Wait, Is It Not OK to Bike in the Middle of L.A. Bus Lanes?
Remember that Metro ad campaign a couple years ago, "Every Lane Is a Bike Lane"?
The message was that bicyclists belong on the road, and while they must obey most of the same traffic laws that vehicles do, drivers shouldn't get all aggro when they see a cyclist pedaling in the middle of a lane.
Whelp. Turns out that Metro doesn't actually think that.
Cyclists biking in bus lanes, which have signs stating "BIKES OK," have been getting yelled at and sometimes even ticketed by Sheriff's officers, who say the cyclists are "impeding traffic" by biking in the middle of the lane.
The city of L.A. has only a handful of lanes dedicated for buses during rush hour, though according to the mobility plan, more will be added. Metro pays the Sheriff's Department to patrol its bus lanes, making sure no cars are driving in them when they aren't supposed to be. But the officers also have been telling cyclists to ride closer to the curb.
Architect Michael MacDonald frequently bikes on Wilshire's bus lane. A few weeks ago, a Sheriff's deputy rode up next to him and said, "You can't ride in the middle of the lane, you gotta let buses get through, OK?" He added: "You're not even supposed to be here right now."
MacDonald, in true cyclist-smartass fashion, replied: "You see that sign that says 'Bikes OK'?" He videotaped the entire exchange:
The deputy insisted MacDonald bike closer to the curb, so MacDonald started citing Vehicle Code 21202 (A), which states cyclists must "ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge" but includes a number of exceptions, including when the lane is "substandard," which the law helpfully defines as "too narrow for a bicycle and a vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane."
"I can take any place in the lane I want," MacDonald insisted.
"Uh, I think you're wrong on that one," the deputy answered.
The deputy was actually pretty lenient and didn't give MacDonald a ticket. Most cops don't really appreciate being lectured to about the Vehicle Code.
In 2014, Marc Caswell was ticketed for riding in the middle of a bus lane on Sunset near Dodger Stadium. He, too, videotaped his exchange:
"You were impeding traffic in a bus lane," the deputy told Caswell, when asked what the trouble seemed to be. When Caswell tried to interject, the deputy said, "You're gonna argue about it now? I answered your question. I'm not gonna argue." He then explained cyclists "need to move over when slower traffic goes by."
"Was there a vehicle behind me?" Caswell asked. The deputy replied: "Yes there was — me."
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Riding your bicycle on the right side of the curb is often unsafe for a number of reasons: The edge of the road often has glass, debris, potholes and grating. And when you ride on the right side of the lane, cars are tempted to pass you while driving in the same lane, a tight squeeze that leaves little margin of error — especially when that passing vehicle is a giant bus.
In order to pass a cyclist, a bus would have to at least partially change lanes — regardless of how far to the right the bicyclist is. But Sheriff's officers are telling cyclists they're "impeding traffic" by riding in the middle of the lane.
"We find a lot of officers are unaware of Vehicle Code 21202 of the California Vehicle Code," says Colin Bogart, education director for the L.A. County Bike Coalition. "They usually know the first part, which says, as a bicyclist, you’re supposed to be as far right as practicable. They confuse 'practicable' with 'possible.' Practicable means as far right as is reasonable and safe."
Los Angeles has been trying to make the city more hospitable to bicyclists, spending millions of dollars on bike lanes and educational programs.
Bogart says: "I think what we’re talking about is something of a disconnect between the L.A. Department of Transportation bike program and the Sheriff’s Department, and whatever they’re telling their deputies in terms of enforcement."
Metro spokesman Rick Jager insists that officers are well within their rights to reprimand cyclists biking in bus lanes — if they think the cyclists are impeding traffic.
"Traffic enforcement staff can use their discretion to ensure that the bus traffic proceeds unimpeded," Jager says. "For example, [in] a case where bus traffic is significantly backed up behind one or two cyclists, the deputy can make contact with cyclists."
He adds: "These buses haul 40 to 80 people at a clip. If they’re stuck behind a cyclist, that’s unfair to people using public transit as well. It’s kind of a 'share' idea. It’s not a dedicated bike lane."
MacDonald says that in his case, there was no bus behind him. And Caswell says that the officer told him that Caswell was impeding the officer himself. But even if a cyclist is impeding a bus, it's not clear that simply riding a few feet to the right will help the situation.
"The lane’s not wide enough to go to the right and for the bus to pass me," MacDonald says. "What am I supposed to?"
Confusion about where cyclists are supposed to ride is pervasive. On May 15, public radio station KPCC aired an interview with a California Highway Patrol officer who stated, "If there’s only one lane, [cyclists] need to stay to the far right of that lane.” Angry cyclists bombarded KPCC with complaints — bikes are allowed to take the full lane unless the lane is wide enough to accommodate both car and bike.
In a follow-up story, KPCC suggested the law is open to interpretation. But Bogart says the law is clear —cyclists only have to move over to the right side of the lane if there's one lane and passing is illegal. For example, if there's a double-yellow line, as there might be on a winding rural road.
"I wouldn’t say the law's ambiguous," MacDonald says. "It’s confusing."