There is a growing recognition that increased bike use can help address several “big picture” problems. Bike use can be good for fitness, emotional well-being, government infrastructure budgets, and the environment. So, after a 33 year break (after a personal experience being hit by an inattentive driver) from even owning my own bike, I recently purchased one. I have started using it to replace shorter trips I would previously have taken by car. I am running this experiment in an area that is clearly designed around cars–the suburban community of Gilbert, in the sprawling Phoenix Metropolitan area.
This bike use has brought me in close contact (literally) with the safety and practical issues that arise as we try to make it easier to get around by walking, biking, and public transit, while recognizing that cars are still the main form of transportation in places like Phoenix Metro. Confusion over what pedestrians, bicyclists* and motorists SHOULD be doing, as well as lapses in following the law, causes some dangerous situations. It also prompts a lot of yelling at each other on our roadways. I’ve heard cyclists shout at me and my running friends to get out of the bike path–when it wasn’t actually a bike path. I heard a pedestrian yell at a bicyclist, who was traveling on the sidewalk, that the bike was not allowed there. And, I was recently yelled at by a delivery van driver, who was turning right, as I pedaled across a crosswalk, with the green light AND walking person light. In each of these scenarios, the person doing the shouting was wrong.
I have written several articles on this topic, but some laws have changed. And, more importantly, our recognition that we need to cooperate among various forms of transportation (not just cars) is growing. So it is time to take another look at some of the laws helping us interact safely on the roadways.**
BICYCLES USING ROADWAYS
Bikes ARE allowed on just about any roadway. When they are on a roadway, they have the same rights and responsibilities as a motorist. A.R.S. §28-812. This is an important point, because it means that in the majority of traffic situations, bikes should obey traffic laws and cars should respect bikes as if they were other cars.
In Phoenix Metro, if there is a bike lane, the bike should try to use it, but this does NOT mean the bicyclist cannot also (or insead) use the roadway or the sidewalk. The law just says bicyclists should ride as far to the right as can be done safely. A.R.S. §28-815. That sometimes means they are still right out in the lane with the motorists. When that happens, the bike is vehicle status, drivers should just slow down as needed, or pass, if that can be done safely. In addition, sometimes the clearly defined bike lanes are still a mess, so cyclists need to get close to, or in, the car lane. Often, these hazardous conditions in the bike lane cannot be seen from a car–debris, rocks, nails, grates, etc. Again, the cyclist has the right to even leave the bike lane. And, there are still more roads without any bike lane than with them. “Share the road” is the law, and means cars need to yield to bikes when they do end up occupying the same lane.
BUT WHAT IS A BIKE LANE–REALLY
In my area of town, most roads have a white stripe down the right side that provides an area of asphalt for bikes to use. Many surface streets and even neighborhoods have these stripes. We call these “bike lanes” and use them as such, and it is generally appropriate to do so. BUT, to officially be an exclusive bike lane, and not just a striped section of the road, it also needs to have the painted bike symbol (the bike shape) and direction arrow. The authority for that conclusion is a bit convoluted, so each city has a different approach. But, Arizona law requires road designers to use the guidelines of the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (A.R.S. §28-641), which recommends these markings, and the Maricopa County Department of Transportation’s own guidelines require these symbols for an exclusive bike lane. Even if that symbol does not apparently alter the physical nature of the lane, it does alter its legal uses. For example, if it is just the stripe, and no bike symbol (so, not an official bike path), then cars can still park in it, and pedestrians and runners can use it. On the other hand, with the symbol, that path really is, exclusively, for bikes. Cars can’t travel or park in it, pedestrians cannot walk in it, etc. A.R.S. §28-815(C,D).
In addition to the state requirements, as municipalities are designing for more bike and pedestrian travel, the markings, symbols, and signs designating different path uses have increased dramatically. It is helpful to notice what is used in your area and understand what those markings mean.
THREE FOOT PASSING DISTANCE
Newer to Arizona, and many states, is a “three foot” passing distance law. This law requires that a motorist passing a bike needs to give at least three feet of room between the vehicle and the bike. A.R.S. §28-735. This one change in the law, if followed, will eliminate a significant number of bike vs. car collisions. Not causing a collision should be motivation enough, but this new law means that, for example, if you are passing a bike within a foot, and the bike swerves in a way that catches your car, you can still be fined for violating the law, and maybe found at least partially at fault for the collision.
DIRECTION OF TRAVEL FOR BIKES
Repeat: A bike in the road is subject to the same rights and obligations as a motorist. This means it becomes a car for purposes of traffic law. So, direction of travel? Same as a car. If a bike is in the roadway, traveling against traffic, it is breaking the law.
