Repealing a Mandatory Sidepath Law and Stay-Right Law

Although North Carolina law treats bicyclists the same as other drivers, with the same rights and rules when operating vehicles on roads, some towns have local ordinances that discriminate against cyclists. These ordinances may prohibit cyclists from using roadways or restrict them from following the vehicular rules and principles that allow safe and efficient cycling. Until 2001, the town of Cary had two ordinance sections that discriminated against bicycle drivers:

“Sec. 12-179. Riding on roadways and bicycle paths.

(a) Every person operating a bicycle upon a roadway shall ride as near to the right-hand side of the roadway as practicable, exercising due care when passing a standing vehicle or a vehicle proceeding in the same direction.

(c) If usable paths for bicycles are provided adjacent to a roadway, bicycle riders shall use such paths and shall not use the roadway.”

These laws gained local cyclists’ attention after Cary legalized cycling on sidewalks by adults in 1999, and prepared to build an asphalt sidewalk as a bicycle path during an important road widening project (Davis Drive) instead of the wide (14′) outside lanes recommended by NCDOT. Cary’s mandatory laws would require all cyclists to use the asphalt sidewalks, which have been shown to be the most dangerous facilities for cyclists, instead of the roadway. Cyclists from the North Carolina Bicycle Club (and now members of the North Carolina Coalition for Bicycle Driving) lobbied for the discriminatory laws to be repealed. Members of the Cary Town Council, town staff, and the chief of police were very thoughtful and responsive to cyclists’ concerns and spent significant time discussing the matter. After about a year, however, the only proposed change to the ordinance was to change the wording in ways that would still require all cyclists to use the asphalt sidepath and not the street. The cyclists then sent the following letter to the Town Manager, head of the Engineering department and the Chief of police shortly before the ordinance was to be amended. The objectionable sections of the ordinance were subsequently repealed. Also, thanks to the efforts of Cary Town Council members, 14′ outside lanes were added back to the plans for Davis Drive.


From: North Carolina Bicycle Club – Board of Officers

President: Bruce Rosar

Vice President: Steven Goodridge, Ph.D.

To: William B. Coleman, Jr., Town Manager

Dear Mr. Coleman,

Town Council member Jennifer Robinson informed us that the Operations Committee will soon be reviewing Town of Cary ordinance 12-179, “Riding on roadways and bicycle paths” for possible revision. The purpose of this letter is to provide you with the perspective of the North Carolina Bicycle Club (NCBC) Board of Officers regarding Cary’s cycling laws and how they relate to recent cycling facilities initiatives. Over 80% of miles cycled in the Triangle are cycled by “avid” recreational/fitness and/or commuter cyclists who have each cycled thousands of miles and enjoy a very good safety record sharing roadways with motorists. We believe that it is important to examine this record, and the reasons behind it, when shaping public policies that affect the safety of cycling.

Empirical evidence in the form of numerous government-sponsored safety studies (and our own real-life experience) supports the premise that “bicyclists fare best when they act, and are treated in return, as drivers of vehicles, with the same rights and responsibilities that motorists have” as written by John Forester, author of Effective Cycling. The same operating behavior that minimizes crashes for motorists also minimizes crashes for cyclists, especially at high vehicle traffic volumes, because the same universal principles of vehicular traffic science apply. Cyclists who ignore the most effective techniques for safe vehicle operation by riding against traffic or riding on sidewalks and crosswalks suffer much higher crash rates per mile than those who ride with traffic in travel lanes, obeying traffic laws.

The NCBC Board believes that the best way to improve cycling safety is to improve cyclists’ traffic behavior and improve all road users’ compliance with traffic law. Not only is adequate traffic skill essential for cycling on public roads, but it is easy for older children, teens and adults to learn in a short amount of time with proper instruction. Classes such as “Effective Cycling” or simply learning by example from other vehicular cyclists can accomplish this. People who first learn proper vehicular traffic skills on bicycles move on to become safer motorists later. However, we believe that young children who lack the perception and judgement required to negotiate traffic should stick to low-traffic streets and should not be encouraged to travel near high-traffic suburban arterials as either unsupervised pedestrians or sidewalk cyclists.

