Are Bicyclists Getting a Free Ride on Shared Roads?

Update: The (over)reaction to this post has become international and partisan. Jump to bottom of post.

Two weeks ago, I began writing a biweekly column for The Redmond Reporter under the title of “Mostly Right.” In this Friday’s installment, I take on a group I have tangled with before — the community of cyclists sharing the road with motorists. From the column:

The presence of bicycles on streets and highways on the Eastside has become just another fact of life, and rarely is a new road built (or an old one resurfaced) anywhere in King County that does not have either a shared bicycle-automobile lane or a bike-only lane.

With even more forced integration of the roadspace barreling down the pike, now is the time for state and local government officials to deal with the elephant in the room: how to ensure that cyclists using our public roads are responsible and are paying their fair share.

Read the full column in which I continue, laying out an argument for why licensing cyclists who will ride on public roads (not those who stick to sidewalks or trails) should be licensed to improve safety for all users of the streets. With the sudden appearance of shared lanes and bike-only lanes, sometimes on the left, sometimes on the right, but always where motorists have never been used to seeing them. I suggest in the piece that it is not clear whether cyclists or motorists have any real understanding of how to operate in these new situations:

For example, consider that you are driving and a cyclist is riding beside you in a bike lane to your right. You are approaching a lighted intersection, the light is green and you wish to make a right turn. Do you have the right-of-way — thereby cutting in front of the cyclist — or does the cyclist?

So far this afternoon, cyclists have come out strong to condemn the column by picking one small area for criticism — my description of a potentially confusion traffic scenario. Commenting on The Redmond Reporter website and on Twitter and making the contention that the example I gave demonstrates my own lack of understanding of traffic laws, they cite two specific portions of the Revised Code of Washington, RCW 46.61.110 and RCW 46.61.235, as evidence that the situation I outlined is already covered. Unfortunately, RCW 46.61.110 deals with overtaking a vehicle, not how to negotiate a right turn across a bike lane occupied by cyclist who is in motion, and RCW 46.61.235 governs crosswalks. I’m sorry to do this to our readers, but here is what the code says:

(1) The operator of an approaching vehicle shall stop and remain stopped to allow a pedestrian or bicycle to cross the roadway within an unmarked or marked crosswalk when the pedestrian or bicycle is upon or within one lane of the half of the roadway upon which the vehicle is traveling or onto which it is turning. For purposes of this section “half of the roadway” means all traffic lanes carrying traffic in one direction of travel, and includes the entire width of a one-way roadway.

(2) No pedestrian or bicycle shall suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and walk, run, or otherwise move into the path of a vehicle which is so close that it is impossible for the driver to stop.

(3) Subsection (1) of this section does not apply under the conditions stated in RCW 46.61.240(2).

(4) Whenever any vehicle is stopped at a marked crosswalk or at any unmarked crosswalk at an intersection to permit a pedestrian or bicycle to cross the roadway, the driver of any other vehicle approaching from the rear shall not overtake and pass such stopped vehicle.

(5)(a) If a person is found to have committed an infraction under this section within a school, playground, or crosswalk speed zone created under RCW 46.61.440, the person must be assessed a monetary penalty equal to twice the penalty assessed under RCW 46.63.110. The penalty may not be waived, reduced, or suspended.

      (b) Fifty percent of the moneys collected under this subsection must be deposited into the school zone safety account.

This section of the code, in fact, does not address the specific situation I described at all, a scenario in which a car and bicycle, each in their appropriate lane, approach a green light at the same time, but the car wishes to turn right and the cyclist is going straight through. This situation does not have a precedent in motor vehicle law because it would be unthinkable for a car to take a right from the left-hand lane in front of another moving car. The situation does, however, happen frequently on the main road near my residence.

(At least the code stipulates that cyclists should not be picking and choosing based on momentary circumstances whether to ride on the road or in the crosswalk, an everyday occurrence that causes immense anxiety to drivers.)

But the larger point is that the section in my column devoted to this area of concern was not intended to shine a light on a gaping hole in the law, but to allow us to really ask whether we really know what the laws are for how cyclists and motorists are supposed to co-exist on the roads. In an environment that is inherently dangerous for motorists, much more so for relatively helpless cyclists, enacting minimum driver/rider education standards to include understanding of how all of us must operate to be safe in our rapidly changing roadspace.

