How Do Bicyclists and Pedestrians Get Equal Rights in Car-centric America?

After concluding in Pedestrian and Cyclist Rights Are a Horse of a Different Color that non-motorized road users have a theoretically equal legal and moral right to public roads alongside cars, it’s now time to look at how this actually plays out in reality.

Pedestrians are legally entitled to walk on the road when (and only when) there is no sidewalk available, which seems perfectly reasonable. If there is no shoulder present, then pedestrians must “yield” to cars (see 506d), presumably by getting off the road entirely. For a rural road with no shoulder, medium, or greater flow of traffic, this constitutes a severe limitation on a pedestrian’s “right” to public roads. Sidewalks can be vanishingly uncommon in America outside of city centers, which greatly reduces the usefulness of a huge portion of roads for travel by foot.

In the photo to the right is a typical semi-rural road: Virginia Highway 11 in the Shenandoah Valley, about 3 miles from the center of Staunton (pop. 24,000) and about 2 miles from Verona (pop. 4,000).  It is reasonable to think that a person might walk to either town along this road. The lack of even a narrow shoulder is a particularly glaring omission considering that enough lane space was made available for a climbing lane.

a residential street in reston, vaOr how about another example of road infrastructure lacking pedestrian facilities? I took this picture on a residential street in Reston, Virginia, a suburb of Washington D.C. There is a bus stop with a newspaper box visible directly ahead and the side path in the grass is well worn, showing regular use. There are no sidewalks on either side of the road, despite having a sufficiently wide right-of-way to provide space for free street parking. (The presence of free street parking is a tremendous and typically unacknowledged subsidy to drivers. In his book, The High Cost of Free ParkingDonald Shoup estimates the annual value of free parking at $127 billion. Yet despite the huge cost of this free service for drivers, pedestrians are too often given little consideration.)

bad sidewalk design and poor maintenanceWhere sidewalks do exist, they sometimes may not be particularly useful due to bad design or poor maintenance.

Compared to pedestrians, cyclists have a much more active advocacy bloc and cycling is seeing a surge in popularity in metro areas across the U.S. Legislative progress, however, remains slow. The 2013 Virginia General Assembly saw three bills presented that would have encouraged cycling. These included an anti-dooring bill, one aimed at drivers following too closely, and one mandating that drivers exercise due care. All were defeated. This was hardly unexpected: I attended a townhall early this year where legislators predicted that votes would split roughly along the urban/rural divide, which proved mostly accurate. This highlights an important characteristic of regional attitudes towards transportation modes that will be the topic of a future post.

If the law seems less than supportive of vulnerable road users, drivers can be far less so. A recent “sting” was conducted by Montgomery County police in Maryland targeting drivers violating the right-of-way of pedestrians in crosswalks. “Sting” is in quotes here because the operation was advertised in advance and officers wore brightly colored clothes, both efforts aimed at giving drivers every chance to avoid a ticket. Crosswalks are the only road areas where pedestrians are given real protection by law, making the great number of violations that much more remarkable. A similar “sting” was conducted in D.C. on Pennsylvania Avenue targeting illegal U-turns across the bike lanes that run down the middle of the street, where a median would traditionally be located. The extremely high rate of illegal U-turns continues unabated.

A final example of legal codes favoring motorized transportation regards bicycle theft. In the U.S., there is no standard form of vehicle insurance available for bicycles, despite the fact that a well-equipped bicycle can cost as much as a used car. There is no legal requirement for bicycle manufacturers to standardize serial numbers, as car manufacturers do with VINs.  Some serial numbers are partially obscured by other parts on the bicycle. In the event that a bike is recovered by police, they would have to remove the plastic cable guide or other parts in order to read the serial number. A less-concerned officer might simply move the bike to the auction pile. All this makes reporting and replacing a stolen bicycle a difficult and expensive task.

The laws discussed here help to reveal that the ideal of freedom of movement is often curtailed significantly for certain groups of road users. Oftentimes these laws hew closely to broader public attitudes towards transportation. The next post in this series will look at some of the more personal aspects of these broader trends.

What do you think? Is fighting for bicyclist and pedestrian rights a completely lost cause in auto-centric America? What are some possible solutions forward? Please tell us in the comments below.

Main photo by Oran Viriyincy. Others by Micah Denton.

This article was originally published at The Mechanic Speaks.

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11 Comments or Mentions

10 Comment(s)


It is important for policy-makers to see that the role of the bicycle is once again changing. In Victorian times cycling was popular. Then in the post-war era, it became a vehicle for children until they got their drivers license. Now, it is being rediscovered by mainstream adults. Good exercise, experience outdoors, costs less, fun, social, can slip through congestion and it’s becoming trendy (energy flows where attention goes).