Traffic laws in North Carolina and every other state are closely matched to the principles of vehicular cycling on roads. For instance, NC General Statute § 20-4.01 states “…for the purposes of this Chapter bicycles shall be deemed vehicles and every rider of a bicycle upon a highway shall be subject to the provisions of this Chapter applicable to the driver of a vehicle except those which by their nature can have no application.” Cyclists therefore have the same legal rights and responsibilities as motorists when operating in roadways. Those who exercise these rights on roadways enjoy the most convenient and efficient human-powered travel method known. Those who fulfill their legal responsibilities also enjoy the safest human-powered travel method known – even safer than walking.

Recent initiatives in Cary that legalize and promote bicycle operation on sidewalks – in a manner that conflicts with vehicular cycling and the principles of crash prevention – deserve close scrutiny. Vehicular cyclists do not object to decriminalization of cycling on sidewalks as long as the public understands the risks and is not encouraged to operate there. However, sidewalk cycling initiatives present a problem for vehicular cyclists in the context of existing Cary ordinance 12-179 (c) :

“Sec. 12-179. Riding on roadways and bicycle paths.
(c) If usable paths for bicycles are provided adjacent to a roadway, bicycle riders shall use such paths and shall not use the roadway.”

The N.C. Bicycle Club recommends that Cary remove Section 12-179(c) from the Code of Ordinances. This subsection is based on the former UVC 11-1205(c), which was completely removed in 1979 because it mandates riding in an unsafe location if there are intersections with cross streets or driveways.

Bicycle accident studies, such as Wachtel and Lewiston, Journal of the Institute of Transportation Engineers, 1994 show that the accident rate for sidewalk cyclists is about twice that of road cyclists. The 1999 AASHTO Guidelines for the Development of Bicycle Facilities specifically warns against sidewalk bicycle riding: “…Sidewalks are typically designed for pedestrian speeds and maneuverability and are not safe for higher speed bicycle use. … At intersections, motorists are often not looking for bicyclists (who are traveling at higher speeds than pedestrians) entering the crosswalk area, particularly when motorists are making a turn. Sight distance is often impaired…”

By declaring sidewalks legal for bicycle operation, Cary implies that sidewalks are “usable” paths. Therefore, Section 12-179(c) could be interpreted as prohibiting cyclists from using roadways. In communities with similar inappropriate laws, police and judges have ticketed and fined cyclists for riding on the street instead of on the sidewalk. Cyclists operating on streets under such conditions often become targets of harassment by police and vigilante motorists.

Along several major streets, Cary has also announced plans to build “multi-use paths,” i.e. bicycle sidewalks. In an attempt to mitigate the special hazards created at traffic crossings for cyclists by such facilities, bicycle stop signs will be posted at intersections and major driveways. NC right of way laws for cyclists operating on roadways and pedestrians using crosswalks dictate that these users have the same right of way over cross traffic as motorists according to signals and signs. Presumably, the regulatory “yield” implied by the special sidewalk stop signs will mean that both cyclists and pedestrians forfeit any legal right of way over motorist cross-traffic at these points. This will make walking and cycling less convenient, more complex, and more dangerous.

In The Traffic Safety Toolbox published by the ITE (1993, page 208) we read:

“Sidewalk bike paths. From the late 1970s through the mid-1980s a number of communities signed some sidewalks or built new paths for bicyclists parallel to roadways. Several states even passed laws forcing bicyclists to use such facilities if they existed. Bicycle/car crashes increased dramatically in some corridors, especially at driveways, intersections, on bridges, and other locations. Sidewalk or paths parallel to a roadway force bicyclists to ride against traffic half of the time. In either direction, motorists are often surprised by the presence of cyclists [on sidepaths], since [motorists] are neither conditioned nor capable of searching these locations for traffic moving at 8-15 mph. Many pedestrians were also hurt, or complained that it was no longer comfortable to walk. Also, many motorists became less considerate of bicyclists who continued to use the often safer roadway sections.…in no case should a bicyclist be forced to use the sidewalk pathway. Never sign a sidewalk or parallel path as a bikeway, since many motorists who see these signs will assume that those bicyclists riding on the roadway section are not permitted to be there.”