Standardization of both how shared roads are designed as well as an assessment of how our current laws could better account for shared roads obviously makes sense, but the cycling community is extremely well-organized and politically powerful. Giving up carefree existence on the roadspace just isn’t on their agenda.

And then there’s the money. Most cyclists are quick to say that they pay their fair share already, pointing out that they own cars and thus pay car tabs and buy gas to dump money into the state’s transportation fund. That would be fine except that the state and cities are committing transportation dollars to providing facilities for the sole benefit of cyclists, and there is a case to be made that cyclists should pay more of the burden for what they use.

In King County, motorists are asked to pay for their roads and now a portion of bus service. Through redistribution of gas tax revenues farmers in Othello, Wash. are subsidizing the privilege of cyclists to occupy space on the road. No one would suggest that cyclists should bear the burden of all road costs, but knowing how many cyclists are riding the streets (another benefit of licensing is enumerating the cycling population) provides us with a way to construct an equitable way to have them pay their fair share.

Update: Proving that the network of road cyclists and activists is well-organized and extensive, I spotted this tweet from The Netherlands:

I had no idea the Dutch cared so much about Washington State public policy, though this may shed more light on why the pro-pot lobby has become so strong here.


[photo credit: carfreedays]


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  1. Awesome post, great blog theme, maintain the great work

  2. Karin

    Stick with the issue at hand or if you rather bike.

  3. Karin

    I understand your frustration. Bicycles are a part of our society. In a dollars and cents perspective and the percentage of bicyclists it is unfair the amount of money that is inolved in creating the perfect bicycling world.
    I spent many years riding a bicycle without any bicycle lanes. It wasn’t always pleasant but I also can’t say it justifies the priority that bike lanes now have.
    As far as the requiring licensing, why not? If you are required to follow the rules of the road, cost literally 100’s and thousands in construction of roads then you should be contributing to the cost.
    Demanding? So far the roads are more than acceptable for bicyclists when they put in the bike lanes. Arguing about pedestrian rights doesn’t do any good since they are in a category that is different from moving vehicles.
    With the extra costs in roads for bikes and buses it does get a bit tiring paying for things so other people don’t have to shell out the actual costs. I can’t say that I can afford the tab fees. Maybe I’ll get lucky and have my car repo’d than I can get a bike so I can whine and complain.
    I can’t beleive all the fuss in some of the rainiest non bike riding weather. 3% of the population should rule the construction of roads?
    I’m tired of paying for everyone elses bicycle lanes, healthcare, cell phones, college when I don’t have or use any of those things.
    Stop whining and build your own bike lanes if my tax dollars aren’t building ones that are up to your standards.

    • Dave Cole

      A higher priority should be to register all pedestrians. They use way more taxes than cyclists, what with those sidewalks on both sides of the road.

      The proportion of pedestrians I see ignoring the road rules is much higher than any other form of locomotion. They are a menace and should be banned.

  4. Lovely how you view anyone on a bicycle as “them” -it shows an excellent unwillingness to accept anyone on a bicycle as part of your society, so creating an outgroup to persecute. This will help maintain not only the social hierarchy of west-coast US cities (people on foot/bicycle/bus are losers), but also instil fear in your readers “the bicyclists are coming to steal your roads”.

    Some (minor) issues with your proposals
    -how will it work with visitors from OR, ID, Canada, etc? Would you have border guards checking that every vehicle driving up I5 with a bicycle on board had at least one licensed and insured cyclist? Or would anyone from out of state be automatically exempt?

    -Why aren’t you proposing licensing and helmets for pedestrians too? They walk over the roads, they are often in accidents where some SUV turning right through a red light hits them while they cross the road, damaging the SUV in the process? They need to be as regulated just as much.

    finally, aren’t you concerned that if you require bicyclists to be licensed, registered and insured that they may start demanding equal rights on the road and half-decent bike paths, as well as enforcement of rules on the road. Today you can get away with harassing them, sounding your horn and shouting at them to get on the pavement. If they end up paying directly for the right to use the roads, they may start demanding roads that meet their needs.

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