding at least 3 feet out from parked cars so you can safely avoid open car doors. Cyclists should change lanes or lane position in order to pass slower traffic - always pass on the left - or to make a left turn, merge, etc.