Note that placing stop signs on a sidewalk is essentially signing the sidewalk as a bicycle facility, sending the same message to cyclists and motorists as the bike path signs described above. Multi-use paths that follow streams or abandoned rail beds and are located away from roadway rights-of-way can offer pleasant alternative routes for some cyclists. However, multi-use paths must not be designed or signed for cyclists where they run parallel to streets because they encourage incompetent non-vehicular cyclist behavior, confuse the public about safe cycling technique and cyclists’ rights/responsibilities, and encourage harassment of the safest and most dedicated cyclists who operate on roads. Rather than creating problematic new rules and facility designs for unskilled cyclists, we should examine the practices and facilities that already work well, and enforce existing traffic laws that we know promote safe travel by all modes.

The following is the second Cary law that is bad for cyclists:

“12-179 (a) Every person operating a bicycle upon a roadway shall ride as near to the right-hand side of the roadway as practicable, exercising due care when passing a standing vehicle or a vehicle proceeding in the same direction.”

This law is redundant to and more dangerous than the existing NC state law that applies to slower vehicles:

Ҥ 20-146. Drive on right side of highway; exceptions.

(b) Upon all highways any vehicle proceeding at less than the legal maximum speed limit shall be driven in the right-hand lane then available for thru traffic, or as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the highway, except when overtaking and passing another vehicle proceeding in the same direction or when preparing for a left turn.”

In contrast to state law, the existing Cary law may be interpreted as requiring cyclists to turn left from the right edge of the roadway or use a right-turn-lane when traveling straight – both of which are illegal and dangerous actions for vehicle operators, especially cyclists. By creating a special law for cyclists restricting them to the edge of the road, Cary perpetuates the myth that cyclists do not belong on roads and encourages harassment of those cyclists who employ safe and legal traffic negotiation techniques.

Slow vehicle stay-right rules do virtually nothing to protect the safety of cyclists. As long as motorists do not overdrive their sight distances and cyclists do not suddenly swerve laterally to violate the right of way of overtaking traffic, same-direction collisions from behind are very unlikely. Riding farther to the left, closer to the center of the lane, increases the visibility of the cyclist and usually offsets any increase in vulnerability. When cycling in a travel lane that is too narrow to share side-by-side with a motor vehicle, riding closer to the center of the lane (“taking the lane”) can be much safer than encouraging motorists to squeeze by at less than safe distance.

Stay-right rules are designed primarily to minimize delay for faster operators. Courteous cyclists understand that their presence on the roadway can create temporary inconveniences for motorists, and seek to minimize such inconvenience when it is safe to do so, usually by riding on the far right side of the travel lane. On wide (e.g. 14’ to 15’) curb lanes, motorists can pass cyclists in the same lane safely and easily. On narrow lanes, motorists must use at least part of the adjacent lane to pass and sometimes must wait for a safe opportunity. Cyclists should generally stay in the right half of the lane in order to provide overtaking drivers an unobstructed view of conditions ahead. If motor traffic backs up long enough to create a significant delay for motorists, i.e. the duration of a traffic signal, courteous cyclists will pull off the roadway to let other traffic pass. However, this is rarely necessary.

The essential goal of any stay-right rule is to improve the overall efficiency of travel without endangering slower travelers or robbing them of their travel rights. The North Carolina Bicycle Club supports efforts to promote courteous and efficient road sharing so long as cyclists are not required to operate in a dangerous manner or stop unnecessarily.

In order to facilitate safe and efficient sharing of roadways in Cary, several steps may be taken. Wider outside/curb lanes allow motorists to pass cyclists easily within the same lane with adequate separation for the cyclist. Better bicyclist traffic education and vehicular law enforcement would improve the predictability of cyclists and the safety of all road users. Increased redundancy in our street network would provide more low-traffic links for beginning cyclists to travel to important destinations and practice safe cycling behavior. Greenways and parks located away from roads will provide young children with more places to recreate safe from the hazards of motor traffic. Members of the N. C. Bicycle Club would be happy to work with the town of Cary along these lines to promote safe and efficient bicycle transportation.


Bruce Rosar, President, NCBC

Steven Goodridge, Vice President, NCBC


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