However, the big change is in e-bikes. The Chinese have changed the market as they produce millions of hub and crank electric motors and 36v lithium batteries that has lowered the cost of transforming a normal street or mountain bike into an ebike for hundreds, not thousands of dollars. These low-powered motors redefine biking. While the ebike technology has been around for years, it was 2012 when the new technology finally hit the sweet spot. Now these kits can be bought on the internet to convert most bikes to ebikes. Further, plenty of entrepreneurs are ordering packages – bikes made in Taiwan, motors in China, designed in USA and sold as a plug-and-play bike under whatever brand name the entrepreneur chooses.

To be clear, we are not talking about the high-powered motors (500-1000W) that make bikes into dangerous mopeds. We are talking about 250-350W motors that in effect give the ordinary rider the strength of a Lance Armstrong (without the drugs). The ordinary rider puts out about 100W (0.13HP). Lance Armstrong pedals at about 400W (1/2 HP). Pedal with electronic motor assist and your 100W + 300W = Lance’s legs.

In practice, this flattens hills so by the time the bicycle gets to the top, the rider is warmer, but the leg muscles are not screaming, the lungs are not gasping for air and the shirt is not soaked in sweat. Along the flat, the rider tends to pedal without power and the batteries can be selected for distance. The village shopper uses a small battery; the 20 mile commuter uses a larger one.

By law, and in practice, these ebikes are the same as normal bikes, except that it means more people will be using them. They extend distance. They make it comfortable to ride in ordinary clothes. They extend the age of riders can enjoy bikes (ride with creaky knees). Planners need to design for this increased use. In is transformative and the more roads are adapted for bike use, the more people will ride them on those roads.

In addition to road planning, we need a billboard campaign that says “Every bike you pass is one less car on the road – encourage cyclists” and “Every bike you see in town is one more parking space for you – encourage cyclists”. Appeal to the self interest of the automobile driver.

Micah Denton

I couldn’t agree more! I have a 250W e-bike of my own and I love it! It would be great to see them catch on in a big way here.

Dan Gutierrez

“After concluding in Pedestrian and Cyclist Rights Are a Horse of a Different Color that non-motorized road users have a theoretically equal legal and moral right to public roads alongside cars, it’s now time to look at how this actually plays out in reality.”

Bicyclists do not have equal rights, real or theoretical to use travel lanes in the vast majority of US states. See this article for details:

Micah Denton

That is a fantastic article, very thoroughly researched!

By “theoretical” I was referring to the provisions here:

Note that list of exceptions to the Far To the Right rule are extensive and include: parked cars, left turns, right-turn-only lanes, objects in the road, and narrow lanes. If you read the definition of “substandard-width lanes” it basically means almost every lane in most cities. Storm drains count as “objects in the road”. Anytime there are parallel parked cars on a “substandard width” road without a bike lane, a cyclist can legally take the lane by this law. So I stand by my statement that cyclist do have “theoretical” rights to the road, they’re written into the legal code. It’s when we get to the practical application part that that things fall apart.

Marc Brenman

This statement, “The annual value of free parking in the U.S. is $127 billion. Yet despite the huge cost of this free service for drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists are too often given little consideration,” seems to forget the free parking provided for bicycles, which often take up valuable sidewalk space.

When writing about the law and bicycles, it would be highly desirable if bike riders obeyed traffic laws. They frequently ride through red lights and stop signs, for example.

Bike lanes can take up about 15% of asphalt, for only 1.1 to 1.5% of commuters. The numbers don’t work in terms of allocation of scarce resources.

There is often confusion between peds and bike riders. The two are very difficult populations. Bikists often are threats to peds, for example. And peds tend to be much higher percents people of color and women. The two groups (pedestrians and bicycle riders) should be addressed separately for analytical purposes.

Micah Denton

For a bit of perspective on that $127 billion firgure, NASA’s annual operating budget is less than 19 billion.
And as long as sidewalk space continues to be devoted to benches, trees, and flowers then it’s very difficult to take seriously the notion that space can’t be provided for bike parking. Bike racks are often paid for by the city/county because they want to *encourage* cycling to reduce congestion, or for other reasons. And business owners sometimes foot the bill for bike racks themselves because they know it can benifit them economically:

It would be “highly desirable” if cars obeyed traffic laws too. Cars break laws all the time, so what? No one’s advocating to limit car use because of it, even though cars have a much greater capacity to cause harm. A few examples: And yes, cyclists are ticketed for infractions:

As for lane allocation, it is important to remember that driving a car in the road is a privilege, cycling in the road is a right. This was the topic of my previous post, linked at the top of this blog, you can read more about it there.


Why is it highly desirable for bike riders to obey traffic laws? You say this as if it is obviously true, but it is not to me. It doesn’t make especially good sense as nanny-state legislation (driving a car shortens your life a lot, but nobody’s passed a law against that), nobody respects traffic laws anyhow (freeways, speed limits), and it would save very few lives other than those of the cyclists themselves (and it’s not even clear it’s that dangerous for cyclists, given elementary precautions — cyclists can see and hear cross traffic and pedestrians better than most cars).

So, what’s your case for “highly desirable”?

Paul Mackie

That’s a great way to go about taking action. Of course roads are often under construction just like pedestrian and bike paths, but detours can be especially dicey for peds and riders.



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