Mandatory Use Law

Bicycle lanes are something of a double-edged sword in certain circumstances.  Study after study has shown that the presence of bicycle lanes has a positive effect on overall cycling.  However, some will argue that traditional bike lane placement – especially on city streets – comes with its own problems.  Usually, bike lanes are placed in the exact spot where drivers would get out of their cars when parallel parking next to the curb – the “door zone.”  Bike lanes can also put cyclists in conflict with motorists that are making right hand turns at stop lights.

One of the less obvious conflicts, however, are laws that are often referred to as “Mandatory Use Laws.”  California has just such a law on the books in the form of CVC 21208:

(a) Whenever a bicycle lane has been established on a roadway pursuant to Section 21207, any person operating a bicycle upon the roadway at a speed less than the normal speed of traffic moving in the same direction at that time shall ride within the bicycle lane, except that the person may move out of the lane under any of the following situations:(1) When overtaking and passing another bicycle, vehicle, or pedestrian within the lane or about to enter the lane if the overtaking and passing cannot be done safely within the lane.

(2) When preparing for a left turn at an intersection or into a private road or driveway.

(3) When reasonably necessary to leave the bicycle lane to avoid debris or other hazardous conditions.

(4) When approaching a place where a right turn is authorized.

(b) No person operating a bicycle shall leave a bicycle lane until the movement can be made with reasonable safety and then only after giving an appropriate signal in the manner provided in Chapter 6 (commencing with Section 22100) in the event that any vehicle may be affected by the movement.

I’m not going to comment on the law itself.  However, I do object to the summation of this as a “Mandatory Use” law.  In fact, the law is written with more language regarding the exceptions where the law does not apply than statement of the law itself.

Why do I object to calling it mandatory use?  Well, in truth very few of us actually take the time to read the law.  Rather, we rely on basic understanding to guide our actions and opinions.  Summarizing and tagging this as “Mandatory Use” spreads the message that, if there is a bike lane, cyclists must use it.  Period.

Unfortunately, some even interpret this phrase a bit further and assume that mandatory use means that cyclists must always use bike lanes, and extrapolate that to mean that if there is no bike lane than cyclists should not be on the road.

I’ve experienced driver frustration as I took the lane – legally and safely – to prepare to make a left hand turn.  I’ve also witnessed cyclists attempting to figure out how to make left hand turns from the bike lane against the right curb – apparently thinking that was the proper place for them to be.

There are many challenges to getting understand among the community – both cyclist and motorist alike – about the rules and regulations of our highways.  I strongly believe that the usage of the phrase “Mandatory Use Law” makes these challenges more difficult by creating a false understanding among folks on the roads.

  • Dan Gutierrez

    The law mandates use of a bike lane. The fact that it has exceptions, which can be ignored and enforced in no way nullify the mandatory use nature of the law.

    • My objection is that the vast majority of folks will read “Mandatory Use” and stop there. We instead have a “Mandatory use, with some exceptions, law” Those three words can completely change the understanding of the guy in the car behind me at the intersection. The guy getting irritated becuase he thinks me being in the lane to make a left hand turn is against the law.

  • Dan Gutierrez

    I refer you to this article I co-wrote with then League Board President Amanda Eichstaedt on the subject of discriminatory laws:
    , of which mandatory bike lane, shoulder use and sidepath laws feature prominently. it is dangerous to cyclingrights advocacy to imagine that Jim Crow discrimination is anything less severe. If you can’t see that a mandatory use bike lane is no different from a rights perspective than a mandatory use “colored” drinking fountain, then you are helping to reinforce the discrimination. Adding exceptions reduces the discrimination in specific circumstances, but in no way changes the fundamental problem with such laws. Also note that the original FTR law (CVC21202) had no exceptions, and neither did the MBL; those were added later by advocates in CA to reduce the discrimination (I know people who helped write the exeptions) Here’s the League of American Bicyclist Equity Statement that calls for the repeal of these discriminatory laws:

  • Dan Gutierrez

    Also note that the picture you rightly show with a question mark, since it is shown with CVC 21202 and the term bikes allowed use of the full lane is a non-standard sign with an improper regualtory message in a warning sign, with the wrong legal citation, since CVC 21202 restricts lane use rights that are granted by 21200 (and restricted to the use of the right hand lane for slower cyclists via CVC 21654).
    To learn more about signs types ans usage:
    The correct sign for the message is the BMUFL = Bikes May Use Full Lane Sign, as seen in this photograph of a Sharrow installation:

    Sadly, mpost transportation professionals, police and bicycling advocates do not understand bicyclists’ legal rights, and wrongly assume that we are hazards (as the sign above implies, since warning signs warn of hazards) and not drivers, and the discriminatory laws like CVC 21202 and CVC 21208, further reinforce the prejudice. I would be happy to teach you about these issues, so you can be more than just another cyclist, and help edcuate cyclists and the public that we not vagrants on the road to be treated less well than other road users.

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