Making Room for Cyclists in the (Rules of the) Road

It is little wonder why the rules of the road for cyclists are so poorly understood. They are hopelessly complex. The first layer of complexity (typical of many areas of law in the U.S.) has three parts: the interplay between state and municipal law governing the same subject matter; the interplay between legislation and administrative regulations; and the common-law system by which judges apply and give new and sometimes unexpected meanings to legislation and regulations.

But there is a second and even more byzantine set of twists to interpreting the rules of the road applicable to cyclists, because much like a typical road, which has no designated space for cyclists, the traffic laws also lack a clearly-marked “designated space” for cyclists.

Under New York state’s Vehicle and Traffic Law Section 1231, cyclists have the same rights and the same responsibilities as operators of vehicles, except when either (1) there is a more specific rule that applies to cyclists, or (2) the rule in question that applies to “vehicles” by its nature has no application to cyclists. The rule, in essence, is that “bikes are like cars–except when they’re not.”

This approach of lumping cyclists along with operators of motor vehicles with an ill-defined “you-know-it-when-you-see-it” exception is a recipe for confusion and controversy. The traffic code should be overhauled from the bottom up, with motor vehicles, human powered vehicles, and pedestrians each being treated as a distinct mode of traffic.

In the meantime, I created a “BikeNYC Law Decision Tree” to assist in determining what law applies to cyclists:

Here are some practical applications showing how the decision tree works. In each case, the numbers in the parentheses indicate the numbered box on the decision tree that is being discussed.

1. Riding on the Left

NYS VTL 1234 applies directly and requires cyclists to ride on the right (1), but it is superseded under the RCNY (6), and no other provision of the VTL (2) or the NYS CCR (7) apply. 34 RCNY 4-12(p)(3) (page 61)  allows cyclists to ride on the left or the right hand side of a 40’ or wider one-way roadway (8). For roadways narrower than 40’ (e.g., most east-west streets in Manhattan ), there is no rule (8, 9). Yet NYPD sometimes  enforces the superseded VTL 1234 in New York City by ticketing cyclists who are riding on the left, and sometimes cyclists have to go through several layers of appeal to find a judge who understands how these rules apply (14).

2. Signaling Turns

There is no special signaling rule for cyclists in VTL article 34(1). VTL 1163(b) says the operator of a “vehicle” must signal 100’ (about one third of a short city block) before turning (2). But a court determined that this rule, “by its nature,” has no application to cyclists, and so the “bikes are like vehicles” approach of VTL 1231 does not apply to require a 100’ advance signal, and no other regulations or rules directly apply (4; 7-9; 14). However, a second, later decision cuts back on the first decision, and held that cyclists do have to signal their turns at some point(14). Exactly how far in advance a cyclist must signal remains an open question.

3. Riding in the bus lane

No state regulations govern use of bus lanes (1, 2, 7). 34 RCNY 4-12(m) (page 61) prohibits “driv[ing] a vehicle” in a bus lane (8). Under state law, the “bikes are like vehicles” approach of VTL 1231 would mean that bicycles are excluded from bus lanes like other vehicles. But this is a city regulation, and there is no equivalent of VTL 1231 to make bicycles “like” other vehicles. Absent an express prohibition on bikes in the bus lane, they are allowed — except in a civil case, in which a judge might conclude that a cyclist breaches a duty of care by riding in the bus lane (14). (In my view, this loophole should be closed, given the danger to cyclists of sharing the bus lane with buses and the inefficiency from an overall transportation perspective of allowing a cyclist to hold up a bus full of passengers).

Steve Vaccaro is an attorney at The Law Office of Vaccaro & White.

  • Blake

    I had no idea there was even a state law that bicycle lanes are mandatory. How ludicrous that is to enforce in the city.

  • Anonymous

    While reading the definition of bicycle in NYS law, one detail struck me as funny: “two or three wheeled device upon which a person or persons may ride, propelled by human power through a belt, a chain or gears.”

    Not only does this exclude unicycles, which is to be expected (and yet cops ticket people for unicycling on the sidewalk…), but it also excludes pennyfarthings!

  • Anonymous

    I think of myself as reasonably knowledgeable about biking law in NYC, but this makes me realize it’s much messier than I thought. The business of signaling turns hurts.

    Signalling comes at virtually no loss of stability or safety to drivers, but there are plenty of times when I prioritize the safety of having both hands on my handlebars over making doofusy gestures that practically no one understands. I thought the law more clearly recognized that reality. I guess I was wrong.

  • dporpentine, it’s exactly the safety and stability issue that led the Secor court to hold that a cyclist is not required to signal for 100′ like a motor vehicle.  I try to look for safe opportunities that may come up anywhere during the 100′ prior to the turn.  It’s not as effective as signaling just before the turn, but I think a signal anywhere during the prior 100′ feet arguably discharges the cyclist’s obligation.

  • Redbike9

    Thanks for trying to guide us through this murky jungle.

