Bike Lanes: What Are the Rules Exactly?

Cyclists and motorists can coexist! Check out these tips on how cars and cyclists can properly use turn lanes.

Most major cities have been adding bike lanes to their streets to accommodate the hordes of new pedal-powered commuters.

While this has improved safety to some degree, it’s also been confusing for both motorists and cyclists who are still learning how to get along on the road. To that end, here are some quick pointers (with visuals!) collected during a lifetime of urban cycling.

When the car’s turning right

Widespread misunderstanding of this maneuver has caused, in my experience, the most conflict between cyclists and motorists. It’s always best to double-check the specific laws in your state, but most adhere to the following: unless the bike lane sits between a proper turn lane and a straight lane, it becomes a turn lane for cars during its last 100 feet. Many bike lanes, at least in San Francisco, try to make this apparent with a dashed line.

What motorists should do

Whether your city provides dashed lines or not, you’re permitted to enter the bike lane as long as nobody’s right beside you (we’ll get to that later) in order to make your turn. Remember to use your signal and to keep an eye out for pedestrians, other motorists, and bicycles.

What cyclists should do

A bicycle is a vehicle. As a result, you’re not permitted to overtake another vehicle on the right side — especially when that vehicle is turning right. When you see a car attempting to turn, you should either stop and wait or make sure that you can safely pass on the vehicle’s left (just be sure to signal before entering the auto lane). Keep in mind that if you attempt to squeeze around the right side of a turning car and get hit, you could be held at least partially responsible.

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How to turn left as a cyclist

Turning left can feel a little disconcerting for new cyclists. Plus, leaving the bike lane and moving across traffic to get into the turn lane can make you vulnerable.

Though it’s perfectly legal for cyclists to move across traffic, there’s another way to do it if you don’t feel comfortable. To make a “beginner’s left,” stay on the far right side of your lane and head straight through the intersection. Before you cross out of the intersection, get in the bike lane that’s perpendicular to you on your right. Once you’re safely in that lane, stop, align your bike to the new direction, and start pedaling once the light turns green.

This is also an easy way to avoid motorists who may get skittish when you enter the traffic lane. I’ve been cycling for over 30 years and I still make the occasional beginner’s left from Van Ness Avenue — a fast-moving, 6-lane street from which it’s incredibly difficult to turn left. On the road, it’s always better to play it safe.

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Parking in a bike lane

What motorists should know

It’s illegal, it’s unsafe, and it’s uncool.

What cyclists should know

Retaliation is illegal and also uncool.

How to safely share the road

In the end, common sense should always be your go-to. If you’re in a car and there’s a long line of cyclists approaching from behind, it’s the same as if there was a long line of cars approaching — wait until it’s safe to move right.

If you’re on a bike and a car begins to turn right but you don’t have enough room, speed, or time to pass it on the left, stop and wait until you do.

If you’re in a car and a cyclist enters the traffic lane to make a left, treat it just as you would another car and patiently wait your turn.

And no matter which vehicle you choose, you should always signal your intentions — with turn signals or hand signals.

We’re all just trying to get where we’re going and by exhibiting some patience, we can all get there safely.

Rubber-side down!

Related links

Safety tips from a cyclist

One Response to “Bike Lanes: What Are the Rules Exactly?”

  1. Kevin 'Demortes' Dethlefs
    March 15, 2014 #

    I've seen these here in Omaha, and wondered what the general rules were… Thanks!

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