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A fellow Appeal contributor asked me about what rights bicycles have to the road, and the Sarah Palin-inspired response I just now thought of would be “All of them.” But since I’m not afraid to be servicey, and there does seem to be some confusion out there on behalf of cyclists, motorists and pedestrians, I figured I’d go over the actual law. Even if you’re a motorist, but would like to be a friend to cyclists (or at least don’t want to end up in court after hitting one), you might also want to read this. So let’s spend some time with the beloved California Department of Motor Vehicles and the California Department of Transportation, shall we?

First of all, yes, you are required to stop at stop signs and metered intersections (for now), just like horses. Yes, horses. And mules. Possibly attached to buggies. Why do I bring up our four-footed friends? Because, with the exception of pedestrians, basically everyone — even the Amish — has to follow the same rules when out on the road. Or, as the California Driver’s Handbook states, “Bicyclists on public streets have the same rights and responsibilities as automobile drivers.” (Also, how fucking awesome would riding a mule down Market Street be?)

The handbook goes on to tell drivers to keep an eye out for bikes, especially when making right turns. It’s a good rule of thumb to give cyclists at least three feet when passing. If a cyclist does not have a enough room (seven feet) to ride between parked cars and passing traffic, they are allowed to use the whole lane, even if it slows down traffic behind them. In fact, if going the speed limit, the DMV recommends you take the whole lane to reduce the potential for accidents like getting doored by a parked driver or running into a car making a right turn.

Generally, cyclists are allowed full use of lanes even if a bike lane is present, however on busy or narrow streets they must ride in single file*. Where are bicycles not allowed? On freeways, except in rural areas, and on sidewalks, with a few exceptions. Cyclists are allowed to ride on the sidewalks along the Embarcadero, and within 100 feet of the entrance to their home or apartment building. In all cases, and as with all vehicles, you must yield to pedestrians. I recommend never riding on sidewalks, regardless (there is also a bike lane along most of the Embarcadero) and getting into the habit of walking your bike when mingling with our two-footed friends.

Left turns are a tricky situation. There are three ways to do them. First, you can always dismount and walk your bike through cross walks, or alternately, ride along the left edge of the crosswalk and make a 90 degree turn, leaving you on the right-hand side of the next street. Personally, I prefer to merge into the left lane on a multi-lane thoroughfare, signaling (which is required for all turns) and otherwise act like a car. If you are riding in the left lane, it’s recommended that you ride on the left-hand side of that lane to be most visible to traffic in both directions.

To answer the question you might be craving: In California, it is illegal to ride drunk or high, though at most you’ll be issued a $250 fine. And while I further wouldn’t recommend it from a safety standpoint, I guess cycling drunk is better than driving drunk. Remember, you can always load your bike onto a Muni bus, where you can be blacked-out and staggering and fit right in. And while it’s illegal for children under 18 to ride without a helmet, for adults it’s perfectly fine, if also inadvisable.

As for other gear, it is officially illegal to ride at night without a front lamp and rear reflector. You can pick up an LED lamp for less than ten bucks online. You also must have a hand brake, as some fixie afficionados in Sacramento recently learned the hard way. Also, bad news for chopper bike designers — “No person shall operate on the highway a bicycle equipped with handlebars so raised that the operator must elevate his hands above the level of his shoulders in order to grasp the normal steering grip area.” Bummer, dude.

Interestingly enough, in all the ways that the city of San Francisco tries to regulate, you do not have to register your bike as you might in other California communities. It is, however, a good idea to sign up with the National Bike Registry so that if your bike is found after being lost or stolen, it can be returned to you. And it’s only $30 to sign up with the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition for a year, which offers free urban cycling workshops, not to mention a ten percent discount at Rainbow Grocery.

Update: Commenter Jym clarifies some of the finer points regarding narrow streets, mixed-use paths and riding two abreast.

Photo by Bob With.

Jackson West has ridden a bike around the San Juan Islands, up and down the Cascades, in Vancouver, Seattle, Brooklyn, Austin and all over the Bay Area. He signals at intersections, but also rolls through stop signs on occasion. Have any bike-related questions? Send an email!

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  • John Murphy

    “And while I further wouldn’t recommend it from a safety standpoint, I guess cycling drunk is better than driving drunk.”

    This depends on whose safety you are talking about. You are probably safer driving drunk than cycling drunk, but everyone else is probably safer if you are cycling drunk than driving drunk. Super-Freakonomics cites stats to indicate that walking home drunk is less safe per mile than driving home drunk, but this stat only includes one’s own injuries, not the injuries inflicted on others.

    Annoyingly, the hatred of many cabbies hold towards cyclists often expands to a refusal to put your bike in their trunk. I let them know why their tip was so small when I don’t have my bike…

  • generic

    Generally, cyclists are allowed full use of lanes even if a bike lane is present, however on busy or narrow streets they must ride in single file.

    It’s absolutely maddening when they take up entire lanes, double-file. I didn’t know it was illegal.

  • Christine Borden

    Jackson, this was super helpful. Thank you!

  • friscolex

    This was very interesting indeed. A little awareness on everyone’s part goes a long way.

    Important missed item, though: Do these rules apply to me drunkenly riding a shopping cart down a steep hill? I would not be wearing a helmet.

    Also:

    “Generally, cyclists are allowed full use of lanes even if a bike lane is present, however on busy or narrow streets they must ride in single file.”
    So what’s busy or narrow?

  • Jym

    =v= It’s noteworthy that most of the streets in San Francisco qualify as “substandard lane width” under the law, so the bit about keeping to the right does not apply.

    Two corrections are in order:

    (1) The prohibition against riding on the sidewalk is not statewide; it varies by jurisdiction. It is not legal for adult cyclists to ride on sidewalks in San Francisco. There are some multi-use paths that the blithering idiotfest on SFGate keeps referring to as sidewalks, too.

    (2) Single file is not required by law. Bicyclists may pass each other, of course. The notion that this applies to “narrow streets” makes no sense because, as I wrote above, those are the very streets where bicyclists may use the entire lane. (Note how @generic immediately misapplied that claim to brush away our right to use the entire lane!)