One of the most frequently misunderstood laws governing bicycling is the right to ride two or more abreast, both by bicyclists and — especially — law enforcement. Police too often misinterpret the requirement to ride to the right as forbidding riding abreast.
Although law might be the wrong word, since it isn’t even mentioned in state law.
Los Angeles Bicycling Advisory Committee member Jonathan Weiss has done an exceptional job of digging deep into state law to explain when it’s legal, and why.
This should be mandatory reading for every police officer in California.
Side by Side
Admit it – you ride side by side so you can chat. But is it legal? The simplest guidance I can formulate is: Except where local laws forbid it, California law allows riding side by side (by side) where the road is not wide enough or in good enough condition for cars to safely pass bicyclists.
Most states allow side-by-side riding – California law is silent
U.S. National Champion road racer and Olympian (and bicycle lawyer) Bob Mionske reported in his 2010 Bicycling.com article, “Road Rights – Two by Two, How and When to Ride Side by Side,” that 39 states expressly regulate riding side-by-side on a statewide basis. California was (and is) not one of them. So, he says, side-by-side riding is implicitly allowed in California – except where localities regulate it.
California’s “ride to the right” law (Vehicle Code section 21202) has been interpreted as barring side-by-side riding
If you know anything about laws applying to bicycling, you’ve probably heard that Vehicle Code section 21202, subdivision (a), requires bicyclists to “ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway.“ Section 21202 was (and is) the law governing operation of bicycles on roadways. So, when a Statewide Bicycle Committee (set up by the California Legislature – see note at end) asked the Attorney General his opinion on the legality of side-by-side cycling, he relied on section 21202 to say it was forbidden. (“It is our opinion that section 21202 does preclude bicyclists from legally riding abreast of one another assuming both bicyclists are on the roadway.”) When the Deputy Attorney gave his opinion in 1975, Section 21202 said: “(a) Except as provided in subdivision (b) [re one-way streets], every person operating a bicycle upon a roadway shall ride as near the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway as practicable, exercising due care when passing a standing vehicle or one proceeding in the same direction.” Therefore, bikes could only be side-by-side when passing one another.
The Deputy Attorney General wasn’t unsympathetic to the law’s impracticalities. He concluded by joining in the Committee’s recommendation “that section 21202 be amended to expressly provide that bicyclists are permitted to move to the left when passing a slower moving vehicle, when preparing for a left hand turn, or when seeking to avoid hazards in the roadway.” Indeed, the Bicycle Committee had proposed those amendments and more. They wanted to allow cyclists to “Occupy a full lane to avoid being forced off the roadway when the lane is too narrow for a vehicle to pass safely in the lane, in accordance with CVC Section 21656.”
In 1976, Governor Brown signed a bill adding all of those exceptions to the ride to the right requirements in section 21202.
- (a) Any person operating a bicycle upon a roadway at a speed less than the normal speed of traffic moving in the same direction at that time 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 bicycle or 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, but not limited to, fixed or moving objects, vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, animals, surface hazards, or substandard width lanes) that make it unsafe to continue along the right-hand curb or edge, subject to the provisions of Section 21656. For purposes of this section, a “substandard width lane” is a lane that is too narrow for a bicycle and a vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane.
The newly added exceptions are discussed below.
The “substandard width lane” exception to the ride to the right law
Even if you knew about the ride to the right law, you may not know about the “substandard width lane” added in 1976. The “substandard width lane” exception means that, where “a lane is too narrow for a bicycle and a vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane” – cyclists don’t have to ride to the right. In other words, where there is no room for a car and a bike, the cyclist can (one might say should) take the lane by riding in the center. (More on that later.)
The “safely side by side” phrase in Vehicle Code section 21202, subdivision (a)(3), was recently clarified by the three foot passing law. Vehicle Code section 21760, subdivision (b), says – “A driver of a motor vehicle shall not overtake or pass a bicycle proceeding in the same direction on a highway at a distance of less than three feet between any part of the motor vehicle and any part of the bicycle or its operator.” A three foot buffer is how much space a car must leave to be “safely side by side” with a bicycle.
