Driving a bicycle means operating according to the traffic principles for drivers of vehicles — all vehicles, not just motor vehicles. The traffic laws generally require bicyclists to follow the same rules as all other drivers follow when using the roadway. By the same token, bicyclists are supposed to be treated the same way as other drivers (including the same right to use the roads). However in most states in the USA these rights are undermined by bicycle-specific laws that require bicyclists to stay to the edge of the road, the shoulder, or to use bike lanes and paths–without leaving it to the discretion of the bicyclist to choose the facility or place on the road that is safest (for example, avoiding potholes and drain grates, preparing a left turn, or staying out of crowded bike paths. Although bicyclists are often allowed to use sidewalks (and sometimes this can be useful for a shortcut), bicycle driving on the road is safer, faster, and more fun than operating as a rolling pedestrian. Not all roads are equally good for cycling: some are overbuilt, semi-expressways which can be intimidating even to experienced riders, and many have holes, bumps, dangerous drain grates, and other defects that can cause bicyclists to fall. Nevertheless, special bicycle facilities are not a cure-all: bicyclists need to have the legal right to use all public roads (except expressways / motorways that are designed for motor traffic only and have no access to properties) and need to know how to ride safely on them in order to use a bicycle for getting places. Too often motorists — and even police — are not aware of the rights of bicyclists, which can lead to harassment and even assaults. Thus making the public aware of bicyclist’s rights, and training police in even-handed and effective enforcement, is a key part of the agenda for increasing both bicycle use and safety.
Paul Schimek, the author of this blog, is a transportation planner in Boston. He was formerly bicycle program manager for the City of Boston. He holds a doctorate in urban planning from MIT and a masters in urban planning from UCLA. He teaches Transportation Planning and Development at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He holds League of American Bicyclists Instructor Certificate #477 (currently not active).