Direction of travel IN the bike lane is trickier, because not all bike lanes are the same. In the lanes that are formed by only painting a line along the side of the road, those are still considered part of the roadway (on the basis of deconstructing the definition of “roadway” in A.R.S. §28-601, and a couple court cases), so bikes are required to go with traffic. And, bike lanes with the right symbols to be “exclusive,” will have a direction of travel arrow. Those, of course, point the direction of vehicle traffic, so the bike is still required to flow with the cars. There are bike paths that can run both directions, but they are usually separated from the roadway in ways that make it evident they are not part of it. This is still rare (but coming) to Phoenix Metro.
DIRECTION OF TRAVEL FOR PEDESTRIANS
Pedestrians on a sidewalk are, of course, free to go any direction. This is, as usual, based on “sidewalk” being separated from “roadway” (A.R.S. §28-601), thereby exempting it from the laws governing direction of travel on roadways. So, unless the state, county, or municipality passes a separate law specifying a direction of travel for pedestrians, a pedestrian on a sidewalk can walk with traffic, against traffic, zig zag, or walk backwards, without breaking any law (negligence is a different evaluation). On the roadway (or shoulder), pedestrians (this includes runners–A.R.S. §28-101.44) have long been encouraged to walk against traffic. Many people don’t know it is actually required by state law. A.R.S. §28-796 (B)). This has several practical advantages. First, a pedestrian walking against traffic can watch the cars coming and try to get out of the way of erratic drivers. Second, since bikes are also coming with traffic, and sometimes using the same “edge” of the road (absent a sidewalk or true, properly marked, bike path) the pedestrian and bike can see each other and move to avoid each other.
USE AND DIRECTION ON SIDEWALKS FOR BIKES
State law currently says nothing prohibiting bikes from using sidewalks, so they can, unless a city or county says otherwise. Every city code I’ve researched in the Phoenix area still allows bikes to be on the sidewalk, even if there is a bike lane available–except ONE (Tempe). And, all of them consider bikes on the sidewalk to be “pedestrian” status, meaning that, like a pedestrian, the bike can legally go with or against traffic (again, except Tempe).
The exception to bike’s using the sidewalks is Tempe. For years, Tempe had a code that allowed bikes on the sidewalks, but held that the bike must travel with traffic–the same direction as cars on that side of the road. But, more recently, Tempe passed a city code that requires bikes to use the bike lane if one is available (19-212(D)). In fact, this code also states that two requirements must be met for a bike to use a sidewalk. First, no bike lane is available and, second, the speed limit is above 25 mph. Tucson has a similar restriction (Tucson City Code, 5-2), showing that you really need to research where you ride.
Of course, on sidewalks, cars are only allowed to pass over them to get to and from roadways (A.R.S. §28-904), and must yield to anyone on the sidewalk. Oddly, state law does not state that bikes using the sidewalk must yield to pedestrians, so the cities have passed codes (for example, Tempe City Code 7-52(b); Gilbert City Code 62-106; Chandler City Code 13-8.1.). Everyone just needs to be careful and use common sense.
SIDEWALKS MANDATORY FOR PEDESTRIANS
In many municipalities (not State law, so, again, the cities decide), if a sidewalk is provided on either side of the road, a pedestrian must use it instead of the road. A.R.S. §28-796. This may not be an issue for most pedestrians, but for runners it is easy to violate. Runners usually prefer running on the softer asphalt of the road than the harder concrete of the sidewalk. But, the law where I usually run (Gilbert, Mesa, Chandler, Tempe) all have codes that say pedestrians (including runners) must be on the sidewalk where there is one.
CROSSWALK USE AND DIRECTION FOR BIKES AND PEDESTRIANS
Pedestrians in a marked (with lines) or unmarked (no lines, but the straight path between two corners on opposite sides of the road) can walk either direction. As long as they are going “with” the light, and not violating the right-of-way of oncoming traffic, the sidewalk is a “safe haven.” Bicyclists in the crosswalk are given the same protection. Maxwell v. Gossett, 126 Ariz. 98, 612 P.2d 1061 (1980).
Bicyclists ARE allowed to RIDE in crosswalks. There is no legal requirement for them to dismount and walk. A practical one? Is a car more likely to see them walking their bike than riding it? That seems doubtful. Like the pedestrian, a bike in a crosswalk can go either direction. It is unclear to me what Tempe’s stance is on the direction of travel in crosswalks. If a bike is in the roadway, it must be traveling with traffic, as it must if allowed on the sidewalk (there are still instances). There is even a code saying, oddly, that bikes entering or crossing a roadway must yield to any traffic (19-212(C)), seemingly in contradiction to the Maxwell case. But, even this does not address the direction of travel specifically in a crosswalk. Prudence would conclude to travel with traffic on a bike, even in a crosswalk.
RIGHT TURN RIGHT-OF-WAY
The following scenario is common, and dangerous, so I am going to really walk through it. Stay with me. I have already had this happen to me several times in the few months I’ve been bike commuting.
