Gutter Bunny Part 2, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Roadway

Do you know the difference between a road and a roadway? Yeah, I didn’t think you did. I certainly didn’t pay attention to such esoteric nuances until I learned that I didn’t have to ride in the gutter all the time. I used to ride to the far right of the road almost all the time, squeaking by with just the thinnest shaving of pavement on my right. Partly I was being overly courteous (some of you may say fearful) to motorists and partly because I had a fundamental misunderstanding of traffic law. What does the law say? Let’s take a peek at the California Vehicle Code, specifically Division 11, Chapter 1, Article 4, §21202:
Any person operating a bicycle upon a roadway at a speed less than the normal speed of traffic moving in the same direction at that time shall ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway except under any of the following situations…
The part that we probably all understand is the ‘less than the normal speed of traffic’ ie. if you are going at the “normal speed” then you don’t have to ride on the right—you can ride wherever you want in the lane including the middle. Of course ‘normal speed’ depends on point of view. For a driver the normal speed is going to be whatever speed they want to go—who cares what the posted speed says! But generally if you can keep to the posted speed limit—25, 30, 40, whatever—you’re not committing an infraction by riding in the lane and any motorist who gives you grief over that is just being an impatient ass.
The rest of the verbiage seems crystal clear—ride as close to the right as is practicable, right? Well, maybe not. The part of the above paragraph that most people misunderstand—both motorists and cyclists as well as most police officers—is the word ‘roadway’. It turns out that in traffic law a road or highway and a roadway are not exactly the same thing even though we may use all those terms interchangeably in everyday life. A road or highway is pretty much what you think it means: it’s some kind of path open to the public and used for vehicular travel. So a trail is not a road (not used for vehicular travel) although a fire road (= “double track”) is albeit not paved, as long as it’s open for public use. A street is a road since it’s used for vehicular travel and it’s available for public use. However a roadway is slightly but critically different. The CVC Division 1, §530 defines it as follows:
A “roadway” is that portion of a highway improved, designed, or ordinarily used for vehicular travel.
In other words the roadway is only a part of a road, the part that is ordinarily used for travel. The roadway thus excludes the shoulder, parking lane, and sidewalk but not a bike lane. The roadway is just the lane(s) of travel, period. If you see a white solid line on the right side of the road, this indicates the right edge of the roadway. (However there isn’t always a white line on the right.) As cyclists we are to ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb OR the edge of the roadway, ie. you need to do one or the other but not necessarily both. You do not need to ride as close as is practicable to the curb as long as you are on the right edge of the roadway. Since the roadway excludes the parking lane and shoulder, you only need to ride on the right side of the rightmost lane. If there is a white line marking the right edge of the roadway, then you ride to the left of the white line, not the right of it. Doing the latter places you in the shoulder of the road, which is not part of the roadway.
Not riding in the parking lane seems common sense to me. Although riding in the parking lane may keep you further away from moving cars, when you have to merge into the normal lane of travel because of a parked car, you are increasing the chance of being hit from behind since following cars are not expecting you to move into “their” lane and thus haven’t moved to the left to give you the minimum three feet of passing room. Yet a Palo Alto police officer, irked that I was “blocking” cars, threatened me with a ticket when I refused to ride in the parking lane of El Camino Real (which has multiple lanes, by the way) when I insisted on staying in the right lane. I moved into the parking lane until he disappeared up the road and then resumed riding in the right lane of the roadway. Of course, I’m not rigid about this. If the parking lane is empty for a long way, I have no qualms about using it for my safety; I just plan to merge into the roadway early enough so that cars have plenty of time to see me. (I also signal my intentions.)
The real problem for cyclists isn’t the law per se but drivers’ ignorance of the law. When we ride on the right side of the roadway, drivers become irked that we’re not riding as far to the right of the road. It’s no surprise that such nuances are lost on the general public. Although this technical difference is alluded to in the DMV Drivers Handbook (p. 77) it is not explained. What is covered in the Handbook is an explanation of the exceptions that allow cyclists to not ride all the way to the right of the roadway such as the presence of obstacles, right-turn only lanes, and when the lane is too narrow for a bicycle and car to travel side-by-side. The difference between the roadway and the road should be laid out in plain English so that drivers (and cyclists and cops) are educated about the legally allowable position for cyclists on roads.
Of course this wouldn’t end punishment passes, verbal abuse, leaning on the horn, or getting sideswiped. But it might reduce the amount of road rage focused directly on us. Despite the best education—and no, the DMV Handbook hardly constitutes sufficient “education”—there will always be a subset of drivers whose attitude can accurately be characterized as auto supremicist: cyclists don’t deserve to be on the road regardless of how the laws are written and if they use the roads, they do so at their own risk since they should have no rights. Oh, and they should always get out of the way of motorists if they want to stay alive. As an example we have a neighbor who confronted us once when we were riding up the steep, narrow road to our house: “Bicyclists shouldn’t be allowed on these roads because they’re too narrow!” (= “You’re blocking our cars!”). At first I was stunned by his attitude—hadn’t he read the law or taken a DMV exam to get his license? Didn’t he know how to pass a cyclist in a car? Should we have expected anything less from such ilk than convenient rationalization of violence or bullying towards cyclists—“he deserved it”, “he was so entitled he thought he could take half the road”?

The task before us—besides survival—is huge: to change the culture around transportation. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the effort to end auto supremicism is certainly going to take longer. But the first step is to stop “moving to the back of the bus”—you have a right to ride on the roadway (pun intended), so exercise your right.

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