Travel Lanes, Shoulders or Bike Lanes – Which is Best?

Cars moving up shoulder on 571Consider the following scenario – you’re stopped in traffic by a long line of cars waiting for the light – this being New Jersey, you move up the shoulder, where there’s plenty of room. Unfortunately, a car turning left through a gap in the waiting cars hits you – who gets the ticket?

Would it be any different if you were riding a bike up the shoulder? Who would get the ticket then?

What if you were riding your bike in a bike lane instead of a shoulder – now who gets the ticket?

The motorist or cyclist on the shoulder would get the ticket, since shoulders are not for traveling – the cyclist in a bike lane would “only” be injured, not ticketed, since s/he has legal right of way.

This scenario is based on a real life incident in Chatham, where a cyclist on the shoulder was hospitalized and ticketed for unsafely passing cars on the right when he crashed into a car turning left into a drugstore driveway. As the Polzo v Essex County ruling confirmed, “a bicycle rider is directed to ride on the furthest right hand side of the roadway, not on the roadway?s shoulder.”

So cycling in the travel lane or a bike lane provides legal right of way, but what about safe operating conditions?

The NJ Supreme Court ruled that travel lanes and shoulders do not need to be maintained for safe cycling – “Public entities do not have the ability or resources to remove all dangers peculiar to bicycles.” “Roadways generally are intended for and used by operators of vehicles.” “A ‘vehicle’ is defined as ‘every device in, upon or by which a person or property is or may be transported upon a highway, excepting devices moved by human power or used exclusively upon stationary rails or tracks or motorized bicycles.’?

Bike lanes offer safe operating conditions – “A public entity?s designation of a portion of the roadway as a bicycle lane would alter the generally intended use of that part of the road and would require the public entity to maintain it in a reasonably safe manner for those purposes.”

So here’s the score:

  1. Bike Lanes – right of way and safe operating conditions
  2. Travel Lane – right of way but operating conditions sufficient for vehicles only, not bikes
  3. Shoulder – neither right of way nor safe operating conditions

The court provided NJ cyclists with another option to gain safe operating conditions for specific roadway or shoulder segments – notify the maintaining entity (state, county or municipality) that you routinely cycle on a specific road or shoulder. “Plaintiff offered no evidence that the shoulder of Parsonage Hill Road was designated as a bicycle lane or routinely used as one.” “We need not address here the standard of care that might apply under the Torts Claims Act if a roadway?s shoulder were routinely used as a bicycle lane and the public entity responsible for the maintenance of that roadway was on notice of that use.”

Will adoption of a Complete Streets policy provide a future court sufficient evidence of intended use by cyclists? If so, cyclists would enjoy a better standard of care for travel lanes, though perhaps not as good as for bike lanes.



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2 Responses to “Travel Lanes, Shoulders or Bike Lanes – Which is Best?”

  1. Jerry says:

    Thanks Andy, what language from the ruling leads to a distinction between ever providing safe operating conditions or always? In my view, if such a distinction were made, the language would be along the lines of, say, “public entities must provide safe operating conditions during nonwinter months” or some such thing.

    On further consideration, the mechanism for notifying officals of the fact of routine bicycle use was limited to shoulders in the ruling. Since the standard of care for shoulders with notification wasn’t addressed (specifically said they were not going to address it), I’ll further modify the analysis. Perhaps the standard of care for shoulders with notification can be called “de facto.”

    So the breakdown would be:
    1. bike lanes – intended cycling use and safe cycling operating conditions standard of care
    2. travel lane with sharrows – not addressed (didn’t exist in 2001?)
    3. travel lane w bike route signs – not addressed (indicates intended use in my so completely totally unbiased view)
    4. travel lane – permitted cycling use and vehicle operating conditions standard of care
    5. shoulders with notification of routine cycling – prohibited cycling use and de facto cycling operating conditions standard of care
    6. shoulders – prohibited cycling use and nontravel operating conditions standard of care


  2. Excellent analysis! I’m glad someone else is taking this legal conundrum cyclists face seriously since I identified it several years ago.

    BTW, my take would be more like this for #2:
    Travel Lane ? right of way but operating conditions sufficient for vehicles only, not ALWAYS for bikes.



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