    You’re wearing at least two hats: first, occasionally defending a hapless dolphin caught in a tuna net; and second (e.g.: this article), advocating for rational alternatives. I’d like to hope the first informs the second. For example, ideally, legislation affecting bicyclists should consider us neither operators of motor vehicles nor pedestrians; we’re bicyclists, with unique capabilities and responsibilities.

    Shifting from the ideal to the practical, reconsider your suggestion about closing the loophole that currently allows bicycles in bus lanes. It’s been a few years since I biked in Philadelphia, but lanes shared by bicycles and busses seemed to work well there. I believe they still do. Here in NYC, a few weeks ago, I was riding my bike on Staten Island on a weekday afternoon. What was a northbound bicycle lane on Fr Capodanno Blvd was designated for express busses about a year ago. There are also newer express bus lanes on Hylan Blvd. When the Fr Capodanno Blvd lane was designated for bicycles, it was invaded by cars, occasionally for travel, and regularly for parking. It’s now clear. (And I suppose the blue flashing language from the occasional motorist replaces the blue flashing lights on the express busses.) Sure, there are exceptions where density of bus service makes bicycle/bus lane-sharing impractical, but in my experience, where there’s no designated bike lane, sharing a bus lane is a good alternate.

  • Joe R.

    I also thought signaling wasn’t required at all if such signaling compromised the cyclist’s safety. Arguably on NYC’s potholed streets that could easily mean nearly 100% of the time. Also add in the fact the practically nobody, even motorists, understand hand signals any more. You could make the case that knowing turn signals is archaic knowledge dating back to the time when few cars had turn signals. As such, it has no application now. It doesn’t matter if it’s required to pass a driver’s test. Most people will forget the turn signals if they don’t use them regularly. I’ll also add that the purpose of cars signaling turns is because they need to slow down. This affects the vehicles in the traffic lane behind them. Because bicycles are usually to the right of traffic in the traffic lane, any decision to turn doesn’t affect the following traffic. Therefore no safety or other benefit is accomplished by signaling. The only time signaling might conceivably serve a safety function is in the case of a left turn. However, few cyclists make left turns like motor vehicles. Most opt to either use the crosswalks, or ride to the rightmost lane of the cross street, sharply turn left 90 degrees, and wait until cross traffic clears. Either way doesn’t affect the vehicles following behind. The few times cyclists might make left turns like cars are when traffic is light, with no vehicles behind to see any turn signals (again making signaling pointless). In any case, it’s pretty obvious the traffic code needs to be rethought from the ground up, with cyclists considered as something in between pedestrians and motor vehicles.

  • Redbike9, Thanks for your comments. I’ll amplify on my reasons, safety and efficiency, for believing cyclists should not be using the bus lanes.

    On safety, while my experience is that most bus drivers are professional and show greater care than the typical motorist, there is a minority who seem to harbor some ill will toward anyone encroaching on “their” space (no doubt the bus drivers don’t know that technically there is not a rule against cyclists using their lane). I’m guessing that this this minority in particular dislikes “playing leapfrog” with a cyclist, who passes the bus each time it stops, with the bus then passing the cyclists in between stops.  This is an unusually antagonistic situation for a cyclist and a motorist, that doesn’t usually come up with passenger cars, and one that I as a cyclist would just as soon avoid.

    There is a second safety consideration as well:  on certain bus routes, there are no concrete “bus pads” at the stops.  As a result, the weight of the bus over time creates depressions and moguls in the road surface that can throw the most experienced cyclists.  Southbound Adams Street by the courthouse and 5th Ave along Central park are two good examples.

    On efficiency, I was one of many people who worked hard to win a “complete street” makeover of First and Second Avenue, with separate bus lanes and bike lanes.  I have heard all the reasons why some cyclists believe it was better without this treatment, but for the most part those are cyclists who typically cruise at 15 MPH or faster on an avenue.  While the separated bike paths become unsafe at those higher speeds, they are much safer for cyclists traveling at 15 MPH or less. I think the faster cyclists should either ride in the traffic lane adjacent to the bike lane or the bus lane (defending against any tickets for doing so on the ground that the bike lane is not safe at >15 MPH, under 34 RCNY 4-12(p)(1)), or use another avenue without a bike lane (this is what I do when I’m in a hurry).

  • KeNYC2030

    In Paris, at least as of 2007, buses and bikes frequently shared the same lane.  

  • Redbike9

    Thanks, Steve, for your additional comments.

    I suggested bicycle/bus lane-sharing for streets with no designated bike lane, not instead of a bike lane. I agree with you concerning Manhattan avenues with bike lanes. Other than in midtown Manhattan, where bike lanes become sidewalk extensions, advocacy for complete streets works well.

    I pointed to streets on Staten Island as NYC examples where hostility to bike lanes limits them and bus service is, for better or worse, sufficiently infrequent that bicycle/bus conflict is, in my experience, rare. For example, I can bike on Hylan Blvd’s bus lanes through New Dorp without passing a bus or having one pass me; same thing for the full length of Fr Capodanno Blvd north from Miller Field. My point: I wouldn’t be thrilled to see the loophole you mentioned in your original article closed by barring bicycles from all NYC bus lanes. There were squawks from bicyclists (me too) when the northbound Fr Capodanno bike lane was converted to a bus lane. With the loophole permitting bicycle/bus lane-sharing, and considering the sparse bus service, lane sharing works. In fact, it works better than when the Fr Capodanno Blvd lane was designated for bicycles. I’d guess there are other non-midtown-Manhattan examples.

