What are the traffic laws for bike lanes?

Published 9:54 am Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Column: Pothole Prairie

A city contractor painted bike lanes on Front Street last week, and the staff in the Tribune newsroom, while working, were chatting about bikes and bike lanes on Thursday afternoon.

That’s when one of our summer interns at the Tribune asked me if bikes were supposed to ride against traffic.

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I had to give him some grief.

Immediately, I asked him to surrender his driver’s license so I could cut it up. He didn’t want to, for some reason, so then I picked up the phone and said I was going to call the Minnesota Department of Public Safety and have someone revoke his license.

He said his license was issued by the state of Pennsylvania.

Shoot! I told him I couldn’t find a pair of scissors at the desk where I was sitting so he was off the hook. He could keep his license, but only if he looks up the laws on bicycling.

He did. He looked up Pennsylvania’s laws and found that, indeed, bikes belong on the right side of the road there, just like in Minnesota. The main difference is in Pennsylvania bikes can ride against traffic on a one-way street.

However, he noted he had been taught as a child to ride against traffic.

That’s interesting. I said laws usually tell pedestrians to walk against traffic when no sidewalk is available. In other words, motor vehicles and bikes on the right side of the road, pedestrians on the left.

For example, here is what Minnesota law says about pedestrians walking on the left side: “Pedestrians when walking or moving in a wheelchair along a roadway shall, when practicable, walk or move on the left side of the roadway or its shoulder giving way to oncoming traffic. Where sidewalks are provided and are accessible and usable it shall be unlawful for any pedestrian to walk or move in a wheelchair along and upon an adjacent roadway.”

We agreed that’s probably where many people get confused. They learn what pedestrians are supposed to do and assume bikes get similar treatment, when they do not.

Here is what Minnesota law says about bikes riding on the right: “Every person operating a bicycle upon a roadway shall ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway except under any of the following situations:

“1. When overtaking and passing another vehicle proceeding in the same direction.

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

“3. When reasonably necessary to avoid conditions, including fixed or moving objects, vehicles, pedestrians, animals, surface hazards, or narrow width lanes, that make it unsafe to continue along the right-hand curb or edge.”

You probably guess by now that it irks me so to see bike riders going against traffic. It gives bicyclists who ride safely on the right side of the road a bad reputation. (It also irks me when motorists judge all bike riders by the behavior of a few bad apples.)

With the new Front Street bike lanes, surely there are questions motorists have, too.

No, motorists cannot drive in the bike lanes. Solid white stripes on any road mean do not cross. However, there is an exception. Motorists when preparing for a right turn can pull into a bike lane as long as no bikes are coming.

Here is the law: “Whenever it is necessary for the driver of a motor vehicle to cross a bicycle lane adjacent to the driver’s lane of travel to make a turn, the driver shall drive the motor vehicle into the bicycle lane prior to making the turn, and shall make the turn, yielding the right-of-way to any vehicles approaching so close thereto as to constitute an immediate hazard.”

In other words, you are driving west down Front Street and come to the four-way stop at First Avenue. You intend to turn right. The car ahead of you looks to be going forward and comes to a halt in the automobile lane. If you check to see there are no bikes, you legally can cross the bike lane and pull to the right of the stopped car, stop, check for other cars, then turn right. You even can do this — and should do this — when there are no cars in front of you, as long as no bikes are present.

In fact, this traffic law appears on some versions of the Minnesota driving test. It was on mine when I moved here in 2006.

The same move-into-the-bike-lane-before-turning is intended for crossing the bike lanes to get to driveways, alleys and other turning locations. It is safer to pull into the bike lane before turning right, rather than simply cutting across the bike lane. Why? Because other motorists and bike riders clearly know your intentions. If they didn’t see your blinker, they at least saw how you pulled to the right before turning.

Of course, where parking exists on the other side of a bike lane, drivers can cross the lane to get to the parking, provided they look for approaching bicyclists.

Also, it is worth noting that where Front Street and Broadway Avenue meet, the solid white stripes for the eastbound bike lane become dashed as it trades places with the right-turn lane for motorists. Drivers already should know that it is legal to cross a dashed white line. Obviously, both bikers and motorists should be careful when lanes cross, just as fellow motorists are careful when changing lanes.

Bike lanes just take getting used to, and some people wonder if they are safe. There are bike lanes on busy Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis and in downtown streets of major metro cities across the country. If they are safe there, surely they are safe here. Bike lanes get bike riders and motorists alike to pay closer attention to the routine action of getting from Point A to Point B.

Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column usually appears every other Tuesday.

About Tim Engstrom

Tim Engstrom is the editor of the Albert Lea Tribune. He resides in Albert Lea with his wife, two sons and dog.

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