A driver approaches an intersection that is controlled by a traffic light, complete with the pedestrian stop “hand” and go “walking person”. The light for the driver’s direction of travel is red, but they intend to make a right turn. Unless it is a “no right turn on red” intersection, they know they are allowed to stop, check for oncoming traffic from their left, and then proceed with their turn. If there is a pedestrian or bike preparing to go straight, the pedestrian or bike is facing a red light, so they should not be crossing, and there is no right-of-way conflict. After making sure traffic from their left is clear, the driver may proceed to turn right. Easy enough.
But, what if the driver either cannot turn because too much traffic is coming from their left, or because no right turn is allowed on red? So, the driver waits for the light to turn green for their previous direction of travel. This now gives rise to a potential right-of-way conflict with the pedestrian or bicyclist who has been waiting for the green light so they can continue “straight.” In this case, when that light turns green, THE PEDESTRIAN AND BICYCLIST HAVE THE RIGHT-OF-WAY! They are not only using the crosswalk, but are also going straight. In other words, the driver who has been waiting to turn right, who now has a green light, STILL has to wait for the pedestrian and bike to cross first, at least enough to no longer be in danger. This scenario, and its violation, is puzzling because the pedestrian and bike have been right next to the car awaiting the change of light. I have to assume the driver knows the other is there, so I can only assume the driver doesn’t understand that they must yield.
This is also true of pedestrians or bicyclists coming the opposite direction. Picture the same scenario, except that the driver is coming up to the intersection on a green light, intending to turn right, so they don’t really have to stop. BUT, a pedestrian or bike is crossing toward them from the opposite corner, headed the opposite direction. THE PEDESTRIAN AND BICYCLIST HAVE THE RIGHT-OF-WAY. In a crosswalk, the non-vehicle is in a “safe haven.” (Maxwell).
BIKE HELMET USE
There is a surprising amount of debate among the experts on how much difference helmet use matters in protecting a bicyclist. In fact, for Maricopa County, only in Tempe is bike helmet use required for a bike rider, and that only for minors (19-215). A few other places in Arizona (Tucson being one) have the same requirement. Studies have made it clear that helmets will not protect against many kinds of head injuries (Remember all those football concussions? Those players are wearing some of the best helmets available), but they do protect against some. So, it is still prudent to use one.
BIKE RIDING WHILE INTOXICATED
Because they are not defined as “motorized vehicles,” there is no statewide prohibition to riding a bike while under the influence of alcohol or other substances. In 2018, Scottsdale became the first (and it seems still the only) municipality to partly address this issue. Scottsdale Code, Section 17-89.1, makes it illegal to ride anything with an electric motor, including electric bikes, while under the influence. It seems that traditional bikes are still exempt. But, riding a bike under the influence is still a seriously terrible idea.
BIKE IN LEFT-TURN LANE
I’ve heard of motorists irritated that a bicyclist got into the left-hand turn lane with them. Sorry. They’re allowed to do that (A.R.S. §28-815 A.2). Remember, when on the roadway, they are motorists. And, when making a left turn, using that lane is often the safest way for them to do it.
LIGHTS AT NIGHT, OR DARK CONDITIONS
The risk of all bad things that can happen with bikes, cars, and pedestrians goes up in the dark. Cyclists and pedestrians should have proper lighting to see and be seen, as well as reflective clothing and gear. State law actually requires that bikes have adequate head and tail lighting, if used in dark conditions. A.R.S. §28-817.
WHAT IS MOST NEEDED FOR A SAFER COMMUTING EXPERIENCE
As a much-needed shift takes place, to bring back more foot and bike travel to our communities, the law, infrastructure, and our attitudes will evolve. A better understanding of each may help cut down on the shouting. But, most accidents don’t happen because of inadequate law or even road design–they happen because of human inattention. Drivers who hit a pedestrian or bicyclist don’t usually do it because they misunderstood the law, but because their brain just didn’t register that the bike or person was there. It is hard to know how to rewire the human brain and remove such mental blindspots, but it helps to practice two things: 1) We can stop being in such a rush, and; 2) We can practice being more aware–be “present,” while we move around. Those practices will prevent more accidents between cars, bikes, and pedestrians than all the laws we can pass.
*Should I call a person who rides a bike a cyclist, bike rider, bicyclist, biker, or something else? “Biker” is probably wrong, as it is usually used to refer to someone who rides a motorcycle. The others all seem acceptable. I am favoring “bicyclist” in this article. I’ve shied away from “cyclist,” because it conjures for me an image of lycra-clad speedsters, of which I am not a member, but I feel that category is still included within “bicyclist.” I have passed over “bike rider” as sounding too pedestrian (wait); I mean, more clunky than “bicyclist.”. And, finally, the largest bicycle advocacy association in the United States is the League of American Bicyclists. So, if it is good enough for them . . .
**Please keep in mind that this article does not cover every law affecting cars, bikes, and pedestrians. That would take a review of the entire traffic code, as well as a dive into all city codes. Also, nothing I refer to in this article crosses the Arizona border, and, although my law practice truly covers the state, my attention in this article on the Phoenix metropolitan area. As is clearly shown in this article, each county and municipality has its own codes to address some issues as well.