Consider, for example, northbound Westwood Boulevard between Pico and Santa Monica Boulevards. The curb lane is 12 feet wide. During morning rush hours, there is no parking in that lane. With a cyclist taking about 3 feet (counting from the curb – to stay off of the concrete gutter pan), and the 3 foot passing law, a 6 foot wide car, that’s the tightest fit possible. But with wider SUVs, buses (8 ½ feet wide), and trucks plying that same space – taking the lane is clearly legal.
The “surface hazards” exception to the ride to the right law
The law also allows straying from the road’s edge when reasonably necessary to avoid “fixed or moving objects” or “surface hazards” “that make it unsafe to continue along the right-hand curb or edge ….”
So, if the road is busted up (like Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills) or has unsafe storm drain catch basins (along the same roadway), then there’s another reason to take the lane.
The “speedy rider” exception to the ride to the right law
Section 21202 only requires cyclists riding “at a speed less than the normal speed of traffic” to stay right. So, since the 1976 amendment, those cyclists who can keep up with traffic may take the lane no matter how wide the road or its condition.
If you’ve legally taken the lane, you can ride side-by-side (by side)
The Statewide Bicycle Committee recommended allowing cyclists to “Travel no more than two abreast when traffic is not impeded.” But that never became law. Therefore, there is still no state law permitting – or limiting – the number of cyclists riding side-by-side. Local entities can (and have) applied their own restrictions. (Under Vehicle Code section 21, most local entities cannot overrule the Vehicle Code.) Locally, Manhattan Beach, Torrance, Long Beach, and Irvine (is that local?) allow no more than two abreast riding. No other local cities appear to limit riding two by two – or more. But that doesn’t hold everywhere. In San Anselmo, you must have a license (is that even legal?) and one condition on the license is that “Every person, when operating a bicycle upon a highway, shall ride such bicycle in single file only.”
So, if you’ve legally taken the lane under the substandard lanes, surface hazards, or left turn exceptions, no state law says your pal can’t ride next to you. And, in most cities, you can ride three (or more) abreast.
Please, please, don’t hold up lots of traffic
Sometimes, even after taking the lane, you must pull over. Vehicle Code section 21656 requires slower moving traffic to move over when safe: “On a two-lane highway where passing is unsafe because of traffic in the opposite direction or other conditions, a slow-moving vehicle, including a passenger vehicle, behind which five or more vehicles are formed in line, shall turn off the roadway at the nearest place designated as a turnout by signs erected by the authority having jurisdiction over the highway, or wherever sufficient area for a safe turnout exists, in order to permit the vehicles following it to proceed.”
So, for example, if you head up Benedict Canyon (which is probably substandard in many areas), and if five cars stack up behind you, you would have to pull over. On the way down, however, you may go about as fast as the cars, so no need to pull over. This wouldn’t apply on Beverly Hills’ Santa Monica Boulevard, since it’s not a two lane road.
Why ride side by side?
I started off suggesting you might ride side by side to chat. But there are better reasons to do so. The Statewide Bicycling Committee noted them in its report:
It is not unusual for a motorist to attempt to pass a cyclist in the same lane when it is not safe to do so. This often results in the cyclist being forced off the roadway. Cyclists contend that it is safer in a narrow lane to occupy the full lane, thereby causing the motorist to pass in an adjacent lane or to wait until the cyclist moves off the roadway at the first safe and available opportunity In accordance with CVC Section 21656.
Taking the lane (occupying a full lane – as the Committee put it) may be best achieved with the help of friends. Two bicycles are more visible than one, and so forth.
This article is dedicated to the memory of cycling lawyer and advocate Howard Krepack.
Note: As background, the Statewide Bicycle Committee was formed in accordance with Senate Concurrent Resolution 47. The Committee was charged with the following responsibilities:
- To study problems related to bicycling in California.
- To review the California Vehicle Code and recommend changes which will benefit both bicyclists and motorists.
- To develop a Model Bicycle Ordinance for use by local jurisdictions.
You can find the Statewide Bicycle Committee report here; the AG’s opinion is at the very end.
Thanks to Velo Club La Grange for permission to repost this piece, which originally appeared in the club’s newsletter.
Crappy photos by BikinginLA.