Bike Lane, Bike Route, Bike Path, Bikeway?

I learned something recently: cyclists are not required to use a ‘protected bike lane’. Maybe you already knew that–I certainly didn’t! But I suspect most of us have little or no understanding of the difference between a bike lane, a bike route, bike path, and a bikeway. To most people those terms are interchangeable but the reality is that they are used under the Vehicle Code and by traffic engineers technically to distinguish related but different entities.

A bikeway is a general term for any path of travel that is designated for bicycle use. So it can be, for example, a lane, a ‘route’, a multi-use path, etc. But sometimes it’s used interchangeably with the term ‘cycle track’, which is generally some kind of protected path of travel for bicycles.

You’ve likely seen the near-ubiquitous signs announcing ‘bike route’. This simply announces that this path of travel—likely a street or highway—is a ‘recommended’ route for cyclists. Who recommended it? You don’t know. What makes a way recommended is totally unclear since bike route signs can be found on streets with cars and trucks travelling at high speed. Also because a street is designated a ‘bike route’ does not require any municipal entity to maintain it such as by obstacle removal or street cleaning (although they might if you complain).

A bike lane is more specific than a bike route in that it is a lane marked by signage or striping set aside for use by bicycles. Sometimes some motor vehicles are allowed to ‘use’ a bike lane such as when making a turn, and even park in it (e.g. police, ambulances, mail trucks, garbage trucks). Usually a bike lane is explicitly indicated with a sign or pavement marking, ‘bike lane’.

A protected bike lane is one that is separated from regular vehicle lanes. The separation can be as simple as an extra-wide, chevroned strip or true physical separation such as bollards, K-barriers, or even parked cars as is the case in Golden Gate Park.

In 2012 the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition convinced the City to install protected bike lanes in Golden Gate Park as a ‘trial’. (It must have been successful because they were never removed!) There were repeated incidents of drivers parking in the bike lane, which was adjacent to the curb, and not parking in the parking spots that were set away from the curb to protect the bike lane. There were the other adjustment snafus such as passenger doors being blithely kicked open forcing cyclists to move to the right as much as possible, people crossing the bike lane suddenly, and slow users in the bike lane (eg. the rental pedicars from Stow Lake) that obstructed the lane. Most of these issues have probably diminished over the years. But there are still structural issues such as the difficulty/impossibility of passing another slower cyclist when there are cars parked to your left. At the time I asked SF Bike what faster cyclists should do since my reading of the California Vehicle Code was that when a bike lane protected or otherwise was adjacent to the roadway, cyclists who were going slower than the rest of traffic were required to use the bike lane. Of course SF Bike responded that one should just use the regular lane that cars use. Say what? In any case I did try that and on the very first ride I did after that email exchange with SF Bike I was honked and yelled at by a driver ‘get out of the road!’ (By the way, another irritating structural issue is avoiding broken glass strewn in the lane—you can’t swerve right (curb) or left (parked cars) easily, if at all, to avoid it.)

It turns out my reading of the CVC was either incorrect or the law has been amended since then. Cyclists are NOT required to use a protected bike lane. Why? Because, in a bit of oxymoronic nomenclatural confusion a bike lane that is separated by a physical barrier such as parked cars, bollards, etc. is not considered a ‘bike lane’ anymore but a ‘separated bikeway’ and it turns out we may either use the ‘separated bikeway’ or not—it’s our choice.

The section of the CVC that mandates bike lane usage is here. The section of the California Streets and Highways Code that allows us not to use the protected bike lane is here.

If you read the latter, you may be wondering, “how does this paragraph allow us to skip the separated bikeway?” It’s because although we are required to use an adjacent bike lane per the CVC, a separated bikeway is not a bike lane in the eyes of the law, and the CVC paragraph above does not mention ‘separated bikeway’, ‘cycle track’ or ‘Class IV bikeway’, which are the correct terms for a protected bike lane. Interestingly there is a note that SHC 890.4 was amended in 2015, which was well after the GG Park lanes were installed. Whether the 2015 amendment was about differentiating bike lanes from protected bike lanes is unclear. But this semantic sleight-of-hand is our get-out-of-jail card.

However just because the law is technically on our side does not mean that there are no social consequences. I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of drivers don’t know this legal esoterica and when they encounter a slower cyclist (well, actually ANY cyclist) in their lane, they wouldn’t give a shit what the law says anyway, they just want you out of the way! Having a patently obvious alternative lane—the protected bike lane—and seeing cyclists not using it are likely to induce apoplectic rage and lead to diatribes about the massive ‘entitlement’ of cyclists. So it’s not enough just to let us use the regular vehicle lanes; we need driver education concerning cycling law and why some cyclists choose not to use the protected bike lane.