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Op-ed: The case of the disappearing bike lane
One Point of View

By Elisabeth Thomas-Matej
Mill Valley Herald, May 4, 2011

You're driving along northbound Miller Avenue approaching Samurai restaurant, and you notice a cyclist just ahead. Suddenly, she signals left, pulls into the middle of the lane, and keeps riding straight, slowing you down. How rude. Why are cyclists so obnoxious?

If this vignette were an old "Perry Mason" episode, we could title it "The Case of the Disappearing Bike Lane." That cyclist has nowhere to go but the middle of the lane.

If you don't ride a bike yourself, you might not have noticed that Miller's bike lanes are discontinuous. Going northbound, the area between Valley Circle and Locust has no bike lane at all, because there is no room. Going southbound, the long section all the way from downtown past Critterland Pets is a progressively narrowing, steeply sloped shoulder. Potholes and heaved pavement are especially bad around Una Way and force cyclists to swerve into the roadway.

OK, but wait a minute: the California Vehicle Code still says cyclists must keep all the way to the right, doesn't it? Just because there's no bike lane around Marin Theatre Company is no reason to hog the whole lane.

Well, actually, the code says cyclists should ride as far to the right "as practicable" and lists a variety of exceptions that let the biker use the full lane. Exceptions include (but are not limited to) the presence of "fixed or moving objects, vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, animals, surface hazards, or substandard-width lanes." A substandard-width lane means there is no room for a car to pass a bike safely.

Fine, then. But there's usually nothing alongside that section of the street except parallel parked cars. Why can't cyclists ride closer to those?

The answer is a hazard called "dooring," which is a common cause of cyclist injury and death. Dooring happens when a driver fails to look behind before opening the car door to exit — as legally required —and opens it into the path of a moving cyclist, causing a collision. Some drivers also fail to look adequately before pulling out from a parking space. Cyclists must give parallel parked cars a wide berth, for their own safety.

So, how close is too close if you want to pass a person on a bike?

Some states have laws specifying a minimum of 3 feet. The code specifies "without interfering with the safe operation of the overtaken vehicle or bicycle."

And what does "interfering" mean? It means that if you ride so close that you scare the cyclist into losing control, the bike and rider will likely fall sideways, flat into your lane or onto your car, and you will be at fault for the resulting injuries or death. Besides, unless you had a vendetta against that particular cyclist, you will probably feel pretty bad.

So, if there's no bike lane, and the cyclist knows enough to steer clear of parallel-parked cars, and the lane is too narrow for you to pass without threatening safe operation of the bicycle, what are you supposed to do?

Change lanes to pass. Treat the bicycle just as you would another car. Otherwise, exercise a little patience and hang back till the road widens out again. If you understand the reasons for the delay and are not feeling frustrated, you might find that those extra seconds pass quickly.

Happily, Mill Valley's Department of Public Works is taking the guesswork out of sharing the road by painting "sharrows" — a contraction for "shared-use arrows" — on the pavement in areas without room for a bike lane. Sharrows use a stencil of a bicycle with two chevron-style arrows. They show where bikes should be aligned within the lane of traffic to avoid dooring. They also help to reduce wrong-way riding. Look for them on the northern half of southbound Miller.

Elisabeth Thomas-Matej is a member of the Mill Valley Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee.

References:

CVC 21202 says cyclists should ride as far to the right "as practicable":
http://www.dmv.ca.gov/pubs/vctop/d11/vc21202.htm

CVC 22517 covers dooring:
http://www.dmv.ca.gov/pubs/vctop/d11/vc22517.htm

CVC 21750 says cars must pass "without interfering with the safe operation of the overtaken vehicle or bicycle":
http://www.dmv.ca.gov/pubs/vctop/d11/vc21750.htm

Also see home-grown SF police training video on these topics--dorky but enthusiastic and useful:
"Bikes Belong in Traffic"
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o7M-_ueoU2E&feature=related