    And thanks, Ken, for mentioning bicycle/bus lane-sharing in Paris. Other than in NYC, I’ve only personally experienced it in Philadelphia, but I know it’s not uncommon and it works.

  • Thanks–and good points, Redbike.  Conditions really do vary a lot around the City.  And closing loopholes like that is pretty much the last thing I’d actively work on trying to accomplish. There are so many more important battles to fight!

  • Andrew


    I’ll also add that the purpose of cars signaling turns is because they need to slow down.

    No, that’s why cars have brake lights.

    The purpose of signaling is to inform others in the area (motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians alike) that you’re about to change course (change lanes or make a turn). Putting aside the question of whether cyclists are or should be required to signal their turns, motorists are certainly required to signal even if nobody’s directly behind them, and I as a pedestrian and occasional driver find turn signals quite helpful.

    (If only this were ever enforced!)

  • Joe R.

    @Andrew_J_C:disqus The brake lights serve to warn that the car IS slowing down. Besides signaling the change in direction, turn signals also give advance notice of a possible speed reduction prior to the turn which is undoubtedly helpful to the vehicles behind. The change of direction purpose of turn signaling is mostly relevant when changing lanes on a multilane road. Regardless, there are many valid reasons for motor vehicles to use turn signals, and doing so places no burden whatsoever on the driver (although you wouldn’t know it from the sheer numbers of NYC drivers who turn without signaling).

  • Andrew

    The change of direction purpose is very relevant to pedestrians crossing the street. Although I’m not a cyclist, I assume it’s similarly useful to cyclists in warning of upcoming conflicting moves.

  • Joe R.

    “Although I’m not a cyclist, I assume it’s similarly useful to cyclists in warning of upcoming conflicting moves.”

    It would be if enough motorists actually bothered to use their turn signals. As it is I usually use a reduction in engine speed plus a barely perceptible drift to the right as my cue that a car is going right at the next intersection. It would be nice to have something more definitive to go by. 😉 

  • I got into the habit of signaling last summer in Germany when I realized almost everyone else was doing it. I’ve kept it up here, but our inferior street conditions make it difficult. I’ll signal right after the giant pothole and before I swerve around that double parked SUV?

    Like most things that aren’t practical or advisable 100% of the time, it should not be required by law 100% of the time. Such laws (and we have plenty) are an invitation for selective police enforcement, an ill advised and unhelpful shifting of power from the public to random, easily prejudiced cops.

  • Reland

    “The change of direction purpose is very relevant to pedestrians crossing the street.”

    Only if you’re jaywalking, I think.

    It’s true that few cyclists know how to signal “correctly” and few motorists recognize the signals. I signal at times when I feel it’s useful, and I use simply logical hand signals. Left arm extended = left turn. Right arm extended = right turn. These are often combined with a dramatic head-and-shoulder swivel toward where I’m headed, and eye contact with the driver behind if possible.

  • Reland

    “The change of direction purpose is very relevant to pedestrians crossing the street.”

    Only if you’re jaywalking, I think.

    It’s true that few cyclists know how to signal “correctly” and few motorists recognize the signals. I signal at times when I feel it’s useful, and I use simply logical hand signals. Left arm extended = left turn. Right arm extended = right turn. These are often combined with a dramatic head-and-shoulder swivel toward where I’m headed, and eye contact with the driver behind if possible.

  • Andrew

    A few cases where signaling is helpful to pedestrians:

    1. Pedestrians crossing against the light (what you refer to as jaywalking, presumably), who can see that a car is about to turn and won’t conflict.

    2. Pedestrians crossing with the light, who can see that a car is about to turn across their path and might not yield. (Of course, drivers who signal their turns are more likely to yield to pedestrians than drivers who don’t signal their turns, but the correlation isn’t perfect.)

    3. Pedestrians crossing at unsignalized intersections, where they technically have the right-of-way over drivers, but few drivers (or pedestrians!) are aware of the law.

    Failure to yield to pedestrians is, I believe, the leading cause of car-on-ped injuries and fatalities, so any warning to a pedestrian that a driver is about to make a conflicting turn is helpful.

  • Anonymous

    Including decision tree hot links to the city and state laws is brilliant.
    NY State
    traffic law is not hard to find on line, but the NYC laws have been very
    hard to locate, and finding the bicycle references in them is poorly
    managed by the city.
    Vaccaro has also identified that bicycling is
    covered by both NYS Dept of Transportation laws, as well as the more
    commonly found NYS Dept of Motor Vehicle (V&T) laws. Similarly, the city
    has separate 34 RCNY and Administrative Code affecting bicycling.

  • Raynanspats

    wow! very well  done!


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